Do you know what’s in your food? (And can you trust your supermarket?)

If we all knew what went in our food and connected with where it came from, if we all shopped locally and supported independent shops rather than the big supermarkets and if we all cooked a little more from scratch, rather than buying products in packets containing dubious ingredients, then in my mind, the world would be a better place. We’d be healthier, we’d be more connected to the seasons, our food systems would be more sustainable, and local economies would thrive.

But the problem is, supermarkets dominate the landscape, we’re short of time, and so supermarkets seem like a good option. The choices are endless. There’s a lot of “choice” on those shelves that isn’t even real food. Products made with fake ingredients, pumped with preservatives and then packaged and marketed in a way that make them look enticing, often with clever and emotive language, and of course, pictures.

Most of us don’t really stop and consider all this choice. It’s overwhelming. We put our trust in the supermarkets and the companies that sell the products lining the shelves. We let them choose for us. We don’t realise that in many cases we’re being misled. Just because something looks healthy, or comes from the “healthy” aisle, or has “natural” printed all over the box, it doesn’t mean that it is.

We don’t know what’s really in those packets because we don’t take the time to study the ingredients. Most of us don’t have the time. Even if we did, spending hours in the supermarket reading all the labels may not be our idea of fun. But filling our bodies with man-made ingredients, chemicals and preservatives isn’t much fun either, and it certainly does nothing for our health. I’ve thought of a solution. Rather than encouraging you to read all the labels next time you need to buy groceries, I thought I’d make things a little bit easier. I’m bringing the labels to you.

The Bakery Aisle

There’s nothing more ironic than the “treats” lining the bakery aisle, all fillers, preservatives,  mystery ingredients and refined sugar.

tempting temptingingredientsIngredients are always listed starting with the ingredient that there is most of, in descending order. Which means these cupcakes have more sugar and water than anything else. Yes, water. In a cupcake. By adding emulsifiers, water can be mixed with oil and stabilised. It’s a sneaky way to bulk out a product on the cheap. junk15 junk16These muffins contain more flour than sugar, and more oil than water, but they’re still making use of the emulsifiers to bulk out the product with non-ingredients. You might notice at the bottom of the label that they have been “Thawed for your convenience”. So these have been made somewhere else, cooked, frozen and transported, and then defrosted in order to sit on the shelves as a bakery product. junk20Everything about these is wrong. There’s 24 E numbers, a high water content, palm oil is a listed ingredient (demand for palm oil is causing large-scale deforestation and devastating the orangutan population) as well as thickeners, preservatives and added flavourings.

The “Health Food” Aisle

To distinguish between this junk food and all the other junk food lining the shelves elsewhere in the store, the supermarket has labelled this section “health food”.

healthaisleThere is a high proportion of gluten-free snacks, but being gluten-free doesn’t automatically qualify something to be healthy. Nor does the label “organic”.

jnk2 jnk1I tried to count the ingredients of these crackers several times, but had to give up – there’s just too many. Not to mention the brackets within brackets within brackets. Food should not be this confusing.jnk3 jnk4 Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids are synthetic (man-made) fats. They are also E numbers (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides is also called E472e). Shoppers often avoid E numbers, so manufacturers write the names of the ingredients out in full to make the product appear to be more natural.jnk5 jnk6These organic vanilla bars contain brown rice, sugar, oil and salt. In fact, they contain 5 types of sugar and 2 types of oil. And that’s pretty much it. Doing the maths, these bars are 35% rice, so they are 65% oil and sugar. Yuck. They are a great example of how organic doesn’t necessarily equal healthy.

The Drinks Chiller

Adequate breakfast solutions? Hmm…jnk7 jnk8This “chocolate-flavoured beverage” has 0.5% cocoa. That’s less than 2 grams in a 350ml drink. The four main ingredients are water, sugar, powder and oil. Because the vitamins listed do not state their whole food origin, it is extremely likely that they are synthetic. Synthetic vitamins are not absorbed by our bodies as easily as natural vitamins, and don’t behave in the same way. Synthetic B6 is actually made from petroleum. jnk9 jnk10I find these ingredients crazy. If you want to drink mocha flavoured milk for breakfast, why wouldn’t you add some coffee and a spoonful of cacoa powder to your own milk in the morning, and add some sugar if you like it sweet? Why go to the shops and pay extra for milk solids, modified starch, emulsifier, flavours, salt and artificial sweeteners?jnk11 jnk12Interestingly, this pack claims a serving size is 250ml, whereas the serving size for the chocolate milk in the previous pictures was 600ml. By making the serving sizes smaller than are probably realistic, the calories, sugar and fat content seem much smaller. One serving of this contains 21.25g of sugar. But if the serving size was comparable with the other product and was 600ml, there would be 51g of sugar per serving!

