Thursday, April 29, 2010

Omega 3- Facts, Fallacies, and Unethical Practices

You may have noticed lately that “Omega 3” is the new buzzword in the world of health research, and with good reason. Omega 3 is what is called an “Essential Fatty Acid”, or EFA. It is considered essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, although we need it. EFA’s are important for the health of our nerves and blood vessels, as well as to keep our skin and other tissues lubricated and supple.

(There is one other Essential Fatty Acid, and that is called Omega 6. In the typical North American diet, it is generally quite easy to get enough Omega 6, as it is found in most plant oils, such as canola, corn, soy, sunflower, etc. However, Omega 3 fatty acids are much rarer in the Standard American Diet. (SAD) You can get them from pumpkin seeds, walnuts, hemp, flax, and some deep sea fatty fish.)

An ideal ratio of these two fats in our diet is 2:1 to 4:1; in other words, we should not consume more than 4 times the amount of Omega 6’s as Omega 3’s in our diet. A proper ratio of these two fats helps determine the flexibility of our cell membranes and makes chemical communication between body systems possible.

Hence the reason why food producers and manufacturers are falling all over themselves to help you get your daily dose of Omega 3’s. In a highly competitive marketplace, food producers will grab any advantage to get you to purchase their product instead of a competitor’s, and if that means leading you to believe that eating their product will make you healthier, of course they’re going to do it.

I happen to believe that it’s unethical to convince you to purchase what is essentially an unhealthy or marginally healthy product based on health claims that the average consumer really cannot put in proper context. When looking at whether or not to buy an item based on their claims of Omega 3 content (or any other nutrient) you need to consider the package it’s being delivered in.

I was out shopping yesterday, and I noticed two products now being marketed to you based on the fact that their food contains Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Let’s start with eggs:

Maritime Pride Omega 3 eggs cost about a dollar more per dozen than regular eggs, based solely on the supposed Omega 3 content. Suppose you purchase these eggs in the hopes of making your morning omelette healthier. Consider what you are getting with each egg:

-70 calories
-5 grams of fat, (1.5 grams of which are saturated) meaning the calories in this egg are 64% fat calories.
-A whopping 190 mg of cholesterol

And you have to consume all this fat just to take in 400 milligrams of Omega 3’s.

Another industry trying to use Omega 3’s to try and convince you their product is healthy is the pork producers. Consider a Nova Scotian pork farm, Meadowbrook Pork. They are now advertising their Omega 3 pork as “Naturally Nutritious” and a “Powerful source of nutrients”. Although their website never states how much Omega 3’s you’re supposed to get in a serving of their product, Health Canada’s website advises that it is approximately 400 mg per 100 grams of pork.

What else will you get in 100 grams of pork? Well, according to, 100 grams of roast pork will give you the following:

-248 calories
-15 grams of fat, 5 of which are saturated, meaning 54% of the calories in the meat are from fat.
-82 mg of cholesterol

To put that in perspective, consider the humble flax seed. Dirt cheap, easy to obtain, good-for-your-digestive system flax seeds. A mere TEASPOON of ground flax seed, which weighs in at paltry 13 calories, provides 570 milligrams of Omega 3’s. ONE TEASPOON! That’s not much food, but even so, you also get a gram of heart-healthy protein and almost a gram of fibre.

To recap the stats on Omega 3:
1 egg=400 mgs
100 grams of pork=400 mgs
1 tsp ground flax=570 mgs

This is proof once again that man is a silly creature, once again willing to feed a healthy food (flax) to an animal, and then eat the animal, only to get a fraction of the health benefits of the original food. Trying to “greenwash” an unhealthy food will not make it any healthier.

If you want to get a good daily dose of heart-healthy Omega 3’s, go pick up some flax seeds and an inexpensive coffee grinder. (I paid $8 for mine three years ago at the Atlantic Superstore and it is still going strong!) Flax, because it does have fats in it, will go rancid if you do not keep it in the fridge. Throw a teaspoon in the grinder every morning, grind ‘er up, and throw it in your oatmeal, your smoothie, your muffins, bread, etc. You’ll stay healthy (and regular!) for pennies a day and avoid all the fat and cholesterol.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


These days, there is so much attention paid to germs (namely, the eradication of them) that it’s a wonder that anybody growing up back in the old days ever survived. Back in the 70’s, germs weren’t such a big deal. The old saying went, “you’ve got to eat a bucket of dirt before you die”, and we got a good start on it as kids, let me tell you.

