Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Not so sweet

High Fructose Corn Syrup: I'm not a big fan and I try to avoid all foods that contain it. Back when I started taking a different look at the food we ate, it was one of those ingredients I started noticing in everything. Even though I hadn't done much research yet, it was one of those things that just seemed like it was bad - like feeding your kids spaghetti after they've had a bath or going to Walmart on payday. The commercials trying to promote that its "just like sugar" made HFCS seem even more sketchy to me.

In January of 2009, a research study was published revealing various levels of Mercury in HFCS. Mercury is a neurotoxic heavy metal not good for anyone to be exposed to but is especially dangerous to young children and unborn infants whose nervous system is still developing. Numerous articles have mentioned that traces of Mercury are present in all different forms in our environment. But the concern in it being present in HFCS (it is actually in something called caustic soda used to separate the corn in the process of making the HFCS) is because this sweetener is used in such a vast array of foods, both as a sweetener and for its ability to prolong shelf-life. It is estimated that in the US, the average daily consumption of HFCS is 50 grams (Dufault et al., 2009).  

In 2010, a study conducted by a Princeton University research team looked at the effects of HFCS on obesity. It was a two part study in which the first showed that rats given HFCS gained more weight than rats given equal amounts of table sugar (sucrose). The second part of the study was a more long-term study and it showed that the HFCS rats not only had gained weight, but they also had higher triglycerides, abdominal fat, and other characteristics that in humans,  are known risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, cancers, and high blood pressure. This study was so interesting to me (probably because I am a nurse and a nerd who loves pathophysiology stuff) because it talked about how even though HFCS and table sugar have similar properties of fructose and glucose, our bodies process it completely different because of how the one fructose is made. I don't know...maybe, perhaps, this might have something to do with the fact that God made regular sugar AND our bodies? Just a thought...

The other big concern I have with HFCS, is the issue of GMO corn. This is a whole different issue in and of itself. Basically, GMO's are genetically modified organisms - their DNA has been changed or altered. The advantage of this for crops is to make produce that is resistant to diseases and such, and to produce/grow faster. Its very sketchy sounding because some things aren't regulated and there is no requirement to label foods as being from GMO sources. Several articles have stated that it is like one big science experience because GMO's are relatively new (introduced in the 90's I believe?) so no one really knows what affects it will have on us. Great! Anyway, because corn is a major GMO product, anything made from non-organic corn or corn by-product could potentially be a GMO. 

If you haven't completely zoned out or fallen asleep by all of this, here is just a quick list of a few, somewhat unexpected, foods with HFCS:
~Soft drinks, juice, chocolate/flavored milk, Poweraide
~Crackers, cereals, fruit and granola bars
~Yogurt, ice cream, Popsicles
~Applesauce, some fruit cups and "fruit" products
~Ketchup, salad dressing, barbecue sauce
~Canned beans and soups

You get the gist: it can be in everything! Don't get me wrong, plain sugar sure isn't a wonder food or considered healthy by any means. This is of course an example of how important it is to keep things in moderation. I don't think people realize how much HFCS is present in our foods (I couldn't believe it was in the "healthy" applesauce! Seriously people?!). I have to mention that the dear folks at Sweet Surprise refuted the Mercury study and have supplied a thorough fact sheet on the harmlessness of HFCS. They are the Corn Refiner's Association so I find it a bit biased but that might just be me. Since 2009, they very well could have changed the manufacturing of HFCS to a method that does not use the mercury method which hopefully is the case.

So whether you eliminate all HFCS from your diet or keep it in moderation, I hope this was a little bit informative or even just adds to your food awareness!

References and other information:
Dufault, R., LeBlanc, B., Schnoll, R., Cornett, C., Scweitzer, L., Wallinga, D., Hightower, J., Patrick, L., & Lukiw, W.J. (2009). Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: Measured concentrations in food product sugar. Environmental Health. (8)2. Retrieved from

Parker, H. (2010). A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high fructose corn syrup prompts considerable weight gain. Princeton University. Retrieved from

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Food Favorite

I hate it when I buy a healthy product and then it ends up tasting funny or we just don't like it. So I thought every once in a while I would share a favorite product or food. These cold winter days we are having makes me think often of soup, which is the first food fav I thought I would share with you:

Who didn't grow up eating the classic tomato soup out of a can? I was so disappointed to read the ingredient listings on several varieties of soup brands and find that HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is a main ingredient! What is so bad about HFCS? Stay tuned next week for a post just on this subject! Also, there have been several articles out recently about BPA lining in cans and how acidic foods like tomatoes tend to leach out higher amounts of BPA. This is something I have been wanting to read and learn more about so there will probably be a post on this issue too at some point! 

