Wednesday, October 29, 2014

BPA In Your Coffee?

With all the hype these days about BPA in plastic, there's one place that this questionable chemical may be lurking that never occurred to me until recently.

Those of us who are serious about reducing toxins in our personal environment have probably already switched from plastic containers to glass or stainless. We are filtering our water at home and avoiding the plastic water bottles as much as we can. But what about our coffee?

A few years ago, I fell in love with the now very popular Keurig brand coffee maker. Variety being the spice of life, it was wonderful to have a different flavor with virtually every cup. No more boring Folgers coffee (sorry, Folgers). And no more stale overheated and somewhat condensed coffee three hours into the morning, most of which ends up down the drain. A lovely fresh cup of java every single time. My relationship with my Keurig coffee maker is a bit of a love/hate thing. Sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes all I get is a pathetic dribble that produces maybe a half cup of coffee. But that's a different conversation. I will probably never own any other brewer. I'm hooked.

But what about those little "k-cups"? How healthy are they, really?

The k-cups themselves may or may not contain BPA. The plastic material is rated a "7" because it is a mix of plastics. According to the Mayo Clinic, "plastics marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA." But "may be" doesn't necessarily mean "are." Keurig says they do not contain BPA, so feel free to take them at their word. In my house, we've started using the Ekobrew stainless refillable k-cups because it's cheaper. But when I use the Keurig cups, I've started cutting off the bottom so the hot water doesn't touch any least from the k-cup.

On the other hand, the brewer itself is, of course, made of plastic, and the reservoir that holds the hot water does contain BPA, according to Keurig. And one thing we also know is that with plastics containing BPA, it is very important to avoid heat, as this causes the chemicals to leach into your food...or in this case, water.

The next logical question is, how much BPA is too much? WebMD has this to say: "The FDA maintains that studies using standardized toxicity tests have shown BPA to be safe at the current low levels of human exposure." Of course the FDA doesn't attempt to define exactly what the "current low levels of human exposure" are. BPA is literally everywhere. In plastics, in the plastic linings of cans. It coats receipts, CDs and DVDs. It's in the plastic parts of your car, it's in sports equipment. It's in the sealant your dentist may be putting on your teeth. It's in the plastic containers of microwavable food, probably in the containers of the leftovers you take home from the restaurant and store in your refrigerator. You're touching it, you're drinking it, and you're eating it.

In an experiment by the Harvard School of Public Health, participants were divided into two groups. One group was fed a 12 ounce can of soup, the other was fed a homemade soup prepared from fresh ingredients. As noted in The Hidden Dangers Of BPA, "The results of the test were striking and showed that the group who ate the canned soup had over 1,221% higher levels of BPA in their urine. This was after consuming just 12 ounces of soup!" Is that considered by the FDA and our medical establishment to be a "low level?"

When the FDA makes its decisions about regulating potentially toxic substances such as BPA, it focuses on research done by government scientists like Justin Teeguarden, whose research looked at how much BPA actually makes it into the bloodstream in a dangerous form from foods eaten. Since the body filters toxins through the liver and intestines, his conclusion, as presented in an NPR article, How Much BPA Exposure Is Dangerous?, was that those filtering functions were sufficient to protect us from the toxic effects of BPA. The chemical was undetectable in the blood of any of the twenty subjects in his study. Bear in mind, the study was over one day, not many years. It's true that the liver filters our blood, but how much of a load can it handle before it becomes overwhelmed. I doubt this can be determined in a one-day study. And let's not forget, without compelling and irrefutable evidence of harm, the FDA usually rules in favor of industry, not consumers.

BPA is an endocrine disrupter (like soy). It's an estrogenic, which means it mimics estrogen and can alter hormone levels in both men and women. Studies have connected it to tumor development (breast, testicular, and prostate), endometriosis, and low sperm count as well as chronic conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It may be especially problematic in infants and growing children because their bodies are still forming and their immune system and toxic filtering systems are not fully developed.

We are told that although there may be correlation, there is no "direct evidence" that BPA is responsible for these ailments. This isn't exactly true. Many studies have been done on animals, there are just no studies that have been done on humans. We know that animal and human metabolism are never exactly the same. But it's not likely that a significant study of the effects of BPA on humans will ever be done. Eating one 12 ounce bowl of soup is one thing. Most people do that on a regular basis. But  who wants to subject themselves to toxins over a long period of time? And yet, that's exactly (it turns out) what we're all doing, whether we realize it or not.

