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My (Mis)Adventure with Sustainable Fashion

I’m certainly not a fashion victim. In fact, I wonder if the clothes I wear can even be called fashion, seeing as I’ve owned most of them for more than three years, and they were purchased second-hand back then. So when I say sustainable fashion, I guess what I really mean is sustainable clothes.

Over the years my clothing shopping habits have changed. Whilst today I try to buy as little as possible, I confess there was a time when I used to see clothes shopping as a fun way to spend time. Luckily, I didn’t see it as a fun way to spend money (which I’m sure has saved me a small fortune over the years!), so I tried to stick to things I really liked and that I thought would last, and would only shop a few times a year.

I’ve never been a fan of cheap throwaway fashion:  inexpensive items wear out quickly and lose their shape, and I want the clothes I own to get many outings. More than that, I’ve always been a believer that if something seems too cheap, it is; somewhere along the line, someone has suffered. I’d opt for the more expensive high street stores hoping that if the prices were higher, it meant there was no exploitation going on behind the scenes.

The switch from new to second-hand came slowly, and actually, thanks to eBay. I’ve never particularly enjoyed clothes shopping in charity shops, but here on the internet I could find the size and styles that I wanted in the brands that I already knew. Giving a second life to somebody else’s waste, and not contributing directly to these fashion giant’s coffers rests better with my conscience, and I committed to try to avoid buying anything new (underwear excluded).

In the last year or so, two things have made me wonder if this is enough. There’s always the question “can I do more?” Sometimes the answer is no, but often it is yes, and I wondered if there was more I could do with the clothing I chose to wear. In particular, I had two concerns.

How Can I Live a Plastic-Free Life With a Wardrobe Full of Plastic?!

I buy my clothes second hand, wear them to within an inch of their lives, cut them up and use them as rags for cleaning…but ultimately they need to be disposed of, and I am faced with two choices. Compost, or landfill. Plastic fibres will not break down in compost. (They’re actually not great as cleaning cloths, either.) Natural fibres make much better cleaning cloths, and can be composted at the end of their lives.

When I looked at the contents of my wardrobe, only a handful of items were made of natural fibres (silk, cotton and wool). The vast majority are polyester (with some acrylic and nylon). Polyester is plastic. This has sat a little uneasily with me ever since I began my plastic-free living journey, but what really clinched it was when I first read that plastic microfibres are washed into the ocean every time we launder our (synthetic fabric) clothes. I feel that now I’ve got my all the plastic-free fundamentals of my life (shopping, eating, washing and cleaning) under control, this is something I want (and need) to tackle.

As I minimalise my wardrobe, ethical and Fairly Traded garments made from sustainable and natural fibres are my new priority : )

As I minimalise my wardrobe, ethical and Fairly Traded garments made from sustainable and natural fibres are my new priority : )

Is “Hoping” that Clothing is Sustainably Made, Ethically Produced and Sweatshop-Free Enough?

The answer to this, quite clearly, is no. Avoiding clothing at rock-bottom prices is a no-brainer, but assuming (or hoping) that just because a clothing company charges more for its products that the farmers and workers have been treated fairly… It’s a big ask. And it’s a question I’ve not even been asking.

Fair Trade fashion is a growing industry, with clothing that looks less like old sacking and more like regular high street wear than some of the earlier attempts I remember. Whilst I’m a huge fan of second-hand clothing, I also think it’s important to support companies who stand for ideals we believe in. I guess there needs to be balance. (Second-hand Fair Trade clothing would be my ideal, but there’s a lot less of it around!)

My Misadventure with Sustainable Fashion

With this in mind, I have decided that my vision for my wardrobe is one where the majority of the items are made of natural fibres, that the majority are organic and / or Fair Trade, and that a significant amount is second-hand. Second hand items aside, this is the total opposite to my current wardrobe. Change will be a slow process, I’m sure, as I still have a commitment to myself to reduce (half) my wardrobe, and I intend to wear the current items out before replacing them. (Or maybe that’s my excuse as I find it really, really hard to declutter my wardrobe!)