As kids, we didn’t worry about germs. We ate food that fell on the ground; we kissed our pets on the mouth, and passed chewing gum back and forth from one kid to another. And we were healthy. My Mother, although a very clean person, did not run around with a tool belt full of assorted disinfectants and Handi-Wipes, obsessively sanitizing every surface we touched. However, that seems exactly what is happening today, in many cases, and researchers are linking this anti-germ obsession with an ever-increasing epidemic of asthma, allergies and other diseases.

Sit and watch an hour or two of daytime television sometime, and count the number of advertisements that in various ways exhort, implore, and demand that you are a negligent parent if you do not use their product to sanitize the hell out of your environment. You may just find yourself astounded. There’s an army of germs on the march, and they’re coming for you! Grab your Lysol, your Purel, your arsenal of anti-bacterial soaps and disinfecting sprays! Only you can protect your family, and you’d better start spending big bucks if you want to do it.

I say forget it. I never liked the idea of my family living in a germ free bubble. I’ve never used a toilet seat cover, and I’ve never caught a disease of the behind. My kids have eaten burgers with dirty hands, and they’re still in the land of the living. Heck, just last week my cat licked me on the lips, and I didn’t run screaming into the night.

Look, the world is full of germs, and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of them. The only thing you CAN do is try to build up your immune system. That’s what we have one for; it’s our own personal internal army against evil invaders, so what we need to do is train ‘em right! Put them in the ring against the little germs before you try and tackle the heavy hitters.

That’s the problem with society’s obsession with cleanliness and disinfection. If you attempt to make your environment sterile, you probably mean well, but that’s the equivalent of putting your toddler in the ring with Sugar Ray Leonard before he’s had a chance to fight Barney the Dinosaur.

And the experts agree with me. In 2009, the Canadian Medical Association asked the federal government to ban all antibacterial household products because of fears that the only thing these products do is make the bacteria more resistant.

One the bad guy in these antibacterial products is Triclosan, which was originally designed for use by surgeons when they’re scrubbing up for surgery. Heck, if I ever need surgery, I’ll just say now that I’d like my surgeon to bathe in that stuff. BUT, that doesn’t mean I need that level of protection in my home.
The problem is, Triclosan tends to build up in our fatty tissues, and has even been found in umbilical cord blood and breast milk. It is a chemical that can interfere with our thyroid function, and it’s particularly harmful to the environment. It’s believed to be adding to the development of antibiotic resistant “Superbugs”, and I for one would rather not ever come across one of those suckers.

So, what can you do? Well, let me see. Let’s start by realizing that our children need to be clean, but not disinfected. Let them get a little dirty now and then, it won’t kill them. Get rid of almost all the disinfectant products in your home, (maybe save one or two for truck stop bathroom breaks ) particularly those containing Triclosan. (There are over 1200 items in Canada alone containing this stuff.) Go back to using good old fashioned elbow grease and soap and water. Studies are showing that this does as good a job at keeping you safe anyway.

And while you’re at it, give your immune system a little TLC. Eat lots of onions and garlic, along with a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts; get plenty of fresh air, reduce the number of chemicals you come in contact with regularly, exercise regularly and smile often. That’s the best prescription for health that I can give.

The Hidden Danger in Our Waterways

Here in Nova Scotia, fishing season is well underway. Just yesterday I saw a number of folks out enjoying the sunshine with their hooks in the water, and chances are, at least some of them got lucky and took their prize home for supper that night.

But if they knew what was in that fish, they make have thought twice about making a meal out of it. Chances are extremely high that their meal was heavily contaminated with methylmercury. In fact, 80% of all “Fish Advisories” are due to mercury contamination.

