If you’re going to turf chemicals in your home, your kitchen is absolutely where you need to start. There’s nothing more important than what we put into our bodies, so it makes sense to begin the journey here.
Warning – this is a big post and I have divided it into three posts so you can digest it in smaller pieces.
Where do we even start?
If I told you to go to your pantry or your fridge right now and find a single packaged item that didn’t come with a metre-long list of ‘ingredients’, could you find one?
When I first started this journey, I couldn’t! That’s because we have created a culture where half of the things we regularly consume come pre-made to some degree. How often do you cook pasta using sauce from a jar? Or use pre-prepared spice mixes for your tacos? (Just so you know some pre-made taco seasonings have been known to use human hair as filler, no I’m not joking!) Or pull out the mayonnaise with the suspiciously long ‘best before’ date to put in a sandwich? How can a product made with eggs last that long in the pantry??
There’s a good reason for why preservative-filled food has become so popular; it’s incredibly convenient! It’s cheap to mass-produce, making big business megabucks. But convenience and making money should NEVER come at the detriment of our health.
Then we need to talk about cook wear and cleaning products in the kitchen, but let’s start with food.
Why buy organic?
In Australia certified organic produce means it has been grown free from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, hormones and antibiotics. It is also sustainably fished, biodiversity-friendly, socially responsible, pasture-fed, it’s not genetically modified, it’s cruelty-free and free-range.
Simply put it’s the best product you can buy!
How can we really tell the difference?
Do they really check and police organic farms?
Unfortunately, the word ‘organic’ is not regulated in Australia. I wish it was! This leads to inferior products being promoted as organic. The products may contain only a very small amount of organic ingredients but the labelling is saying otherwise.
The good news is you can buy certified organic products that meet very strict standards and have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients.
There are seven government-accredited organic certifying bodies in Australia. Certified organic producers in Australia must run their entire business according to the organic standards or they will not receive certification for their produce. They must meet these standards, fulfil all the requirements and pass inspections for a minimum of three years to initially pass. Once they have passed and are certified they will regularly be audited to ensure all the standards are being met. These producers have been permitted to use logos to identify their products as passing.
When you are looking at Australian organic produce and you want to buy the certified 95%+ you need to check the label for the logo of a government-accredited organic certification group i.e. Nasaa, Aus-Qual, ACO, Demeter and SFQ. This will allow you to easily identify what is quality and what is not. There are also numerous international certification logos such as the USDA Organic logo, this means that the product has met all the American regulations required. Many products sold in Australia have this American certification, it’s likely to be the one you see the most.
So, we know that buying certified organic produce means we are buying the best, but it also means so much more. Let’s take a look at what else buying organic means:
Organic farming practices place an enormous emphasis on land regeneration and biodiversity protection. Toxic pesticides, herbicides and synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers used in conventional agriculture end up in our waterways and habits, damaging the delicate balance of biodiversity. Organic practices, on the other hand, combat climate change by using non-petroleum based natural composts, pesticides and fertilizers that enhance soil health and microbe diversity, rather than depleting the soil’s nutrients.
Biodiversity and Immunity
Just as with us, plants respond to their environments. Strengthening our innate immunity instead of relying on synthetic chemicals is a more sustainable way to ward off pathogens. Similarly, reducing the use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture allows crops to develop stronger resistance to pests and minimizes the likelihood of “superbugs” forming and wiping out an entire crop or species.
Organic farming methods include the use of practices like crop rotation to ward off pests. Insect plant pests are often plant-specific. This means certain pests like certain crops and avoids others. Rotating crops year after year rather than planting the same thing in the same place every year confuses insect pests since insect pests lay their eggs in specific spots expecting the same crop to be there the next year. Also, crop rotation preserves and adds to soil nutrient-diversity. This is all part of the fascinating cycle of soil health, plant health, and our health!
Healthy soil created by healthy (organic) farming practices, is diverse in microbes, which means that food grown from that soil is also microbe-diverse. This translates to a healthy gut (microbiome) in those who eat the delicious, organically grown food. Healthy soil leads to healthy food, which boosts our health!
