(Per)Fuming

Articles in all the major papers today, telling the world what many of us already knew – perfumes are toxic.

The testing showed that each fragrance contains, on average, 14 chemicals that are not listed on the product label. In total, nearly 40 undisclosed chemicals were found in the 17 products tested. The products contained a total of 91 chemicals, some identified on labels and some not. Of those, only 19 have ever been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, a review body of the cosmetics industry.

The kicker, of course, for people with “sensitivity” to perfume is that we can’t even get a legal diagnosis of “allergic” because perfume companies are not required to list all of those ingredients. Without a list, doctors can’t isolate the individual ingredients, and to ascertain an allergic reaction, each ingredient would have to be tested. Even then, knowing you’re allergic to, say, lilial, doesn’t really help if it’s out there in the chemical soup that people shroud themselves in.

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Not What You Want When You’re Sick

My very first job was delivering meals in a hospital. It was the 80s, and it was Nova Scotia, so we’re not taking Michelin 3-star cuisine here; the food was straightforward, comforting and fairly bland. But it was all made in-house, in a massive kitchen that (between patients and cafeteria) cooked 1200 meals three times a day. For hospital/cafeteria food, it was pretty decent, and as reasonably unprocessed as you can get working with that quantity.

Hospital food has always gotten a bad rap, but in the mid-90s, in order to cut expenses, almost all hospitals switched from in-house food prep to using contracted services. From a business standpoint, it totally makes sense – even dietary aides and cafeteria workers are unionized – back when my friends were making the late-80s minimum wage of $3.50 an hour, I was making $8.10. Holidays got me double that. Paying a flat per meal rate to an off-site caterer winds up being a lot cheaper. And that space where the cafeteria used to be – well, why not rent that out to fast food chains, since that’s what people like to eat anyway?

That 80s hospital food wasn’t gourmet by any means but at least there was a notion, a pretense, of it being nutritionally sound. My bosses were nutritionists and dietitians, not marketing wonks looking to save a buck.

The result was that hospital food’s reputation got even worse. I know plenty of people who have friends or family bring them food from home while in hospital, because the stuff from the contracted caterers is just inedible.

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Have You Got the Guts?

The Toronto Star ran a piece this morning about how Torontonians have the lowest rate of organ donation in the province.

The theory as to why this is comes down to the size of the community – it’s easier to ignore the issues of your neighbours in a city, whereas in a small town, specific occurrences of someone needing an organ tend to be widely publicized, and people know one another so there is more empathy.

The article also suggests that many people don’t register because it’s too difficult, especially if you have an older-style health card. But it’s not, really – to register to be an organ donor go to the Trillium Gift of Life Network, where you can download forms to register and get a donor card.

And while you’re at it, why not consider also donating you body to medical research? Generally organ donation precludes this option, but if you can’t be an organ donor, you can still be a crash test dummy, or have your tissue studied, or maybe your feet can be used by chiropody students to learn how to do nail extractions. I know, some of this sounds kind of creepy… but remember, you’ll be dead anyway. The best way to do this is contact the anatomy department of your university of choice. They’ll send you the necessary paperwork to register.

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The Savvy Shopper – Not Milk

Southern Ontario’s food community was shocked earlier this week when news came down that dairy farmer Michael Schmidt was acquitted of all 19 charges against him with regards to the production and sale of raw milk. Because of laws created in the early 20th century, it is illegal to sell or give away raw milk in Canada. Milk pasteurization laws were created to protect the health of citizens consuming a product that, left untreated, could contain e.coli, salmonella and other deadly organisms.