What is Methylmercury, you might ask? Methylmercury is a substance that is produced when mercury, produced mainly by coal burning power plants, waste incinerators and other industries, falls from the sky and ends up in our lakes and rivers. It is also produced naturally by volcanoes and forest fires, and some leaches naturally from rock.

The mercury is converted to the more dangerous form, methylmercury, very easily and very naturally by anaerobic organisms in the water. This new form of mercury is easily absorbed in our digestive tract, and it accumulates in the body over time. (It can linger in our bodies for fifteen to twenty years.) It also readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and can also cross the placental barrier, making the developing fetus particularly vulnerable.

Long term exposure to tiny amounts in our food can cause neurodevelopmental problems, especially in children due to their smaller body mass. It can lead to permanent brain damage, heart disease, kidney failure, liver damage, loss of vision, and tremors. It is also an “endocrine disruptor” meaning that is can damage the reproductive and hormonal development of unborn children and infants.

As methylmercury accumulates in the flesh of fish, the larger and older the fish, the more methylmercury there will be in the flesh. Shark, tuna, and other large predatory fish contain the most, small fish like herring contain the least.

Mercury levels in Canadian lakes and rivers increase as you move from West to East, following the paths of prevailing winds. This is of great concern for us here in the Maritimes, as we are often referred to as “Canada’s Tailpipe”, referring to the pollution that seems to funnel through this area.

Scientists have concluded that there is no level of Mercury that is “safe” for us to consume. Unfortunately, governmental agencies, while issuing increasingly stern warnings every few years about the possible dangers of fish consumption, stop short at advising us to not eat any fish at all. Doing so would put a lot of hard-working fishermen out of business, not to mention anger an awful lot of recreational fishers.

However, based on the evidence we have today about the contamination of our waterways, I would suggest that you eat very little fish, if any, and avoid it altogether if you are pregnant, may become pregnant or are nursing. If you do eat fish, eat smaller, deep ocean fish and avoid those caught in inland waters.

Nova Scotia’s own 2010 Angling Guide advises the following:
“Traces of mercury have been detected in certain species of freshwater sportfish. The Nova Scotia departments of Health, Environment and Fisheries and Aquaculture advise people to limit consumption of these freshwater sportfish.

Rainbow trout have levels of contaminants below the Health Canada Guidelines and are safe to eat. Brook trout and white perch under 25 cm (11 in.) in length are also safe to eat. Consumption of brook trout and white perch larger than 25 cm should be limited to one meal once every week. Consumption of other freshwater sports fish should be limited to one meal every two weeks. Children under eight, pregnant women, and nursing mothers should consume only rainbow trout, white perch, and brook trout less than 25 cm (11 in.) in length.”

If there is no safe level of mercury, and our sportfish clearly are contaminated with mercury, as the government seems to acknowledge, then they should be advising us to avoid these contaminated fish altogether. To do otherwise, in the interest of politics, is doing us all a disservice.

Source: Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

Monday, April 26, 2010

What’s the Big Deal about Phthalates?

Phthalates (pronounced ˈtha-ˌlāt) is a term that refers to more than a dozen common chemicals, mainly used in plastics to keep them soft and pliable. Worldwide, we produce more than 8.1 billion kilograms of these chemicals every year. DEP (diethylhexyl phthalate) is most commonly found in personal care products. DEP is found in air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, shampoos, cosmetics, etc.

These substances break down quickly in the environment and in the body, so our risk really depends on the amount we come into contact with on a daily basis. Their use is linked to sexual organ malformations in males and increased risk or testicular cancer. (The higher the levels of phthalates in the mother, the higher the incidence of problems with the baby.) In women, studies link phthalates to early menstruation, premature breast development, and ultimately, breast cancer.

We get exposed to phthalates in food, vinyl and plastic products, personal care products, household dust, etc. These chemicals leach out of products and into our bodies and into our environment. Levels can be higher in children due to the fact that they are in closer contact with their environment than adults are, mouthing objects and also putting their fingers in their mouths. Their immature bodies lack adequate detoxification methods, and make them more prone to these chemicals damaging effects.

Food is likely a major source of this contaminant. It comes from the soil, sediments, and sludge sprayed on crops. Phthalates are fat soluble, meaning they get into meat, dairy products and fatty processed foods.

