Update: What’s In Your Orange Juice?

UPDATE: Trader Joe’s has confirmed that their orange juice is not sourced from Brazil. I first wrote about the presence of carbendazim in shipments of orange juice to the United States earlier this month, and recommended that consumers purchase only 100% Florida orange juice to avoid the unregulated levels of carbendazim in foreign shipments. You can read my original post here.

In an email to Wellness and Equality, a representative from Trader Joe’s writes:

 Presently, all Trader Joe’s refrigerated, fresh orange juices are made with oranges sourced from Florida, Mexico and California. Our vendors regularly perform third-party quality assurance audits. In light of recent concerns related to orange juice concentrate, our orange juice suppliers are currently conducting additional testing. Two of our refrigerated orange juice labels state they are from USA, Brazil, Mexico and Costa Rica. However, our suppliers have confirmed that the oranges currently used in our product are actually from Florida.

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5 Tips for Healthier Baking

A while back, I bought a package of dried wild blueberries from Trader Joe’s. They were exceptionally sweet and impossible to eat plain, so I finally got around to using them in a batch of blueberry muffins this weekend. Since few recipes meet my health standards, I tweaked this recipe to create my own.  The blueberry muffins I made — with whole wheat flour, wild blueberries, and evaporated cane juice — turned out beautifully.

Although I don’t eat much bread, every now and then I have a craving for homemade baked goods.  Since I live alone, this often means I am eating a large portion of the batch myself over the course of the next week or two (though my boyfriend helps!).  If you eat cookies, cakes, sweet breads, or any pastries, I highly recommend you take the time to bake yourself some treats from scratch.  Baking gives you a visual understanding of how much sugar and butter you’re consuming next time you have a craving for cookies.

Here are five tips to health-ify your own recipes:

1.  Choose recipes that call for healthy ingredients.  The easiest way to bake something delicious and healthy is to let someone else design the recipe!  Choose well-reviewed recipes that call for healthy foods like oatmeal, fruit (bananas, apple sauce), milk, dates (a natural sweetener), nuts, peanut butter, etc.  Choose recipes that have less butter and sugar.  Note: If you’re baking for others, keep in mind that butter and sugar are usually the keys to impressing with your baking skills, so you probably don’t want to leave them out completely.

2.  Replace white flour with white whole wheat flour.  I buy whole wheat flour at Trader Joe’s, and I use it to replace white flour in any baked good that can be considered a snack (muffins, breads).  Replacing white flour with whole wheat flour is a simple fix that requires no other changes to the recipe.  I’ve successfully used whole wheat flour to bake banana bread, pumpkin bread, applesauce bread, and blueberry muffins.  Note: Not all recipes lend themselves to whole wheat flour.  I once baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies with half whole wheat flour, and yes, they were edible, but I felt like I had to apologize for them every time someone ate one, and explain, “I used half whole wheat flour!”  They just weren’t chocolate chip cookies.

3.  Replace white sugar with evaporated cane juice.  I buy evaporated cane juice from Trader Joe’s, where it’s labeled “Organic Sugar.”  When using evaporated cane juice, you can use less sugar with the same effect; start with approximately 25% less.  I haven’t tried replacing brown sugar with evaporated cane juice, but I’ve heard that you can use a combination of evaporated cane juice and molasses — please leave a comment if you’ve had success with this.  Be aware that evaporated cane juice gives baked goods a deeper golden color, so if you’re baking something that must be white, you will need to use regular granulated white sugar to achieve that lily white appearance.

4.  Replace vegetable oil with butter.  This may seem counter-intuitive if you haven’t reviewed the science on fats recently, but most reputable health experts today believe that all-natural butter is healthier than highly-processed vegetable oils or margarine.  So throw out the vegetable oil and never use it again!  The fats/oils you should keep in your cupboard: butter, olive oil, and coconut oil.  Bonus: Butter gives baked goods that comforting baked-by-Grandma, perfectly-soft texture.  I’ve never had a problem replacing oil with the exact same amount of melted or softened butter (1/3 cup of vegetable oil = 1/3 cup of butter).

