Tag Archives: food

OMG GMOs no. 1

Many of us have strong reactions to the word GMO and I would wager that many of those people do not understand why they feel so strongly about them or, even more fundamentally, what a GMO even is.

I felt that I understood what a GMO was and because I thought I knew what they were, I believed I had a choice to avoid them. However, my husband and I were recently at the Home Depot and I decided to get some last minute broccoli seeds. My husband was immediately drawn to these bright green packages that clearly stated non-GMO.  I wandered away from those packages because it was not clear whether they were Hybrids and they were not organic.  When I  went to the other side of the seed display and saw the organic offerings of a large seed company, I noticed that there were no non-GMO claims on the label. Nonetheless, I felt confident that home garden seeds had not been breached by genetic modification and that my husband was confusing hybrids, or traditional plant breeding, with genetic modification.  I insisted that I was not at risk of getting GMO seeds even if it did not say so on the label and I was pretty sure that organic meant that it was not GMO.  But a tiny part of me wasn’t exactly sure.  I was making a lot of assumptions and I hate not being right, so I thought I would explore.  And it turns out that this is going to be a 2 or 3-parter… because the background part got really long.  I hope you come back for more!

In order to delve into this question on the non-GMO-ness of garden vegetable seeds, let’s first take a step back and figure out what GMO means. GMO stands for gentically modified organism. You so totally knew that, I know. But just in case you wanted to read this to your seven year old, I am going ultra basic here. The scientific field in which this happens is called recombinant technology or biotechnology. Other terms are Genetic Engineering and BioEngineering.  These are all terms that should make you perk up and pay attention. In general, in relation to plants, the genetically modified (GM) industry explains that biotechnology is the creation of plants with traits that you cannot develop from traditional plant breeding.  The non-GM people tend to agree with that. They tend to believe that traditional or conventional plant breeding ascribes to the laws of nature.

But this is the part that I find confusing and the line that I do not think is entirely clear.  It is also the part that I think weakens the non-GMO argument.   The problem, you see, is that anti-GMOers keep wanting to argue that traditional plant breeding creates plants in a natural way or that plant-breeding is a gentle science, allowing plants to live their lives and just waiting to see what might happen. Certainly, it can work that way.   This article I came across describes organic plant breeding and shows that this type of plant selection can be very gentle.  It can also take years and years.  It soon becomes clear why plant breeders might not have enough patience to just wait and see what happens. More than that, plant breeders want or need to create new plants.  Historically, breeding might have happened the in the field where we might have been after plants that performed well under stressful conditions such as longer periods without rain, periods with too much rain, too hot, to cold, etc.  These were conditions that would have occurred naturally and the plants that survived those conditions would be selected either intentionally or because it was the only thing growing.  But breeders have not stopped at natural conditions to cause stress. They have subjected plants to gamma rays, x-rays, thermal neutrons (whatever those are), and radiation–all to induce mutations.  For an eye-popping list, click here.   There’s a lot of fruit on that list.

Beyond just mutating genes, breeders also develop new plants by crossing between existing plants.  And, again, non-GMOers tend to argue that breeding creates plants that obey the laws of nature and that plant breeding is really just establishing an environment that encourages or speeds up natural crosses between varieties or species. But that is not accurate.  Plant breeding is not necessarily gentle and plant breeders cross plants that would never naturally cross. Plant breeders, in fact, breed hybrids between plant genera as well as plant species.  Because Biology class was probably a long, long time ago, this is how life breaks down:

Now, plant breeding can be gentle, such as the pollen of one variety of tomato getting brushed on the lady parts of another variety.  These tomatoes are in the same species and this cross might happen naturally with bees busily buzzing around.  But that is not what breeding is limited to. Breeders create new plants by crossing between species all the time. Think plums and apricots (pluots)-both species in the genus prunus.  Scientists seem to support that this can happen naturally–or, at least that it is fairly easy to do.  However, breeders don’t stop there. Crosses in the plant world between genera are referred to as wide crosses, and plant breeders do this with some regularity as well. After a relatively short search, I found several examples of wide crosses and even discovered an easy way to identify intergeneric crosses. (See this article.)  The author of that article explains that “[f]or plants from different genera to successfully cross, they must share the same chromosome number and enough similarity in their DNA sequence to match up in enough places to create a viable seed. Intergeneric hybrids … are relatively rare in the plant kingdom as a whole. I know of no examples where they occurred without the helping hand of man.”

This article, which I will admit is so technical it made my eyes cross, demonstrates that crossing genera is not exactly natural. The wide cross made here required that embryos from the two plants were dissected and then plated on HLH medium–I’m not really sure what that is, but it certainly was something that helped recombine the embryos since without help that embryo would not have survived to form a seedling.  This article explained that it can take a lot of effort to make an embryo viable.  This type of crossing–really, any type of crossing–is, in some form, recombinant.  In an enthusiastic defense of conventional plant breeding and its differences from genetic engineering (GE) this author argues that, “while wide crosses, as breeders perform them, do not occur in nature, they represent only a slight stretching of the boundaries of what can occur in nature. In a sense wide crosses represent a stretching of these boundaries by inches compared to miles with GE. After all, with GE, one can mix genes not only from widely different plant families, one can put genes from any organism on earth, or can create genes which have not existed before and put them, into plants.”  This defense highlights the slipper slope of the debate.  They are essentially saying that stretching the bounds of nature somewhat is okay, but not too much.

