Category Archives: green

On being a conscious consumer

Our local food co-op will stop carrying all Eden Organic products after a recent member vote where less than 5% of members voted and the petition won by just 13 votes.

I find myself very frustrated. I understand the reasoning behind the petition (the perception that Eden’s policy on the Affordable Care Act is seen as unfair to women, though the reality is more nuanced) but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to buy the products because they are superior and it’s hard to find suitable alternatives.

I consider myself a very conscious and careful consumer, but it can be difficult to decide what to buy, to the point it can be paralyzing sometimes!  Personally, when it comes to vegan food I am inclined to prioritize taste and healthfulness of the product over seemingly unrelated political implications. But it’s still a tough decision.

When choosing to buy a canned product, do I pick the one where the food is organic and the cans are BPA free but the company is seen to be unfair when insuring their workforce or the one that doesn’t stack up as well nutritionally and environmentally, isn’t as palatable, but does provide birth control for their workers?

In looking for a nut milk, should I choose the one that tastes good, is organic, has minimal ingredients, supports GMO labeling and is carrageenan free but won’t provide infertility drugs? Or the one that is full of crap, but happy to provide their workers with a full range of insurance options?

I’ve faced a similar dilemma in other purchasing decisions recently too.

When picking a kettle, do I but the one that doesn’t have plastic and isn’t coated in chemicals and is made in China by a reputable company but with unknown working conditions, or the one that’s coated in carcinogens but made in the USA?

What about the food made by a brand that gets top marks on its allergen friendliness, tastes good, has a wide range of products that my kid likes, but was just bought out by a company that is anti GMO labeling? OK to continue purchasing, or no?

It’s hard to be a conscious consumer!!

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to make choices, but given that’s not the world we live in, how do you prioritize?  When there are none that tick all the boxes, which do you choose and why? Which ethical consideration gets compromised first?

PS – If we get to decide what is carried in the store based on ethical and political considerations, why not take a vote on the entire meat section? After all, animal products are known to be anti-female and employers provide less than stellar conditions for their workers. Who’s with me?

High fructose corn syrup rebranding as corn sugar

According to a story by the Associated Press, “The Corn Refiners Association wants to use “corn sugar” as an alternative name for the widely used liquid sweetener currently labeled as high fructose corn syrup” and have petitioned for a name change. In the meantime, the FDA has cautioned them to stop using the term prematurely, as they haven’t yet received approval and are already including it on promotional materials such as their web sites.

This reminds me of Aspartame’s re-brand as AminoSweet that I discussed awhile back. It’s not difficult to see why they’d want to change away from the term high fructose corn syrup (HCFS) as more and more people are turning against their product.

A representative for the group says they don’t believe consumers will be misled by the new terminology though, saying, “We do not believe that anyone could be confused or believe that the statements regarding ‘corn sugar’ on the websites refer to anything other than high fructose corn syrup.”

So what exactly would be the purpose for making the change, if not to lose the negative association? If it’s not to re-brand your product as something more appealing to consumers, then why bother?

According to this New York Times piece, it’s because they believe corn syrup is a confusing term and that corn sugar better communicates about the calories and sweetness of the ingredient. They say consumers wrongly believe it has more sugar than what we’d traditionally consider table sugar (the granular white stuff) and are avoiding it for that reason.

It seems they haven’t quite agreed on consistent messaging internally. Corn sugar is either a term that will be seen as equivalent to HCFS in the minds of consumers (doubtful, IMO) or else a term than more accurately describes a form of liquid sugar that is nutritionally similar to table sugar (presumes consumers care about and are making nutritional decisions based sugar type comparison, also doubtful). If they’re going to choose a new label because it brings clarity to consumers, they’re not going to choose one that is seen as equivalent to their current term.

In my head, it’s nothing more than an attempt to re-brand in attempt to slow or stop the declining use of their product as manufacturers switch to more “natural” forms of sugar in response to consumer demand — as seen with the introduction of products like Pepsi Natural and Mountain Dew Throwback. And consumers are likely demanding this not due to research into the nutritional profiles of varying types of sugar, but because the media and others have painted HCFS as a bad guy, accurate or not. Also, because the pursuit towards more natural products is a popular trend.