5. Last but not least, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!  Experiment with recipes.  Taste the batter.  Take a photo of your creation.  Eat slowly.  Bring a friend an unexpected plate of something tasty.  Some recipes call for white flour and white sugar, and that’s okay.  (Hey, at least you’re not buying chemical-laden pastries at the grocery store!)  Save recipes that require white flour and white sugar — like cookies and cakes — for special occasions (birthdays, congratulatory celebrations) that are shared with guests, visitors, or friends, and make them a real treat!

Buying Seasonal Produce: A Guide

Yesterday, following my own advice, I picked up two fruits that I don’t routinely buy.  The first was a bag of bright orange, organic Minneolas.  My second purchase was an Asian pear, an apple-shaped, light brown fruit.

Minneolas are a cross between grapefruits and tangerines, and look like an orange with a protruding nipple.  I ate one of the Minneolas as soon as I got home.  The Minneolas had a delightfully overpowering orange scent, and the fruit tasted absolutely delicious — flavorful and sweet.  With its soft tangerine-like flesh, it was also much easier to peel than a typical orange.  At some point I realized I have eaten Minneolas before, known by their more common name: tangelos.  They are also sometimes called honeybells.

Today, I sliced open the Asian pear.  It was crisp and juicy, with a grainy Jicama-like texture. Unfortunately, the taste was flat and bland.  I ate an Asian pear for the first time a couple years ago, during an October visit with a friend.  You might think it strange that I remember, but that Asian pear was pretty incredible. (It was also quite the memorable visit with my friend, a vegetarian visiting the South for the first time.)  We had sliced an enormous Asian pear and some cheese as a snack, and the flavor of the pear had been AMAZING!  That October pear had been much larger than the current small pear, and incomparably more flavorful.

Some quick research on seasonal produce turned up information I wish I’d had at the grocery store.  Minneolas are hitting their seasonal spike right now. They’re a winter fruit with their highest peak in January.  (Fun fact: Minneolas tend to have plentiful seasons every other year, so buy them up this year or you may be waiting until 2014 for the same quality!)  Asian pears — not to be confused with traditional pears — are long past their seasonal prime.  Unlike their traditional cousins, Asian pears are a summer fruit.  I must have had the fortune of catching a late bloomer that October, though there’s little hope of an Asian pear like that during January in the heart of winter.

Buying locally-grown produce is not always easy, especially for someone who lives in the Midwest and loves tropical fruits, like mangos and strawberries. According to this fascinating interactive map from Epicurious, the “growing season” in my state is currently dormant.  While I appreciate the merits of locally-grown, I’m not about to forego fresh fruit due to a dormant growing season.  Now buying produce in season — wherever it’s grown — is something I can do.  Why buy produce in season?  For quality, taste, and price.  If only grocery stores labeled seasonal fruits and vegetables!

Since most grocery stores don’t label their seasonal produce, print out this list of seasonal produce and take it with you.  Although the seasonal produce may vary depending where you live, I have compiled the list below to get you started, thanks to help from the blog Wisebread and the information available at FruitsInfo.com.

  • WINTER PRODUCE: DECEMBER, JANUARY, FEBRUARY

Fruits: oranges (traditional and mandarin), grapefruits, tangelos, tangerines, lemons, papayas, pomegranates, bananas, kumquats, persimmons, pears (traditional)

Veggiessweet potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages, leeks

  • SPRING PRODUCE: MARCH, APRIL, MAY

Fruits: pineapples, mangos, apricots (spring/summer), cherries (spring/summer), blueberries, nectarines, currants, figs

Veggies: lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, artichokes, rhubarb, asparagus, spring peas, okra

  • SUMMER PRODUCE: JUNE, JULY, AUGUST

Fruits: apricots (spring/summer, cherries (spring/summer), strawberries, blueberries, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe, kiwi, raspberries, plums, blackberries, honeydew, Asian pears (summer/fall)

Veggies: lettuce, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, green beans, eggplant

  • AUTUMN PRODUCE: SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER

Fruits: Asian pears (summer/fall), grapes, cranberries, apples, pomegranates, oranges, tangerines, traditional pears (fall/winter)

Veggies: lettuce, spinach, pumpkins, tomatoes, eggplant, sweet potatoes, winter squash, mushrooms (fall/winter)

Do you have a suggestion to improve this list?  Or know of a more complete list available online?  Please leave a comment to share.