So what are the solutions?

Don’t despair! If you’ve been reading this and feeling guilty, despondent, or overwhelmed, there’s really no need; there are plenty of alternative options and choices out there. Here are just a few that I’ve found helpful.

  • Make your own at home. I don’t mean making everything from scratch, all the time, if that’s not your thing. Figure out what works for you, in terms of what you like to eat, your time and your skill level. There’s always options. If you can’t bake, and haven’t got the patience to learn, what about simple raw desserts like this one?
  • Get yourself a blender. It doesn’t need to be expensive or even new (you can pick one up from somewhere like Gumtree with minimal outlay) and you can make smoothies, milkshakes and even desserts (like this chocolate mousse) in minutes. I use mine almost every day and I wouldn’t be without it.
  • Think outside the supermarket. If you like the convenience of ready-made, look around your local area for a bakery, a deli and a butcher/fishmonger that make things from scratch and sell them fresh. My local bakery bakes their bread every morning on site. The local butcher makes ready-to-go meals daily, and the fishmonger sells chowder, sushi and marinara mix in addition to the usual fish.
  • Farmers’ markets are the perfect place to find local producers, and a great place to pick up all kinds of delicious treats. Usually you’ll get the chance to talk to the people who actually make the products so you can find out what goes into them, hear about new things they are planning to try out, and even make your own suggestions.
  • If you’re time-poor, vegetable box schemes are a great option and often deliver far more than fruit and vegetables to your door. Riverford in the UK deliver organic pies, tarts, soups and vegetable burgers as well as dairy products and pantry staples, in addition to their core business of fruit and vegetables.
  • If you really need convenience options and can’t ditch the supermarket, try the freezer aisle. Freezing food is a way of preserving it, because of this frozen foods don’t need fake ingredients and extra preservatives to prolong their shelf life. That’s not to say there isn’t some junk in this department too, but it can be a better alternative than the chilled aisles.
  • Don’t beat yourself up when you do buy and eat something rubbish, and definitely don’t give up. Just because you ate one Dunkin’ Donut, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure and doomed to eat Dunkin’ Donuts forevermore. Or that because you ate one, you may as well finish off another 11. Or because you ate one, that you’ll never be healthy/be able to quit the supermarket/be perfect etc etc. Accept that we all have moments of weakness, forgive yourself, dust yourself off, and try again.

Whilst I do think it’s important that we realise what’s in our food, that’s not to say that there’s not a place for convenience – we all have busy lives. But the better our food choices are, the better we feel – both inside and out. Choosing real food helps support farmers, growers and local businesses. Ultimately it gives us more options, better quality, and safer, healthier, more nutritious food, whilst encouraging farming and production systems that don’t deplete soils, damage the environment or harm wildlife. Who wouldn’t want that?

What do you think about convenience foods? Do you have anything you struggle with, or any great tips or things that have worked for you in avoiding junk? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Oven-Roasted Chickpea Recipe – a plastic free alternative to potato chips?

When we gave up buying food that came packaged in plastic, one of the hardest things for my boyfriend to give up was potato chips. He’d wander down the crisps aisle forlornly, rustling each packet and declaring I’m pretty sure this one is plastic-free! It feels like paper! See?

Sadly though, potato chips do not come in paper. They are all wrapped in plastic, even though the plastic is often cunningly disguised as paper, or foil (you can do the scrunch test to figure out if something is wrapped in plastic or foil. Scrunch it up; if it springs back into its un-scrunched position, it’s plastic).

Because of this we’ve had to find alternatives. I’ve not tried making my own from real potatoes yet, although I haven’t ruled it out for the future.

We found a bulk bin store that sells sweet potato chips, but they are very expensive and not something we buy often.

I’ve recently experimented with making kale chips (not as weird as they sound, although yes, they are made with kale), which are actually quite tasty, but you need a lot of kale for not that many chips, which makes them another costly option, and you can’t fit that many in the oven at once, so it’s quite a laborious process.

Our staple replacement is popcorn, made with popping corn kernels bought at the bulk bin store. It’s cheap, super easy/quick to make, and satisfying. Of course it tastes nothing like potato chips (it tastes like popcorn, obviously) but it meets that need for a savoury, salty snack that can be delivered by the handful.

Popcorn may be the current favourite, but there is now a new contender on the block – roasted chickpeas. I got the inspiration for this from a couple of places. I’ve seen them for sale in the bulk food stores, and if you’ve ever eaten Bombay mix or similar Indian-style snacks you’ve probably had them yourself.