And this is where I think that the arguments start to weaken against GMOs.  I don’t say this as a proponent of GMOs, but as a proponent of putting arguments out there that can’t be so easily refuted.  Non-GMOers should stop saying that plant-breeding is okay because it is obeys the laws of nature.  Most wide crosses would simply never, ever naturally exist, no matter how close together you put the plants you were trying to cross and no matter how long you waited for them to cross. The Non-Gmo project defines GMOs as “living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”   It is only the second part of this definition that separates GMOs from traditional plant breeding, since we have established that traditional plant breeding created organisms by manipulating their genes in a lab.  It isn’t even the unstable, natural part in the second sentence that separates the two sciences, since traditional plant breeding creates unstable plants all the time that do not occur in nature.  It really just comes down to the combination of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that don’t occur in nature. That last clause leads me to to ask, “Well, what combinations of those genes do occur in nature?” An article published on June 20, 2013 in The Scientist Magazine claimed that a University of Maryland School of Medicine Study found strong evidence that bacteria transfer their genes into human genomes.  Another article in The Scientist Magazine published much more recently states that horizontal gene transer “definitely can happen and has happened during evolution, and has played a role in shaping functional diversity of the gene repertoire in metazoans.” Accordingly, there is already, historically, some combination of bacteria and animal DNA that occurs in nature.

After all this research, I can honestly say that I am not a fan of GMOs, though my reasons are more solidly in the agricultural-ecological-economical camp. I am just not buying the whole science of it.  The strongest argument I have come across is that we need more research because the way the DNA is introduced in GMO plants is unnatural and random and the consequences of re-sequencing of DNA  in this way is unknown.  This is the strongest argument because the results are, well, unknown… but they could be benign, they cold be harmful.    But, one of my first thoughts when hearing this argument is that randomly inserting genetic material just sounds like another mutation, which is just a change in the DNA–often an unpredictable change.  And mutations caused by stress, disease, and even radiation seem to be accepted as okay.   It seems to me that, if an apple tree developed a mutation that led to a desirable fruit, we would likely graft that apple tree and sell it.  But we probably wouldn’t question how the rearranging of DNA in that apple would affect our bodies.  Research into how GMO plants affect our bodies should be done because we need to know how anything we eat affects out bodies.  However, I don’t know that research will show that it is bad for you or changes anything in your body.  Again, it is not necessarily a science argument that sways me from GMOs.  It is the economic and agricultural devastation that they are wreaking and the poisons they require to grow.  I plant to discuss that in the third part of this series.

In the next segment, I will actually get around to discussing whether vegetable seeds are GMO even if they are not labeled GMO.  Your comments are more than welcome.  However, I know that people get very heated about this topic, so please remain civil.

 

Additional Sources:

http://www.ofrf.org/sites/ofrf.org/files/Introduction_to_On-farm_Organic_Plant_Breeding.pdf

http://www.bats.ch/bats/publikationen/1995-1_TA/2-methods.php

http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/05/17/organic-101-can-gmos-be-used-in-organic-products/

https://books.google.com/books?id=cT9uAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA164&lpg=PA164&dq=dissecting+plant+embryos+for+breeding&source=bl&ots=Q8Rw1i73u7&sig=dy-3wTPN5dcfXGQe-jzm0crycVg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6N1DVfXRIcXegwSIsYHYBA&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=dissecting%20plant%20embryos%20for%20breeding&f=false

http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2013/07/30/the-intensifying-debate-over-genetically-modified-foods/

http://monsantoblog.com/2009/04/13/gmo-vegetables-animal-dna/

 

 

When I think of a genetically modified organism in terms of plants, I think of a plant that has had genetic material from non-plants.

Are hybrids genetically modified? In a strict sense, yes.

 

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In the Whey

I have been making my own yogurt now for several weeks.  I heat up the milk, cool down the milk, add a cup of yogurt from the prior batch and stick it in the turned-off oven. And, to my continuous shock and awe, the next morning it is yogurt. I am still amazed that this is such an easy process and that it works–even in those instances that I think I have screwed it up. But alas, I make yogurt. Really delicious, healthy yogurt with good ingredients. However, I also make whey. Quite a lot of it.  Especially since I strain and strain the yogurt for about 8 hours after I remove the freshly made yogurt from its little incubator.

The first week, I just threw out the whey because I didn’t know anything about it.  I didn’t know how long it would last in the fridge, how to store it, what to do with it, etc.  I figured, though, that more industrious people out there probably used the whey for stuff, so I hit the search engines and found a lot of really great, useful tips to using whey. Mostly the recommendation is to sneak it in as a liquid to things. So the second week of making yogurt, I kept the whey and added it to my chicken soup stock, spaghetti sauce, to deglaze pans…lots of things that would not be hurt by a bit of liquid. I just figured it was healthy and it did not affect the taste of anything.  Added protein and all that. I mean, my husband spends a lot of money on whey protein, so I thought win-win.

Then I boasted to my husband about all the little ways I had been sneaking the whey into our meals.  I realized, though that while I thought it was good for us, I couldn’t really explain in what way it was good for us.

Once again, I did some research.  I came across some disturbing information. It seems that there are two different types of whey out there–sweet whey (SW) that you get from making hard cheeses, and acid or sour whey (AW) that you get from making yogurt or cottage cheese. An oft mentioned and quoted article I came across entitled “Whey Too Much: Greek Yogurt’s Dark Side “ made it seem that the AW was a useless and dangerous by-product. Apparently, greek yogurt production has sky-rocketed and produced a large amount of AW. However, whereas the dairy industry has long since found buyers for SW, there has not been the same enthusiasm for AW as a source for extracting much of anything.  Article after article claimed that AW doesn’t have that much protein at all and that the AW was typically cast off as fertilizer, feed, or as enzymes for waste product.

