Microbes, antibiotics and *YES* you should still eat organic

A few months ago, I attended an updated talk – to one presented a couple of years ago – by Victoria gastroenterologist Dr Denis Petrunia. For the most part, Petrunia has what seems to me a very enlightened view of the interior life of his patients, in that he is a firm believer in the power of beneficial bacteria upon health.

Coincidentally I was sent a link to this talk on the microbiome and aging, which mentioned one of the books that is a bit of a touchstone for me on the role of antibiotics on health. In Missing Microbes, Martin Blaser explains how medical demolition of H. Pylori – linked to stomach cancer and ulcers – may be causing multiple other problems, as we don’t fully understand the role H. Pylori has played in its coexistence in the human gut for over 5,000 years.

It’s a book I often recommend (including on this blog) as Blaser’s idea stands as a  strong example of how a single well-intentioned procedure can have far reaching and potentially catastrophic effects on human health. Or, as I think every scientist and engineer ought to have tattooed on their hearts: Humans just don’t know enough to properly mimic nature.

I also think Blaser’s observations about the over-use of antibiotics on children are incredibly valuable. We know these wipe out beneficial as well as pathological bacteria. So doing this with abandon to youthful microbiomes that are at a particularly vulnerable stage of development is inevitably going to adversely affect those functions that beneficial bacteria perform on our health. These include (but won’t be limited to!) weight control, immunity and mental health. We need to remember how recently we’ve learned about the microbiome, and how much more we are learning about its role in our lives, with every day and research paper being published.

At his talk, Petrunia brought another book to my attention this time: 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness, by Alanna Collen. Another fascinating read. And it did raise a disturbing issue: that antibiotics from factory farming are finding their way even into organic vegetables, through the use of non-organic manure by organic farmers.

There is a loophole in organic farming in Canada, whereby if you document your failed efforts to find organic manure, you may then use manure from conventionally-reared animals. These may or may not have been factory farmed, or dosed with antibiotics, antifungals or other pharmaceuticals. The farmers I have met go to some lengths to document, from the animal owners, the use of pharmaceuticals (e.g. worming treatments in horses) on the source of the manure.

But according to Collen, animals (who are given anywhere from 50 to 80% of the antibiotics made or imported to Canada, depending on whose numbers you use) excrete in their urine and manure around 75% of these antibiotics. That manure, even after composting, can then produce food plants that contain antibiotics.

Unfortunately, Petrunia used this as an argument not to bother eating organic food. It’s an argument I’ve heard from many in conventional medicine who seem willfully uninformed as to the nature of what goes into conventionally grown foods, and the reasons people choose to buy organic. At least it sounds so to me, who probably knows too much, as I keep updating my course materials for CSNN‘s EcoNutrition class, and spend a lot of my spare time on projects for the certified organic Haliburton Farm.

Here are some reasons I think you should try to keep eating certified organic foods, as much as you can manage:

And as for the antibiotics: this is why we vote and lobby our governments for ever-stricter limits on use. Antibiotic resistance is already one of the key medical problems of our time, and it’s not going to get any better. Developing stronger antibiotics is only postponing, not solving, the problem.

Contact your local, regional and national government reps today!

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Glyphosate in your Food

There’s been a lot of concern about the amount of Glyphosate (Roundup) we are exposed to in foods. There have been many questions raised in recent years about the health consequences of exposure: it is a suspected carcinogen, endocrine disruptor and implicated in infections caused by its antimicrobial action on gut bacteria.

Much more study is needed, as we simply don’t know what the consequences – to human, animal, soil and planetary health – will be of all these years of breathing, eating and drinking this pesticide.

As many people know, Glyphosate is used in GMO “Roundup-Ready” crops. It is also used pre-harvest on conventionally grown grain and cereal crops (allowed in Canada since 1992).

Monsanto’s selling point originally was that it was a ‘safe’ pesticide and claimed that it biodegraded harmlessly after killing weeds, and didn’t remain in the soil. Monsanto was successfully sued by French environmental groups ten years ago for these false claims, and the suit upheld on appeal.

Glyphosate has never simply disappeared after application. It has been found in breast milk, women’s blood, urine, animals’ organs, air, rain, and streams, and has crossed the placental barrier in animals. The Detox Project is doing valuable work in trying to establish how widespread the contamination is in humans by inviting people to participate in its study.

Meanwhile….

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has found glyphosate residue in just about one-third of 3,188 food samples tested (fresh produce, processed fruits and vegetables, grain products, juice and other beverages, bean-pea-lentil products, soy products and baby food). Nearly half of the pea/bean/lentil samples contained glyphosate residue; grain products and soy were also high; safety levels were exceeded in 4% of grain and 1.3% of all foods tested. One-third of the baby foods tested contained glyphosate, although none scored above the levels considered safe.