In fact, scientists are somewhat split over whether HFCS is any more damaging to consumers than other sugars. According to the Mayo Clinic, research studies have yielded mixed results. HFCS is chemically similar to table sugar, but the thought is that your body may react differently since it’s processed. There’s insufficient evidence at this point to say that this is true, but studies continue to look a the potential effects, including potential links to cancer. Where there is no argument is that we should all be consuming less sweetener, no matter what the source.

So what do you think? Does a switch to the name corn sugar provide any nutritional clarity to you as a consumer? Do you shy away from HFCS in particular or is sugar of any kind treated the same?

Non-violent protest is not terrorism; CMUs are political prisons

Free speech is proclaimed as a protected right in this country. However, given recent events I’m beginning to think that it’s actually conditional, more of a privilege than anything.

Last week, the Supreme Court protected the ability of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest military funerals. As much as I dislike what the church members have to say, I can understand why the court ruled in their favor. However, I’m disappointed by an action the court took today – refusing to hear the case of SHAC 7, a group of seven people convicted of terrorism for running an animal rights related web site.

The members of the SHAC 7 group took no illegal action themselves, but hosted content on a web site that talked about illegal activities others had taken (like releasing animals from labs). The Third Circuit Court had ruled that while they were not a threat and had not done anything illegal, they could be convicted because they supported illegal actions and by doing so might have incited people to participate. By associating with people who had taken part in illegal activities, the rights of the group were no longer protected.

As Will Potter from Green is the New Red said at the time-

“To put it more plainly: Vocally supporting civil disobedience, explaining what it involves, and encouraging/facilitating people to take part is not protected speech.

This is so important let me say it again, another way: People who write about civil disobedience and encourage people to take part can be found convicted of a crime even if they do not take part in the civil disobedience.

So the fact that the Supreme Court choose to let this ruling stand means that the Third Circuit’s decision is allowed to serve as precedent. Even if you don’t support causes like the ones the SHAC 7 were promoting, consider the danger that this presents to free speech. This has major implications for activists of all stripes.

Some might consider this proof that if your cause is unpopular enough, you will be silenced. And some are silenced in the most absolute sense of the word you can imagine. Domestic terrorists, including those convicted of “eco-terrorism”, are often held in something called Communications Management Units (CMUs), instead of traditional prisons. CMUs radically restrict prisoner access and communication to the outside world. They’re said to “rival, or exceed, the most restrictive facilities in the country, including the “Supermax,” ADX-Florence” where the Unabomber is held.

Prisoners in CMUs are virtually cut off from the outside world, kept in isolation. All prisoner communications and interactions are live-monitored and subject to recording. Letters are photocopied and the delivery is delayed. They’re only allowed two phone calls a week (recently increased from one) scheduled well in advance and up to 15 minutes long. That can be reduced to three minutes at the warden’s discretion. If their family members make the trek to see them in person (there are two CMUs in in the US), they can visit a maximum of two hours (where most inmates are allowed all-day visits), twice a month. They are not allowed physical contact. This is worse than even the most stringent rules for high-risk offenders– something many of these prisoners are not.

Last year the government acknowledged these secret prisons and proposed making them permanent. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU both filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the facilities, their policies on prisoner treatment, and violation of due process rights. This is in part based on the practice of transferring a prisoner into a CMU, or from one to the other, without prior notification and without a chance to appeal.

It’s a commonly held belief the reason the CMUs hold these types of prisoners are to shut them up. Removing their access to their family members, the media, and pretty much everyone means that their messages cannot get out. However, the isolation also has the capacity to destroy the prisoners psychologically and serve as a reminder to other activists of what could happen.

The fact that these political prisons even exist should serve as reminder that free speech rights don’t make a difference if you’re not otherwise free.

Say cheese!?

I’ve learned this week, due to some great reporting by Michael Moss for the New York Times, there is a marketing group called Dairy Management that’s responsible for promoting dairy to the American public and for overseas export. This organization is a subset of the US Department of Agriculture, an agency also tasked with promoting nutritional responsibility, presenting an obvious conflict of interest between the two groups.  Specifically, Dairy Management promotes cheese consumption and works with major national brands to increase the amount used in their products.