In some rather exciting news for the minimalist-wannabe-but-closet-hoarder that I am, I actually managed to wear out a pair of black leggings (to the point where they were almost see-through) and decided their replacement would be my first organic natural fibre Fair Trade purchase. Then, because the postage was a flat fee I also bought two organic Fair Trade dresses for work – which I justified because I literally wear the same skirt to work every day, and thought I should probably invest in another outfit. (Did I need two? Possibly not. Oops.)

Feeling rather noble about my purchases, I was very pleased when they arrived in a brown paper bag, looking all environmentally friendly. At last! A sustainable solution! And then I looked inside.

Plastic!

People Tree Ethical Sustainable Organic Clothing2015

Organic cotton clothing, Fairly Traded, ethically produced…and packaged in plastic!

I haven’t bought new clothing online in so long, it didn’t even cross my mind that the items would come individually packaged in plastic. I purchased these in July, so ironically, in the one month of the year where I aim to make the biggest effort to consume no plastic, I end up accumulating more than in the entire rest of the year put together!

People Tree Paper Packaging

People Tree packaging – plastic-free heavy duty brown paper envelope, labels made of card attached to the clothing with ribbon (possibly plastic but at least reusable). If only the items themselves didn’t come in plastic bags!

So often when trying to make “green” and ethical decisions we have to compromise, and it can be frustrating! Clearly I’m committed to not buying anything in plastic, so shopping like this isn’t going to work for me. I’d also far rather find local shops and avoid online shopping altogether. Then again, living in one of the most isolated cities in the world makes this tricky. People Tree is a brand is championing the values that I think are so important – chemical-free crops, Fair Trade, capacity building, ethical supply chains – and I want to support them.

An Ethical Dilemma – What Next?

One thing I’ve learned on this journey is to ask questions. Maybe there’s an option for purchasing items without plastic packaging. Maybe there’s a good reason why they don’t offer this. Maybe they’ve just never thought about it before. My first step is to write a letter to express my concerns, and see if I can get any answers. (I might mention replacing the ribbon with natural twine, too.) Plus I’ll be recycling the plastic bags (our local supermarket collects soft plastic like this for recycling).

My second step is to look for in-store options (next time I need to replace something though…not before). For example, People Tree stock over 1000 stores, so there must be the option to buy in-person, and avoid all the unnecessary extra packing and shipping. They are also not the only Fair Trade and organic brand out there. An exciting journey of discovery awaits!

And of course, as I start to discover these brands, there will be the option of looking for them online (or even in stores) in the second-hand marketplace. It’s also easier to request plastic-free packaging when you’re buying from an individual, items are usually cheaper, and you’re giving a new lease of life to somebody else’s waste.

Sometimes making sustainable choices isn’t easy. Often we are faced with hurdles. Giving up or accepting defeat isn’t an option. If we care enough, if we want to live a life aligned with our values, then we need to keep trying. I may have tripped, but I intend to get back up, dust myself off, learn from what’s happened and keep going. After all, even when we stumble, we are still moving forward.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you tried to make a sustainable choice that’s backfired? What did you learn from it? How do you deal with compromise? Do you have some non-negotiables – rules you’ve  set yourself that you’ll never bend, or is everything open to compromise depending on the situation? What about sustainable fashion? Have you taken steps to make your wardrobe more ethical or environmentally-friendly? What did you find easy? What do you struggle with? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

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!

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.

My take on supplementing your diet

For a long time I’ve thought that vitamins and supplements were a complete waste of money. When I was a student, I remember going for several days without consuming a single fruit or vegetable (I shudder at the very idea now). Once I remember deciding I should supplement my diet with a multivitamin. (I want to shout at myself WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST GO AND BUY SOME VEGETABLES?!!!, but fresh produce can seem expensive when you’re on a student budget, and in those days it wasn’t a priority.) So I went to the chemist and bought the multivitamin that had the most amount of things in it for the least amount of money. At the time, I felt no different, and concluded I should have saved my pennies. Read more

Modern Milk

I wanted to write this post because I’m passionate about real food. In the last year I’ve been on a mission to cut processed food out of my diet. When I think about what processed food is, images of sugary, salty and nutritionally-devoid ‘junk’ that is overpackaged in bright plastic spring to my mind. But it’s not just the sugary snacks that are over-processed. When you visit the milk aisle in the shop, there’s dozens of different products with a variety of claims, and it’s difficult to know what they all mean and whether they’re actually good for us.

Modern Milk

The majority of dairy milk comes from cows. Records show people in central Europe started dairy farming and developed lactose tolerance 7,500 years ago (see here), so humans have been drinking cow’s milk for a pretty long time. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the milk probably hasn’t changed much since then. I mean, it still looks the same. But actually, modern farming practices have changed the nature of milk significantly, and not for the better.

So what’s changed?

Pasteurization vs Raw

Pasteurization of milk was first demonstrated in 1886 as a way of extending the shelf-life of milk. Milk is an excellent medium for pathogens, meaning they can multiply quickly, and cause spoilage. Pasteurization is a heat treatment: milk is forced through pipes warmed on the outside by hot water so the milk is heated to 72ºC for 15 seconds. This process reduces pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria and moulds that may be present in the raw milk.

Before pasteurization, milk was consumed raw. If raw milk is consumed when fresh from healthy cows the health risks are much smaller. Raw milk became a big health issue after industrialisation. Intensive farming conditions mean cows are more likely to contract and harbour disease and also spread it amongst other cattle. Lengthy supply chains mean milk is not consumed soon after milking, giving pathogens a chance to multiply and cause illness when the milk is finally consumed. Pasteurization doesn’t create clean milk, it cleans dirty milk.

The pasteurization of milk means that as well as killing any pathogenic bacteria, the heat treatment also kills beneficial bacteria. Heat also damages vitamins, nutrients and denatures proteins. For example, raw milk contains vitamin C but this is destroyed by pasteurization. Because of its enhanced nutrition raw milk is becoming more popular (although it is illegal to drink it in certain countries including Australia) but there are still risks.

UHT (Long-Life)

UHT means ultra-heat treated, and this means the milk has been heated to 138ºC for at least 2 seconds. This extra treatment means the milk can be stored at room temperature in a sealed container, and will have a shelf-life of 6-9 months. However the higher temperatures mean some of the sugars are burned and UHT milk has a different flavour to regular pasteurized milk. It also means more of the nutrients and vitamins have been destroyed.

Homogenised vs Non-Homogenised

If left to stand, cows’ milk naturally separates. The high-fat cream rises to the top, and the low-fat milk is left underneath, leaving two distinct layers. (If you shake the container, they will mix together again.)

Homogenised milk doesn’t do this; instead the fat molecules are distributed evenly throughout the milk. In order to achieve this, the milk is mechanically forced through a fine filter at high pressure (4000 psi) which destoys the flat globule cell wall and forces the fat into tiny molecules that remain suspended.

Milk is homogenised so that it creates a uniform product, because supermarkets like to stock identical standardised products. It also makes milk look whiter. It saves us the “hassle” of giving it a shake when we take it out the fridge. Oh, and it increases shelf life slightly, so shops can keep it on their shelves for longer – up to 11 days.

So it’s good for the retailers – but what about our health? Well, homogenisation of milk has been linked to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Milk contains an enzyme called xanthine oxidase (XO) that can generate free radicals. In non-homogenised milk, XO is mostly free-floating which means it can be digested by gastric acids and enzymes. However, when milk is homogenised the new artificially-created micro fat molecules encapsulate the XO, meaning when it passes through the digestive system it has a protective ‘coating’ and is not broken down.

The health implications and safety of homogenised milk has been a research topic since the 1960s, particularly in relation to XO.  Research suggests that the XO in homogenised milk is absorbed into the bloodstream where it causes damage to arterial cell walls. The body’s response is to ‘repair’ the damage by depositing plaque  – which causes heart disease. Whilst it has been demonstrated that XO is present in diseased arterial tissue, and that XO causes tissue damage, critics argue the evidence that this source of XO is homogenised milk is inconclusive.