This of course doesn’t address the toxic load we all carry in this contaminated world. A safe level of one toxin may accumulate over time and possibly interact with other toxins we ingest. And we don’t know what else is in Roundup as the adjuvants (other ingredients) in patented formulae don’t have to be disclosed in the interests of protecting the profit margins of the manufacturer. And the CFIA has decided not to disclose the details of the foods they tested – brands, varieties, anything we might want to use to make better food choices – “for confidentiality reasons”.

So for me, certified organic food continues to be the best choice, wherever I can afford it.

Nutrition for Farmers!

My work at Haliburton Community Organic Farm in beautiful Victoria, BC has evolved in interesting directions over past the nine years. After completing my studies in holistic nutrition, I established my nutritional consulting business there, thinking it would be a great fit with a certified organic farm.

Last year I began running the farm’s weekly CSA (food box) program, sharing recipes and nutritional tips with around 50 subscribers to our Spring and Summer program –now accepting 2017 subscribers 🙂

And I ran some food-related programming for last summer’s interns, including this fun fermentation workshop!

This year looks like the most exciting yet. The farm’s latest initiative is the Haliburton EcoFarm School, launching in March 2017. We’ll be training students in certified organic farming practices, biodiversity & ecosystem restoration, and– holistic nutrition! As one of the core educational leads, I will be providing nutritional coursework and food preparation workshops to a new crop of organic farmers.

Think you know someone who wants to put certified organic farming together with biodiversity and nutrition? Email the EcoFarm School for more information, or to register. We’re only taking 10 people this year, and the program will cost less than in future years, so check out our amazing program!

Sipping Your Way Through Flu Season

Winter’s very slowly sneezing and coughing its way out. Staying healthy with seasonal flu and colds circulating and recirculating can be tough. This year seems particularly fraught with heavy colds that keep coming back. Take care of the basics: make sure you get enough exercise (keep that lymphatic system moving!) and sleep, watch your sugar consumption, and remain well hydrated. Moonshine Mama’s Turmeric Tonic is well worth a try if you want to treat yourself to something delicious and fortifying. And here are some more immune-boosting beverages you can make yourself that might help get you through the season.

2017januarykvassBeet Kvass

Why drink it? Fermented beverages benefit your microbiome and overall health. A happy digestive tract makes for a better functioning immune system. And I really like this version of kvass, as it’s quite like sauerkraut.

How to take it? A small glass a couple of times a day, alternating with other lacto-fermented beverages (kefir, water kefir, kombucha etc) will give your gut the variety it needs.

Ingredients

2-3 medium beets, peeled and chopped into 1 inch cubes
¼ cabbage, chopped
½ onion, chopped
2 tbsp sea salt2016aug21kvassday01
¼ cup whey or 1 tbsp starter culture, optional
filtered water to cover

Directions

  1. Add onion and cabbage to a 2 quart glass jar.
  2. Add the beets to the onion and cabbage.
  3. Add salt and optional whey.
  4. Cover with filtered water, leaving an inch between the water and the jar lid.
  5. Close the jar and leave in a cool dark place. The mixture will deepen in colour to a rich ruby red.
  6. Start tasting it after 3 days and if it’s too salty or not sour enough, let it ferment until you like the taste.
  7. When you’re happy with it, strain into bottles and transfer to the fridge; it will keep for months.
  8. The vegetables can be used to make a second batch, depending on how long you’ve had to ferment to get the taste you want, but the results of the second batch will be weaker, so you may wish to augment with a little more of each ingredient.

2017januaryfireciderYarrow Willard’s Fire Cider

At the talk where I was first introduced to this concoction, Willard made the excellent point that his fire cider ingredients are easily found in most supermarkets, a boon for ailing travellers (as long as you pack a blender I guess!) He says it’s kept his family healthy through many a flu season.

Why drink it? It contains alliums – onion and garlic – particularly high in the valuable flavonoid quercetin, and containing various other polyphenols and sulfur, so have multiple health benefits. Horseradish too is believed to boost the immune system due to its antioxidant qualities. Cayenne is an antioxidant, high in vitamin A, and contains capsaicin, which is garnering much research attention for its circulatory-system benefits and antimicrobial properties. Ginger is a well known medicinal spice, soothing and stimulating as a tea, and discussed further in the context of Chris Kresser’s very gingery drink below.

How to drink it? Take a few tablespoons in a glass of water or a daily shot during flu season.