So why the conflicting goals between different branches of the USDA, and how is this allowed? The NY Times piece says, the USDA leaves it up to Dairy Management to decide how to “bolster farmers and rural economies” and isn’t in the business of controlling how this occurs. And according to a story on NPR, the USDA is OK with promoting cheese consumption in particular because Americans need the calcium, especially as they”re drinking less milk.  Still, I’m not sure this fully explains the dichotomy.

Marion Nestle, author of the book Food Politics and this recent blog entry says, “So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That’s its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the “lead federal agency” role in providing dietary advice to the public.”

Interestingly, the side of the USDA responsible for nutrition policy is under funded compared to Dairy Management, the side that’s pushing cheese. According to this Boston Globe piece, “While the USDA budgets $6.5 million to promote nutrition policy, Dairy Management had more than $140 million to play with last year, mostly through government fees on the dairy industry, but also with $5.3 million from USDA itself to promote overseas exports.”

Just like many other things the USDA promotes, I take issue with our government endorsing large scale animal agriculture, and thus animal cruelty. However, in this case I find it even more reprehensible that taxpayers are funding even a portion of the budget for a group whose sole job is to promote cheese consumption. It’s true that the majority of the work done by Dairy Management group is paid by the dairy industry itself. However, we’re still on the line for over $5 million dollars, and that’s in addition to the collective millions US dairy farmers receive in government subsidies every year.

While we hear again and again how America is in the throws of an obesity epidemic, here we have a government group whose job is to get even more cheese into our food supply.  Even if you don’t share my ethical concerns about the dairy industry, it’s not hard to see why this might be an issue. This increase in cheese consumption means hundreds and thousands of extra calories for American consumers, as well as an increased intake of sodium and fat. Americans take in an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year now, and Dairy Management hopes this will increase. Thankfully, the Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion is not singing the same tune.

If there was ever a government program that deserves to be cut, it’s Dairy Management.   There is no legitimate reason to continue funding this group with taxpayer dollars.  I can only hope lawmakers take note.


P.S. – When going vegan, cheese was one of the harder things for me to give up. I hear the same thing again and again from other vegetarians; I just can’t give up cheese. Until recently, there weren’t very many good cheese substitutes. Now, thanks to Daiya and other brands, it’s much easier to replace cow milk based cheese with something less cruel that also tastes good.

Fragrance, chemicals, cancer and the environment

For some time now, I have had been having allergic reactions to the fragrance found in products such as perfume, soap, candles, etc. Early morning meetings and trips in the elevator are hard for me to handle, with perfumes and colognes competing to make my nose itch and eyes water. Recently while walking through the mall, I walked by the Bath and Bodyworks store (not even that close to it) and got an instant headache! It seems like it’s gotten worse since I gave birth to our son.

Curious to know how prevalent this reaction is, I looked it up online and found that fragrance sensitivities are common. WebMD offers an excellent article on the topic, that includes fascinating information such as:

  • Some 5,000 different fragrances are used in products today.
  • The fragrance may not be the real problem, as it’s just one part of a mix of chemicals (sometimes as many as 200 or more!) used to create the smell or that act as the masking agent in unscented products.
  • How our bodies respond to a particular fragrance lies in our individual physiologic makeup.
  • Women, particularly during their reproductive years, have the ability to detect odors much more vividly than do men, and they become more sensitive with repeated exposures
  • Doctors don’t agree on what’s behind any fragrance reaction, and whether it’s even a true allergy or simply a response to an irritant.
  • As a health problem, this sensitivity alone affects more than 2 million people, and studies suggest that sensitivity is on the rise.
  • Sensitivity to one fragrance or odor can snowball into a crippling disorder known as multiple chemical sensitivity.
  • There have been several recent legal actions taken on the topic of fragrance, relating exposure to second hand smoke.

So it’s not just me!

