The Aware Cook

Running a kitchen that serves up healthful meals means being
educated about the all materials and ingredients you use.

May 2013

Slice it up, throw it in the pot for a little while, stir every now and then, and you’re ready for a meal, right? It turns out there’s a lot more to it than that, especially if you want that meal to provide maximum nutritional and health benefits and minimal risk. Sure, there are the concerns about crop pesticides and the like that are driving the neo-organic movement of recent years.

But the education needed to truly make your kitchen the most healthful it can be doesn’t begin and end with the food you buy (or grow). You’ve got to also concern yourself with the water supply and the makeup of your cookware. And when it comes to yet another important issue, radiation, you’ve also got to keep up with what’s going on halfway around the world. And why not? It’ s your world, too. Especially if you’re an aware cook...


First, Choose Cookware That’s Safe

Beginning to concern yourself with ensuring a healthful meal at the moment you prepare your ingredients for cooking is like starting a marathon several miles into the race—you’ve simply begun past the starting line.

That’s because any mindful chef is going to take into account the pots and pans that will nurture those ingredients on their way to becoming a delectable and nourishing meal. Sure, the food may be healthful. But is the cookware—particularly if it’s marketed as non-stick?

Health-savvy cooks—and environmentally minded ones, for that matter—know they want to use cookware that is free of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a processing agent used in making nonstick materials in many cookware products. They also want to avoid polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a chemical in commercial use since the 1940s. PTFE can release harmful fumes when coated pans are overheated. The fumes can give people flu-like symptoms, and birds exposed to the fumes can die.

The good news is many manufacturers recognize the demand for safer cookware. They are releasing products with ceramic coatings and packaging clearly labeled PFOA- or PTFE-free.
Health advocates caution against copper and aluminum cookware—particles from cooking in the latter material have been linked to dementia and other problems. Aluminum is found in a lot of cookware because it distributes heat evenly, so look for clad cookware in which aluminum does not come into contact with food, observes Debra Lynn Dadd, author of Home Safe Home: Creating a Healthy Home Environment by Reducing Exposure to Toxic Household Products (Tarcher/Penguin).
Dadd’s safest cookware bets are glass, cast iron, porcelain enamel-coated cast iron or stainless steel, or terra-cotta clay. A cautionary note about terra-cotta: The glaze should not contain lead (double-check if the item is imported).

There’s also a caveat about cast iron. Cast-iron cookware is sometimes pre-seasoned with a wax-based coating that keeps the pan from rusting between the time it is produced and bought. “Avoid these because the wax may be made of petroleum products,” says Annie Bond, author of Home Enlightenment: Create a Nurturing, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Home (Rodale).

Instead, Bond says, buy cast-iron cookware that you must season. The product will come with instructions. These usually involve coating the surface with cooking oil and heating in your oven for awhile.

The more inert the cookware, Bond says, the better. Like Dadd, Bond favors glass because it is the most inert of all cookware. That means it does not leach metals or other ingredients into the food—acidic food can cause aluminum pans to leach minute traces of the metal, for example.
Bond also cautions against using cookware in the oven unless you know all parts—that means the handles, which are sometimes plastic—can take the heat. Though some modern plastic handles are manufactured to withstand up to 400°F, Bond says she avoids putting any plastic in the oven to avoid any risk of fumes given off.

Choosing the right cookware—that’s your first step as an aware cook. —Allan Richter


Finding the Right Water Source

You gulp it down and boil it up, pour it in and drain it off. The water you drink and prepare meals with couldn’t be more vital—which is why you should use the purest water possible.

Every cell in your body contains water. It regulates temperature, aids in digestion, lubricates joints and protects tissues. To replace water lost from sweat and elimination, make sure you get enough from drinks or food—91 ounces for women and 125 for men, says the American Council on Exercise. You need more on hot days and while physically active, ill or pregnant.

Some of the safest drinking water in the world exists in the United States. “But even in the US, our tap water is not devoid of contaminants. There are so many that have been detected in our drinking water, and likely many more that we are not yet looking for,” says Nneka Leiba, MPH, deputy director of research at Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC-based watchdog organization.

Tap water routinely harbors small amounts of arsenic, present already in nature and through pesticides in agricultural runoff, which also contains nitrates from fertilizers. Then there are pollutants from decaying leaves or sewage, which municipalities fight back with disinfectants. But these chemicals plus the pollution equals dangerous byproducts, such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. Source groundwater near military installments may contain perchlorate, or rocket fuel.