It is still illegal to sell or give away raw milk, although it is not illegal to consume the stuff – Schmidt won because the case was really about the constitutionality of his business model, which is to sell shares in a cow (and their output) to private individuals. As “owners” of the cow, they can legally consume the milk from it. Schmidt’s fight was also against Ontario’s quota system, used in the dairy and poultry industries, which strongly favour large-scale farmers. The Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) run the quota system, which can cost farmers as much as $20,000 per cow, and all milk in the system is pooled and pasteurized, and sold through the DFO. Small scale farmers like Schmidt generally cannot afford to pay quota to the DFO, and besides the issues of right to choose and health and safety of the product, Schmidt likely makes more money selling shares of his product than he would by being involved in the DFO’s corporate system.

As would be expected, the DFO is not happy about Schmidt’s recent win, claiming that his system puts public health at risk.

One of Schmidt’s points in his defence (he represented himself in court) was that consumers should have freedom of choice. Food activists will continue to press this point as they begin to put pressure on the government to make raw milk publicly accessible and more widely available for sale. Personally, I think this is a bad idea. While I believe in the right to choose the food you eat, we need to remember that raw milk is a special product that requires considerable care both in how it is created and how it is stored by the consumer.

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The End of Overeating

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite
David A. Kessler M.D.
Rodale Books 2009, 336 pages, hardcover

I am one of those people who cannot walk past a plate of cookies. I’m not a binger – I’d never dream of eating the whole plate at once. But over the course of a day, I’d find excuses to wander past and have one. Or two. Only to discover at the end of the day that I’d consumed a dozen without even realizing it.

Dr. David Kessler has written a book just for me, offering techniques and tips on how to end overeating and lose weight.

No, honest.

Okay, so if you don’t believe that line, I can’t really blame you because Kessler’s book left me feeling about as frustrated and annoyed as if I had been lied to.

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Probiotics Revisited

It’s been a couple of years since I posted my rant about probiotic claims on yogurt containers. Recently, Dannon/Danone settled out of court rather than face a lawsuit that would make the research they based their product on public. In Europe, the Food and Safety Association has rejected health claims on packaging outright.

One science food writer believes that companies will rally and come up with better research and better strains of probiotics, becuase they actually do a lot of good. Marion Nestle would like to see the US take on a similar approach that the EU has and ban health claims on products completely – her point: foods are not drugs and we shouldn’t be treating them as such.

One other thing that I don’t see addressed by anyone…

Dannon is working hard to get an approved health claim from the European Standards Agency which annoyingly wants to see some science behind health claims before approving them. Dannon has now added a tomato extract to its yogurts with the idea that this substance, which appears to help deal with diarrhea, will strengthen its bid for a health claim.

Tomatoes are an allergy trigger for a lot of people. Just as adding fish oil to bread so it can be enriched with Omega 3 could trigger allergic reactions in people sensitive to fish, might we begin to see reactions to products with tomato extract added? This all seems a desperate attempt to confuse and mislead consumers into believing that they can buy a tub of yogurt instead of visiting a doctor or taking real medicine.

And of course, as even Dannon’s research made clear, the probiotics don’t work as well as the company is claiming they do. Add to that all the sugar and flavourings most people need to make yogurt palatable, and you might as well be eating candy. Plain, unadulterated yogurt contains natural probiotics that can (maybe) be beneficial to your health. Don’t be fooled by the hype and the pretty package.

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The F-Word

I was at a media event a few weeks ago, talking with some folks about why I don’t do restaurant reviews for TasteTO myself. “I’m pretty unique looking, you know? If I’m out at something like this and meet a chef, they’re probably going to remember the fat girl with the red hair and sparkly glasses.”

Nervous laughter.

It’s either that or dead silence. Maybe someone will pipe up and say, “oh, you’re not fat” in a way that lets you know clearly that they think you are. But people seem to really not know how to deal with a fat girl referring to herself as fat.

But here’s the thing – I’m with myself every day – in the shower, in front of the mirror, getting dressed… buying new clothes. I know what the scale says, what the size tags say and what the measuring tape says. And they all say that I’m fat.

And I’m okay with that.

Really.