In related news this week, a study conducted by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group found that 17 of most popular fragrances contained 38 secret chemicals, including alarming things like hormone disrupters. I’m wondering if there’s a way I can subtly bring this up to coworkers to get them to tone down the scent use, perhaps post it on the mirror in the bathroom? 😉

All joking aside, I really believe that consumers have a right to know what’s in the products they buy, whether it be the food they eat or perfume they wear. By taking advantage of the loophole that allows chemicals to be lumped together as fragrance, it makes it hard for consumers to truly assess the product and identify potential allergens. While true that most would not read it anyway if all listed out, there’s something to be said for making the information available for those that do care and/or need the info.

The FDA has the ability to restrict or ban any ingredient they consider unsafe, should they desire to do so.  Perhaps they may reconsider the role of fragrance and other related chemicals in light of the landmark report by the President’s Cancer Panel?

It concluded that the government has failed to prevent unnecessary exposures to carcinogens, potentially causing cancer, and suggests that the challenge for the Obama administration is to intensify research efforts into environmental toxins. “Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.” Obviously, more studies are needed to determine the effects of pollutants all around us.

It also includes the suggestion that America must rethink the way we confront cancer, including much more rigorous regulation of chemicals. Instead of solely focusing on self screening and preventitive care visits to the doctor, they are finally making other practical recommendations such as to avoid microwaving food in plastic and get your house tested for radon!

Aspartame now known as AminoSweet

When I started to see the various stories and alerts roll in saying that Ajinomoto had re-branded aspartame as AminoSweet, my first thought was Ajinomoto- who’s that? The next was concern that consumers might be duped into consuming aspartame again after finally coming to the realization that it is just not good for you.

The PR spin on this one is that, “Ajinomoto believes that the time is right to remind the industry that aspartame tastes just like sugar, and that it’s made from amino acids – the building blocks of protein that are abundant in our diet.”

In other words, they have figured out that consumers are wising up to the fact that their product may be harmful. They’ve decided to switch their name in an attempt to avoid the ill effects of past bad press and other attacks on their reputation (boo hoo!) and convince people anew to buy items containing their chemical concoction.

Ajinomoto doesn’t just say that their product is safe, they actually call it healthy! I don’t know how they dare say it’s beneficial, but they do. Claims on their web site include that it it can help you achieve a healthy diet, that its role in this area is increasingly important, it’s tooth friendly. Apparently it does not bring anything new into your diet because it’s “just like those found in everyday foods such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs and milk” and is digested by the body the same way as other proteins. To that I saw pfffffht.

Aspartame is about as far away as one can get from a healthy ingredient, simple construction or not. The fact that it is “constructed” and not found in nature should be the first red flag. Then consider that aspartame accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. Combine this with studies showing aspartame as carcinogenic, the possibility it is an immune system disrupter, responsible for seizures, vision loss, etc. and you can easily see why consumers are shying away from their product. There are other reasons that aspartame has been under attack since the 70s too, and the story includes corrupt FDA officials, fabricated lab results, and more.

(Before people bring it up, I do realize that there are studies showing that it is OK  to consume aspartame in moderation. It’s sometimes said that it’s one of the most studied products in history. However, I look at this similar to other things the FDA has approved for use that are also harmful, such as BPA, mercury, fluouride, etc . When you add in the history behind the FDA approval, and look at how many of the positive studies have industry ties,  I am just not comfortable with the product.)

Add to this that I know lots of people that have problems with aspartame, myself included. Years ago before I stopped consuming soda, every time I had a drink containing it I got a headache. Other diet products, or other sodas from the same manufacturer were not a problem for me, just the ones containing aspartame. There are many such stories, and even some books, that lay it all out.  It seems particularly harmful when given to kids (which is probably why it is banned from children’s products in Europe).

And a final minor point, but as far as the actual name goes from a marketing standpoint, I disagree with their contention the name AminoSweet is either appealing or memorable. It’s not like the average person even knows what an amino acid is, let alone considers it a positive thing.  I think they’re overestimating their audience’s ability to make that association. And it might become memorable to those downing their several diet soft drinks a day, but that’s only if their memories aren’t compromised by the affects of the ever-so-healthy protein!