Organic growing practices yield fruits and vegetables that are more nutrient-dense than conventionally grown produce. The homogenization of crops resulting from conventional agricultural practices diminishes the nutritional biodiversity of fruits and vegetables. If you can find local and organic produce, even better! Local produce usually has had more time to ripen on the vine and draw up more nutrients from the soil before it’s harvested. On the contrary, non-local produce is harvested prematurely so that it can withstand long transport periods. During weeks in storage, its nutritional value breaks down.
Chemicals and Our Health
You’ve probably heard about the dangers of pesticides in our food. Washing produce isn’t always enough. Many harmful chemicals used in conventional agriculture are systemic, meaning they’re absorbed by the plant, rather than sprayed on its surface. This is often the case with lettuce. That’s a scary fact considering that lettuce’s volume is mostly water, and contaminated chemical-laden water at that (if its conventional lettuce)!
Synthetic pesticides are known to increase the risk of cancer and be linked to other chronic neurodegenerative diseases. Thankfully, organic food is almost 50 per cent lower in carcinogenic toxic metal compounds otherwise found in conventional food. Also, organic veggies are almost 70 per cent higher in flavonoids than their non-organic counterparts (Zerbe, 2016). Flavonoids are essential in regulating our hormonal health (Gynn and Wright, 2007).
Organic food maybe a touch more expensive, but it does reflect the true cost of food production—good food production. Hidden costs of cheaper, conventional food choices include health costs later in life. Accessing and buying organic food is becoming more affordable than ever before because the demand for it is rising. The more we “vote” with our food dollars for organic, the more affordable and accessible it can become.
The easiest and most rewarding place to start is with your fresh fruit and vegetables. Thankfully large supermarkets are beginning to stock a small amount of organic produce, so on your weekly trip to the supermarket locate the organic section and see what is available. It’s a nice easy step. Next broaden your search to your local markets, farmers markets and health food stores in your area. Get the whole family involved, it’s a fabulous feeling when the hunter-gatherer instincts kick in.
Next, I would slowly convert dairy products, milk, cheese, and yoghurt. You will soon discover there are very high-quality brands of dairy available.
One of the best tips I can give someone who is wanting to start replacing their daily kitchen with clean, non-toxic products is to take baby steps. Replacing everything you use on a daily or weekly basis can be overwhelming, to say the least.
When I ran out of an item, I sourced a more natural organic option. I began making better decisions at my local supermarket. I stopped grabbing what I would usually grab and began to pick up other options to see if it was a better choice. Now this was going back 12 years ago and there were not many options, today, however, with consumers making better decisions and being more conscious of what they are buying supermarkets have begun to listen. Now there are affordable organic, toxin-free, environmentally friendly options sitting on the shelves.
What if I can’t find an organic option?
When buying packaged food. Know your numbers.
Over 300 food additives are approved for use in Australia. Additives are used to prevent food poisoning or extend a food’s storage life, for example.
Additives and processed food go together — you rarely get one without the other. The more highly processed foods you eat, the more additives you’ll eat too. So, the easiest way to avoid them is to eat mainly fresh and only lightly processed foods (such as canned tomatoes and frozen vegetables). But you can’t easily avoid eating additives altogether – even packaged bread often has several. And a small number of dietary additives usually isn’t a problem for most people. As a family, we try and avoid all additives if we can.
The safety evidence for food additives is reviewed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) before they are approved, but some of us are all too aware that certain approved food additives lead to health problems.
Additives that have made the headlines over the years:
- Colours – numbers in the 100 range that add or restore colour to foods.
- The concern over artificial colours was fuelled by a UK government-funded study which concluded that a mixture of colourings and the preservative sodium benzoate (211) could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children.
- The colours studied were tartrazine (102), quinoline yellow (104), sunset yellow FCF (110), carmoisine (122), ponceau 4R (124) and allura red AC (129).
- The Food Standards Agency, the British food regulator, is encouraging food manufacturers to find alternatives to these colours and reports that some manufacturers and retailers in the UK have already taken action to stop using them.
- Within the EU, foods containing these colours are now labelled with a mandatory warning: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
- In Australia, the supermarket chain Aldi has removed these six colours from its own-brand products, as well as eight more colours: amaranth purple (123), erythrosine cherry red (127), indigo blue (132), brilliant blue (133), green (142, 143), black (151) and brown (155).