Personal history, genetics, and a job where I basically eat and then sit down and write about what I eat – all of that aside, I’m fat and I’m probably never going to be skinny. Technically I’ve been fat since I was 10. And I don’t really have an overwhelming desire to be thin, skinny or “average”.

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Canada Goes Organic

Slipping quietly under the news radar this past week, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has certified new regulations for organic food that require food producers to comply with country-wide standards.

Under the new regulations, products must be a minimum of 95% organic to be able to be advertised as such (terms include organic, organically grown, organically raised, organically produced, or other similar labels or abbreviations).

Produce will have to be 100% organic to bear the new logo, while prepared or processed foods must be made from at least 95% organic ingredients. Products with between 70 – 95% organic ingredients may list their ingredients as being organic, but may not use the logo.

The standards apply not only to food and drink intended for human consumption, but also includes livestock, livestock feed and the cultivation of plants.

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Fortified

It’s no secret that I am adamantly against processed food products that make health claims. And my post about added pro-biotics in yogurt still gets numerous hits each day, which makes me think that this is an issue that confuses the average consumer.

Health and nutrition are hot topics, and large food processors have figured out that anything with an aura of health around it sells better. This phenomenon is actually called the “health halo” or “health aura”, and stems from the fact that people will eat (and by extension, purchase) more of a product that they believe to be healthful. This leads to additional health problems as consumers end up taking in greater numbers of calories, fat, sugar and salt, defeating any impression of healthfulness the food might have had.

Currently, labelling laws in Canada prohibit a great number of these products from being fortified with unnecessary vitamins, and also prohibit those same companies from making health claims. Manufacturers, hoping to target a health-oriented society by fortifying products that are essentially junk food, are pushing Health Canada to speed up the decision-making process that would see these fortified products, emblazoned with health claims, on supermarket shelves.

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Thin May Be In, But Fat’s Where It’s At

In recent days, two different news stories have hit the papers. The first and more popular article indicates that people who are obese to morbidly obese could lose 3 – 10 years off their life because of their weight. The second article, which I’ve only seen appear in the National Post, indicates that the measurement for body mass index (BMI) is not the only indicator of risk (in reality, BMI is complete and utter bullshit and was never designed to be used as the indicator of health or fitness that it currently is), that fat and obese people can be completely healthy with no health risks whatsoever, and that being “overweight” is probably healthier than being normal to underweight, especially if you become ill.

At points, the two articles directly contradict each other.

However, it’s important to note that the “fatties are gonna die” article comes from a UK medical journal called The Lancet. The British government is currently in the midst of a very high-profile fight against obesity, one that looks increasingly paranoid and that could potentially jeopardize the health of its citizens. Especially frightening is the witchhunt against childhood obesity which targets normal weight children as young as toddlers.

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Starting a Baking Business – It’s Not a Cakewalk

At least once a week we receive email here at TasteTO from someone wanting us to cover some small local food business. The majority of these appear to be bakery-type businesses selling cupcakes, cookies or custom-made cakes. The emails are often referrals from friends or customers, and sometimes come in the form of professionally-written press releases from the business owners themselves.

As we’re always looking to support local independent food artisans, we always check out these leads, and often find professionally-designed websites, gorgeous photos of even more beautiful products, and what appears to be really skillful bakers and artisans wanting to take their hobby to the next level. Unfortunately what we also almost always find is that these businesses are operating illegally out of a home kitchen.

That’s right, I said “illegally”. People who make food at home and sell it to the public are breaking the law, because it is completely and utterly illegal to sell food to the public that has been prepared in a home kitchen.

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The Lights Are On, But No One’s Home

Without being too preachy about it, I consider myself to be an environmentalist.

Since the early 90s in fact, the last time it was cool to go green.

I’ve been using the same cloth bags to carry my groceries home since that time. I don’t use a clothes dryer. I don’t drive a car. I don’t travel especially much in general. I use things until they break down and then I have them repaired if possible. I put a sweater on rather than turn on the heat. I eat a mostly vegetarian diet (at home, at least) and I buy local produce whenever possible. My environmental footprint, while not as small as it could/should be, it about 1/4 of the average North American’s,even when you take into consideration that I will not give up my incandescent light bulbs.