“These common contaminants have been linked to adverse health effects in humans, such as cancers and developmental disorders,” says Leiba. “The biggest issue regarding the
safety of drinking water is lack of stringent governmental regulation and source-water protection programs.”

By law municipal water suppliers must send customers annual reports of what’s in their tap water. But that’s only part of the contaminant story—just average, detected-range levels for most, and not the many unregulated chemicals. “In 2009, we found that more than half the chemicals detected in the nation’s tap water weren’t regulated,” says Leiba.

Think bottled water is safer? “About 40% of it is sourced from the tap,” Leiba warns. But you may never know it, since the labels on 18% of bottled waters don’t tell you where the water came from, according to the EWG. And unlike the authorities that supply tap water, bottled-water companies also aren’t legally required to publish their water-quality test results. Four out of five didn’t, reports the EWG, which also uncovered 38 contaminants in 10 popular bottled water brands. Even the purest nontap bottled water could contain poisons leached from the plastic, should it degrade.

Bottled is also 1,900 times more expensive than tap.

So what water should you use? “Drink filtered tap water,” says Leiba. A carbon filter (pitcher or tap-mounted) “reduces the levels of most of the common contaminants in tap water,” such as lead and disinfectant byproducts. Reverse osmosis filters are designed to remove arsenic and perchlorate. And some filters add steam distillation to further remove toxins in addition to killing bacteria, viruses and other microbes. (If you want to know what’s in your tap water, see EWG’s National Tap Water Quality Database, along with the group’s guide to filtration systems, at

“It’s unlikely that any filter will rid your water of all the possible contaminants,” Leiba advises. But choosing the right filtration system “will decrease the levels of many of the known contaminants, and make your water purer.” Be sure to change filters as recommended and carry water in a stainless steel or other BPA-free bottle.

Be water wise. So when you guzzle that glass or spoon that soup, you’ll know the water you’re ingesting is as pure as it can be. —Claire Sykes


Read Your Labels

Check out the food labels at your local grocery store, and you’re likely to see a number of buzz words: Organic, All-Natural, Non-GMO, Cage free, Grass-fed and the list goes on. But what does it all really mean? Is a cage-free chicken or a grass-fed cow more healthful? Shouldn’t all of our food be natural? And is organic really necessary?

For starters, Sara Sciammacco, spokeswoman for the EWG, recommends buying organic food whenever possible to ensure it’s been produced without synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, genetic engineering, radiation or sewage sludge. And organic should extend beyond fruits and vegetables; it’s just as important with beef, poultry and dairy.

EWG senior analyst Kari Hamer­schlag says that certified organic meat is always raised without antibiotics and hormones. “Since they can’t use antibiotics, organic livestock producers have to rely on preventive medicine, good sanitation practices and stress reduction to keep the animals healthy,” Hamer­schlag says. This usually creates a more healthful product.

Along with organic, she also recommends grass-fed and pasture-raised beef, which studies have shown to be lower in saturated fat, higher in heart-healthy omega 3s, vitamin E, beta-carotene, B vitamins and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient linked to lower cancer risk than grain-fed beef. “Organic beef isn't necessarily grass-fed,” she explains, so check the label to make sure you have both.

Consumers should also consider certified organic poultry, eggs and dairy, which studies have shown to contain more protein and healthy omega-3 fats than conventional products. This also means there are no hormones, such as recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) given to dairy cows, and no antibiotics. “Organic standards also require more humane conditions, and the hens have been fed a diet of only organic feed, which means no pesticides or chemical fertilizer was used to grow the grain,” Hamerschlag says. “This is better for the environment and human health.”

The word cage free implies that a chicken is roaming lush farmlands, but in actuality it may never see the sunlight, instead living in cramped indoor quarters. Free range means that birds have access to the outdoors, but for both labels the health advantages are still relatively unknown. “I would assume if the animal was under less stress and better able to perform natural behaviors that there would be a difference in the quality,” says EWG nutritionist Dawn Undurragga. To ensure humane conditions, look for the American Humane Certified label.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), foods that have had their genetic structure altered, have a bad rap today as more than 20 states will debate GMO labeling legislation this year, a practice that is already required in 62 other countries. However, the health affects of GMOs are still unclear. “We just don’t know with certainty that these are safe in the long term because there is no independent, rigorous, long-term safety testing required by the government and the regulatory assessments are based on data provided by the company applying to commercialize the crop,” explains Hamerschlag. “A number of peer-reviewed studies have shown that engineered crops have the potential to introduce new toxins or allergens into our food and environment.” To avoid GMOs, look for certified organic products or those with a Non-GMO Verified label.