What can we do to avoid phthalates in food? Buy lower on the food chain, eat fewer packaged foods, but organic when you can afford to, and avoid microwaving foods in plastic containers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to personal care products, phthalates are almost never listed as ingredient on the products that contain them. "Fragrance" or "Parfum" are often the words you need to look for that indicate that an item contains phthalates. Studies have shown that the higher the level of personal care products a person uses, the higher their urinary level of these chemicals.

A good website to visit is This site can tell you about the chemical makeup of your personal care products and help steer you towards healthier and more environmentally aware choices.

From the Book "Slow Death by Rubber Duck", by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

Building a Better Burger!

In our family, we loves us some burgers! (However, as vegetarians they would all be of the meatless variety!)
The average fast food burger is a heart attack waiting to happen, loaded with cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Eating red meat also brings up the spectre of possible E.Coli contamination, and the issue of Mad Cow Disease. The rates of obesity in North America has also risen in proportion to the fast food that we are now consuming as a society.
Not so with this burger! I've had people tell me that they didn't want to eat veggie burgers because they "don't taste like beef." Well, so what? A chicken burger doesn't taste like a beef burger either, but you still eat that. So there goes that argument.
Another argument is that veggie burgers all cost more than your typical beef burger. That argument does have a little more merit, but only because beef production is so heavily subsidized by government handouts, and beef cattle are now for the most part raised in very efficient, very cheap, very polluted and very cruel feedlots, where they stand day after day knee deep in manure, eating cheap grain that their bodies were not built to digest. These feedlots cause suffering for the cows, pollute our water, and as the cows are more likely to become ill, they are regularly dosed with antibiotics, (which will eventually be coming to YOU when they hit your plate.)
No such issues with this burger, though! Not only are these burgers super-healthy for you, they are also super kind to your wallet, using lentils and bulgur (a whole grain easily obtained at most grocery stores) which not only provide excellent nutrition, but also happen to be blazingly inexpensive.
Each patty contains only 150 calories, while still providing 7 grams of fibre and 7 grams of protein, along with zero fat and cholesterol.
Although you may look at this recipe and say, that's just not my style, take a chance and give it a try! I think you'll be amazed at home delicious something so simple can taste. My family and I all loved them the very first time we tried them. They also freeze well if the recipe makes more than you need.

Lentil- Bulgur Burgers

Makes 8 burgers

(This recipe is open to many different flavor combinations, so attempt this recipe if you are feeling creative and want to customize something to your own personal taste.)
1/2 cup brown lentils and 1/2 cup of bulgur
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp ground flax, mixed with 2 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp wheat germ and a bit of chopped onion (optional)

1 Tbsp or so vegan bouillon, spices to taste, a squirt of soya sauce or ketchup (all optional)
Start by simmering the lentils and the bulgur in water on the stove. You will need at least two cups of water to start, and will undoubtedly need to add more as you simmer. You can add bouillon, spices, soya sauce, whatever you like for flavour to the water. Watch the pot carefully, as this stuff has a tendency to stick. Simmer until lentils are soft and water is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Allow to cool. Place in a bowl and mix in flax and water mixture, breadcrumbs, and wheat germ. Add a little ketchup or non-dairy milk IF the mixture is too dry.
Add more breadcrumbs if it seems too wet to hold together. Make into 8 burgers. Fry or bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes. (BTW, the absolute best way to make perfect burgers is to place a round ball of the mixture between two pieces of wax paper, and press down on it with the back of a dessert plate.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Better, Healthier Bowl of Chili

I don't think there is anyone out there who would argue that there is anything about beef, particularly hamburger, that's the least bit healthy. You may choose to eat it, but it certainly would not be because of all the great things it can do for your health. From the cholesterol, to the saturated fat, to the concerns about E.Coli and food-borne diseases, ground beef is a health nightmare.

That being said, there are some dishes containing ground beef that folks will simply dig in their heels about and refuse to give up. I happen to believe that chili is one of those dishes. I always LOVED a good bowl of chili, particularly if it came with a biscuit and on a cold winter day. But you don't have to give up chili just because you may be eliminating or cutting back on red meat.