Ingredients

⅛ tsp cayenne
1 small onion or ½ a big one
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp fresh ginger
½ tbsp horseradish
1 cup apple cider vinegar (not pasteurized)
1 cup water

Directions:

Blend for 30 seconds. Store in a jar in your fridge; keeps for months! Makes about 2 cups.

Chris Kresser’s Immune-boosting Ginger Juice

Why to drink it? Fresh (not dried) ginger is a well known anti-inflammatory and antiviral herb, widely used for digestive issues, which has been found effective in treating respiratory viral infections common in childhood. It is a known bile stimulant, so avoid it if you are experiencing  gallbladder or bile duct disorders. As it can also act as a blood sugar modulator, consult your doctor before taking if you are taking diabetic treatments. Honey has antiviral and antimicrobial properties, and is also an expectorant and decongestant and really soothing for cough and the lungs. Cayenne‘s fiery capsaicin content is also helpful in clearing congestion.

How to drink it? This is an intense beverage which Kresser recommends you mix up and then sip away at throughout the day, at the first signs of flu. He recommends juicing or straining blended ginger; I like the chewy bits and leave them in for a bit of extra fibre.

Ingredients:

Sufficient ginger, juiced (or peeled, blended and/or strained) to make 1/2 cup ginger juice
Juice of 1/4 lime or lemon
1 tbsp honey
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

Directions:

Stir ingredients together, dilute to taste with hot water, and sip throughout the day.

 

Seeds of Spring

saanich-seedy-saturday-jan-5Another year spins round and here in the depths of an unusually chilly winter on the West Coast we start looking forward to spring.

Spring means gardens, and gardens mean seeds! Seeds mean Seedy Saturdays, and for the second year Haliburton Community Organic Farm has partnered with the Gardens at HCP to offer the first such event on Vancouver Island: Saanich Seedy Saturday, next Saturday January 14.

And seeds need bees, hence our special guest speaker Lori Weidenhammer, author of Victory Gardens for Bees.

Good nourishment for the event is being provided by Charlotte & the Quail, the Horticulture Centre‘s cafe, coming out of winter hibernation for the event. The cafe began life as Nourish, now brilliantly expanded into a downtown location in Victoria, and caught the attention of local nutritionists for its well-executed gluten free menu options, its provision of house-made ferments (water kefir, fermented cashew butter, etc.), its support of local farms (including Haliburton!) and food businesses, and its excellent cooking.

Some seeds are better planted than eaten, but there are fibre and healthy fats to be had from many others. I’ve been making a pretty wonderful seed cracker this season, and I recommend you check out the Endurance Cracker recipe over at Oh She Glows. Vegan and dairy, grain, egg and gluten free, it’s a small miracle of simplicity and deliciousness that’s safe to serve to most food-challenged guests. I’ll be providing some cookies at Saanich Seedy Saturday (a fund-raiser for the farm) and these will be among the offerings.

Pumpkin time

pumpkinwordcloudIt’s edible decoration time – although sadly most of the Jack O’Lanterns that languish on front steps are inedible, or will be by next Tuesday.

Which is a shame, because winter squash with its autumn-tinted orange flesh offers you plenty of beta-carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A; vitamins C and E, calcium, magnesium and potassium, and lots of fibre.

Don’t forget to harvest the zinc that’s hiding out in squash: scoop those seeds, give them a soak and rinse off the webbing, then season and roast with oil until golden for crunchy winter snacks. If you roast young squash, the cooked skin, like the skin of baked potatoes, is usually edible and adds a secondary flavour, as well as abundant fibre, so taste it before you scrape or peel it off.

The classic routine with winter squash is to roast wedges, tossed in oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, and eat as a soft, sweet side dish. Some squash varieties (roasted and pureed) stand in for pumpkin better than others in sweet dishes like (pumpkin) pie or (pumpkin) bread, but the denser smoother fleshed ones will give better results. And you can always puree roasted squash into a spicy winter soup (or try one of these savoury recipes) if it doesn’t look like it will work for pie.

One of my favourite recipes of recent years is a squash and caramelized garlic tart by Yotam Ottolenghi. Though it calls for butternut squash, any dense, orange-fleshed winter squash will work. To get the texture right you will, sadly, have to peel the squash for this one. He also does an utterly delicious butternut squash with tahini and za’atar.