Happy produce picking!

What’s In Your Orange Juice?

Early this month, the FDA announced that shipments of Brazilian-sourced orange juice contain carbendazim, a fungicide that has been linked to infertility, testicular damage, and birth defects.

Carbendazim is not approved for use as a fungicide in the United States.  In 1996, a US Supreme Court awarded Donna and Juan Castillo $4 million after Donna was inadvertently sprayed with the fungicide while pregnant with their son, John. John was born with no discernable eyes.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that John’s severe birth defects were a direct result of Donna’s exposure to carbendazim.

Coca-Cola has admitted “its [brands] and its competitors’ brands” of orange juice have been contaminated with carbendazim — but refused to name specific brands.  Coca Cola is the owner of Simply Orange and Minute Maid; Tropicana and OceanSpray are owned by Coca-Cola’s competitor, PepsiCo.  The FDA has admitted that contaminated juice is currently on grocery store shelves in the United States.

The Environmental Protection Agency has said that carbendazim levels up to 80 parts per billion are not considered harmful.  However, the FDA has declined to state whether they will follow the EPA’s recommendations regarding safe levels of the fungicide.  “We are saying that if we find any juice that presents a safety hazard, we’ll take steps to remove it from the market,” FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey told USA Today. 

Carbendazim belongs to a class of fungicides that fight a fungus called eyespot.  Eyespot causes dark, round spots on fruit, making it unattractive to consumers.  Ironically, fungicides are considered the least effective solution to eyespot, since eyespot quickly becomes resistant.

Orange juice, whose popularity in the United States was influenced by our need to get Vitamin C to American soldiers serving overseas during World War II in a product with a long shelf life, has an interesting history.  Today, consumers are faced with many choices: concentrate, not-from concentrate, Vitamin D-fortified.

Here’s are some quick tips to purchasing healthy, natural orange juice:

1.  Buy 100% Florida Orange Juice.  In this case, the affected orange juice is from Brazilian groves.  Some would argue that the legal pesticides used in the United States are in some cases even worse than those that are illegal; however, in the case of orange juice, the United States has tighter regulations than Brazil.  Most orange juices sold in the United States are a blend of Floridian and Brazilian juices, so check the label to be sure you’re purchasing orange juice harvested only from American groves.

2. Skip Calcium & Vitamin D-Fortified: Increasing evidence shows that our bodies do not process added vitamin supplements in the same way that we process those vitamins when consuming the foods that naturally contain them.  If you are short on calcium and Vitamin D, eat foods rich in calcium (dairy products, broccoli, almonds, brazil nuts, and leafy greens) and take a 10 minute stroll outdoors (for your daily dose of Vitamin D).  In fact, supplemental calcium and Vitamin D from unnatural sources have no demonstrated benefit and could even be harmful.

3. Skip Not-From-Concentrate: Or don’t.  Whether you’re purchasing From Concentrate or Not-From Concentrate orange juice, your juice is heated, pasteurized, stripped of flavor, stored for up to a year in million gallon tanks, and then re-flavored with a cocktail of flavor-enhancing chemicals that the FDA does not require be listed as ingredients.  Some juices, such as Whole Food’s 365 brand, buck this trend and do not allow the use of “flavor packs,” which are standard in the orange juice industry.  On the other hand, orange juice from concentrate undergoes this process and is stripped of its water content, which is re-added before packaging.  Concentrating the orange juice is one small step among many — and the least concerning from a health standpoint.  If you prefer the taste, go ahead and buy not-from-concentrate.  If you don’t have a preference, save yourself the extra dollar.

5. Eat an orange instead: Avoid the empty sugar rush of fruit juice by treating yourself to the fruit itself.  The fiber in an orange helps slow down your body’s processing of fructose, which is less jarring for your body and mind.  Drink a tall glass of water and eat an orange.  Compared with juice, the whole fruit always has fewer calories, less sugar, and more fiber.

5. Buy Fresh-Squeezed or Organic: If you can afford it, buy fresh-squeezed or organic orange juice.  The pasteurization process strips orange juice of its flavor, which is why chemical flavor packs are used to compensate.  Fresh-squeezed orange juice bypasses this problem altogether.

Orange you glad you read this post?