I love this soup for several reasons:
~ It tastes delicious and even my anti-vegetable child slurps it up
~ Organic ingredients and contains no HFCS
~ Kroger often has it on sale (2/$6 this week) AND you can frequently find coupons for it
~ It is quick and easy because you just pour it from the carton to heat and eat
~ Because it is in a carton, you don't have to worry about BPA as in canned soups

This made for a great quick and light meal last Sunday evening before church. Paired with a whole wheat grilled cheese sandwich, this is the perfect winter meal. 

Clearly, one of my skills is not photographing food. It tasted better than it looks in this picture. Anyway, you get the idea :-)

If you go to Imagine's website there is a $1 off coupon you can print off.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Organic vs. All-natural

Organic foods are certified by the USDA and are clearly labeled:

Organic farms have to use practices that are ecologically based (cultural and biological pest management) and they can't use synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones. Multiple ingredient foods labeled organic have to contain at least 95% organic ingredients. There is much more information on organic foods and labeling at the USDA organic certification website. The consumer link is especially helpful in explaining a lot about what organic means as well as what terms like "free range" and "cage free".

The labels "Natural" or "All-Natural", on the other hand, are not regulated. So basically, any company can put that on their food packaging if they so desire. Walking through the grocery store, it seems like many companies are trying to appeal to the natural/organic food push because there sure are a lot of foods that are suddenly "all natural". Interestingly, many of these foods I have found to contain food dye, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and even monosodium glutamate (MSG). Then again, some are true to their packaging.

Moral of the story is, if there is something you don't want to feed to your family, you have to read the ingredients. That's the only true way to avoid preservatives, dyes, HFCS, or whatever you deem unhealthy. Just because something labeled organic doesn't mean it is 100% healthy for you either, like the organic banana chips I could eat the entire bag of (yeah...only 10g of saturated fat per miniscule serving. That darn organic coconut oil).

My family can't afford for everything we eat to be organic and honestly, that seems a bit excessive, even for me. Somewhere my husband is smirking and saying "Yeah right!" but seriously, what is more important to me is feeding my family REAL food - food whose ingredients are basic and from natural sources. So sometimes its something certified organic and sometimes its non-organic foods with basic ingredients.
Here are a few non-organic foods that I like to get because of their simple ingredients:

Ok, side note on the salad dressings ~ I know there are countless recipes to make all types of dressings from scratch. However, we end up not liking them, not eating salads, and wasting the dressing. So when I found the Marzetti brand dressings (contain no MSG or HFCS), I decided this was one prepared food item we would use.

I also choose what to get organic vs all natural based on what our budget allows and what is more important to me. For example, it is more important to me to have organic milk and meats than organic cheeses and butter. Both are expensive so I compromise by getting blocks of Kraft cheese and regular unsalted butter - the block cheese I can slice and shred on my own (thereby avoiding the additives in pre-shredded cheese) and the butter contains only cream (and is something we have in very small quantities in our diet). 

If I read the ingredients in a particular food and I can't pronounce the ingredients or have no idea what it is, I don't buy it. It was an adjustment at first to not have Dorritos and packaged cookies in the house but eventually, we got used to being hungry at night. Just kidding - we DO eat junk food every once in a while but most of the time we have found healthier or home-baked alternatives. And that makes me feel better.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Crusty Wheat Bread - just the recipe

Here is the recipe and directions all together from yesterday's tutorial. This way you can print it and use it easier. For pictures and tutorial of how to make the bread, click here.

Crusty Wheat Bread

2 packages or 2 Tbsp active dry yeast
1 ¾ cups warm water (105° – 115°)
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon juice or white vinegar
1/2 cup oatmeal
2 Tbsp vital wheat gluten (optional)
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 – 3 cups bread flour
Olive oil