The information that AW was really low in protein was pretty readily available in scores of publications and articles. But the information about what AW did have was more complicated to discover.  I found a lot of articles on whey–most of it from homesteading and food blogs with very clever titles with cute whey puns (how could you not, really? The puns practically write themselves).  These are great resources with a lot of great ideas, but, not surprisingly, not a lot of scientific information. I eventually came across the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, which is part of the University of Wisconsin, and this led me to some great information that I felt was trustworthy.

Generally speaking, AW and SW  are similar in that they are about 95% water. However, as the name would imply, AW is much more acidic, with AW in general having a pH of 5.5 or less with Greek Yogurt  AW coming in at a pH of 4.2.  SW has a pH of around 6.0. Some of the articles I came across were quick to point out that AW is as acidic as orange juice… and I almost parroted that information right back to you. But then it occurred to me that I now know how acidic the AW is, but just how acidic was orange juice?  This chart shows that the above claim is a bit of a stretch.  Orange juice has a pH range of 3.3-4.19.  So as a reach, the most acidic greek yogurt whey it is as acidic as the least acidic orange juice.  The acidity of greek yogurt AW is much more in line with garden tomatoes and nectarines, and AW overall is much more in line with the acidity of pumpkins and bananas.  So while the acid is definitely a component of my AW, it is probably only an issue in a practical, functional sense if I have a sensitivity to acid in general.

But, what else is in my AW? Well, according to the below chart, it has protein, lactose, calcium and other assorted minerals. AW, in fact, has anywhere from .3% to .5% of protein in its makeup.  Far less than one percent! This, indeed, does not sound like a lot. But then you look at SW, and it only has .8% protein. Yet, SW is lauded for its protein.  There is not that much of it in there! It appears that the getting protein out of AW is not so much an issue of the amount of protein, but that the whey is not easy to extract from the AW.

Below is a chart to what is a practical break-down of using one cup of whey, since .05% protein did not translate easily to grams in my little brain.  As you can see, the one cup of AW give you an added 1.87 grams of protein.  In comparison, one cup of SW give you right around 2 grams.  (Ahem–not much of a difference, is there?!)

Also evident from the first chart, AW has less lactose than SW.  Is that good or bad, you ask if –like me– you have no idea what lactose is other than that some people are intolerant of it?  This is a good thing since lactose is essentially sugar. Lactose is what feeds the bacteria and that feeding produces lactic acid, which is what makes the AW acid.  As a commodity, lactose seems to be used as a filler and preservative, so there really does not seem to be any advantage to having more of it, though our food scientists are currently hard at work to attempt to extract lactose from AW to use as a food additive.  Shame on you, food system.  Here is probably the biggest draw back to using whey: lactose is sugar.  One cup of AW give you almost half of your 25 gram maximum for daily sugar intake– if you use World Health Organization guidelines (and you should!). (And, of course, if you are lactose intolerant, it is important to note that any type of whey will likely bother you.)

But it is not as easy as looking at something and isolating its sugar content. Whey has a lot going for it in terms of the added benefits it brings to the table.  For example, another by-product of the lactose feeding frenzy described above is calcium.  AW has 2-3 times more calcium than SW and one cup has about 25% of your daily requirements.  That’s pretty great for someone who does not like or drink milk. AW also has phosphorus, zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium, riboflavins, vitamin b-12, and a whole lot of other stuff.

So in summary, is whey a super food? This article seems to think so.  Though I have some reservations.  My original concerns after reading over and over again how little protein AW had was that I was adding nothing more than sugars and empty calories to everything.  But it is not at all empty.  There is a decent amount of protein (and it is particularly good protein) and a great amount of calcium, in addition to many other vitamins and minerals.  To something that already is low in sugar, such as my chicken noodle soup, I wouldn’t hesitate to add it.  It adds a nice amount of substance making a heartier more fortifying meal out of a bowl of soup.  But perhaps I may stop adding it to tomato sauce since that already has a high amount of natural and added sugars.  To a smoothie, I might add it to mine for some interesting tang and a tough of sweetness, but not to my husband’s if the acid content is already high.   And I think I am confident in pronouncing that AW is better for you than SW (less sugar, roughly the same amount of protein, less fat, more vitamins and minerals!). So if you are already a SW devotee, then AW is even better and you can feel confident that articles expressing how good for you SW apply equally (if not more so) to AW.

This article was a bit longer than I intended since every answer led to more questions.   But, more and more, I want to know exactly what I am eating and I hope you enjoyed the ride!

If you use whey, please share how you like to use it.

Sources:

http://www.usdairy.com/~/media/usd/public/technicalreportsensorypropertiesofwheyingredients.pdf.pdf

http://www.news.wisc.edu/23557

http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/digestive-diseases/lactose-intolerance/Pages/facts.aspx

http://modernfarmer.com/2013/05/whey-too-much-greek-yogurts-dark-side/

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/16/health/nutrition/16run.html?_r=0

http://www.dairyforall.com/whey.php

http://www.cheesemaking.com/Whey1.html

http://www.livestrong.com/article/533194-nutritional-value-of-milk-whey-liquid/

Egg-cellent Hack

I am taking this dip into food blogging not so much by giving you a delicious recipe, but by inspiring you with a shortcut that not only produces something delicious but also cuts down on dishes and time! Behold the egg-sandwich– or, rather, the eggy part you can put in a sandwich. Normally, this would take quite a few steps necessitating several dirty dishes. You would break the eggs into a bowl to make them fluffy, stir with fork, pour into a pan and perhaps use a mold to get that perfect round shape, and use a spatula to remove. In this hack, you get dirty one ramekin and a fork.

Step one: grab and oil a microwave-safe ramekin or glass dish that is approximately the size of the bread you plan to use. You can even use plastic if you are not wary of its notoriety and as long as it is microwave safe.

