Friday, January 26, 2007

Methyl Mercury and the Three Omega 3's

Note: This is an article I wrote for the Well Fed Network last spring. It is long and somewhat technical, but I feel it is important, which is why I've chosen to re-publish it here. Omega 3 fatty acids are very important in the development and maintenance of the central nervous system (CNS). This is well understood by the general public, however the effect of methyl mercury (in fish sources of omega 3s) on the adult CNS is often down-played or ignored. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to accumulating mercury, and this can impact their development even when the mother has only a moderate intake. I checked all of the links and some of them needed to be updated. As certain medical journals have a tendency to move articles around in cyberspace, I have chosen to use a more formal (but as brief as possible) citation on updated links, so they will be easier to track down should they go missing in the future.

Once upon a time obtaining dinner meant picking a few berries off that shrub over there, and spearing a salmon out of the stream. Then we got it in our heads that we might want to keep a chicken around for a reliable source of eggs and maybe tend a patch of wheat. Now it means grabbing a pre-packaged, chemical cocktail wrapped in plastic. Slowly our diets have changed drastically from wild foods to cultivated foods to genetically modified and chemically adulterated foodstuff. Along the way, we have lost access to vital nutrients, including healing fats.

Essential fatty acids are those fatty acids that the body cannot synthesize from other dietary components; therefore they must be included in the diet. There are two such fatty acids – omega 3 and omega 6. Omega 3 refers to the position of the first unsaturated (double) bond in the fatty acid. There are three molecular forms of Omega 3 – eicosapantaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are known as the long forms, as their structures contain longer fatty tails with 5 and 6 double bonds respectively. They appear to be found in nature mainly in marine life forms, such as marine algae, kelp, and the fish associated with such ecosystems. ALA is structurally known as the short form, as it contains only 3 double bonds on a shorter fatty tail. Common sources of ALA are terrestrial plants such as grasses, flax seeds, and wild greens; as well as the animals which graze upon them, such as free-range chickens, cows, etc. While it is possible for the human body to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion is far from efficient.

The modern human’s diet is grossly deficient in omega 3 fatty acids, while simultaneously gluttonous upon omega 6 fatty acids (the other essential fatty acid). This imbalance in essential fatty acids has been linked to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, as well as autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. An ideal healthy ratio of omega 3:omega 6 is in the range of 1:2 to 1:4, while the average American’s profile is 1:15 or worse. What are the root causes of this imbalance? Primarily our food cultivation practices. Wild plant foods are much higher in ALAs than cultivated varieties. The practice of feeding farm animals with corn and grains, rather than allowing them to free-range in pastures skews their essential fatty acid composition. Fish farming contributes as well, because farmed fish cannot forage on foods rich in EPAs and DHAs and most fish farmers feed their fish grains. Another contributing factor is our heavy reliance on cooking oils which are high in omega 6s such as corn, soy, cottonseed, and peanut.

With the increasing awareness of the importance of omega 3 fatty acids, more and more products are sporting omega 3 labels. Omega 3 eggs come from chickens fed flax seeds. Flax seeds and flax oils are being added to many products. But remember that products based upon flax oils will mostly contain ALA and not EPA or DHA, which appear to be more important to human health. According to the Institute of Medicine, “ALA is not known to have any specific functions other than to serve as a precursor for synthesis of EPA and DHA.” However, it is interesting to note that cultures with high ALA consumption are also those known for the greatest longevity.

Regular consumers of animal products, including dairy products, would be doing themselves a favor by purchasing products from free-range, grass-fed animals. Not only are the animals treated more humanely, but their bodies have a more balanced essentially fatty acid profile, the benefits of which get passed on to the consumer. Any actions you can take to re-balance your omega 3:omega 6 ratio should benefit your long-term health. For those who choose to avoid fish, there is some good news, as it appears that so long as your omega 3 to omega 6 ratio is 1:4, your ability to convert ALA to EPA will be optimized. Further evidence shows that if your diet is high in saturated fat, as opposed to omega 6s, your conversion rate may be as high as 6% for EPA and 3.8% for DHA. (International Journal for Vitamin and Nutritional Research, 3/1998, Gerster, "Can Adults Adequately . . .") That’s up to 50% greater conversion than for a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids.

Several recent studies confirm the hypothesis that omega 3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA, can inhibit the growth and discourage the spread of certain cancers. Additionally, conjugated linoleic acids, which are found in higher percentages in the meat and dairy products of grass-fed animals, have been shown to significantly reduce cancer risk.