Update 1/18: Since I do my grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, I have sent a Product Information Request to Trader Joe’s, asking whether their orange juice has been affected by the contaminated shipments from Brazil. You can read Trader Joe’s response to me here. 

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Improved Sutures & Prosthetic Limbs

If the poor reputation of genetic engineering is leaving you depressed, you have to read this: Notre Dame professor Malcolm Fraser’s team of researchers is using their transgenically-engineered silkworms to produce silk that is strong enough for “sutures, artificial limbs and parachutes.”  That’s the power of genetic engineering in the right hands!

Although silkworms lend themselves to farming, we have long known that spiders have the strongest silk — with tensile strength comparable to steel!  But spiders’ sprawling webs are unwieldy when compared with silkworm’s dense cocoons, and spiders tend to be cannibalistic and territorial, making farming difficult.  Try as they might, no one had found a commercially-viable way to harvest spider silk.

So Fraser’s team engineered silkworms with both silkworm and spider proteins to produce the best of both worlds.  If the transgenic silkworms’ silk is used to create parachutes, this story of genetic engineering could prove — literally — uplifting.

Watch the video here.

Does Your Body Know You’re Eating Genetically-Modified Foods?

Yes, according to a new study that could have enormous impact on studies of cross-species communication, predator-prey relationships, and co-evolution.

First, let’s take a trip down memory lane for a brief refresher in high school biology.  Since 1958, molecular biologists have relied upon the Central Dogma to outline the rules of transfer of biological sequential information.  As you may remember from high school biology, DNA makes RNA makes protein.   In special cases, RNA makes DNA, RNA makes RNA, and DNA makes protein.  But protein doesn’t make protein, protein doesn’t make RNA, and protein doesn’t make DNA, or so says the Central Dogma.

Parsing complex studies and understanding the pathways of human DNA is an incredibly complex task.  Even if you are able to do so, it’s extremely difficult to write about such science at a level that laypeople (like myself) can understand.  Today in The Atlantic, Ari Levaux manages to do exactly that in his story, “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Food.”  As a lover of analogies, I admire the way Levaux compares our current understanding of genetics to ordering pizza:

The Central Dogma resembles the process of ordering a pizza. The DNA knows what kind of pizza it wants, and orders it. The RNA is the order slip, which communicates the specifics of the pizza to the cook. The finished and delivered pizza is analogous to the protein that DNA codes for.

We’ve known for years that the Central Dogma, though basically correct, is overly simplistic. For example: Pieces of microRNA that don’t code for anything, pizza or otherwise, can travel among cells and influence their activities in many other ways. So while the DNA is ordering pizza, it’s also bombarding the pizzeria with unrelated RNA messages that can cancel a cheese delivery, pay the dishwasher nine million dollars, or email the secret sauce recipe to WikiLeaks.

One of the primary arguments in favor of the safety of genetically-modified food — the argument that “gene transfer” moves in one direction — has relied on the Central Dogma.  In simple terms, the FDA has trusted the basic idea that when you eat a piece of fruit, that fruit’s genetic material is not able to effect your genetic material.

But the new findings turn this argument on its head.  Lead by  Chen-Yu Zhang of Nanjing University, the Chinese researchers identified microRNA belonging to genetically-engineered plants (such as rice and cabbage) in human blood and tissue.  MicroRNA are fragments of RNA (the messenger between DNA and proteins) that typically silence or repress certain proteins by binding to and destroying the RNA that would have created that protein.  Indeed, the plant microRNA was found to inhibit a protein in human blood, “suggesting that microRNAs can influence gene expression across kingdoms,” writes Cristina Luiggi in her article, “Plant RNAs Found In Mammals,” published by The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences.

Take a moment to note that ‘kingdom’ is the broadest of the seven major divisions of taxonomy.  We’re not talking about species or genus or family or order or class or phylum; we’re talking about genetic transfer across kingdoms — from vegetable to animal.  This is big news in the science world.

If the results of this study are verified, gene transfer is more complicated than humans ever imagined.  When you eat a piece of fruit, the genetic matter of that fruit (microRNA) is, in fact, communicating with — and influencing — your body’s genetic make-up (via protein inhibition).