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Step two: break the eggs directly into the dish and lightly beat. Do not add anything yet to the egg mixture or it will all end up in the middle.

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Step three: Place dish in microwave and start with cooking for 1 minute but keep an eye on the eggs. They will expand and it is a fine line between just enough and a mess in your microwave. However, only you know your microwave. One minute may not be enough. Cook until there is very little to no runniness. Start at a minute and continue in 30 second intervals.

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Step four: When you check after a minute or so and the eggs are mostly stiff, this would be the time to add herbs, salt, and cheese.
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Continue to cook until eggs are firm. The entire amount of cooking will let be between 1-2 minutes depending on the amount of eggs you use, the shallowness of your dish and the strength of your microwave.

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It’s pretty easy to know when you have overcooked eggs in the microwave– they explode. As long as you are careful not to have them blow up, you should be able to produce a great product!

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I added sage and salt in the delightful sandwich above. But the egg is essentially a blank palette just waiting for your creativity. And now you can eggs-periment all the time since making egg sandwiches are soooo easy!

Thought for Food

Several months ago I wrote an article extolling what an awesome grocery shopper I was. I boasted that my husband and I were rocking the $100.00 a week budget we set, even including toiletries, pet food, and alcohol. In that article, I wrote that “[t]he choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.” What I meant was that while we were buying lots of whole grains, produce and meat at the grocery store, we were not at all concerned about organic, free-range, hormone-free, pasture-raised, etc. We were being good citizens, but not great ones. I wrote then that in order to stick to the budget we could not really put any organic, grass-fed, free-range, local items in the shopping cart since eco-friendly and organic usually meant wallet unfriendly. To have done so would have meant either buying, like, five things or blowing the $100.00 budget–or so I thought.

One night–I believe it was in late spring–my husband watched a documentary. These things happen when you cancel cable and get bored and start to flip through Hulu. You watch documentaries. That documentary happened to be Food Inc. and he was horrified. Rather precipitously, he decided we were done with buying food at the grocery store. He also caught a great TED talk by Vicki Robin that summed up many of the ironies and foibles of our current food industry. He then decided we were going to eat local. Local and organic–and all the other adjectives that really only serve to equal expensive?! I looked at him like he was nuts. He is nuts, actually. Not because he wanted to shop differently, but because he though we could do it still for $100 a week. I laughed. I mean, that was what had gotten us into the $800 a month grocery tabs–the increasing number of trips to Whole Foods and Trader Jo’s, dabbling in organics, and starting to care about hormones (Not mine–which are completely in balance, dear husband–but the ones they inject into all the animals we eat). He said, “Let’s just try it.” I rather smugly said fine, you go to the farmer’s market and see how much food you can buy for the week.

I forget what produce he came back with, but I do remember that he brought back a whole chicken. It cost about $16 and was frozen solid. I think this and a pound of ground turkey for $10 was the only meat he managed to get. So… almost $30 for about four pounds of meat. I think in total he spent about $50 between meat and produce. Sounds pretty good, right? Except, we still needed supplies and food for the cats, general toiletries, dairy, bread, pasta, and random “exotics” such as rice, olive oil, and bananas. And he really didn’t get that much food.

Back to this chicken. Previously, I would get a chicken for roasting when they were on sale for around $2-$3 from the grocery store. At that price, you don’t feel bad about roasting the whole thing and having it for one meal. However, at $16 for one smallish chicken, the damn thing has to stretch for 3-4 meals. My husband handed it over like I would automatically know what to do with it.

Well, of course I did. I was just annoyed that it meant a lot of work for me. It was the beginning of what I now call my Sunday “homesteading.” To work with this damn chicken, I had to partially defrost it enough for me to take apart the pieces. Luckily it was a “cut-up” whole chicken which meant that I didn’t have to hack it apart. Once it was defrosted enough to pull apart, I had the breast bone and ribs, two leg quarters, two wings and some on other bony part. I took the breasts off the bone and put them in the refrigerator for one meal, stuck the thighs and wings in the crock pot for another meal and got out my largest pot to make chicken stock/soup. I did manage to get 3-4 meals out of the little sucker, but it took hours to prepare!

After many, many months of undergoing this transition, we have done a pretty good job at staying around $100.00, though we are probably closer to an average of $110.00 per month. Not bad. Especially when you consider that our dairy alone is 20%-25% of the budget. We spend more on meat and eat less of it. And I get really creative with grains, beans and produce. Especially now in the lean Winter months. We have established certain rules that are still changing with the intent of finding local providers or better choices for those items that we still buy at the grocery store. Currently, we do not buy meat from the grocery store, though we continue to shop at the grocery store for some fruit that does not grow here, like bananas and avocados, and also for pet food and supplies, tea, coffee and natural peanut butter and jelly, etc. We even found that our local grocery store carries a few local, healthy products, like bread and honey. There are many things that we would prefer to buy local, but have not been able to find a reliable vendor, such as pasta and pasta sauce. I intended to have so many tomatoes this year that I would have a ton of freezer sauce on hand, but the weather and lack of experience in gardening conspired against me. I even tried making pasta once, and found that it was fairly easy, but time consuming. However, that is really the trick to eating really well on a budget–you spend a lot of time preparing and cooking. Like I mentioned above, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen on Sundays. Though I enjoy it, it takes up a lot of time. Did I mention it was time-consuming?

On the bright side, I am no longer daunted by making chicken soup from bones and I can make one 1 pound chicken breast stretch for three great meals. My husband, who previously refused to eat asparagus and squash, has gotten more adventurous in eating, which I very much appreciate. He even accepts that we will probably eat a completely vegetarian meal at least once, if not twice, a week, and that the remainder of our meals will have less meat in general. Best of all, on most days this past summer and fall, we can look at our dinner plate and know that almost everything we were eating was grown within 50 miles of our home–and more and more was grown by our own hands.