There seemed to be clear evidence that EPAs and DHAs also improve cardiovascular health, until recently. According to Dr. Mike Knapton, director of prevention and care at the British Heart Foundation, this uncertainty may be due to the effect of methyl mercury being thrown into the equation. Methyl mercury has been shown to diminish the positive effects of omega 3 consumption on heart health. Specifically methyl mercury can increase the risk of heart attack, and can lead to thickening of the major arteries that lead from the heart to the brain, in addition to encouraging accumulation of plaques in these arteries.

Omega 3 fatty acids contribute to brain cell development and maintenance. DHA is an important component of neuron membranes, where it facilitates ion exchange necessary for signal transmission. DHA deficient diets appear to lead to decreased neuron size and reduced spatial memory in developing brains (Nutritional Neuroscience, vol 5 #2 2002, 103-113, Ahmad et. al., “A Decrease in Cell Size . . .”). There is some evidence that low DHA levels are further linked to depression, memory loss, attention deficit disorder, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. One study, currently in progress in the UK, suggests that omega 3 supplementation may ameliorate the symptoms of Attention Defecit Disorder. However, fish consumption again looks like a two-edged sword, because mercury has a degenerative effect on neurons, potentially causing neurological problems in the developing brains of children. Adults should also be concerned, because methyl mercury accumulates in the brain, and elevated blood mercury levels appear to be associated with Alzheimer’s. Chronic low doses of methyl mercury may lead to accelerated brain aging later in life.

If you would prefer to benefit from the protective effects of omega 3 long chain fatty acids, without worrying about exposure to methyl mercury, there are a few options. To just minimize your mercury exposure, choose fish lower in mercury content. Fish oil supplements may be a better way to avoid mercury altogether, as many of the supplements have tested negative for mercury in the past. If you are vegetarian, look for DHA eggs, from chickens fed fish oils or marine algae, or else find recipes that incorporate fresh kelp.

Green Kitchen Tip #4

Bean Residue

Soon after changing over to a mostly vegetarian diet, black beans became a favorite meat substitute in my diet. Beans are a great source of protein and iron, but little did I know that black beans offer many other amazing health benefits that you probably don't get from a serving of beef or chicken. But, I noticed that when I cooked beans in a stainless steel pan, they tend to leave a residue that does not wipe off with washing. My husband would inevitably attempt to scrape it off with steel wool, to my chagrin, but to no avail either. Even baking soda fails at this task. I did notice, at one point, that cooking something tart, like tomato chutney would render the pan back to its shining glory. I put two and two together and realized the bean residue must be basic in nature, thereby needing acid to remove it. Sure enough, soaking momentarily in vinegar will remove this residue, almost like magic.



Vinegar also makes a very good glass cleaner. I keep vinegar in a spray bottle and use it to wipe windows (with a washable cloth).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Killing Our Crops with Compost?

So I’m harmlessly going about the simple task of procuring some compost for a few garden projects, when I stumbled upon some mind-numbing information. The very compost we organic gardeners depend upon for enriching our soils and fertilizing our crops, could very well be undermining our garden’s productivity. No, the act of composting is not to blame, but the prevalence of a certain herbicide, applied to the precious raw materials used to make that compost. If your organic tomatoes didn’t thrive this past season, listen up!

Here’s the deal: growers of grass crops have been using a product called clopyralid, which kills broad-leaved weeds, like dandelions, thistles, etc. So everything from lawn clippings in yard waste, to straw animal bedding, to manure from animals fed hay has potentially been contaminated. This product is particularly slow to break down during composting. But the most troubling fact is that this herbicide will damage (photos of damage):

  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Eggplant
  • Potatoes
  • Peppers
  • Sunflowers
While some (in the literature I read) might dismiss the impact on food crops as not being broad-range, those are fairly significant crops, in my opinion. That is nearly the totality of what I grow in my vegetable garden.

It also means you can forget about truly growing organic, unless you have maintained strict vigilance over your own compost production.

Washington State has done much to regulate the use of clopyralid, and the amount found in compost has decreased dramatically since it was first found (about 2001), however, according to Cliff Weed, Pesticide Compliance Program manager at Washington State Department of Agriculture (no I’m not making his name up, truth is more amusing than fiction):

the ban is not nationwide and . . . there are instances where animal feed or bedding brought in from other states or Canada may be contaminated with the herbicide. As a result, Washington will probably not completely eradicate it from compost. (WSDA link)
That also means you might want to check out your state’s stance on clopyralid and whether it has been found in significant concentration in compost in your region.

The Harvester, The Trucker, and The Produce Handler

As I was preparing dinner last night, I unbundled a bunch of scallions (green onions) and had to wonder about how much energy goes into grocery market produce, as compared to the produce that you harvest from your own yard. It started with my consideration of the two thin, blue rubber bands used to bundle the scallions together, but my perspective broadened to include the harvester, the trucker, and the guy who trims the tips off the scallions and arranges them neatly on the produce shelf at my local grocery store. Compare all those costs and energy inputs with just walking outside and pulling produce from your garden. It seems so overwhelming to imagine all the little price tags that add up to the cost of something so small as a bunch of scallions.