This recipe is simple, inexpensive, and stunningly like the original meat variety. In fact, a gentleman I once knew who had no use for any meal that didn't have parents once ate this chili without realizing that it contained no meat. Best of all, there is nothing in it that most folks don't either already have in the cupboard or cannot be obtained at your local supermarket. Try it today and let me know what you think. I have a feeling you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Can 'o This, Can 'o That Chili
Begin with a large pot.


2 Tsp oil
1 medium onion, chopped
¼ cup diced red bell pepper

~Sauté until onions start to brown. Then add:
1- 284 ml can of condensed tomato soup (I use Heinz) plus one can of water
1 -796 ml can of diced tomatoes, pureed in the can with an immersion blender. (Or simply dump into a bowl and mash if you like your tomatoes chunky) plus one can of water.
1-284 ml can of mushroom pieces and stems, drained
1-398 ml can of red kidney beans. Take about a quarter of the beans and mash them with a fork before adding to the chilli.)
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
2 tsp paprika
1 ½ to 2 tsp chilli powder
¾ tsp onion powder
¾ tsp garlic salt
Then and only then, add:
1 package soy "ground round", crumbled.
Simmer until chilli is thick and vegetables are tender, about 30-40 minutes.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The "Incredible" Edible Egg? Not Exactly.

When millions of Canadians stumble out of bed in the morning and think about breakfast, the first thing they think about is eggs. And the vast majority of them cannot imagine not having eggs in the house for use in pies, cakes and cookies. But are eggs good for us, or even necessary? They come with a healthy dose of controversy in regards to their healthfulness, as well as some uncomfortable ethical questions in regards to how they are typically produced.

First, a word about cholesterol, the most common complaint leveled against the egg. It is true that eggs comprise about 35% of the cholesterol in the typical American diet. It is also true that the cholesterol in food can raise blood cholesterol, and most dietary guidelines advise you to eat no more than 300 mgs per day of cholesterol. (The average egg has 215 mgs, all in the yolk.) They have the most cholesterol of any other food. But our bodies also produce cholesterol, some people more than others. The amount of cholesterol in your blood does not necessarily relate to the amount that you consume. As well, the consumption of saturated fats and trans-fats also can raise blood cholesterol.
Most experts agree that a blood cholesterol level higher than 200 mg increases the risk of heart disease. Some people can ingest a lot of cholesterol before they reach this limit, but for other it takes far less. To make the research into this issue more difficult, those with high blood cholesterol don’t see much of an increase from eating eggs. But those whose cholesterol is low to begin with will likely see their cholesterol rise rapidly.
The science is confusing, sometimes made that way deliberately so by those who stand to gain by an increase in egg consumption. The bottom line from the American Heart Association is to eat no more than one egg a day as part of your 300 mg limit of cholesterol. So, if you do eat an egg you need to limit your consumption of other animal products accordingly.

Some eggs now come with cartons touting the fact that they are a source of Omega 3 fatty acids. This is achieved by feeding fish oils and flaxseed to the chickens, and usually come with a much higher price. You are better off both financially and from a health perspective getting your omega 3’s by eating the flaxseed yourself.
Another thing to note is that 93% of the eggs produced in Canada are raised using the battery cage system. The chickens are kept under artificial light in cages stacked several layers high, and never see the sun. The air in these barns have an almost overpowering ammonia stench, and the chickens do not have room to even stretch their wings. Each full grown hen has less space than the size of one piece of scribbler paper, and the only way they can move is if another chicken trades places with them. After about two years in these pens, the only release is when they get sent to the slaughterhouse. If you are concerned about the ethics of your food choices, choose to buy eggs from small, local free-range producers.

Wise Choices at the Seafood Counter

Consumers today who are trying to eat a healthier diet are increasingly turning to seafood. Health reports tout fish as an important source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Most importantly, they are known to be a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids. There are two Omega 3 fatty acids present in fish, EPA and DHA. These fatty acids may help prevent high blood pressure and blood clots and therefore, heart attacks and strokes. The results of research on the subject, although not consistent, are compelling enough that most North Americans are advised to eat fish and other seafood twice a week. Sounds simple, right?