Let’s hope the mainstream media decides to inform consumers of this name change so people can continue to make educated decisions.

Drink carton recycling

We buy  a lot of beverages that come in cardboard containers. For some reason milk alternatives (soy, hemp, almond, rice, etc.) rarely come in plastic or glass like cow milk does, and instead come in boxes similar to those used for juice. At our previous residence they took these types of boxes along with the rest of the recycling, but when we moved here just a few miles away, to my surprise they did not.

Not wanting to just throw the containers away, I collected them and hauled them to the local recycling center, figuring our city just didn’t want to handle them curbside. Despite the fact that the bin says right on it not to throw in containers that are coated, lined, etc. one of the workers told me that it was OK to put them in there. For over a year I’d been hauling the containers there on a regular basis and dumping them in the bin, somewhat stealthily at times since I still wasn’t sure if they belonged in there or not.

After doing some research into shelf stable products recently, I’ve found that they most definitely do not belong in with the rest of the cardboard! The boxes used for liquids are also known as aseptics. (Some people call them Tetra Paks, as that’s the most recognizable brand.) Aseptics are made from several layers of different materials – including paper, plastics and metals – and are thus somewhat harder to recycle.  See diagram.

Aseptic containers, and other coated or lined containers like those used for juice,  must go through a completely different processing method called hydrapulping. Hydrapulping facilities are rare and thus the packages are rarely recycled. My main go-to for locating recycling facilities,, shows no place in our state that will take these containers. Only 26 U.S. states have access to a facility that can handle them.

As of last week I started throwing the containers away and I cannot believe how much our trash load has increased as a result! I really, really don’t want to send them to the landfill but feel I don’t have a choice. I would avoid buying those boxes outright if possible, but some of the products we purchase don’t come any other way and are staples in our diet.

There are efforts underway to expand recycling for these types of containers. The Carton Council and four leading carton manufacturers have teamed up to improve U.S. availability. Last year Tropicana joined forces with Waste Management to increase the recycling opportunities for their boxes. I’m hopeful that it will happen quickly so we’ll soon have a proper way to recycle our drink containers.  Countries like Canada and Germany are already doing it well; there’s no reason we can’t too.

Mad as Hellers

An interesting radio piece from a couple of days ago commented on a new group U.S. President Obama should pay attention to in his State of the Union speech, the Mad as Hellers. The presenter was talking about how there are essentially two groups- those on the right who are worried about big government and those on the left who are worried about big business and finance. Personally, I’m worried about both. But what I find even worse is the collusion of the two.

When the former head of the CDC goes on to lead the vaccine divison at Merck or the former Monstanto exec gets nominated to negotiate agricultural policy, this hardly seems like coincidence.

I’ve heard some say that it’s because these folks are highly trained in their field and have industry experience, so are desirable recruits for the administration. That could be true. However, it doesn’t give me much faith that they’ll focus on doing the right thing. We need to be able to trust watchdog groups, like the Center for Food Safety or the FDA, will safeguard the public interest. How can this leadership come from people who spent their careers aligned so strongly with one side of an issue over another?

Getting money out of politics in the way of campaign finance reform, Robert Reich’s solution at the end of his piece, is likely to help. However, I think it’s going to take a much bigger change to shake the foundations of our current system. Americans are starting to wake up, but what is that really going to do? Just being mad as hell is not enough. It’s going to require action, and at this point nobody seems to have the pull to bring the various groups together towards any meaningful consensus.

Cell phone radiation exposure

For a long time now I’ve been considering getting a new cell phone. I simply don’t like the hardware or the interface for my existing phone and it may be just my imagination, but using it for any length of time makes my face and teeth on that side feel “funny”.

Ever since learning about the potential dangers of cell phone radiation, number one on criteria list for a new model (after the simple ability to place and receive calls) is that it emits only a low level of radiation. Since I’m changing phones anyway, there’s no better time to get a safer phone and reduce exposure for myself and my family.

As I’ve been considering different options, I’ve been evaluating them using the Environmental Working Group’s cell phone radiation look up tool, however not all potential phones are on there. (With the rate cell phone manufacturers produce new models I don’t expect them to be able to keep up either!)