I was searching an entirely different topic at the time, but here’s what I came across – For every dollar we spend on produce, only about 19 cents goes back to the farmer – astonishingly all the rest goes into getting the product to the consumer. It makes me glad I stumbled upon a second, unintentional internet find – a local u-pick, organic, blueberry farm. I’ve been meaning to find one for years, but for some reason had not been aware that there was one very close to my home. I can’t wait for July now.

The cost of marketing farm foods has increased considerably over the years, mainly because of rising costs of labor, transportation, food packaging materials, and other inputs used in marketing, and also because of the growing volume of food and the increase in services provided with the food. . . . From 1990 to 2000, consumer expenditures for farm foods rose $211 billion. Roughly 92 percent of this increase resulted from an increase in the marketing bill. (USDA link)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lifestyle vs. Adaptation

I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but I have a point to make, so I’ll fess up.

Here it is: My husband and I watched “The War at Home” last night. If you don’t know what show I’m talking about, don’t worry. I had to (with dread in my heart) surf the Fox Channel website to find the name of the comedy we had viewed.

I think what sucked us down that rabbit hole was the preview clip they showed that featured a Smartcar! Well, we were poorly disappointed, because the show ended up bashing on environmental consciousness. In particular, the Smartcar was referred to as looking like “something a larger car pooped out.” The general message from the family was that, yeah, we care about the environment but we aren’t about to give up our lifestyle.

This reminds me of a Taoist principle:

Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.

That doesn’t even address how being small affords you parking advantages. ;)

Green Kitchen Tip #3

Soda Scrub

I grew up in a household where there was a chemical for every cleaning chore: furniture polish, window cleaner, disinfectant, chemical pot cleaner, and a myriad assortment of others. The chemical pot cleaner was used about as regularly as the pots were utilized to cook something. It wasn’t until I struck it out on my own that I questioned the use of pot scrubbing chemicals. But it took me a while, of less than sparkly pots and pans, to figure out alternatives. It is ironic that at this time, when I was living with less than bright & shiny cookware, an organic chemistry professor, who’s class I was taking, expressed his enthusiasm for sodium biocarbonate – baking soda. I just figured he was pleasantly nutty. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what generations of housekeepers knew before the days of “Better Living through Chemistry” – baking soda makes an excellent scrubbing aid.

Now, even I’m amazed at the utility of baking soda. It not only diligently scrubs stainless steel cookware, but can also be used on cast iron and even non-stick pans (please read up on instructions before attempting). Further, if you add it to dishwashing liquids and detergents, you can get away with using less. You can even use baking soda, in combination with vitamin C, as a yeast substitute when baking bread. Who knew? Want to be amazed too? Check it out!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Citrus Slushies

As light-hearted as I've titled this post, I do not mean to make light of the recent freeze in California. Not only were citrus crops effected, but so were other crops:

Each crop meant different worries, including blossoms frozen on avocado trees that would hurt the harvest next year and lettuce, cabbage and celery's starting to seed, a natural defense that renders many plants unmarketable. (NY Times)

Considering how much produce comes out of California, this is a bad situation. What is interesting is the unusual weather patterns lately in the region:

This is the third freeze to hit the Central Valley citrus belt since 1990. There had not been a freeze for 55 years before that. (source)
I was wondering if they could salvage some of the citrus by turning it into juice, however it appears that not only was it frozen, but it was unripe when it froze, so it doesn't appear they can salvage much.

The problem with our current big-ag dominated food system, is we appear to have all our eggs in one basket.

"It'll put a dent in a lot of different crops," Tatter said. "They also grow tomatoes and other vegetables in California. Canned food makers will be affected and may pass that on to consumers." (source)

Friday, January 12, 2007

Green Kitchen Tip #2

“Dump” the Bleach

Following along the lines of my first Green Kitchen tip, my second tip addresses the problem of household chlorine bleach in the waste water system.

Chlorine products -- bleaches -- are another problematic waste stream. . . . Most people probably live in the mistaken belief that such products could only have a beneficial effect on the drains, because they kill germs, but this is not the case. With so much organic material and ammonia in sewage, the chlorine products react with these rather than bacteria, which is why chlorine is never added in the early stages of sewage treatment.