- However, FSANZ say dietary exposure to added colours in food and beverages doesn’t pose a public health and safety concern for children in Australia.
- In the 1980s, the concern centred on tartrazine, an artificial colour that can cause mild allergic-type reactions. Sunset yellow FCF can have a similar effect. Some animal studies have indicated sunset yellow can cause tumours, but the results aren’t consistent with other studies on rats and mice.
- Natural additives aren’t necessarily safer than artificial ones. The natural colouring annatto (160b) found in margarine, Cheshire cheese, smoked fish and cakes — can cause allergic-type reactions in some people.
- Two long-term feeding studies demonstrated that erythrosine (127) increases the incidence of thyroid tumours in rats, but a review of these and other available data by JECFA, an international scientific expert committee administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United. Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO), concluded the colour is safe. Even so, its use in Australia is restricted to glacé cherries.
- Tests have linked allura red AC (129) with cancer in mice, but evidence of harm isn’t consistent or substantial. Claims that brilliant blue FCF (133) is carcinogenic are largely unsubstantiated.
- Preservatives in the 200 range that help protect against food deterioration caused by micro-organisms.
- In drinks, the combination of sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate (212) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C, both naturally occurring and the additive 300) can result in the formation of benzene, a known carcinogen. Exposing the bottle to heat or light during transport or storage can boost the amount of benzene formed.
- The food preservatives sodium nitrite (250) and sodium nitrate (251) – typically found in processed cured meats like ham and bacon – are both listed as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, because they can be converted into nitrosamines in the stomach and nitrosamines increase the risk of disease such as cancer.
- Calcium propionate (282) prevents mould growth on bread and is often heavily used in humid, tropical areas. It’s been linked to migraines and behavioural and learning problems, but these reports lack scientific credibility at this stage.
- Preservatives that contain sulphur (220-228), including sulphur dioxide (220), which is used in wine and dried fruit, can trigger asthma attacks. The 2005 national diet survey found that young children who eat lots of foods that contain sulphites, such as dried apricots, sausages and cordial, could be exceeding the ADI for sulphites.
- The Cancer Council now recommends limiting or avoiding processed meats such as sausages, frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham. But also keep in mind that the cancer risk is relatively small and that sodium nitrite prevents the growth of bacteria that cause botulism poisoning – which can be more immediately deadly.
- Antioxidants in the 300 range that slow or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods, such as when fats and oils go rancid.
- BHA – butylated hydroxyanisole (320) – is typically found in margarine and spreads, salad dressings, walnuts and pecans, and instant mashed potato. It’s listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, and some studies have demonstrated that it causes cancer in rats, mice and hamsters.
- Artificial sweeteners including intense sweeteners in the 900 range, and bulk sweeteners such as sorbitol, 420 give a sweet taste for fewer kilojoules than sugar.
- Flavour Enhancers mainly in the 600 range) that improve the flavour and/or aroma of food.
- Emulsifiers in the 400 range that help prevent oil and water mixtures (in mayonnaise, for example) from separating.
- Stabilisers also in the 400 range that keep ingredients evenly distributed in a foods like ice cream.
- Thickeners including vegetable gums, which have code numbers mostly in the 400 range, and modified starches, with code numbers in the 1000 range) increase the viscosity of foods like thickened cream to a desired consistency.
The best place to start when making your kitchen chemical free is the things you buy that you could make at home. So that jar of pasta sauce? Replace it with a bulk-made batch of sauce that you cook yourself from fresh ingredients and freeze instead.
And those cereals that come processed and packed with chemicals and sugar? Replace those with homemade oats or muesli. You can dress these up with honey and fruit for the kids, and they’ll love it!
Tackle the low-hanging fruit first, and build up to the more complicated things, like relishes and spreads.
And the good news is, there are now plenty of brands available in our supermarket aisles that are organic and chemical-free, so in many cases, it’s about swapping what you buy, rather than dropping it entirely.
Told you it would be BIG! My next post is all about cooking i.e. pots and pans