DIY pumpkin pie filling: to prepare for use in pies or anywhere canned pumpkin is called for, cut the squash in half, scoop the seeds (roast them for snacks!) and roast, cut-side down, on a baking sheet at 400f/200c. About half an hour, turn one half over and test with a fork; if it passes easily through to the skin, it’s done; if not, cook a bit longer. When done, puree in a food processor or blender, then strain overnight in a jelly bag or coffee filter. Be sure to save the drained liquid for soup stocks, gravy etc.  (Canning safety note: if you actually plan to can pumpkin, do so in cubes that you can puree when you need them, as pureed pumpkin is particularly vulnerable to spoilage when canned.)

Spaghetti squash has achieved new popularity among paleo and low-carb diners, as it makes an excellent substitute for pasta. Roast as above. When finished, use a fork to loosen the strands. Drain in a colander if it seems soggy.

Pumpkin pancakes are another grain-free use for winter squash. Follow the roasting instructions above; then scoop the flesh into a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Place in a jelly bag or coffee filter and let the excess liquid drip into a bowl (save this for soup stock or to thin gravy etc.) for a couple of hours or overnight.

But I’m a pumpkin pie fanatic, so here’s a version you can serve your gluten-free, dairy-free or low-carb diners:

Crustless Pumpkin Pie

(based on Pumpkin Custard from Practical Paleo)
Yield: 4-6 servings depending on the size of your ramekins.

1 cup canned/fresh (drained) pumpkin puree
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ea grated nutmeg & mace
pinch sea salt
2 organic eggs
¼ c grade B maple syrup
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup coconut milk (full fat)

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350f/170c.
  2. Combine pumpkin and all spices in one bowl.
  3. In a smaller bowl, beat the eggs lightly then whisk in the maple syrup, vanilla and coconut milk.
  4. Whisk the egg mixture into the pumpkin mixture until well combined.
  5. Pour the custard into six 1/2 cup ramekins (or a small – 3 cup – buttered quiche pan). Place the ramekins in a baking pan and add enough hot water to the dish to come up 2″ high around the ramekins.
  6. Carefully place in the oven and bake for 60 minutes or until a knife inserted into the centre of the custard comes out clean.
  7. Serve warm or chilled, with or without whipped cream (dairy or coconut).

 

Celery!

celery18july When I was a child my nutritionally-minded mother always kept a jar of carrot and celery sticks in the fridge for snacks. Since those days, aside from a shameful period of addiction to celery stuffed with Cheez Whiz, I have always kept a few sticks on hand for chewing upon in thoughtful, snackish moments.

It’s a crucial addition to the raw veggie tray and scoops up hummus most efficiently. It’s a great edible tool for scraping up the last of your blue cheese dressing. Those of you from Ants on a Log childhoods may crave it with peanut butter, or want to share the making of it with your own junior chefs.

Celery is a good medicinal food, a close relative of bulb fennel and celeriac. Aside from the obvious water and fibre content, it’s a traditional diuretic, antioxidant and sedative, helpful in calming muscle spasms, reducing blood pressure and improving appetite. It’s good for arthritis, gout and kidney problems. And it’s a trusted herbal treatment for parasites in animals.

Celery is a key ingredient in mirepoix – with onions and carrots – the foundation of many soups, stews and other savoury dishes. As a time-saver, you might like to chop some up and keep it in a ziplock bag in the freezer to add a salt-free flavour boost to your winter recipes. Keep those celery leaves to throw into the stock pot, too!

You can add chopped celery to your juicing ingredients, browse this selection of Celery Recipes That Are Freakishly Delicious, or make it into a salad with peanuts, if you are from a nut-allergy-free family. When I lived in England and worked for a fancy band of head-hunters, our company cook used to make a delectably simple peanut-celery-mayo salad; this one is a little more slick and works well with Asian flavours.

Thai Celery & Peanut Salad
Makes 4 servings
Ingredients:
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp sesame oil (optional)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
2 tsp fish sauce (or soy sauce if you prefer)
6 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal
3 thinly sliced green onions
1 thinly sliced hot red pepper (and/or sweet bell pepper if you prefer)
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves and stems, chopped
1/4 cup chopped roasted, salted peanuts
Instructions:
1. Whisk together the oil, garlic, lime juice and fish sauce.
2. Toss dressing with celery, green onion, red pepper, cilantro and peanuts.

The lovely aubergine

eggplant-fbYou may think I have been in summer hibernation, but only the blogging part of me has been. The rest of me has been keeping extremely busy with many things. One of those is writing a weekly letter for the Haliburton Community Organic Farm food box program, which will be winding up at the end of October. I thought, belatedly, I could share some of those messages with you. (If you’re in Victoria and interested in signing up for next year’s offering – a weekly certified organic food box, please email me at the food box email and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when we’ve established timings and prices, most likely in January 2017.)