Secondly, I always buy dry chickpeas and cook my own, usually 1kg at a time, as they freeze amazingly well and I try to avoid cans where possible to save waste. This always seems like a great idea, but when I’m storing the resulting 3kg of cooked chickpeas I’m thinking of novel ways to try to use them up so I don’t feel quite so intimidated every time I open the freezer door.

I’m not going to tell you that they taste like potatoes. Of course they don’t. I am going to tell you that if you want a salty, crunchy alternative that you can munch away by the handful, plastic-free, then roasted chickpeas are seriously worth considering.

They’re cheap and simple to make. Have them plain, or flavour them. I’m still experimenting with what flavours I like best, so I’ve given you a couple of ideas to get started.

chickpeasfinal

Recipe – Roasted Chickpeas

Ingredients:

2 cups cooked chickpeas (380g approx)
2 tbsp macadamia oil
Spice mix: 3/4 tsp turmeric, 3/4 tsp ground cumin, 1 1/2 tsp paprika (or omit altogether for plain chickpeas)
Salt and pepper

Method:

Pre-heat oven to 180°C.

Rinse chickpeas and spread onto a clean dry tea towel to remove excess water. Remove any loose skins and discard.

Put into bowl, add oil, spices (if using) and salt and pepper, and mix well until all the chickpeas are coated.

Line a roasting tin with greaseproof paper and empty chickpeas into tin, spreading out as much as possible. Place in oven and cook for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and to ensure they cook evenly.

Remove and allow to cool completely. They will continue to harden as they cool (don’t be alarmed if they still feel soft when you take them out of the oven). Store in a glass jar if not eating immediately.

Chickpeas2 Spicemix1 Chickpeaspices1 chickpeas3 roastedchickpeas roastedchickpeas2 Enjoy! If you have a go at making them, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments!

The Irony of the “Treat”

Why is it, that when we think of treats, we often think of the over-processed, over-packaged, sugary, additive-filled, preservative-pumped, nutritionally-devoid excuses for food that we can buy at the supermarkets? I used to think that way, and I’d head to the supermarket to pick up a sugar-laden, calorie-filled, preservative-packed “treat” whenever I felt like I deserved a reward, wanted to celebrate, or was feeling sorry for myself.

Thing is, after that initial euphoria that came with eating said “treat”, I’d end up feeling less than special. All that refined sugar and refined carbohydrates would make me feel tired and lethargic.

I’d often end up bloated and with stomach ache.

I’d feel guilty – for having filled my body with junk, for having wasted my money, for not having the willpower to eschew junk food altogether and treat myself to a relaxing bath instead. The kind of guilt that could possibly be placated by the soothing comfort of a chocolate bar – and so it would continue.

I used to think like that, but I’ve changed. I haven’t stopped enjoying treats though – I still love chocolate and cake and all of those things. What’s happened is I’ve discovered that it’s possible to enjoy treats that still taste amazing and are made ingredients that are actually good for us. More on that later.

profiteroles and ingredients

Custard-filled profiteroles. But seriously, have you seen the ingredients?! How is filling your body with rubbish like that any way to treat yourself?

This change wasn’t a quick process. A combination of a few things – increasing interest in my health, a desire to stop buying things in plastic packaging and a passion for sustainable food – led me down this path, but it took time to learn and adjust. Once I was on the path though, I knew there was no going back.

I can’t tell you how much better I feel. When I eat something packed with nutrients, there’s no way I feel guilty! Food made with real ingredients fills me up, tastes far better, and the flavours linger… which helps stop me eating 100 cookies all at once.

If I served you a banana, an avocado and some walnuts for breakfast you’d probably think that was pretty healthy. And possibly also a little boring. But chuck it in a blender and add some cacao powder and a few other bits and pieces and you have chocolate mousse. For breakfast. How awesome is that?!

chocmouseebreakfast

Yep, this was breakfast! Chocolate mousse topped with walnuts and cacao nibs, with oatbran and cashew nut milk. What a way to start the day!

The point of a treat is just that. It is a treat. A treat should be something that makes us feel good. But this feeling shouldn’t just come simply from the knowledge that we are indulging ourselves. It should also come from the fact that we are indulging in something that will nourish us, that will provide our bodies with what it needs to feel good, to repair itself, to restore us.

With food, this means something that will continue to benefit our bodies long after the taste has left our lips. What is the point in “treating ourselves” to something that tastes sugary and satisfying but as soon as it is gone we are plagued with regret, because we know it is actually bad for us – full of preservatives and fillers but devoid of any nutritional benefit?

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m super passionate about food! So this year, one major focus on the blog is going to be to try to inspire you in the ways of clean eating, by making and sharing simple recipes (with probably far too much focus on desserts and sweet treats!) that are packed with things that are good for us and make us feel great. You don’t need to be a great cook. For some of them you won’t even need an oven! Simplicity is best.

Here’s to a year of deliciousness : )

How to Eat Clean

My last post was about clean eating, what it is and why it is so important. I thought I’d follow up with this post on how to eat clean… in the real world.

A lot of clean eating guidelines just aren’t practical. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be filling up on cheap but nutritionally devoid foods like white rice, pasta and white bread that offer us no health benefits. In an ideal world, we’d all be buying fresh, seasonal produce by the trolley-load, drinking cold-pressed juice daily and we’d all be fantastic home cooks and bakers with limitless free time to spend on preparing the best meals we can. But we don’t all live in an ideal world, we live in a world where good quality food is expensive, time is at a premium and it seems much easier to grab a piece of toast and rush out of the door in the morning than it is to knock up a almond flour pancake stack with stewed fresh fruit and homemade yoghurt.

The good news is, there’s plenty of things we can do to make our diet cleaner, whether we’re short of money, or time, or even motivation. Here’s a few ideas.

Be Prepared to Spend a Little More

It is definitely possible to eat clean on a budget, but you will need to spend more than the bare minimum if you want to eat fresh, clean food. For people who are genuinely struggling to make ends meet, clean eating may not be a priority. But for most of us, we have a choice about what we spend our money on. For me, eating good quality food is more important than spending money on an expensive phone contract or a magazine subscription. Our food is our health insurance. (In fact, as someone without health insurance, it literally is my health insurance.) That’s not to say we need to spend a fortune. Spending a little bit more in the right places goes a long way.

Organic versus Non-Organic

Organic food isn’t a modern concept or a fancy premium product invented for the rich. It’s how our grandparents used to eat, before modern unsustainable practices took over in the quest for ever increasing yields and ever increasing profits. Organic food is better for us and for the planet, and if I could afford to, I would ensure all of the food I bought was organic. Who wants to eat pesticide residues?! However, it can be seriously expensive!

Eating clean means eating fruit and vegetables untainted by pesticides. Pesticide levels vary on conventional produce from plant to plant, so some are safer than others. For those of us on a budget, the US-based Environmental Working Group does a fantastic job each year of telling us which ones have the safest levels and which ones are the highest risk.

dirtydozenIf you can’t afford to switch your entire shop to organic, try to switch the so-called dirty dozen (the ones containing the highest pesticide levels): apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, chillies, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, bell peppers/capsicum, kale and courgette/zucchini. If you can’t afford to purchase organic at all, try to limit how many of these foods you consume per week.

EWG found that people who ate conventional products daily from this list were ingesting 10 pesticides per day.

Ditch the Supermarket

Food should be exciting and inspiring! Supermarkets are soulless, depressing places… crowded, noisy and without natural light, where we are bombarded with “choice” yet can never find what we want. Yet, it is extremely easy to find all the processed overpackaged rubbish we don’t want – and no doubt it is on ‘special’ too. How many times do we buy things we don’t really want because we were seduced by the saving?! Special offers don’t mean money saved, they mean money spent. The best way to avoid temptation is not to shop there.

SPECIAL

There’s nothing ‘special’ about wasting our money on food that we don’t need and isn’t good for us!

In supermarkets, fresh doesn’t mean fresh. They have huge centralised distribution centres so “fresh” produce spends days on the road and days more in storage before reaching the shelves. It’s picked before it’s ripe so it lasts longer, but this impacts the taste. To top it off, it’s usually far more expensive than you’d pay at a farmers market or local farm shop… especially organics.

If you really don’t have any option available to you other than your local supermarket, try to keep to the edges and avoid the middle aisles. When buying fruit and veg, to get an idea of what’s in season, look at the country of origin and choose local.

Buy Loose

If you want to save money (and reduce your packaging consumption) find a bulk store where food is sold by weight and priced by the kilo. Prices are usually far lower than the supermarkets, and no endless fiddly packets either. The range is also far greater. Items that often appear on the exotic world food aisles with their exotic prices in supermarkets are a fraction of the price at these stores.

bulk1Shop Local

The Farmers’ Market is your friend. Fruit and vegetables are far fresher than those in the shops, they’re are seasonal, and far cheaper. Plus you can chat to the producers themselves! It’s not just fruit and veggies that you can pick up. Often there’s cheese, meat, fish, olive oil, eggs, bread and endless tasty wholesome treats to be had. Farmers Markets have a great atmosphere; they’re welcoming and relaxed, and make the whole shopping experience far more pleasurable. And that’s what food is about, right?

If you’re not a fan of the early rises that accompany Farmers Markets, let the shopping come to you! There’s plenty of local vegetable box schemes that deliver right to our doors, and they often deliver milk, eggs and grocery items too. If you lead a busy life, this can be a huge help, saving you time and energy.  And if you’re really not a fan of grocery shopping and tend to put it off until you literally have nothing left to eat, a delivery scheme ensures your fridge stays full and you don’t need to resort to emergency pizza to fend off starvation.

When we buy our food, we are making a choice about our future. If we want to live the fullest lives we can, to achieve all the things that we want to do, and be there for our communities, our children and our grandchildren, then we need to look after ourselves.

If we don’t look after our bodies, where are we going to live?

The sustainable, ethical, natural way to eat – the ‘clean’ approach

Have you ever heard of clean eating? No? I hadn’t until I started preparing for the Living Smart session I presented on Healthy Homes, Healthy You back in November.

Food is one of my passions, and I wanted to cover a range of things: eating natural, whole foods; the importance of organic; shopping locally at farmers’ markets; avoiding packaged products filled with preservatives; the evils of mass-produced processed foods – low or no nutrition, fake ingredients that our bodies can’t recognise; and the huge unethical corporations we support when we buy the brands they own (and the 10 biggest companies own almost all of the everyday brands we that buy).

This is the way I eat, although it was a transition that didn’t happen overnight. As I’ve said so many times, it started with Plastic Free July – cutting out plastic meant cutting out junk, buying more raw ingredients and making more from scratch. I began to seek out organics and shop at farmers markets as I became more committed to sustainability. I also started taking a lot more interest in my health. Whereas in my twenties I could eat anything and everything and get away with it, my thirties have not been so forgiving, and my digestive system no longer appreciates being bombarded with junk. I have found that a simple approach to food is the answer. Eating fresh, nutritious, healthy food every day actually makes me feel good – and tastes delicious.

Until I started my research though, I’d never thought about a way to describe my way of eating, other than plastic-free, which doesn’t quite do it justice. Or maybe whole foods (meaning food as close to its natural state as possible), but that doesn’t cover the ethical aspects. “Plant-based” doesn’t fit because whilst I eat a lot of plants, I also eat eggs and fish. Then I stumbled across the term “clean eating”, and I realised, there was a word that described how I eat after all, and so perfectly.

Clean Eating – What does it mean?

It’s actually quite simple. There are plenty of people out there who have dreamed up complicated rules for clean eating, saying all kinds of things like: you shouldn’t eat after 6pm; you shouldn’t eat gluten, or any grains, or even things that look like grains but actually aren’t; or you should only eat by the light of the moon (okay, I made that one up – but you get the idea). I think such rules are unnecessary. Why make things complicated? The way I see it, there’s just one guideline:

“If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” ~Michael Pollan

So simple!

Of course, it can’t be taken completely literally. There are plants that are poisonous. Fish, meat and eggs may not be plants but that doesn’t mean they are bad for us. Following this rule doesn’t mean we all have to turn vegan. It’s more about understanding where our food comes from. Free range chickens that roam around in grassy meadows in small-scale farms are very different from battery chickens that have never seen daylight and are forced to live in confined, unhealthy conditions before being processed – in factories.

To me, clean eating encompasses a few things. Eating organic, and buying as local as possible. Shopping directly with producers and cutting out the middle-man (by which I mean, the supermarkets). Using ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible. Cooking from scratch. Choosing the best quality ingredients I can afford. Avoiding anything with preservatives, additives, or containing ingredients that I haven’t heard of or can’t pronounce. Choosing free range and fair trade (food produced by workers who are exploited can hardly be called ‘clean’).

Food is so important – we literally can’t live without it. Our food needs to be real in order to nourish us and keep us healthy. It needs to be grown in ways that are sustainable so that the land (and waterways) will continue to feed us for generations to come. And it needs to be grown the way nature intended. Not pumped with chemicals and drugs, or fed inappropriate feed (jellybeans, anyone?). Or worse – synthetically manufactured in a laboratory from man-made “ingredients” so it looks and tastes like food but is devoid of any actual nutrition. The only thing healthy about this is the profit that these companies generate for themselves.

“I prefer butter to margarine because I trust cows more than chemists.” ~Joan Gussow

Ethical Chocolate

When we gave up plastic, it was a massive relief that we could still buy chocolate. Plastic-free bars of chocolate wrapped in foil and paper were our salvation. I’ve tried making my own, messing around with cocoa butter and cacao powder but I just can’t make something that I like anywhere near as much as the stuff I can buy.

Once we started down the plastic-free path I became a lot more aware of the additives, preservatives and other nasties in food, and slowly made the switch to the whole foods approach to eating. I now make most things from scratch, but I can’t make everything, and I want the things that I do buy to be as healthy as possible. For this reason I’m making the switch from milk to dark chocolate, and we stopped buying any chocolate made by Cadbury’s at the start of the year – have you looked at the ingredients list on those bars?!

Now we’ve made a commitment to go one step further. I firmly believe that every time we spend our money we are voting – for the kind of businesses we want to support and for the kind of products we see on the shelves – and these choices define our futures. So we’ve made a commitment to only buy chocolate that is organic and fair trade.

This seems like an obvious choice. But here in Australia, the confectionery aisle is dominated by Cadburys and Lindt, both of which are massive global companies. In the UK, it is much easier to support smaller ethical chocolate brands as they are more readily available. The bigger stores seem to offer so much choice, although it is often only a small handful of different brands, and the choice is actually between which additives (cunningly disguised as flavours) we prefer. Faced with so much “choice” it is easier to opt for whatever brand is on special offer. This is where the big companies (who can afford to sponsor promotions) win and the small guys lose out. We do it without even thinking.

Well, now we’ve started thinking.

We want to support fair trade because it pays a fair price to farmers, and supports ethical and sustainable practices. Child slave labour, exploitation and trafficking are issues linked to the cocoa industry, and supporting fair trade is one way to protest this. The international fair trade logo is something to look out for, but it is worth remembering that suppliers have to pay to receive certification, and smaller companies may not be affiliated due to the costs involved whilst still having fair trade policies – and if they do, they’ll be telling you on their packaging or website!

Supporting organic is one way to avoid additives and preservatives, which are not allowed in organic produce, whilst also supporting sustainable agricultural practices. It’s still worth checking the ingredients list to make sure the cocoa content is high, sugar content is low and there are no cheap fillers like oil that offer no nutritional benefits. Not all producers can afford certification, so for very small companies do your research and use your judgement.

Yes, organic and fairtrade chocolate costs more. Seriously though, how much are we talking? A 100g bar of Lindt costs $2.49 on special offer. Organic fairtrade chocolate may cost you $5. (For readers outside Australia, yes, the prices here are much higher than everywhere else!) Whilst that may be 100% more, in actual money we’re talking a couple of dollars. That extra couple of dollars is ensuring the farmer gets a fair wage. How much chocolate are you eating, anyways? Shouldn’t it be a treat, not a staple?!

Step away from the supermarkets, and there’s better choice. Our local independent grocery store has these to offer:

chocolate

Mmm…chocolate!

Green and Blacks was my favourite brand in the UK. Their Maya Gold bar was the first product in the UK to be labelled fairtrade, back in 1994, and I remember buying their chocolate when it was only available in health food stores. They actually sold out to Cadbury in 2005, however the original owner remains President and it still runs as a stand-alone business. Cadbury has since been sold to Kraft…so whilst it still has great eco credentials, it now lines the coffers of a multinational company.

Alter Eco is a company I only found out about a few months ago, although according to their website they’ve been around for a decade. Their headquarters are in the US. They seem committed to fairtrade and sustainability, but I don’t know much about them.

As for Oxfam, being a global not-for-profit organisation committed to poverty reduction, social equality and fair trade, they probably have the best credentials of all… except their chocolate is nowhere near as nice.

Of course, it would be much more sustainable to not buy chocolate at all, seeing as it all comes from across the oceans. I’m not ready for that yet. Small steps, eh?

Take one thing you do that’s not sustainable, and make it a bit more sustainable. And then move on to the next thing. And just keep going.

Tahini, pursuing a waste-free home…and when things don’t go to plan

I am currently addicted to tahini. What started as distrust for its strong and distinctive flavour has gradually grown into full-on love, and now I can’t get enough of the stuff. I use it in hummous, in baking, as a salad dressing, to make potato salad, as a replacement for mayonnaise and butter. Mmm, it is delicious.

But it comes in a glass jar. In my quest for a zero-waste home I’m trying to cut out all unnecessary packaging, and the quicker I go through tahini, the more jars I end up with. (I re-use my glass jars rather than recycle them as they end up being used as road base here in Perth, which seems a waste to me. But there’s only so many jars that I need.)

The label on the jar proudly states “just natural hulled sesame seeds”. No added oil, salt or sugar. So, I figured, I can just blend some sesame seeds in a food processor and make my own.

Turns out, it isn’t that easy. The resulting mass was nothing like the glossy, runny, beautiful tahini I can buy in a glass jar. It was a grey, lifeless lump. Looks aren’t everything, I know. Sadly, the taste was pretty terrible too. Really bitter and quite unpleasant.

tahini

This is what I wanted…

tahinifail

…and this is what I got.

I’m wondering whether I should have roasted the sesame seeds. The jar doesn’t tell me that the seeds are roasted, but experience has taught me that roasted nut butters are infinitely better than raw ones. I think I’ll give it another go sometime, and toast the sesame seeds first.

In the meantime, I’ve been to the shop and bought myself a new jar of tahini. I’m going to try using the lump of ‘tahini fail’ in a tahini biscuit recipe that I make sometimes. I hope that the baking removes the bitter nasty taste. If not, the sugar and other ingredients should mask it.

Anyways, I thought I’d share with you, in case you’re feeling tempted to try to make your own tahini without consulting a recipe first. Which you’re probably not.

Ah well, we all have bad days!

A Recipe for Coconut Milk Yoghurt (Dairy Free + Plant Based)

I did something this month that I haven’t done for over a year. I deliberately bought something in a plastic container.

Oh, the scandal!

The product in question is a dairy-free yoghurt alternative called CoYo, made from coconut milk and full of probiotic cultures. I’d seen the name pop up in various places and was intrigued. Since being advised to cut out dairy from my diet as much as possible, yoghurt is something I miss, and I particularly believe in the benefits of probiotic foods for maintaining a healthy gut. This product seems like a win-win… apart from the packaging. Of course, I questioned whether I would be able to make it at home. When I saw it in stock in my local health food shop, I was intrigued enough to buy it.

coyo

I have to say, CoYo tastes amazing. If I was to describe the flavour, I would say it has the yoghurty-ness of yoghurt, and the coconuty-ness of coconut milk. (Does that make it any clearer?!) I guess what that means is, it has the tangy, slightly acidic taste of yoghurt, but the creamy smooth richness of coconut milk, with that exotic coconut flavour. It is also super smooth and literally melts in my mouth. It is also a stunning bright white colour – like coconut.

It also has a pretty amazing price tag. One small 400g tub cost me over $13! Indeed, I have suffered for my sin.

For reasons of both price and plastic packaging, I can’t justify buying this again. However, now I know how good it is I can try to make my own (and I have a benchmark to measure against), and I can use the CoYo as my starter culture. Its deliciousness has only made my resolve to make my own stronger! I want this in my life!

After a couple of attempts at recreating it, I’m now pretty happy with the recipe I’ve come up with. This recipe makes 1 litre, and should keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.

How to Make Coconut Yoghurt

Ingredients:
2 x 400ml tins of organic coconut milk/cream
200ml water (to make up to 1 litre)
8 tbsp arrowroot powder (also called tapioca)
20 drops stevia
1 tbsp CoYo (or other starter culture)

Method:
Blend the arrowroot, coconut milk and water together briefly to remove any lumps.

Heat to above 80ºC for several minutes to allow the mixture to thicken, stirring with a spoon.

Cool to 45ºC.

Add stevia and stir.

Add a spoonful of Coyo to pre-warmed thermos flask. Add a cup of the coconut milk mix to the flask and stir well. Fill the flask halfway and stir again. Add the rest of the mix, stir a final time and seal the lid.

Leave for a minimum of 12 hours but preferably 24 hours.

Pour into a glass jar and store in the fridge.

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Notes:

I use Woolworths (Australian) organic coconut cream which comes in a BPA-free tin. It’s one of the few items I still buy at the supermarket and it’s one of the better organic brands that I’ve tried… although I’d love to find a independent brand or make my own in the future.

I used arrowroot and stevia as these were what CoYo lists as its ingredients. It may be possible to use other thickeners. The stevia is to give the friendly bacteria a food source. Other sugars might work too, I just haven’t tried them yet.

I used CoYo as the starter culture as I already had it but if you’re not lactose-intolerant or vegan you could use ordinary live yoghurt. Another option is to use a vegan probiotic capsule.

Coconut yoghurt takes a lot longer to culture than cow’s milk yoghurt. I find that leaving it for 24 hours gets better results.

I have also found that the yoghurt thickens over time, something that doesn’t happen with dairy yoghurt. I don’t know why this happens, but if your yoghurt is a bit thin, you should find it thickens up after a few days.

Obviously, once you’ve made your first batch you can use this as a culture for future batches – no need to keep buying things in plastic containers!