We’ll continue to get better at this as time goes on but we have made an excellent start and we have learned so much about where our food comes from. We have gotten to know local food growers and have started to pay attention to what is going on in the food industry. I am not a non-GMO, anti-Monsanto fanatic, but I do have a deep appreciation for farmers growing food to feed the local population and I feel that we need to support that. If you are not already supporting your local producers, start now!

The easiest first step (ala Vicki Robin–you really should watch that TED talk ,it is short and funny) is to go to your grocery store and figure out which local, small producers have made it to your grocer’s shelves. Even in places like Whole Foods and Food Co-ops, this is surprisingly small. I know that our grocery store carries local honey and bread. Your purchasing power carries a lot of weight and the more those items fly off the shelf, the more the grocery store will carry local items. You can even request that your grocery store carry a certain local product.

Second, visit your farmers market and/or check out your local CSA (community supported agriculture). You may have to do some basic research on which vendors actually grown their own food (just because it shows up at the farmer’s market, doesn’t mean that it was grown locally.) Support those farmers that had their hands in the dirt that morning to cut your fresh head of cabbage. To do this, you will probably have to understand what is in season. A vendor in Illinois that has cucumbers in March probably did not grown it himself/herself. Don’t forget checking out your local agri-tourism industries such as the places you can pick apples or strawberries.

Finally, grow or find your own food! Replace your useless ornamental bushes with bushes of herbs or fruits. Plant fruit trees. Start or expand the garden, or include vegetables interspersed with the flowers.

If you have started a shift from blindly buying items at the grocery store, I would love to hear some of your accumulated knowledge and experiences.

 

Supermarket Sweep

The “Financial Independence-or bust” trip my husband and I are on doesn’t always mesh with the other life-style goals on LifeImproved. In fact, often times the goals are down-right conflicting. For example, our household budget for groceries each week is $100. For us, this includes cat food and litter, alcohol, toiletries and cosmetics. It also includes any entertaining we want to do, such as inviting friends over for dinner. Let’s just say, we don’t end up handing out too many invitations–but when we do it’s an intriguing challenge and we really hope they like boxed wine.

On normal, non-entertaining, no-special-occasion weeks, in order to stick to the budget, or to come in under budget we cannot put too many organic, grass-fed, hormone-free products in our basket. Who am I kidding?! We can’t put any of these in the basket. Eco-friendly and organic quite often means wallet unfriendly.

I want to shop local. I want to shop organic. I really do. I am a huge believer in it. But the truth is that right now I am more of a believer in sticking to the budget. And I really only choose to shop local or organic if the choice is equally convenient and comparably priced– or not much more inconvenient or expensive than the alternative. This is something we are working on, though ,because we want to shop more Eco-consciously.

The good news is that we are making some real strides. The idea is that we eventually will have such control over our groceries that we can get higher quality meat, grains and produce, as well as the eco-friendly products.

Luckily, the goals of being eco-friendly, healthy and, well, cheap aren’t always divergent. The goal to produce less waste has helped shave a fair portion of the grocery budget in the form of not buying paper towels and napkins, not to mention Swiffer wet mop pads. Also, in my goal to create less waste and be more healthy I switched from store bought laundry detergent and cleaners to home made versions, and I also stopped buying boxed rice and pasta mixes. I have to admit, though, that my goal to reduce waste was only acceptable because it was an inexpensive alternative. I can make ten meals or side dishes with a 2 pound bag of brown rice for $1.50. So win-win-win. But if it had come down to a choice? I would have chosen to win on the budget issue first. I have been considering lately switching from cheap store-brand pancake mix to a home-made choice but the recipes call for too many other expensive ingredients that I would have to buy just for the mix and the cost is not justifying the healthier, less wasteful option… Not yet. Right now we are nailing the $100 a week budget. We spend about 30% of the budget on produce, 10% on meat, 10% on the cats and the rest on everything else. I cook using whole foods and we eat a diverse and healthy diet. The choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.

These are my goals: get free range, hormone free meat; buy hormone free milk; buy fresh eggs laid by hormone free chickens; maintain or increase the level of produce we consume but get more organic varieties; replace the items that come in plastic bags with alternatives; and support local farms. But considering that to get the above in just a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, two pounds of chicken breast, two pounds of apples and and two pounds of bananas would probably be more than 30% of the budget (where as currently it is around 10%) some big changes are in order.

With those goals of getting more of the above, we have to continuously think of ways to reduce our grocery spending while still maintaining or increasing the quality of our products. We’ve been strategically planning all winter for this. Since we spend so much of our budget on produce, we just doubled our plot from last year and extending the planting season by starting a cool season in April. We should be harvesting radishes, lettuce and arugula by the end of May!

I am also researching the planting of edible perennials and annuals in my own garden. I already have a healthy herb garden and use and dry my own organic oregano, rosemary, chives, lavender, catnip, basil, parsley and sage. I plan to add more herbs and also replace some old burning bushes with edible currants or gooseberries. I just bought a black raspberry plant and a half-dozen strawberry plants.

You know what else helps save money at the grocery store? Free stuff. I am not talking about sending off for free samples, but I mean the stuff you can find in the great outdoors. I have big plans to kick up the level of my foraging this year. I highly recommend the book Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong. There are lots of books out there for edible plants but this one is wonderful! It has really clear photos, descriptions of the where to find the plants, how aggressive you should be with its harvesting, descriptions of how it tastes, and recipes!