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Our oceans and waterways are becoming increasingly polluted, and those toxins and pollutants are being absorbed into the flesh of the seafood that live in those waters. One of the major pollutants that concern us is methylmercury, formed from the emissions from coal-burning power plants. Methylmercury is something we all would like to avoid, but it can be particularly toxic to children and pregnant women. It crosses the placenta and goes right to the brain and nervous system of the developing fetus, causing disastrous birth defects.

Early signs of methylmercury poisoning include numbness and tingling, muscle weakness, fatigue, headache and inability to concentrate. These symptoms can be caused by any number of other disorders, making it difficult to know when you’ve been affected. The fish with the highest amount of methylmercury in its flesh are the large predatory fish, including shark, swordfish and tuna. (Albacore tuna has more than the chunk light tuna eaten from cans.) In 2001, the FDA also added King Mackerel and Tilefish to this list. Pregnant women and small children should not eat these fish in any amounts.

Another issue we need to consider is the amount of PCB’s and other toxic chemicals like DDT and dioxins present in our fish. Farmed fish, especially those fed on fish oil and fish meal, have the highest amount of PCB’s. Fattier fish have more PCB’s than lean ones, and fish caught for sport may have levels so high that they are not safe to eat. It depends on the waters they are caught in, what species they are, what they ate, and how large they grow. They only way to know for sure is to but your fish from a trusted seller who tests for these chemicals.

Another issue that needs to be considered is the effect of fish farming on the environment, our natural fish stocks, and our health. Some sources estimate that up to 90% of the world’s large fish have disappeared due to overfishing, so fish farms are increasingly stepping in to fill the void. These farms may seem like an easy way to increase our intake of seafood, but they are controversial. Farmed salmon, for example, are raised much like cattle in a feedlot. They live in large, crowded pens, swimming in pools of antibiotics, chemicals, pesticides, and their own waste. Escaping fish spread sea lice to wild fish, and mate with wild fish as well, reducing biodiversity. Farmed fish have twice the saturated fats of wild fish, and depending on what they are fed, they actually may have very little of the Omega 3’s that consumers are eating them for. Salmon are often fed the equivalent of dog food, and this food often contains feather meal from chicken farms, meat and bone meal from rendering plants, and soy meal and oil. They are also fed dyes to make the flesh the same appetizing pink as wild salmon, because without it, the flesh would be grey.

In June 2005, the Vancouver Sun reported that farmed salmon from British Columbia contain six times the PCB’s, dioxins and other chemicals than wild Canadian salmon.

To further muddy the waters, fish and other seafood are a major source of food-borne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are about 11 million cases of illness caused by seafood in the USA each year. These illnesses are caused both by poor handling, but also by “red tide” organisms, Vibrio, Listeria, hepatitis, E.Coli and Salmonella.

So, as someone who wants to be able to enjoy the occasional seafood meal without fear, what are you to do? Well, several independent organizations Like Seafood Watch and Environmental Defense have stepped in to try and make the choices somewhat easier for you. They produce extensive lists as well as pocket-sized cards that lists the “Eco-Best” and “Eco Worst” seafood. They take into account several factors, such as the nutritional value of the fish, how it is farmed, how it is harvested, and the levels of contamination it is likely to have. The web addresses where you can download and print these cards is listed below. Select no more than two servings per week from the list of the best and most sustainable seafood, and enjoy with few worries. And if you are pregnant or may become pregnant, it would be best to eat seafood seldom if at all, and certainly do not dine from the “Eco-Worst” list.

Another option is to eat seafood seldom, if at all. Omega 3 fatty acids can also easily be obtained from flax and hemp seed. A tablespoon in your cereal or smoothie in the morning provides all that you need without the health risks and troubling concerns about environmental damage and overfishing.
(Source: “What to Eat” by Marion Nestle, 2006.)

Source for Seafood cards, (or “Fish Lists”)
Environmental Defense:
Blue Ocean Institute:
Seafood Safe Program: