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Posts Tagged ‘organic food’

In recent months there has been an explosion of symposia, t.v. series, documentaries, and films about sustainable food.  All of them share the same important themes:

  • Sustainably grown food can drastically improve the health of individuals, the planet, and the local economy.
  • WE NEED YOU!!  In order for sustainable food systems to survive and thrive they need support from the local community.
  • “Democracy is NOT a spectator sport!” Tell the judiciary and local and federal leaders that regulations should protect local food systems — THE LITTLE GUY — NOT — the big companies that pay for elections and bias regulations.

The Future of Food

In May, Georgetown University and Washington Post Live co-hosted a symposium called “The Future of Food” which brought lawmakers, chefs, farmers, researchers, policy makers, nutritionists, and activists together.  The symposium was a series of small panel discussions that covered a wide range of topics pertaining to food.  The discussion was lively, thought provoking, and at sometimes, pointed.  The highlight of the event was the keynote address given by HRH The Prince of Wales.  The Prince has been an outspoken advocate for organic farming for over 20 years — before “sustainability” was synonymous with “chic”.  His remarks highlighted the symbiotic relationship between sustainable farming and climate change.  Visit the “Future of Food” website to watch video highlights of the conference.


Inspired by HRH The Prince of Wales, HARMONY captures him on film in a way we’ve never seen him before, an authentic leader on critical global issues…Harmony looks at the root causes of the global problems we face and offers solutions. HARMONY paints a picture of an awareness that is arising in people around the globe across boundaries of geography, race religion and socio-economic status. At a moment when we hear daily about challenges on an unprecedented planetary scale, Harmony proposes a way forward and provides the audience with a new perspective on the need to change our relationship with the planet. Harmony is a global call to action.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

Jamie Oliver, that crazy British chef, is my idol!  And, the producer of American Idol, Ryan Seacrest, apparently agrees.

Recognizing Jamie’s star power and the need to shine a star’s light on the alarming state of the food system in America’s schools, Seacrest has produced two seasons of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC.  In 2010 he took on Huntington, West Virginia, and in this past season, the Los Angeles United School District.  Over seven years ago, Jamie’s School Lunches aired on TLC, chronicling his quest to improve the British school lunch program.  If you think that it’s outrageous that more money is spent on food to feed prison inmates than is spent on American children, this program is for you!  Jamie’s believes that the answer to the skyrocketing cost of healthcare from obesity-related illnesses cannot be found in the halls of Congress; rather we need look no further than our own kitchens. Check out Jamie’s inspiring TED lecture.


I saw the movie a few weeks ago for a private screening for chefs with the film’s director, Kristin Canty, a mom and first-time film maker, whose struggle to provide raw milk for her son — the only thing keeping his debilitating asthma at bay — inspired her to create a film.  Farmageddon highlights the government’s harassment of farmer/producers and consumers of raw milk.  It is difficult to understand why a substance with so many healing properties has been deemed unfit for human consumption.  I must admit that I am having a hard time convincing my own husband of the health benefits of raw milk, but regardless of your personal preferences, it’s hard to understand how it’s legal for the government to prevent a group of four families who co-own a cow from drinking its milk in whatever form they choose.  Afterall, it’s not illegal to smoke or drink alcohol when your pregnant, why can’t you drink cow’s milk raw if you wish?  The scenes of the government seizing property, animals and destroying livelihoods was something that I though only happened during the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union.

Click here if you’re interested in hosting a viewing of the Farmageddon.  What a great way to get involved!

American Meat

This new documentary just premiered in Staunton and Waynesboro, Virginia in honor of Polyface Farm’s Family Field day.  Joel Salatin and his famed Polyface farm are featured in the documentary that examines the feasability of feeding the world from small pasture farms and debunks the myth that this time-honored method of farming cannot be financially successful.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I can’t wait to!

The People Who Feed Us

Staci Strauss and Craig McCord (Slow Films Woodstock) apply the skills they acquired in the television commercial business to tell the stories of the great work being done by farmers, ranchers, bee-keepers, chefs, butchers, food writers, chocolatiers, cookbook authors, wine makers, distillers, seed-savers, cheese makers, fishers, foragers, and, well . . . you get the picture. They live in Woodstock, New York.

Aspartame: One Lump or Two?

Debbie Schmidt, RD

Artificial sweeteners were supposed to solve all the problems… poor health, weight gain, even diabetes …  I mean, it’s “sugar free” and sugar is the bad guy, right?

After 30 years of living with artificial sweeteners, what do you think – has the sugar free/lite/reduced sugar road led to better health, weight loss, and less diabetes?

We aren’t necessarily healthier, we weigh more than ever (including our children), and we have more diabetes and pre-diabetes (including our children).

Just like research that now says butter is better than margarine, and an egg or more a day is fine, research suggests artificial sweeteners don’t work, haven’t worked, and aren’t safe.  But unlike eggs and butter, artificial sweeteners are not real – they are a chemical concoction that purports to be “healthy.” Their claims have the support of government safety board’s around the world.  Even in the face of research that questions aspartame’s safety, it doesn’t seem to matter.  And that causes me, a registered dietitian, a great deal of concern.

Here’s why I think you need to get rid of artificial sweeteners:

1) Aspartame has never been proven safe. Most scientists were in agreement that it was not safe, per the initial research that resulted in brain tumors in monkeys in the 1960s and 70s, and strongly advised it should not be approved for use as an additive.  Why was it allowed in the food supply? A new FDA commissioner reversed the sentiment of scientists once sworn in (1981), and approved its use.  At first it was allowed in limited foods, but a few years later, it was allowed in all foods. You can view this youtube video for the full story.

2)  Research is biased. In 2000, of the 174 studies on aspartame, 100% of industry-funded research showed only positive results, confirming aspartame’s safety, while 92% of the non-industry-sponsored independent research (not funded by the companies that own the artificial sweeteners or their interests) resulted in negative problems/safety concerns.

3) Complaints are numerous. The FDA used to collect and organize food additive complaints, but in 1992 stopped doing so.  According to Dr. Hull’s website, between 78 and 85% of all complaints the FDA received was related to aspartame intake.  Keep in mind there are 92 various symptoms associated with aspartame use. These are well documented online.  The top complaints include headaches/migraines and dizziness.  There are many other complaints, including uncontrolled twitching, temporary blindness, seizures, mental health disturbances (increases the severity of existing depression/anxiety/etc), rashes, and can make existing conditions worse, such as Parkinson’s and fibromyalgia.

After one of my in-class artificial sweetener discussions at Northern Virginia Community College, a student went home and told her husband he should quit his 7 to 8 can-a-day diet soda habit.  Why? He suffered from debilitating migraines, to the point of missing work, requiring a dark room, peace and quiet, for about seven years. An extensive medical work up that included an MRI was scheduled the following week.  She never knew of an association between aspartame consumption and migraines, and thought the first step before expensive tests were done, the least he could do was quit drinking diet sodas.   He agreed to a two-week moratorium, and found that within that time, that his headaches WENT AWAY.  My student reported this to the class, and was stunned when she realized in all of his 7 years of doctor visits, not one had ever asked him about his diet habits.

4) It is dangerous. Aspartame is made of two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine, both found in foods and both needed by the body but not in “free” form) and a preservative called methanol which breaks down to formaldehyde in the body (and is slowly excreted).  For those who have forgotten what formaldehyde is, it is an embalming agent, a poison, and a mere ½ teaspoon can harm health, and only one teaspoon can kill you.

Part of the reason aspartame was released in limited foods in the beginning was because of the problem of breakdown – the methanol breaking down to formaldehyde.  Diet drinks stored in warehouses in the heat of Arizona, for example, were at high risk of this.  That kind of risk had to be fixed first (according to information this wasn’t fixed but the FDA still granted aspartame unlimited use in all foods, even though breakdown of methanol occurs at temps over 86 F)

I’ve collected a list of potential dangers:

  • Quantities of aspartic acid destroy brain neurons, and are associated with brain lesions.  Research done in the early 1970s by Dr. Olney found that aspartic acid caused “holes” in the brains of mice.  Searle, who owned aspartame, forgot to mention this until after its approval in 1981.
  • Phenylalanine is found in the brain, and is a precursor to neurotransmitters, but high levels of this amino acid in free form reduces serotonin, thereby increasing depression and schizophrenia, and according to the Natural News website, increases risk of seizures (Dr. Conneally, 2008 article called Aspartame: Is the sweet taste worth the harm?).

Here is a case that is too far-fetched to be true.  Unfortunately it is. Diane Fleming is in a Virginia prison for killing her husband nearly 10 years ago.  Only thing is, she didn’t.  Methanol did. Her husband drank diet sodas (about 8 a day), used sports drinks mixed with creatine (left in the garage), didn’t increase his water intake, and was on several pharmaceuticals.  He went into a coma after not feeling well.  After he died a few days later, doctors determined he died of methanol poisoning.  Diane was accused of spiking his sports drinks with windshield washer fluid (even though she didn’t have any in the home nor had purchased any).  Because aspartame is safe, it is hard to prove that the breakdown products sold everywhere caused his death, not her.  She has been in prison for over 7 years.

5)    They do not really help control intake or weight. Some research suggests they increase hunger. A study by Sharon P. Fowler, MPH, and colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio (June, 2005) found that the more diet drinks consumed, the greater the weight.  “What was surprising was when we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher.” Full article

If you use aspartame or any artificial sweetener, why not go for the real stuff.  If you need a sweetener, use sugar – organic, raw, or regular.  One packet has just 16 calories. Or consider Stevia (liquid herbal sweetener).  In packaged foods, sugar cane or beet is preferred.

I’d love to hear your experiences with aspartame, especially if you found relief once you stopped using it, or, if you totally agree or disagree with my thoughts.

As Mercola says, “Now that you are aware of the problems with aspartame, inform others of the symptoms of aspartame poisoning.”

For more information read on:
An independent Italian study by the European Ramazzini Foundation (ERF) in 2005 found that lesser than expected amounts of aspartame, fed to pregnant mice, resulted in increased rates of leukemia/lymphoma in their babies.  It also found a statistically insignificant increase in malignant brain tumors (although the tumors were only found in babies of aspartame-fed mothers).  As the intake was increased, so were the health problems. A follow up ERF study in 2007 reproduced the same results – the more aspartame given to rats, the greater the risk of leukemia/lymphoma in the baby rats.

Neither of these studies was well received.  In fact, in the US in 2007, the FDA reaffirmed the “safety” of aspartame, condemning the studies in the process, declaring that aspartame was NOT a carcinogen.  The US referenced a human study (2006) by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) which looked at the habits of 500,000 Americans over a 5 year period (1995-2000).  It was an observational study conducted on volunteers 50-71 years old with an average consumption of 200 mg of aspartame a day or about a 12-ounce can of a diet soda (a few volunteers had as much 3400 mg).   Apparently the 2106 people in the study diagnosed with lymphoma or leukemia at the study’s end was determined to be “unrelated” to aspartame consumption.

Curious, I wanted to find out what the cause and risk of lymphoma is, and I found a 2001 article entitled, “Lymphoma rate continues to baffle researchers.” Back in 1991 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was an emerging epidemic, and researchers didn’t know why.  Fast forward a decade and researchers continue to be baffled by this cancer.  This type of lymphoma is in the number six cause of cancer, with a survival rate of 51 percent.  I’m curious why the NCI thought their 2106 cases were “unrelated” to aspartame when it seems they aren’t exactly sure what the cause of these cancers are.

Searle (the patent of aspartame at the time), had been trying since the early 1970s to get their sweetener into foods. It came close in 1974, but was blocked by a lawsuit.  There was good reason why it was blocked – it was deemed very unsafe since it led to brain tumors in animal studies.

From what I’ve read, no scientist, not even the FDA scientists, wanted aspartame.  But that changed several years later, when, in early 1981, a new Reagan-appointee, Commissioner Dr. Hull, replaced Dr. Goyan, who was ready to ban aspartame due to this objectionable safety.  But that didn’t happen.  Aspartame was deemed safe and would enter the food market in stages.  Many doctors and groups tried the legal route, like Dr. Elsas, a pediatric professor, who testified to Congress in 1985 that aspartame was a teratogen and could trigger birth defects and mental retardation, but nothing was able to stop this artificial sweetener from entering the food supply.

On the road again…and hungry

Every other year my husband and I drive from Virginia to Minneapolis for the holidays with our little dog, “Niesha”.  It’s always a fun trip, visiting family in several cities along the way, and fraught with danger and excitement – Will the weather hold?  Will we get sick of listening to our iPod “Christmas” playlist?  And my biggest concern – what will we eat on the three day journey?  So we pack up the family sleigh with glitter bespangled packages, the puppy nestled all snug in her crate, David in his sweatshirt and I in my cap, and food… lots and lots of food.

As we drive through beautiful West Virginia, we see familiar symbols emanating from hamlets and valleys and soaring into the sky on poles hundreds of feet off the ground, letting us know that “civilization” is not far away – the arches, the crown, the bell, the way, etc. – but all I see are mirages or mere suggestions of real food dotted throughout the interstate food dessert.  Indeed in every state we drove through – Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota – we were greeted by the same symbols.  It doesn’t make a difference what state you’re in, if you’re road tripping in America, the same “friends” follow you.

So, I want to pose some questions out into the void and offer some of my own suggestions.

When I was a kid we had the good fortune to travel throughout the U.S. and I remember how exciting it was to try restaurants and foods that were unfamiliar to me and that did not exist in our home town – so I ask what has happened to regional diversity?  Do we really need the bell, the crown, the way, and the arches, everywhere we go?  Are we that insecure?  Do we not have any creativity? Shouldn’t communities promote their local fare as a way of supporting their citizens and showing pride in their region?

Just because I’m a chef doesn’t mean that I don’t love a good burger and fries.   I’d just rather eat it at a local, quirky mom and pop with 50 year old family recipes.  There’s a name for a system where there’s so much streamlining that diversity gives way to uniformity and every store looks the same no matter where you go – it’s called communism – I know, I traveled throughout the Soviet Union before it fell to the mom and pops.

Here’s my suggestion:
Every so often, choose slow food and scenery over fast food and flight.

When traveling to Ohio a few times a year, we avoid the dreaded Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Breezewood Gateway area and instead travel on I-68 through the lovely hills of West Virginia.  There’s less traffic, beautiful scenery, and it only adds 30 minutes to our drive.  Over the years we’ve explored the various exits and now eat at some great local restaurants that are delicious and regionally diverse.  For those of you in love with your iPhones, get some info on local food options where you’re traveling and check them out instead of just getting off at the rest stop.

Another suggestion – brown bag it.    Or in our case, green cooler it.  I’m pretty conscious of the food that my family eats and try to pack yummy, snacks, sandwiches, fruit, waters, etc.,  for our road trips.  We’ll try having a picnic off of an exit or just snack in the car.  It takes some extra planning, but when you don’t have time to explore and you’re in a food dessert, you’ll be glad you did.  Traveling is hard enough and is made even worse when you feel disgusting after eating fast food.

After Christmas, on the way back to Virginia I did not take my own advice and did not pack the cooler.  Three hours into the trip, I got really hungry right in the middle of Wisconsin.  If you’ve ever driven through Wisconsin you’ve seen the ubiquitous signs for “cheese chalets” and “cheese factories” .  So after watching David scarf down a sandwich full of anemic tomatoes, from “the way”, I suggested we stop at the next cheese chalet we came across.

The next chalet was located in a town called Mauston about 2 miles off the interstate.  I’m so glad that we stopped.  I’m no longer a cheese curd virgin – I can cross that off my bucket list!   They were delicious and I loved the squeaky sound they made on my teeth – a great snack!  The ladies behind the counter had so much pride in their product, their cheese maker, and their local farmers.

The Carr Valley Cheese Company is over 100 years old and is family owned.   While I was there, several locals stopped in wanting to buy gifts for relatives or just buy some curds for a snack.  Everyone was so warm, friendly, and familiar with one another – true small town hospitality.  I was really sorry that I couldn’t stay to watch the video about the cheese making process.

So the next time you’re traveling, spend 20 minutes on the road less traveled by, have a cultural, and unique gastronomical experience.  You’ll be glad you did.

By Debbie Schmidt, RD 

What’s a PLU code?  These are the price-look-up codes found on small round stickers on the produce (ie bananas have a PLU code of 4011), or printed on the bag of the produce (broccoli crowns 4549). 

While the codes provide the digits that make grocery store check-out much easier, they do more than get you the price:  they reveal how the food was grown—conventionally, with pesticides and chemical fertilizers;  genetically modified; or organic, which signifies it was made without pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or irradiation.  

How will the code help you?

It depends on how many digits.  If four, it is conventionally grown.  If five digits, it is either genetically modified or organic.  It depends on the FIRST digit.

 Use a banana as an example:

4011CONVENTIONALLY grown produce will always be a 4-digit number, like 4011 for bananas.  Remember, this signifies conventional farming with added chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These can be toxic to children and anyone who consumes them on a regular basis so clearly these are a concern. 

Are you familiar with the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) guide that lists the top 12 dirtiest foods?  I was surprised at the number one dirtiest food.  Check out the list at  or a summary blog  

Dirty foods may be used in baby foods, as part of frozen dinners, soups, restaurant fare, etc which means foods may be contaminated with unacceptable pesticides/carcinogens.

For example, the EWG found that of the baby foods tested, 53% were found to be contaminated with at least one pesticide.  The worst baby foods? Plums and peaches.  And what was found in the baby food?  According to the EWG’s press release, Iprodione (Rovral), classified as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA, was found more often than any other pesticide with eight detections, followed by thiabendazole with seven detections, botran with six, and permethrin with five.” Plums and peaches contained Rovral.  For more info go to

 84011—that same number with an “8” in front would be from GE or GMO seed and is GENETICALLY modified. A GMO banana would have the “8” before the 4011 as would any produce.  Since this is not a mandatory labeling system, rarely are GMO foods identified.

94011—If you are looking for ORGANICALLY grown produce, the important number is a 9 that precedes the four digits.   When possible, but especially if you are choosing between a dirty dozen contender and an organic one, select the organic food.  Reports suggest you will obtain one-third fewer pesticides than conventional.  There are additional benefits listed below.  In most cases, cost is justified, but when it comes to the clean 15 (the cleanest produce by EWG), I would stick with conventionally grown.

 Organics’ benefits:

1.   Organic milk has significantly higher quantities of vitamin E – a key component that contributes to the shelf-life of milk – than its conventional equivalent, say Danish researchers, who suggest that this is due to the difference in the feed of the animal. 2004

2.  Organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops..  International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 2003

3.  More vitamin E, vitamin A, and carotene in eggs. Mother Earth News reports (8/05): “Tests of eggs from four free-range flocks found that, compared to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for eggs from confinement production systems, the eggs from chickens raised on free range were much more nutritious – up to twice as rich in vitamin E, up to six times richer in beta carotene (a form of vitamin A) and four times richer in essential omega-3 fatty acids. And, the free-range eggs averaged only half as much cholesterol as the USDA data indicates for confinement-system eggs.”

4. More lycopene in organic ketchup.Testing 13 commercial ketchup sources – organic and different colored varieties – scientists at the US department of agriculture found that the organic versions excelled, with one brand containing 183 micrograms of lycopene per gram of ketchup, about five times as much per weight as a tomato, reports the New Scientist. 2005

5.   There are more antioxidants in organic apples than conventionally grown apples  (