Twelve Posts of Christmas Reinvented

The inspiration for these posts, quite obviously, is the traditional holiday song “Twelve days of Christmas”. It is a little tune that most readers are probably familiar with and that just may be getting stuck in your head right now. Sorry about that. The song is kind of annoying. But I guess it is interesting and mysterious enough to be a constant source of speculation around this time of year. Indeed, I am not original in repurposing this classic song.

For example, every year PNC posts the Christmas Index. This is an index using the items discussed in the song, adjusted for inflation. In other words, the Christmas Index comes out every year telling you how much you would have to spend today to get your true love each item on the “Twelve days of Christmas.” For a great read on the Christmas index, read this article. The index includes the birds and stuff as well as hiring the dancers and milking maids, etc. Not surprisingly, it is the cost of labor that makes the Twelve Days of Christmas so expensive for your true love.

Many out there have probably heard of the Christmas Index before, and it’s an interesting thing to run across every now and then. However, I recently discovered another take on the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Author and researcher Olga Kazan has just come out with an article titled “Health Consequences of Actually Living the Twelve Days of Christmas.” This is a fascinating read that starts off with a scintillating history of the song and then launches into the effects of eating the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are surprisingly healthy if you remember to milk, dance, leap, pipe and drum as well.

This article also references another Twelve Days hanger-on… Heal Farm, out of England makes a stuffed bird (inside a stuffed bird inside another stuffed bird and so on…) using birds referenced in the song. Click on the link above to read more about the “12 Bird True Love Roast.” It’s a bit pricy, but it “[w]ill feed around 125 people, takes 10 hours to cook and yields around 4 litres of flavoursome stock.” Even at it’s steep cost, it is still cheaper than the Christmas price index. If you ever get one, please don’t forget to invite me!

The Actual Juice Experiment- Part 1

It was a slow start to the experiment.  By the time we got done with some errands, including grocery shopping for the impressive array of produce, it was basically Sunday evening. We excitedly got home and picked our “meal”, which I decided should have beets in it. My husband hates beets. Now, I didn’t pick beets because I was being cruel, but because my husband kept saying that he was hopeful that this was a way he could finally consume those veggies that are really good for you, but that he can’t stomach–even delicately steamed and deliciously prepared by his talented wife. So I chose something with beets.

The recipe called for one beet, four carrots, two cups kale, one cup spinach, two apples and a thumb of ginger. It was interesting. The color was beautiful but the smell was very green. Surprisingly, the flavor was nice. The ginger was key here and I don’t know if we would have had as positive of a start without it. Unlike a fine wine, you don’t want to inhale too much.
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We “ate” early, like around 5:00 pm, which meant we had aaaaaalllllll night to think about how unsatisfied we were. I ended up eating two bananas. Hey, Joe from Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead ate fruit, too, so it’s okay. I also drank several cups of tea. My husband had some crackers with peanut butter and a banana. I noticed I burped a lot. By 11:00 pm I was starving and more than ready to go to bed. I was thinking about food, a lot.

Monday was the first full day of juicing. I was nervous. Just look at how much I bitched about measly six hours the night before. But I did not wake up particularly hungry, which I thought was a good sign.

I persevered and stuck with my juice… and fruit. I had a banana after breakfast and an apple after dinner. I also had a “snack” juice and a “dessert” juice, which is recommended from the rebooting program. I was proud of myself.  Food stared me in the face all day. Particularly this one can of soup. I just imagined it being all nice and warm and chunky. I really liked looking at it, almost so I could have a goal to work towards, thinking, “I get to eat this when this is all over,” Which was nuts because I wouldn’t normally eat canned soup, and it certainly wouldn’t be the thing I would want to eat above all else.  But for whatever reason it called to me.

Below are a couple of samples of our “meals, ” which were then reduced to less than two pint glasses each time.

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By 10:00 pm on Monday I was starving! My stomach was rumbling and had been all day. Hunger or digestion? I dunno. I was also a little nauseated. My husband ate various sources of protein throughout the day: eggs, chicken, tuna. I  resented him a little. But he was worked out that night, so I gave him some slack.

I drank a lot of water but still felt sluggish throughout the day and I was sooo thirsty. I also had a bit of a head ache. Any physical was activity was draining. Basically, all the text book side effects, except the body odor, of course.

Tuesday, dawned earlier than anticipated once I realized that I needed to attend a fundraiser breakfast. It was torture. I still made a juice in the morning and counted on eating just fruit at the breakfast. And I figured orange juice was okay.

The breakfast went swimmingly. Well…except for the scrambled eggs I ate. But I could only take a little bit of fruit because I was one of the first to pass it around. And eggs are mushy any way. But so good. So good. I still count this a win because I did not eat the Danish, donuts, bacon, and hash browns. I also attended another meeting that afternoon where skittles, milk duds and cookies were passed around. I easily passed those up…but I did grab a diet coke. For some reason this really annoyed my husband who considered the diet coke more egregious that the eggs. Really?

My husband and I constantly asked each other how we were feeling. It was like couples therapy. And should I talk about the gross stuff? Well, let me put it this way, don’t be surprised when because you drink a lot of deep, intense color, a lot of deep, intense color comes out.  The beets are particularly shocking.

On Tuesday evening we went on three mile walk, something we always try and do if the weather is nice. My husband was wiped out after the walk. I felt okay. I think the calorie difference was really starting to affect him. While he was supplementing somewhat with sources of protein, he was still consuming substantially fewer calories.

The first part of the week was challenging but exciting.  All these experiences were fairly new to us, with new tastes and colors and veggies we don’t normally consume.  Check back in a couple of days from now to see how the rest of the week went.  I’ll eventually set up another page with the recipes we used, too.  But adding them here might have made this post too long!