The problem is that these chlorine based products react with organic chemicals to produce chlorinated organics -- the same group of chemicals as the weedkiller DDT, PCB's and pesticides. They are not biodegradable, they persist in the environment and have a cumulative effect. They are not removed in the sewage treatment process. [emphasis added] Many Experts predict there will be a general presumption against the use of chlorine products in the future, apart from as a residual biocide in the water supply. (source)

Chlorine bleach is primarily used for two purposes in the home: as a stain remover and as a disinfectant. Though chlorine bleach does not kill mold and is not recommended for this purpose.

An alternative, non-toxic, stain remover is oxygen bleach. When using oxygen bleach, note that it takes longer to erase stains, so it will require a little patience.

If you are more concerned about microbes, there are a few things you can do to limit your need for disinfectants, and there are also greener alternatives should you need to disinfect. Microbes multiply in moist and messy environments, so if you clean up with soap and hot water right away, you won’t need powerful disinfectants. In fact, the EPA states that:

Practically no surface treatment will completely eliminate bacteria. Try regular cleaning with soap and hot water. Or mix 1/2 cup borax into 1 gallon of hot water to disinfect and deodorize. Isopropyl alcohol is an excellent disinfectant, but use gloves and keep it away from children.

Imagine those microbes that aren’t eliminated (the 1% left behind after bleaching) and how they could develop resistance to the disinfectant, leading to the evolution of superbugs. It has been shown likely in the case of the disinfectant in anti-bacterial soap.

Chlorine bleaches are often added to dishwashing detergents, so choose a green dishwashing detergent, such as Seventh Generation.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cold Comfort

Don't get me wrong, I love snow. It's one of those things I can never really get enough of. As soon as I see sparkly snowflakes swirling on the breeze, I'm the first one out the door to take a nice long walk in it. After I've had enough time out in the snow, I celebrate snow days by plugging in strings of lights, dusting off my Nutcracker CD, building a toasty fire, and cooking up some fatty treat or other. This year, however, it seems I've had my share of snow (and accompanying bitter cold) and it is leaving me with an unsettled feeling. It doesn't help to hear that the East Coast is concurrently experiencing unusually tropical temperatures.

According to NOAA, chaotic weather currently prevails:




I've had a sinking feeling that spring will be late to arrive here this year, and sure enough it seems we, in the PNW, are due for even more intense snow in mid to late February, and additional stormy weather in mid-March. It will be a bad year for starting early seedlings.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Yuletide & Global Warming

Just a thought.

More of the like can be found here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Green Kitchen Tip #1

Limiting Discharge

If you are hooked up to a sewer system, please remember that most of what you put down the sink eventually ends up in natural bodies of water. It is easy to believe that what you are dumping down the sink will be rendered harmless at a sewer treatment facility – not exactly. A recent study at a Seattle area sewage treatment plant found a spike in natural spices, discharging into the Puget Sound, that correlated with the holiday baking season. “When we bake and change the way we eat, it has an impact on what the environment sees. To me it shows the connectedness,” stated Rick Keil, one of the researchers. This increase in cinnamon, pure vanilla as well as artificial vanilla, while relatively harmless to aquatic life, shows the impact our habits, en masse, can have on our environment. Far more toxic substances, like prescription drugs, pesticides, chemical cleaners, and even caffeine have a more deleterious impact. While most of us can’t quit pouring substances down the drain, we can be more selective about the products we use, how we dispose of them, and how often we really need to use them. Often times just cutting our use in half can make a significant impact (no, I'm not recommending anyone cut their prescription drug doses in half).

Here’s an example. Do you use anti-bacterial soap? It appears that not only is the chemical responsible for the anti-bacterial properties typically ineffective (due to undereducated users – you technically should suds up for about 20 seconds before rinsing), but now that (toxic!) chemical is showing up downstream. Even worse is how it is getting into the environment. It goes from your sink to the sewage treatment plant, where it is concentrated into sludge, which is then spread onto farmland to grow crops for human consumption. No kidding.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Changes for 2007

I waded into blogging with a bit of trepidation. Some time in 2004-2005, after finding myself drowning in depressing news stories, I started surfing for food-related content. Classic avoidance, pure and simple. Carpe Diem, if you will. I wrote for the Well Fed Network for a while in 2006, and half-heartedly launched the Jaded Vegetarian, as a cookie-cutter food blog. But for those of you who have been following along, you have probably noticed the content has shifted towards more worldly events. And guess what? I've been blogging more regularly.

So I plan to continue down this road, while occassionally dishing out some "fluff" in the form of recipes and whatnot. I've changed my links to reflect my changed course, and I hope to expand the list in the months ahead. A plan I hatched, with the changing of the year, is to regularly write Green Kitchen tips . . . things we can all do to treat the earth a little more gently. I hope Jaded Vegetarian can become a place that dishes out food for thought.