When looking at phones today it occurred to me that for those not in the database, I could research to find the radiation level from the manufacturer. I found that what I need to search for is called the SAR Value. SAR stands for Specific Absorption Rate and gives an indication of the amount of radiation absorbed by your head when using the phone. The higher the number, the more that is absorbed. Using the EWG scale as a model, it looks like the best phones on the market right now have a maximum SAR under 0.55 W/kg.

Some manufacturers have pages or search engines that allow you took to look up the SAR value for all their phones. For others you might have to resort to a Google search. Typically if you use the phone model plus SAR you will find the number.  You can also attempt to look them up on the Mobile Manufacturers Forum site.

Alternatively, if you just happen to have the phone handy, or can capture the information from a display model or other source, you can also look this up using the FCC ID number. This info is found on the label under the battery — hardly practical when researching a new phone.

As more consumers learn about the potential dangers, especially to kids whose brains are still developing, I feel confident we’ll see a rise in the number of phones designed to emit low levels of radiation. In the meantime, in addition to getting a low radiation phone, following some of the EWG’s safety tips seems like a wise move. I’m hopeful that the FCC will soon wake up and re-examine the regulations in order to improve the standards. There’s also a lot that could be done to make this kind of information more readily available to consumers.

Vegan shoes for boys?

We’ve been having a hard time finding suitable footwear for my son ever since he started to wear out, and then outgrew, his IsaBooties. They had been an awesome find for us, and I was sad to see them go.

I feel like my shoe-buying criteria isn’t that demanding, but it must be because after searching high and low I am still finding very few shoes that fit the bill.

Here’s what I’m looking for:
– Flexible soles
– Non-leather
– Velcro or slip-on, no laces
– Under $30

Bonuses given to those that are:
– Lightweight
– Washable
– Not ridiculously ugly, actually look like shoes!

It always amazes me how thick-soled childrens’ shoes can be. I would never choose to wear shoes so bulky and heavy, let alone choose to put them on children who are just learning to use their feet. One of the
main reasons we chose the soft soled shoes in the first place is that research showed me that children’s feet are maleable, and take years to develop fully. Barefoot walking is the ideal for muscular development, and shoes too tight or hard can actually mold feet into the wrong shape and cause problems. While learning to walk kids should be able to feel what they’re doing and use their toes to grip. When going without isn’t an option, you want something that mimics barefoot walking but also gives them some traction so they don’t slip.

Even once they’re walking well (my guy is always moving these days!) flexibility continues to be important for proper foot development and is useful as they run, climb playground equipment, etc. The focus also
turns toward areas like protecting feet from sharp objects. I know I’m not alone in thinking flexibility is an important quality in kids shoes, given that there are companies specializing in this area, it’s just that they all use leather! True it is a flexible material, but there are substitutes like Ultra Suede that looks just as nice, is durable and cruelty free.

Part of the struggle may be that I’m looking for boys shoes. I see lots of cute girls shoes that are canvas with rubber soles and would work. Also, many girls shoes are slip-ons. Men’s shoes contain both these
features in the form of loafers, so why not shoes for little boys?

I see a lot of small kids wearing Crocs, but they are not flexible, quite ugly in my opinion and sometimes cause injury. I’ve found some canvas options, but they all have laces. (Laces seem nothing but a burden in shoes meant for kids that are nowhere near close to having the dexterity needed to tie them.) Considering how fast kid’s feet grow, I’m hesitant to spend the $50+ that a lot of the “eco-friendly” or vegetarian shoemakers are demanding.

So what’s the problem? Am I really being too picky? Is there really no demand for shoes like these?

I’ve had some luck with Squeaky Shoes. However, they are made in China, by who knows who, using who knows what. I really don’t like the idea that my son’s shoes could possibly be made by children. I’m sure they’re not environmentally friendly and even if they were, they have to be imported. But they are canvas, flexible, and under $10. Sometimes they go on sale or you can get defects for under $5. They hold up well and wash easily. (Note – we pull the squeakers out.)

If only some US-based company would take on this cause the way IsaBooties did! What are other vegan parents buying for their boys?