5 Ingredient Chocolate Brownie Recipe (No Baking Required)

This is my new favourite thing to make. Aside from the fact that it tastes amazing, it is also super simple to assemble.

Now I love a cooked brownie, when the edges are crispy and the middle is molten, but there’s a bit of an art to it. Knowing your oven well and being super accurate with timings is the only way to catch the brownie in that tiny window between still-raw-and-gloopy-and-dissintegrates-upon-touch and overcooked-and-crunchy-and-dry-all-the-way-through. There’s also a lot more mess generated, and washing-up, with cooked brownies, and you need more time. Luckily, his cousin, the raw brownie, means none of this to worry about!

With this brownie, there’s no cooking. Hurrah! You can’t over- or under-cook it, and you don’t have to wait ages for it to be ready. Also, you only need 4 ingredients (plus salt). How awesome is that?! The other great thing is you can make this in small batches rather than having to make a tray full. If you’re greedy like me and can eat 24 brownies in 24 hours, this is a great way to exercise some restraint – just make less!

I also imagine that these would keep much longer than normal brownies which dry out over time, but I’ve not been able to resist eating them long enough to find out. They will definitely keep for a week in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container, and I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t last longer if you have more willpower than me.

This recipe makes enough for 6 pieces. You will need a food processor or high powered blender.

Ingredients

100g walnuts (approx 1 cup)
60g macadamias (a very full half cup)
10 medjool dates, stones removed
1/2 cup cacao powder
1/4 teaspoon salt (recommended but optional)

Method

Grind the walnuts and salt into a flour. Add the cacao and mix well. Blend the dates in a few at a time until the mixture has formed small crumbs.

Roughly chop the macadamias by hand. Stir into the mix.

Line a container with baking paper. Tip the mix into the container and press down firmly. Place in the freezer before cutting into pieces (it will cut into pieces better if it is cold).

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Store in the fridge or freezer.

You can eat straight from the freezer, or allow to warm to room temperature. I dust extra cacao powder on the top to serve but this is optional.

brown2 brown3 brown4 brown5

Yum!

One reason why I don’t shop at Supermarkets

I no longer do a weekly shop at the supermarket. I haven’t taken part in this ritual since July 2012, when I signed up to Plastic Free July and pledged to stop buying disposable plastic forever. It wasn’t my plan to stop shopping in the supermarkets, but once I limited myself to items not packaged in plastic, it didn’t leave much left to buy. The odd jar, a bag of flour, that was about it. Once I’d traipsed up and down every aisle and only filled my basket with a handful of items, the novelty wore thin. We started shopping elsewhere, namely the markets and the bulk food stores.

I’d never liked giving my money to the supermarkets, but their convenience lured me in. I wanted to support local businesses, local producers and sustainable practices like organic farming, but it was a big change to undertake. Once the supermarkets stopped being convenient and I had a reason (along with the drive and motivation) to go elsewhere, I did, and I haven’t looked back.

It was only once I’d stopped going to the supermarkets that I realised that most of the food I was buying from there wasn’t food at all, but a mix of additives, preservatives and flavours that looked like food. The promotions would lure me in, even though it was the same things on offer, week in, week out. Things I didn’t need and didn’t want…but the bargain factor meant they often ended up in the trolley. Not such a bargain, buying things that I didn’t intend to buy, is it?! It was a habit, one that I didn’t know I had until I broke it.

If you happened to go into my local supermarket this week, this is what you’d be seeing in pride of place at the ends of the aisles on “special”. See if you can spot any real food amongst it all.

junk3 junk2 junk1 junk13 junk12 junk8 junk7 junk6 junk5 Once you’ve looked past the junk, preservatives, additives and over-packaged “food” you’ll find there’s not much left. Plus, you notice how all of that stuff is branded? That’s because companies pay the stores to put their products on display there. It’s why you rarely see non-branded goods in these premium spots.

Buying this stuff isn’t a bargain. It’s not real food. It’s bad for our health, it’s polluting the environment (did you see how much plastic there was?!) and it’s lining the coffers of the big multinational companies and the supermarkets at the expense of smaller producers, local growers and independent retailers.

We all want choice, right? Supermarkets aren’t giving us much choice. You may not live in Australia but I suspect if you went to your local supermarket the same things would be on offer. By giving our money to these places and these companies we’re only strengthening them and limiting our choices in the future.

Where we spend our money matters.

This weekend, visit your local farmers market. Seek out real food and meet the people who grow it, prepare it, make it and bake it.  Have a chat with them about what they’re doing, how they do it, why they do it. Learn their stories.  Support your local community. Connect with the seasons  (local produce means seasonal produce). Let your taste buds be amazed.