Another misleading term is natural, which Undurragga says should not be confused with “organic.” “The USDA defines a natural product as one that contains no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed, and all fresh meat qualifies,” Undurragga says. However, it doesn’t mean that the animals are raised in sufficient open space or without added hormones or antibiotics.

“The term can mislead consumers to think that the product is healthier and more humane than it is,” she says. She also says that the FDA has not developed a definition for natural, “so for processed food products, it’s probably being used to sell the product,” she adds.

Understanding these food labels can help home cooks be more aware of exactly what we it is we are dishing out.

—Corinne Garcia


The Radiation Equation

The discovery of trace radioactivity in Pacific bluefin tuna caught in California after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 drew concern. Is the tuna safe to eat? What other foods were affected by the nuclear disaster?

Questions began on March 11, 2011, when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami disabled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, triggering coolant loss in the plant’s reactors. Months later, bluefin tuna arriving in California were found to carry traces of two signature radioisotopes from Fukushima, cesium-134 and cesium-137. “Ounce per ounce it’s less than the radiation you’d find in a banana,” says Eric Lax, co-author of Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know (Random House).” (Bananas contain radioactive potassium-40.) As horrific as the Fukushima disaster was, none of the deaths were from radiation, says Lax.

A clear answer to long-term effects may require more time. “We lack hard data that shows radiation levels in samples of tuna or other foods, so it’s hard to come to definite conclusions,” says Val Giddings, PhD, a senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, DC, and an expert in agricultural science and food policy. “However it is a bit of a stretch to imagine tuna from Japan possesses enough radiation for it to be of concern for sushi eaters in California,” says Gidding.

Detailed maps of the radiation show that most of the radioactive plume wafted east into the west Pacific, says Giddings. “As soon as it hit the water it was diluted heavily to parts per billion or lower.”

The only concern may be fresh leafy greens grown within 10 to 15 miles from Fukushima, along with mussels growing on rocks nearby. “The problems from Fukushima has to do with the disposing of the waste from the melted-down cores, but it’s not the stuff that’s making it into the food chain in any significant amounts,” says Gidding.

Each year 48 million people (one in six Americans) become sick and 3,000 die of foodborne illness, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Radiating food reduces this risk, as it slows or stops spoilage from bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. “Irradiated food refers to food that has been exposed to some form of ionizing radiation, including gamma rays, x-rays and high-energy electron beams,” explains Sheryl Zajdowicz, PhD, assistant professor at the department of biology at the Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado. This reduces the number of microbes that could cause spoilage and, therefore, reduces the risk of foodborne illness. The food itself does not become radioactive since it does not come in contact with the radiant energy.

Sometimes referred to as “cold pasteurization (although traditional pasteurization relies on heat), “treating food with radiation produces similar effects to that of heat pasteurization. “Studies have shown that the food itself is minimally affected,” says Zajdowicz. Nutrient loss in foods that have undergone irradiation is similar to the nutrient loss observed through pasteurization, cooking and freezing foods.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves radiation as a method of reducing spoilage for a number of foods including dried herbs and spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, lettuce and spinach, spices, alfalfa sprouts, red meat, pork, poultry, mollusks, and eggs. It’s easy to spot irradiated food as it carries a label required by the FDA that includes the words “Treated with Radiation,” or “Treated by Irradiation.”

For the most part, irradiated food has no effect on a person who eats it, says Zajdowicz. But some health advocates say the long-term effects remain unknown. They also say animals fed irradiated food have died prematurely and endured mutations, stillbirths and organ damage. Zajdowicz acknowledges that “some current studies suggest a link between protein-folding changes post-irradiation that may be associated with allergen production. Therefore, there may be a risk of increased food allergies due to irradiation.” Also note that irradiation does not take the place of proper handling and cooking, as contamination can still occur after the irradiation process. —Linda Melone

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