Step 1: Pour the warm water into mixing bowl and add the yeast and sugar. Stir and allow to sit for about 5 minutes to proof.
Step 2: Add the salt, lemon juice, and oatmeal to the yeast mixture, stir. Add the wheat flour and vital wheat gluten (if using). Stir just until slightly combined.
Step 3: Add 2 cups of bread of flour and allow mixer to knead until dough comes together in a ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If still very sticky once the 2 cups of flour have been kneaded in, add ½ cup of bread flour at a time until dough comes together, allowing each addition of flour to be kneaded in before adding more.
Step 4: Using a rubber spatula, scrape dough in the bowl into a ball. Drizzle olive oil (about a Tbsp) around the edges of the dough and use the spatula to turn the dough ball in the oil so that the entire ball is lightly covered in the oil. Put a clean towel over the bowl and set aside to rise for about an hour. 
Quick rise method: Let dough rest in bowl for 5-10 minutes, then skip to step 5 to shape loaves and place in sprayed or oiled pans. Instead of rising on the counter, place in the oven at 200 degrees for 20 minutes. Then continue to normal baking at 450 degrees for 16-18 minutes. 
Step 5: Once dough has risen to about double, turn out dough on to a clean and lightly floured surface. Cut pile of dough in half, then lightly knead and shape each ½ into desired loaf shape. Make sure to get air bubbles out. Once loaf is shaped, cut a few slits across the top with a knife and place in greased or oiled loaf pans.
Step 6: Unless using the quick rise method, cover with clean towel again and let rise for about another hour.
Step 7: Once loaves have risen, place in a preheated oven at 450 degrees for 16-18 minutes. Bread is done when top is crusty brown and loaf makes a “thump” sound when tapped with a finger. Immediately turn out loaves onto a wire rack to cool (leaving in hot pans causes the bread to “sweat” and get soggy). 
Storing bread: Don’t store bread in the fridge because this causes it to dry out. Once completely cooled, it is best to keep one loaf out to eat (stored in a sealed container or bag) and put the other in a Ziploc freezer bag in the freezer. Whenever you are ready to eat the other loaf, remove from freezer and place on a plate or rack to thaw. It will taste just as fresh as when it was first made!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tutorial on bread making

     Growing up, my mom always made homemade bread. I learned how to make bread from her when I was little and have been making bread for years. It is absolutely delicious and so much better for you! Have you ever looked at the ingredients in store bought bread? Even the "healthy" brands have an ingredient list a mile long.
     I have tried all different types and recipes. The one below is my favorite for sandwiches or if I need a long, Italian style type of loaf. My mom and I have only ever used an electric mixer for bread making. I have no clue how to use a bread machine but you may be able to use 1/2 of this recipe (since it makes 2 loaves) to make the same bread in a machine. There are lots of pictures of each step to help explain the process. Just overlook my hideous counter tops. They desperately need to be day.
     One more thing before we get to the bread! I use a Kitchenaide mixer with its kneader attachment. I LOVE my mixer! I got it with wedding gift money 6 1/2 years ago and I use it all the time for so many recipes. There are many other mixers that would work just fine though. Or there is the old fashioned do-it-by-hand method which could also double as your work out for the day!

Crusty Wheat Bread

2 packages, or 2 Tbsp, active dry yeast
1 ¾ cups warm water (105° – 115°)
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon juice or white vinegar
1/2 cup oatmeal
2 Tbsp vital wheat gluten (optional)
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 – 3 cups bread flour
Olive oil 

 The yeast I use comes from Sam's Club. You can get 2lbs of yeast for around $4. This is much cheaper than the packets from the grocery store. So if you really want to get into bread making, buying yeast in bulk is your best bet. 

Step 1: Pour the warm water into mixing bowl and add the yeast and sugar. Stir and allow to sit for about 5 minutes to proof. It will get frothy and bubbly:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Organic 101

 I would love to grow my own fruits and vegetables all year long...canning and safely preserving all my family's produce...shelling beans on the front porch while sipping sweet tea...  That would be the 100% way to make sure your produce is pesticide free, right? But I haven't seemed to morph into Martha Stewart and the only method of preserving I know is clean, peel, chop, freezer bag (I will learn how to can this summer!). So until my own personal produce farm and greenhouse develops, I follow these guidelines and shop at Kroger:

The Dirty Dozen & the Clean Fifteen

     Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a list of the 12 types of produce that contain the highest levels of pesticides. These are the fruits and veggies you want to get organic whenever possible. What is the harm in pesticides? Is is really worth buying organic produce? In many studies, pesticide exposure has been  linked to multiple health problems such as birth defects, cancers, and neurological disorders (more on this topic in a future post). 

     Just because plums, for example, aren't on the dozen list, doesn't mean they are "safe" (whatever that means in today's food industry). It only means their pesticide level was less than the top 12. Think about it this way - the more fragile fruits tend to get sprayed more in order to make it half way across the country in a truck and then look pretty and shiny in the grocery store. Produce gets sprayed while growing and then again after being picked in order to last and look good. This is another great reason to buy from local farmers! 