A1 and A2 proteins

The protein in milk is made up of casein proteins and whey proteins. One of the major proteins, beta-casein (or β-casein), has two variants which are called A1 and A2. A2 beta-casein is recognised as the original variant, whereas A1 is a mutation that happened later. In dairy milking cows, Guernsey cows have the highest A2 levels with over 90%, Jersey cows also have a higher proportion of A2, and Holstein (the white cows with black spots that are the most common milking variety in Australia, USA and UK) and Friesian have around half A1 and half A2.

There is scientific research that suggests that consumption of beta-casein A1 milk may be a risk factor for a number of diseases including type-1 diabetes, coronary heart disease and arteriosclerosis (here and here).

When milk is digested, a peptide called BCM7 is created. A1 milk generates 4 times the levels of BCM7 than A2 milk. BCM7 affects receptors in the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, and is believed to be an important factor in the build-up of plaque in the arteries (summary here).

Full-fat, semi-skimmed, 1% and skimmed (fat-free)

Milk naturally contains about 4% fat. You can by this natural full fat or ‘whole’ milk in the shops; you can also buy other types with reduced fat content or skimmed/fat free milk which contains less than 0.5% fat.

The fat in milk is called butterfat. The viamins A, D, E and K are all fat-soluble and are found in the buttermilk. To make reduced-fat milk, you need to remove the fat, and this also removes the vitamins. Some companies add synthetic vitamins back in, particularly A and D. Vitamin D2 is a synthetic vitamin added to milk, but it is not as effective as natural vitamin D (this American Journal of Clinical Nutrition paper claims it should not be used as a supplement). And as it’s fat-soluble, it is questionable whether the body can absorb it from fat-free milk.

Full-fat milk moves through the body more slowly, and people with lactose-intolerance are less sensitive to full fat milk than to skimmed milk (here).

To keep the texture of skimmed milk, which does not contain fat, skimmed milk powder is usually added back in. It will not necessarily tell you so on the label either! Skimmed milk powder has its own health concerns – see below.

It’s worth remembering that whole fat milk is not actually that high in fat. It has a 4% fat content, so is 96% fat free.

Powdered Milk

Powdered milk is made by evaporating the water from milk using heat, after homogenisation. The most common method is spray drying, where the milk is sprayed into a chamber with circulating hot air. The water evaporates and the powdered milk is collected.

This heat in this process can cause the cholesterol in milk to oxidise. Oxidised cholesterol triggers the formation of plaque in the arteries and can lead to heart disease.

Grass-fed vs Corn-fed

Cows are designed to eat grass and hay. They have four stomachs to help them digest it! They’re not designed to eat corn and soy-based feeds. Cows have trouble digesting corn, which leads to health problems including bloating, acidosis, diarrhea, ulcers, liver disease, and weakens their immune system.

Grazing cows on grass requires a lot more space and produces less milk than confining them to small spaces and feeding them corn and soy, which is why farmers who put profits above animal welfare choose the latter. But to combat the health problems this creates, cows fed corn are also routinely fed antibiotics.

More milk equals more profits, but the quality is reduced. Grass-fed cows produce milk with higher vitamin, omega-3 and omega-6 content, and don’t need routine antibiotics to stay healthy.

Organic

Organically produced milk means the farmers must adhere to strict guidelines and standards that encourage sustainable practices. There are number of different certification schemes and different schemes will have different standards. Whilst they vary the principles include a focus on good animal husbandry, cattle being allowed to graze on grass for at least some of their diet and the routine use of antibiotics is not permitted. Any feed that is given to the cattle must also be organic. Organic milk is more expensive because of the extra costs involved, and average milk yields are often a third less than in intensive production. However,the mineral and vitamin content is higher, animal welfare is much higher and the quality is considered better.

So what can I do?

milkjpgThe closer that the milk you buy is to its natural state, the better it is for you, and the better it tastes. All of these processes aren’t designed to improve things for us as consumers; they’re designed to make things easier for the supermarkets and to increase their profits.