Are genetically-modified foods unsafe?  The truth is, we don’t know.  We won’t know for several generations, since animal studies suggest that the full effects of consuming genetically-modified foods are not realized until the third generation of consumers.

But while we wait for science to catch up, age-old wisdom tells us, “You are what you eat.”  Today, Americans eat the same food that has been designed to make our cows gain as much weight as quickly as possibly: genetically-modified corn and soy.  And it has: cows that eat GMO corn and soy feed gain more weight faster than cows ever have in agricultural history.  We humans eat this same GMO corn and soy, and some of us even eat the cows raised on a diet of GMO corn and soy.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that this would make us fat, too?  And it has: American obesity has reached an all-time high.

In the meantime, the European Union, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, and other countries require genetically-modified foods to be labeled.  Labeling works on multiple levels, because it also means that special care must be taken to ensure that GMO foods do not contaminate non-GMOs.  With no real need to separate the two, the United States’ regulations on GMO-contamination are inevitably less strict.  In fact, because of this, in 2007, Europe rejected shipments of U.S. rice after discovering that the U.S. rice contained strains of engineered genes that had never been approved for human consumption — neither by the E.U. nor by the U.S.

UPDATE 1/18: Both Slate and the blog at Scientific American have published rebuttals to Levaux’s piece. 

My personal view is that, as American consumers, we should be informed about the contents of our food — that is, whether we are spending our money on genetically-modified food or not — so that we can make the decision for ourselves.

What about you?  Take the poll below to share your thoughts:

Photo Credit: I love the Tim Burton-esque photo accompanying Levaux’s Atlantic article (Dirk Ercken for Shutterstock).

Why The PepsiCo Mouse Story Is Scare-Tactic Journalism

If you have a weak stomach, feel free to skip this story.  In November of 2009, Ronald Ball of Wisconsin purchased a can of Mountain Dew from a vending machine.  Ball claims he took a swig from the can, felt ill, and poured out the contents of the can to find a mouse carcass.  As Ball’s story goes, he sent the mouse to PepsiCo at their request, and they destroyed the evidence.  He’s now suing PepsiCo.  The story was first reported by MadisonRecord.com in July 2010.

Though the lawsuit has been unfolding for more than a year, it’s just now gaining mainstream publicity due to PepsiCo’s stomach-churning defense.  Experts for PepsiCo argue that Ball’s claim must be false because after 30 days in a can of Mountain Dew, the mouse would have morphed into a “jelly-like” substance due to the acidic content of Mountain Dew.

The response of most outlets has been something along the lines of “If Mountain Dew can eat away the carcass of a mouse, what is it doing to the inside of your body?”  There are many reasons not to drink Mountain Dew and soft drinks in general (one of which I wrote about yesterday) but their acidity levels is one of the least causes for concern.

Mountain Dew’s acidic quality is probably due to concentrated orange juice and citric acid — the only natural ingredients it has.  Many natural, healthy foods and drinks are acidic.   Yes, soft drinks can disintegrate bones and teeth, but that’s why we brush our teeth and don’t gargle with them.  A healthy human body is used to ingesting acidic substances.  In fact, our own stomach acid has a pH of 2.00 as compared with Mountain Dew’s 3.22.  As this pH chart shows, lime, lemon, and cranberry juice are more acidic than most soft drinks.  While soft drinks tend to hover at the top of the chart, other fruit juices, teas, and coffee are distributed throughout.

I hate to say this, but a mouse carcass in a variety of citrus juices would probably meet the same “jelly-like” fate.  That doesn’t mean you should give up your daily glass of orange juice.

Now PepsiCo is no angel.  Shame on PepsiCo for destroying evidence.  When you’re the defendant, no evidence is probably best, regardless of innocence or guilt, since our justice system requires proof beyond reasonable doubt and a lack of evidence creates doubt.   Still, if Ball is lying, PepsiCo could probably have won this case without resorting to destruction of evidence.  Though it seems unlikely to me that an in-tact mouse made its way into a can of Mountain Dew, PepsiCo’s destruction of evidence makes me wonder.

Their defense regarding the disintegration of the mouse, however, is a legitimate explanation that does seem to debunk Ball’s claims.  PepsiCo is savvy enough not to admit something incriminating — acidic content is not incriminating.

Disagree?  Leave a comment!