     Some things are not a huge difference in price from the non-organic while others can get pretty pricey. I like to stick to this list as to what I will buy organic but to keep costs down, I usually only buy what's in season. Strawberries are about 5.99 a pint this time of year (around 2.50-2.99 in the summer) so this is a fruit you will NOT see in my shopping cart any time soon! Also, as discussed in the previous paragraph, organic produce tends to not have as long of a shelf life as non organic. Keep this in mind with the amount of produce you purchase at a time so that your trash doesn't end up eating organic too.
     Below is the 2011 "Dirty Dozen" list. I've included the typical price range for the items at Kroger grocery stores in the Central Virginia area:
  1. Apples (on sale, 1.49-1.99/lb)
  2. Celery (Occasionally $1/bunch, typically $2-3/bunch)
  3. Strawberries (see above)
  4. Peaches (in season, same price as apples)
  5. Spinach ($5-$6 for a large box in the salad section - good to use for salads for a few days then cook and freeze the rest for a casserole, soup, etc)
  6. Nectarines (around 2.99ish/lb)
  7. Imported Grapes (1.99-2.99 in season)
  8. Sweet bell peppers (usually pricey! Typically around $3+/each)
  9. Potatoes (Russets usually run 1.99-2.99 for a 3lb bag, these keep well in the fridge for a couple weeks)
  10. Domestic blueberries (pricey! $4-5+ for small, 4oz container)
  11. Lettuce (2.99/three heads of Romaine; 1.99+/head of iceburg)
  12. Kale/Collard Greens (around 2.99/lb)  
 Apples were found to be very high in pesticides. These are my girls with the apples we picked at a local orchard last fall. This is a great way to get fruit in the fall season! It was a lot of fun too (don't they look thrilled?).

Because organic does tend to be more expensive, I would rather not spend the extra money on something organic when the non organic variety is very low in pesticide levels. For example, I never buy a $5 org. cantaloupe in the summer. I get a regular one and wash it well before cutting it up. The "Clean Fifteen" list helps you to know what foods are safer as far as having the lowest pesticide levels:
  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn (Note: much of today's corn seeds, used to feed livestock as well as for human consumption, are Genetically Modified [GMO] - post to come on this issue!)
  3. Pineapple
  4. Avocado
  5. Asparagus 
  6. Sweet Peas
  7. Mangoes
  8. Eggplant
  9. Domestic Cantelope
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cabage
  12. Watermelon
  13. Sweet Potato 
  14. Grapefruit
  15. Mushrooms
 Most grocery stores have organic produce clearly marked but another way to check is on the PLU code; most organic produce begins with 9 or 94. And there you go! I hope this helps on your next shopping trip to keep the pesticides in your cart, and on your table, to a bare minimum!


Saturday, January 7, 2012

How my inclinations all began

     A couple years ago, I had no idea what it meant to eat organic. I thought it had something to do with healthy foods like tofu. I even had a one-day resolution to "eat organic" and made tofu chili. I told my husband all the white stuff he was seeing was just melting cheese. He didn't buy it and the chili was pretty disgusting. That health resolve was quickly dismissed.
     Fast forward a few years later to when baby{#1} was 6 months old and ready to try food. I took a new look at all the food out there and started reading the ingredient lists on foods I would potentially be feeding my baby. What IS this stuff I can't even pronounce?! So I started using organic fruits and vegetables to make my own babyfood and began to read everything I could about organic foods, preservatives, pesticides, or anything else on the subject.
     It has been almost 4 years since I bought my first bag of organic frozen peas! Our family has gradually changed the content of our diet to contain very little processed foods, preservatives, or dyes and instead eat mostly organic and all natural foods. Basically, just eating REAL food as much as possible. We have been extremely healthy and as a mom/wife, I feel so much better about what my family eats. My husband isn't fully convinced and I still have to buy him oreos occasionally (ok, ok, yes, I do sneak a few too). My kids seem to only see their doctor for well-checks. I keep feeling like I should call our Pediatrician to give him an occasional update, but he hasn't seemed concerned with our lack of sick visits so I have resisted.
     I am a firm believer in how what is in foods has adversely affected America's health. Our society wants things as fast and cheap as possible; food companies have only complied with this demand despite the negative health affects. Rates of major diseases continue to increase each year. Studies have shown how certain preservatives/pesticides have been linked to all sorts of health problems like cancer, heart disease, endocrine name it. I haven't figured out how these food companies can get away with some of these ingredients and why the FDA doesn't step up its regulations. Apparently politics and money make the world go round...

     All that to say, I decided to start this blog to share about what I have learned (and am still learning!) about organic/all natural foods, how I incorporate these things in our meals, and why it is important. I know eating organic and all natural isn't for everyone. When I first started on this kick, my parents and family thought I was crazy; now they are just used to me. But I figure the more you can learn about different foods and ingredients, the better you are able to make the best choices that work for you and your individual family.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to sharing about things like the Dirty Dozen and a tutorial on how I make homemade bread!