Yeah, I know – compact fluorescent bulbs are supposed to be the Western world’s easy, no-fuss solution to cutting back on their energy usage. Environmentalists talk about them like they’re the second coming of Jeebus and governments are drafting legislation that would require their use, with incandescents being phased out.

Now, studies are showing that the compact fluorescent bulb could be emitting UV radiation. Sitting too close to one could give people a sunburn. There’s talk of issues with exposure to electromagnetic fields.

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Dream On

One of the really fabulous things about summer is that it keeps me out of the supermarket. Buying all my fruit and veg, cheese, eggs, honey and the small amount of meat we cook at home from local farmers is time not spent trolling the aisles being tempted by junk food. In the winter though, when most of the markets close, my weekly excursion to the local grocery store is fraught with peril. I do my best to stick to the perimeter, although needing flour or dried beans or toilet paper always calls for a trip down the aisles, but sometimes those supermarket folks get sneaky and move the processed food over by the real stuff.

Which is how Greg and  I happened upon a giant display of boxes of Kraft Dream Whip. We approached the row of boxes with caution. Arranged behind a selection of wizened, tired-looking California strawberries, we understood that it was meant to be an impulse purchase – the temptation of berries and cream (an allusion to, if not an actual taste of, summer) in the midst of a barren winter’s deep freeze.

Greg tentatively plucked at a box, flipping it over to read the instructions. “How do you make real whipped cream?” he asked.

“You uh.. whip some cream. With a bit of sugar and maybe some vanilla.”

“Huh. To make this stuff you need to add milk and vanilla,” he replied.

“Then what’s the point? Why not just buy cream if you have to buy milk anyway?”

Greg read over the ingredients. “Mmmm… hydrogenated vegetable oil,” he said. “This is full of trans fat.”

He put the box back and we wandered through the store, griping about the crap that people will eat to save a few bucks. But if you’ve got to add milk and vanilla anyway, it can’t be that much of a savings over buying cream, so what is the allure of foods like Dream Whip? You still have to whip the stuff – it’s not a time saver in any way. It’s not a convenience food that can be made just by adding water. So what makes it so popular?

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All About Almonds

I’ve never really thought about almonds. Oh sure, they’re a tasty nut, good as a snack or in baked goods. They come in a variety of forms; whole, blanched, sliced, slivered, ground and even milk. They can be eaten out of hand, added to pastries or to savoury dishes. But last week I attended an event that was all about the wonders of the California almond.

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Gardens and Jealousy – Both Green

Most readers may not be familiar with the rapier pen of one A A Gill, a restaurant and television critic for the UK Times. Gill has recently had it in for the various UK chefs working to promote healthy, local, seasonal eating in Britain, and appears to take special exception to food journalist-turned-farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Hugh F-W runs a farm, shop and restaurant operation called River Cottage in the Dorset area, and currently has a series on the air in the UK called River Cottage Autumn, in which he delves into the seasonal delights of local UK food, from the garden harvest, to fish in season to the fine art of foraging.

Gill reviews an episode of River Cottage Autumn in a recent television column, ostensibly killing two birds with one stone. But he’s not especially nice – to Hugh F-W, or to the millions of people who happen to revel in the joy of a home-grown tomato.

Why should poor, fearful folk have to put up with a bucketful of organic new-age anxiety to go with the anxiety their imperfect lives manufacture all on their own, especially when it’s created by a home-made television presenter in a Beatrix Potter set? The idea that ideal people should strive to live like 18th-century crofters is intellectual silage. The enthusiasm may be charming, but this fetishising of food is part of the problem, not the solution. Shirley Conran once said that life was too short to stuff a mushroom. She was wrong. But you’d have to live an awfully long time to make making your own baked beans on toast worthwhile. Self-sufficiency is not an admirable goal, it’s small-minded, selfish, mean, mistrustful and ultimately fascist. It ends up with people waving shotguns at strangers over their garden gates. We live in a complex, mutually reliant society, and the answer to our problems is not each to his own cabbage patch.