Here's another disturbing thought. What if ALL PLASTICS share the same problems that make BPA so harmful? From an article in entitled, The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics:
"CertiChem [a lab in Texas] and its founder, George Bittner, who is also a professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin, had recently coauthored a paper in the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It reported that 'almost all' commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens—even when they weren't exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun's ultraviolet rays. According to Bittner's research, some BPA-free products actually released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA."
Avoiding plastic completely may never be realistic, but even eliminating just the known BPA-containing plastic is an ongoing challenge. I drink water from a stainless steel water bottle. I cook, prepare, and store food in glass. But that's where it ends. How can we avoid the other myriad exposures to BPA? I could get rid of my Keurig and go back to brewing my coffee the old fashioned way. I could... but I won't, at least not yet. 

There may well be BPA in my coffee. But I will trust my liver to do its job for now and hope for the best. 

The Keurig will break down eventually, and I will have another opportunity to consider a wiser choice.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Joys of Gelatin

Everybody LOVES Jello. At some point, I think I owned every "Joys of Jello" cookbook they made. "Sunshine Salad"--which, if you're not familiar with, is lemon jello loaded with pineapple bits and shredded carrot--was a traditional Thanksgiving feast item. Really, I'm almost sure it came down to us from the Pilgrims. Anyway, it was traditional in our house--both growing up, and after I became the cook. And who doesn't love jello desserts made from any-flavored Jello and Cool Whip? Throw in a little canned fruit. Heavenly, right?

Heavenly, until I became aware.

Awareness is a burdensome thing. It demands action. Now that I know something, what will I do about it?

It was nothing short of a severe food allergy in my youngest son that caused me to start reading labels and to pay attention for the first time to Jello's troublesome ingredients. Besides gelatin, Jello products consist mostly of sugar and artificial ingredients-- artificial colors, artificial flavors and flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives. Gelatin, itself, is an incredibly healthy substance, but toxins such as chemical additives are not.

There are some wonderful benefits to eating foods high in gelatin. Here are some highlights from an article by Laura Shoenfeld, a registered dietician with a Masters Degree in Public Health, entitled 5 Reasons Why Even Vegetarians Should Eat Gelatin...

  • Gelatin contains glycine. If you eat lots of animal protein, you'll need adequite glycine to balance out the methionine from meat. (See the article for more about methionine.)
  • Gelatin is good for your gut.
  • It helps improve joint health and reduce inflammation.
  • It promotes healthy skin and hair.
  • It helps you sleep.

When my kids were little, I made "healthy" jello from fruit juice, gelatin, and a little sugar. But even though I believed I was giving them a low-sugar treat, it wasn't as low-sugar as I thought because I failed to take into account the naturally occurring sugars in the fruit juice itself.

More recently I ran across a recipe for making "paleo" jello. It's made using pureed fruit, gelatin, and water. It's not too bad, but it's not really how gelatin was meant to be eaten. Gelatin is an animal by-product. It comes from the bones and connective tissue of animals.

If you want to add healthy gelatin to your diet, the best way to do it is to make bone broth. Simply simmer the bones from pasture-raised animals (beef, or chicken are my favorites) in a crock pot with a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar for 12 to 24 hours. Strain off the broth and discard the bones. The vinegar aids in pulling the minerals out of the bones, leaving you with a nutrient-dense collagen-rich super broth. I do this regularly and probably get more gelatin in my body these days than I ever used to. Bone broth can be added to soups and stews, and you can simmer your vegetables in it. It also makes great mashed potatoes if you're cooking for someone with dairy allergies. Simply boil the potatoes in bone broth until tender, pour off most of the broth, reserving a little in case it's needed. Then whip the potatoes with a few tablespoons of butter, and add the reserved broth if needed to get your desired consistency.

Another option is to add gelatin to your diet as a supplement. My favorite is Great Lakes brand unflavored gelatin. I add it to my coffee and it helps reduce the guilt of drinking something I know I should probably give up. (One day I will, I promise. I don't think there will be coffee in Heaven.) There is very little flavor to pure gelatin and the strong coffee taste completely masks it. Make sure you dissolve it in a little cold water first before adding the coffee or other hot liquid to your cup-- otherwise you'll get unpleasant lumps.

I never realized before how important gelatin is to joint health; and, unfortunately, it has become one of the many casualties of processed foods. Is it possible that one of the reasons so many people are suffering from arthritis in their fifties and sixties is that we are no longer cooking from scratch? All our soups are coming from a can and gelatin is nowhere to be found. Our meat is conveniently boneless and when we do consume meat on the bone, the bones end up in the dog's dish or the garbage instead of in a healthy broth.

Perhaps improving our overall health is as simple as returning to traditional cooking methods. It takes time and energy to cook like our grandparents did, but if the result is a better quality of life, maybe it's worth the effort.

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