However it’s really hard to find a product that ticks ALL the boxes! The milk I buy is pasteurised, non-homogenised and full cream. I would prefer to buy organic, but as I can’t buy organic milk locally, I buy from a small local dairy that uses Guernsey cows that are grass-fed. Being classified as organic literally means you’ve got the certificate, but there are plenty of small dairies that farm with the same principles and ideals, but haven’t been certified for reasons of cost (it can be expensive) or time (it is often neccessary to wait several years before land can officially be classed as organic).

As a bonus, the milk I buy comes in glass bottles that can be returned for re-use. Plastic-free!

Choosing to buy from  small-scale (and organic) dairy farmers means you can support a sustainable industry and not line the pockets of a massive supermarket chain. These farmers can charge a premium for their milk, and you get a far better product too. I promise you that if you make the switch you will be able to taste the difference!

Getting sick…and eating myself better

Getting sick is your body’s way of telling you that you’re doing too much and you need to slow down and take it easy. Of course I know this, but every time I feel like a cold/flu virus is coming on, I decide that the best way to deal with it is to ignore it, carry on at full speed with the things I normally do, and hope it goes away.

This never ends well. My body’s response is, well if you’re not going to slow down after I’ve given out the warning signs, then I’m going to force you to stay in bed by making you too sick to get up.

You’d think I’d learn, but oh, no. And so it goes that on Monday I started feeling unwell but decided to push through, and by Tuesday night I was in bed by 7.30m. And so today, when I have a million things I need/want to do, I’m forced to spend the morning in bed. I don’t like sitting around and doing nothing, I like to be going at 100 miles an hour all the time, so if I’m overdoing things I only find out about it when I’m forced to stop. If only I’d heeded the warning signs!

So now I’m accepting defeat and am trying to do my best to make myself better again. It would have been far better if I’d done this at the start, but still.

Echinacea

I don’t take many (actually I don’t take any) supplements but I do take echinacea when I’m sick, having been recommended it by my regular GP over 10 years ago. There are many studies that show it is effective in reducing cold symptoms and I do feel that once I start taking it, the recovery process seems to speed up. And if it seems to work, I’ll continue to take it!

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Fresh fruit juice and smoothies

Having recently had my enthusiasm for juicing and smoothie-making revived, these two gadgets are getting a pretty good workout at the moment. Since I started with the daily green smoothie for breakfast I thought I’d never get ill again. (Although I didn’t have one on Saturday morning – could that be the reason for all this?) The great thing about smoothies and juices is that in addition to the fluids that you’re always told you’re supposed to have when you’re ill, you getting all the nutrients, minerals, vitamins and enzymes from the vegetables and fruit that you’re blending or juicing too. If you’re making juice you really need to use organic where possible, because otherwise you’re just squeezing a load of pesticides in there too.

Superfood Salads

The other thing I think it’s really important to do is eat loads of nutritious foods. This is difficult when all you can be bothered to do is make toast, but your body will get better faster if it’s getting more vitamins and nutrients. Hot buttered toast may be one of the ultimate comfort foods, but it ain’t exactly packed with nutrition. And just looking at a colourful meal packed full of vegetables makes me feel better!

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Quinoa salad with beetroot, sweet potato, flaxseed oil, broccoli, cucumber, chickpeas and almonds. Yum!

Rest

Okay, okay, so I’m still writing the blog, which isn’t exactly total rest, but I’m sitting in bed, and for me sitting still at all is a pretty big achievement. Resting gives your body the chance to use all those nutrients and boosts your immune system, so it can fight off the infection. Of course the temptation will be, as soon as I start to feel marginally better, to get up again and try to do all those things that are just waiting to be done. Hopefully I can take my own advice and stay still long enough to recover properly. Fingers crossed!

Fruit and vegetable shopping…the sustainable way

Wednesday night is vegetable box delivery night. This is a fairly new thing for us in Australia, although we had used vegetable box delivery schemes in the UK. Last night was our third delivery, and we’ve decided to make it a regular weekly thing.

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Our first veg box delivery. Completely plastic- and actually all unnecessary packaging- free!

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