The Grocery Game

When my husband suggested we review the budget on groceries, I immediately took offense. I mean, I was the one that always did the grocery shopping. I thought I was shopping conscientiously. Plus, it was my husband who ate so much and who needed diversity. I could live on eggs, rice and beans for the whole month. When he pointed out to me that we were spending around $700-$800 dollars a month, I didn’t believe him. I kept saying that the month he was looking at was an anomaly. I told him to just look at the month before. Yet, it never really went down, and sometimes was a lot more.

I am going to have to admit that I didn’t have any idea of what we were spending. But the next thought was, “well…what should we be spending?” The answer to this questions varied and vague. According to an online article by NBC the USDA estimates that for a family of four “spending ranges from a “thrifty” $524 per month to a “liberal” $1,014.

We are a household of two adults…and two cats. We only entertained about once every other month, and I’m talking dinner with another couple, nothing lavish. Plus, we did not spend a lot on liquor.

I was stubborn and insistent that we weren’t overspending, not based on our salaries and lifestyle. Plus, did I mention how much my husband eats? No, he’s not fat. But he does exercise and weight train and he needs to consume a lot of food to keep his weight up around 180. He is also a bit fanatical about healthy eating. And as we were trying to eat healthier my costs kept increasing. I was now buying ground turkey instead if ground beef, wheat pasta, a lot more fruits and vegetables, Greek yogurt, and gallons if milk, for example these things were all more expensive than their less healthy counterparts.

I then got to the point where I was looking at the amount of protein rather than price and I was also looking for a lot of convenience items that would be easy for my husband to grab if he were looking for lunch or a snack, like protein bars and sandwich fixings, since he always looked into our full fridge and said there was nothing to eat since we had ingredients versus meals. We also had started making runs to places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. In my mind, I blamed my husband. Though have you ever tried to walk out of Trader Joe’s or whole foods without stocking up on wine or cheese? Maybe it was partially my fault.

My arguments weren’t swaying my husband. He acknowledged we ate well, he thanked me for the efforts I made to keep him fed, and asked, can we cut this in half? I began to see that he had a point, and begrudgingly answered that we could, of course. He challenged me to bring the spending down to $100 a week. I said fine, but he had to come with me.

Now, this is not a story about advocating extreme couponing. That stuff takes too much time and space. You don’t end up buying what you need, and it’s usually processed and not good for you.

However one of the time-tested techniques which we did abide by was checking out the circulars before we went shopping. Around our house we have the choice of over a dozen chain and independent stores. I would normally go to Jewel, which I always valued for what it was: a big grocery chain that would have a lot of loss leaders, hence great sales. And I could shop there consistently because I wasn’t married to a set list of items.

However, around the time that we decided to meet the challenge, Dominick’s came out with this amazing app (also the same company as Safeway). I had never really shopped at Dominick’s, but this app really appealed to me. It was the kind of app I wish Jewel had come out with. With this Dominick’s app, we could load coupons right onto the card from the smart phone. We could check out what was on sale and plan what we would buy for that week. The app didn’t just have the circulars, it also had items that were deal matches from other stores, specials just for me, coupons, and sometimes free items.

Prior to this app, I would do what most people probably do…cut out coupons and then forget about them. With this app, I didn’t have to clip coupons. Now, the savings were right there. The only thing they could do to improve this app is allow me to scan my coupons from other sources right onto my cars…but hopefully that is around the corner.

Nonetheless, that one step of looking over everything on sale that week, was a big psychological prep. With my husband in tow we set aside a specific time to go to the store.

I quickly realized that this was also one of the problems. Previously, I would go to the store a couple of times a week, either on my lunch break or after work. My shopping trips were unscripted and too numerous. While I didn’t spend a ton each time, it added up quickly. This was part of the reason I didn’t feel I was overspending…because I never was on individual trips. Plus, my husband would also sometimes make a run if he was out of razors, deodorant, or hair stuff.

I was leery of having my husband along. He has the attention span of a five year old and easily gets bored. Luckily, he now saw these trips as a challenge. He kept engaged and interested by running the calculator. This also helped keep to the budget.

On very rare occasions do we go over $100 a week. We stay on budget by buying ingredients rather than processed or boxed foods and by being flexible with the grocery list. Brands do not matter. We just want the best deal. And we are willing to put things back if we go over $100.

We always check our receipt before we leave and have lost our embarrassment about going to customer service and asking for rain checks or refunds of a couple of dollars. One of the things we have learned is to not be afraid to ask. A few weeks back at Dominick’s, we realized that we had lost a $10 coupon we had earned the week before. We looked for it, blamed each other and then basically figured we were SOL. We decided to go to customer service anyway just to see if there was something that could be done. There were a couple more hoops we jumped through, but in the end, they were willing to give us a $10 gift certificate. Incredible.

We are also willing to go to more than one grocery store if we can find a great deal on meat or produce, though we try to avoid that to prevent the temptation to over shop. But to be fair to places like whole foods, there is no better or cheaper place to buy bulk, diverse whole grains, beans and rice. And can you beat three buck chuck from Trader Joe’s for consistent cheap wine?

There were lifestyle changes that we made that helped us save. There were little things like my husband converting to a vintage double edged safety razor and getting rid of the Tassimo. I also don’t buy juice anymore. We just drink water, tea and coffee (we have milk, but we don’t drink it straight). I’ve started to make my own all-purpose cleaner and I have stopped using plastic wrap. We are not willing to give up meat, though we tend not to eat much red meat. I’ve also explored making things like hummus and breakfast bars, which were things that we previously bought thinking that they weren’t expensive. However, when you realize that a bag of dry garbanzo beans costs around a dollar and yields about four cans of beans at around a dollar a piece, or about six tubs of hummus at around three dollars a piece, it’s a huge savings.