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Leggo My Eggo – Organic and Mainstream, Side by Side

My local Dominion store recently changed its name and became a Metro. I grew up with Dominion (my uncle was the manager of the location in our neighbourhood, and my aunt – his sister – ran the butcher shop and bakery), but the Metro name is new to me. We don’t do a lot of shopping at Dominion because it tends to be more expensive that the other nearby chains, and their line of house brand stuff just isn’t as good, but I do end up there for health food and organic items, because they have a small section of basics that regularly saves me from having to make the trek to the nearest health food store, which is a mile or so away.

As a Dominion store, the health food had its own aisle; all the organic stuff was together. When the store switched to a Metro, they took out the health food aisle and spread the organic and health food items throughout the store into the different sections.

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When Your Food Makes You Swell Up and Fall Down

allergychocolatecake

There’s nothing more delightful than an ice cream cone on a warm summer evening. Strolling along and licking at a scoop of chocolate gelato as the sun sets is one of the season’s great pleasures – a pleasure unknown to anyone with a life-threatening dairy allergy, where the joy of a cold treat can swiftly be cut short by having your throat swell up and your breathing cut off.

 

Anaphylaxis is the most severe reaction to a food allergy, and the most dangerous, but even milder reactions can cause discomfort and frustration. Allergy-sufferers who experience severe, life-threatening reactions from common food allergens such as peanuts, shellfish, eggs or dairy often carry a device called an Epi-pen which contains an antidote that can be used if they accidentally ingest a food they’re allergic to. But while the Epi-pen will save the life of a person suffering from anaphylactic shock, there is no ongoing treatments for food allergies as there are for other allergens such as mold or dust where weekly injections of the allergen can be administered to build up resistance. Avoidance is the only real option for people who find that certain foods make them sick.

 

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The Deadwood of Canadian Food Safety

Saturday’s National Post had an article about how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency plans to allow companies to police themselves when it comes to health and safety inspections.

The document, addressed to the president of the agency, details how the inspection of meat and meat products will downgrade agency inspectors to an “oversight role, allowing industry to implement food safety control programs and to manage key risks.”

Obviously this is a bad, bad thing. With diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) still present in our food systems, government inspection is imperative. But it seems that the government doesn’t care, as funding for BSE testing is also slated to be cut.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is also ending funding to producers to test cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) as part of a surveillance program, the document indicates, a move expected to save the agency about $24-million over the next three years.

Given the number of food borne illnesses that have shown up in the US factory-style food system in recent years, is that really something we want to be emulating here in Canada?

If you weren’t already concerned about where your food comes from, if you haven’t already made friends with a farmer, a baker and especially a butcher, now might be a good time to get that ball rolling. Because once this deregulation comes into effect and food companies don’t have to answer to a government inspector, it’s pretty safe to assume that an already screwed-up system is going to look like the wild wild west.

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Orgasmic Organics

multiplefruit

Multiple Organics
1545 Dundas Street West
647-435-5340

 

What are two well-educated young women to do when they find themselves with doctorates, but no where to use them? Why, open an organic food store of course!

 

Such was the case for Nupur Gogia and Carrianne Leung recently when they discovered that the only way to make use of their formal education was to leave Toronto, something neither of them wanted to do. Gogia was already part of an established family business, running the successful Raani Foods, and Leung wanted to stay close to her family in Toronto’s west end. With no retail background other than Gogia’s experience selling her famous samosas at St. Lawrence Market, the pair leased a storefront in the Dundas West and Dufferin area and opened Multiple Organics just over a month ago.

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