Eggplant – or aubergine as I learned to call it while living in England – is a much-abused vegetable, in my experience. When, as is too often the case, it is served undercooked, it has a chewy, spongy texture which would revolt any sane eater. Properly cooked, it is soft and luscious, infused with the flavour of its surrounding ingredients. As for the salt or don’t salt question: perhaps through sheer laziness I am in the “don’t bother” camp and still love eggplant in many ways.

Delicious, okay, but is it healthy? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! The deep purple skin’s colouring is due to an anthocyanin (a type of beneficial compound that colours berries and other ‘superfoods’) called nasunin, which has been found to be a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals – harmful molecules that damage our body’s cells, causing aging and diseases like cancer. But nasunin also plays a uniquely helpful role, by removing excess iron from the bloodstream. Excess iron can cause many problems (so don’t supplement unless medically directed to do so!) including leaving harmful deposits in the heart and brain.

Eggplant also contains a compound called chlorogenic acid (found in coffee beans, apples, pears and blueberries) which researchers think may have properties effective against cancer and diabetes.

So all this goes on while you sit back and enjoy the moussaka! Like so many healthy foods, remember that the antioxidant benefits are in the skin, so recipes that call for peeling eggplant, while delicious and rich in fibre and other nutrients, won’t have this bonus.

Here’s one of my very favourite ways to enjoy it, based on a Peg Bracken recipe (anyone else remember the I Hate To Cook books?) It’s an easy and delicious veggie main course, excellent served on rice, that you can make ahead and store in the freezer for a rainy day, when it will be best appreciated.

Spicy Baked Eggplant
Serves 4-6
Ingredients:
1 large eggplant, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes (unpeeled)
¾ cup olive oil
2 cups chopped or canned tomatoes (400 ml)
1 red pepper, peeled and chopped, or 1 small jar of pimentos drained and coarsely chopped
2 medium sliced onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp capers
1 tbsp chopped fresh basil, or 3/4 tsp dried (or to taste)
1 tbsp soy sauce
Instructions:
1. In a large frying pan, sauté the eggplant in the olive oil for about 5 minutes, until soft.
2. Add remaining ingredients and cook the mixture for about 15 minutes.
3. Pile it into a casserole dish, wrap it, cool it and freeze it.

When ready to eat it, thaw it overnight in the fridge then top it with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. Heat half an hour at 350f and make sure it’s hot all the way through.

Enjoy!

Keeping Clean – Pesticides and Produce in 2016

organic-infographic-canada-654The 2016 Environmental Working Group‘s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce is out. This is the guide known as the Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen, helping consumers to understand which foods contain higher and lower levels of pesticide. It was intended to help us know which foods had the highest pesticide residues, where it would be most important to buy organic, and which had less risk because of lower residues.

You’ll hear people argue that the amount of pesticide residue found on conventionally-grown produce is tiny, and within allowable limits.

But consider these tiny, cumulative elements consumed three (or more) times a day over a lifetime, combined with other environmental toxins. According to Mt Sinai Hospital,

Over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released by industry into the nation’s environment each year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens.

Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75% are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain.

Many of these chemicals are not adequately tested before release. We have no idea how these chemicals interact with each other in our bodies. What we do know is that many, if not most pesticides have neurotoxic effects, meaning they affect our brains and neurological systems – more so the vulnerable developing brains of children – and many are known or suspected carcinogens. Reason enough to be very, very picky about what we eat.

The EWG’s report had some interesting findings. Strawberries have bumped apples off the Number 1 position of the Dirty Dozen list, so be sure to buy or grow those organically.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire that the average potato “had more pesticides by weight than any other produce”.

The cleanest food on the EWG’s list of 48 was the avocado. Next cleanest was sweetcorn – with one large disclaimer: corn is a major genetically-modified crop.

About 80% of maize, or field corn (the unsweet corn used in processed foods like cornstarch and high fructose corn syrup, fed to animals, and used for popcorn) is GM. Maize is usually modified with Bt, a bacterium that kills caterpillars who ingest any part of the plant. It may also be genetically modified to be Roundup resistant, meaning it will have been sprayed with glyphosate. Glyphosate is under increasing scrutiny for its damaging health effects. In 2011, Monsanto began producing GMO sweetcorn, the kind humans eat. GM sweetcorn is still a small proportion of what’s on the market, and non-GM sweetcorn is low in pesticide residues. So you need only ask the farmer or market you buy it from if it is in fact genetically-modified, and don’t buy it if it is. Asking this question lets producers know you don’t want it and keeps it out of our kitchens.