At this point we have successfully cut our grocery bill almost in half. But I know there is more we can do. Many people may be reading this thinking that $100 a week is high (though keep in mind that this budget includes toiletries, cat food and litter, household needs like TP, garbage bags, etc). What is important is to take an accounting of what you spend, then take steps to reduce it. Set a goal. It’s easier to make changes gradually as you realize the benefits of making those lifestyle changes. You can’t make comparisons to other families, because everyone is different. But, more than likely you are buying a lot of crap you don’t need, that is not particularly good for you.

According to my own smug advice, now that we know we can shop, with all of our personal, household and feline needs met, at $100, the next step is to reduce it. There is room for improvement, and it may not all be in food consumption. For example, if we can really reduce our waste, we’ll need garbage bags less often. Or, if I can make a pleasant, effective laundry soap, I wont have to buy detergent every other month.

As far as food goes, I am looking forward to summer when we can grow and pick our own produce. I need to learn how to can or freeze foods so I can use what I grow and pick throughout the year. Right now, I buy some frozen fruits and vegetables to supplement our needs because I really haven’t thought through the freezing of fresh items. But if I just freeze the stuff I grow, or at least when it’s in season, then that would be a nice chunk of monthly savings.

We are also committed to increasing our intake of produce and need to decreasing the amount of meat we consume.

Do I miss really good cheese? YES. Do I wish I could always have a bag of brown rice in the freezer without having to cook and divide it? Sure I do. But we are talking real numbers here, not just a couple of lattes, which is my usual measurement for whether saving is worth it. We are saving thousands of dollars a year! And I know we can do better.

Feed the Worms

I am going to be honest with my readers–which at this point is probably just my mom and my sisters–and admit that I have only become “enlightened” recently. Rather than “enlightened”, my readers–again, see above–might say smug (I do drive a Prius), self-righteous, and odd (I think only my mom thinks that), but I really do feel that I was so wasteful–and still am–and that it is my individual responsibility to do better. Worm composting was one of my first efforts. I had heard about this concept of having worms inside your house and thought that it was a bit too icky. Not that I am squeamish about worms. I love to get my hands in the dirt and worms are like little gold nuggets when you like to garden–grubs are another story … vile, disgusting things. Anyhow, a friend that works in horticulture mentioned a book called, “The Worms Eat My Garbage'”. Apparently you can have these little red worms in your house (or more realistically, your basement or garage) and they will consume your veggie scraps, paper, coffee grounds, tea leaves, card board, leaves, dryer lint, etc. They would leave behind thick, rich compost. I thought this was amazing but what I was skeptical of was the smell. But I did the research and decided that enough seemingly legitimate persons assured me that it would not smell like garbage.

I took the plunge and ordered a kit. I saw a lot of make your own options but I knew myself…I needed the process to be as simple as possible or I would never “harvest” any compost. The one I bought was from Hayneedle and I not only highly recommend the product but also this company. Phenomenal customer service. I had to purchase the worms separately since they are special. You can neither just dig them up from your backyard nor release them into the wild. At least not in Illinois.

I had also done quite a bit of research on what to feed them and fretted a lot about this. In the end, I did not buy anything special for them to start with, but just made a bed of moist, shredded paper and dumped the worms in. The worms came with some dirt, which was recommended as an additive in a small dose. From then on, I added my scraps, coffee grinds, tea leaves, some cardboard from dry good boxes, grass clippings, leaves, egg shells, dryer lint and some yard waste.

Initially I was pretty concerned about the size of the “food” and would spend a lot of time cutting it up. I had also read that some people microwaved the scraps to make them mushy. The latter always sounded kind of gross and the former soon got old. Overall, here are some things I have learned about my worm farm:

1) they do not really eat eggshells. They may really like them as I have read, but unless you are wiling to pulverize them, then pass them up. They do not consume the hand-crushed variety and when you harvest your compost there will be pieces of egg shells throughout.
2) you really should keep a scrap container by your sink or prep area to encourage collection of scraps. Otherwise you will not feed them and it seems that the more you feed them, the more compost you get. I have read that they can handle up to a pound a day. I have no idea if this is true, but I don’t really exceed this, if averaged out. It is pretty obvious, though, that the worms cannot handle every ounce of compostable material that comes out of my house. If I want to get rid if every cardboard box, every bit of junk mail and shredded document, not to mention raked leaves, garden refuse and grass clippings, I have to commit to outdoor composting.
3) Worm composting is a compliment to outdoor composting because even if they could handle all the volume, they can’t handle anything even remotely woody or tough, like carrot and zucchini tops.
4) The worms survive just fine in my garage through the winter. It is attached to the house, and partially insulated, but it does get down to the 20’s in there. Also, it is sweltering in the summer. They do just fine.
5) Always avoid milk products and meat. They will spoil and stink, and, I hear, attract unwanted bugs. Nonetheless, you will get bugs in there. Probably little fly type things. Not a big deal.
6) Avoid throwing seeds in there or they will sprout. Unless you want them to sprout, then throw seeds in there.
7) keep a couple of gallon jugs around for easy access to worm tea. My worm factory has a spigot on the front, but honestly, nothing has ever come out of it. I think worms clog it up. Or my husband’s car tapped it one too many times. But a couple scoops of compost and the rest filled with tap water makes an excellent, nutritious drink for houseplants.
8) Kids love worms. And it is such a neat way to teach them some basic biology and science. Get a worm composted and you may be able to avoid getting a dog.