Food

One Quick and Easy Step to Making your Frozen Meal that Much Healthier

The extra 30 seconds is worth it.

You've finally returned home after seemingly endless train delays, and you're pretty much ready to eat everything in your fridge. Cue: intense music for your raid through the kitchen (I like Mission Impossible). There's nothing in the fridge except some pickles and ketchup, so you settle on a quick and easy microwavable meal that'll get piping hot food in your belly in less than 10 minutes. Trader Joe's Indian anyone? But, before you rip open that cardboard box and nuke the plastic tray, hear us out on why you might want to move that food to a glass container or plate instead.


What is really in your frozen meal containers?

We've all seen it, the promise of Bisphenol-A (BPA) free packaging. The two words "microwave-safe" written in like size 40 font on your frozen meal. But, the truth of the matter is; plastics are really difficult to regulate. This is because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has pretty lax rules for regulating chemicals added in plastic. Basically, as long as the plastic contains less than a certain percent of a chemical, it can be declared as "free" of that specific chemical, even if a product is not (1). For the most part, we are mainly concerned about BPA and phthalates. BPA is added to plastics to make the plastic harder and clearer, while phthalates are added to increase a plastics flexibility (think plastic wrap). Either one, getting into your food and being ingested, is not good for you. Both BPA and phthalates have been shown to be endocrine disruptors, essentially messing up how the hormones in your body should work, among other negative health effects (2). Even worse, BPA and phthalates can more easily get into your food when plastics are heated, which happens when you microwave your frozen meal straight from the package.

But what about my fancy organic meals in cardboard containers?

We hate to burst your bubble, but even those cardboard containers that definitely aren't made of plastic and promised to be BPA free are still not the safest. Although most packaging in microwavable frozen meals no longer contain large amounts of BPA or phthalates, they have likely been replaced with other chemicals that have similar properties and therefore, similar health effects. Depending on brand, many of these cardboard containers are PET-lined to prevent the food from leaking from the container. If you've heard about PET before, it's most likely because it's mainly used for milk jugs or storage of cold items. However, PET is definitely not safe when heated and neither is the polypropylene plastic film on top sealing in the food (3). Polypropylene is made of what we call plastic #5, which even though is considered safe and heat-resistant, is still a form of plastic and warrants concern (a.k.a. it probably shouldn't be heated in the microwave) (3).

Does this mean I have to give up my frozen meals?

Absolutely not! We aren't trying to starve over here. But, there are a bunch of easy, safer ways to heat up your breakfast, lunch or dinner. Here are some general tips. If your food has to be covered in the microwave, use a damp paper towel or kitchen towel, not plastic wrap, which likely contains phthalates. In addition to the plastic wrap itself releasing harmful gases, condensation underneath the plastic wrap, which absorbs phthalates from the heated plastic wrap, could drip down into your food (2).

Did you know, most frozen meals are super easy to pop out of the plastic tray - just like a giant ice cube. Then, you can place your meal in a microwave safe container and warm according to the instructions on the package. If you're taking your frozen meal for lunch and you want to save a little bit of time, what I like to do is pop the frozen meal into a microwave safe container (check out some good ones here!) the night before, then pop it back in the freezer, so it'll be ready to go in the morning for taking to work. It's so great because I don't have to worry about remembering to pack a microwave safe-container. Easy peasy!

The bottom line is, since we don't know exactly what manufacturers use to make each type of plastic, it is best to just assume that the plastic packaging on frozen meals likely has at least some negative health effects if microwaved. So, take the extra 30 seconds to remove the meal from that tray and microwave it in either a glass container or microwave-safe dish. Then, dig in and eat that lasagna to your heart's content!

References

1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/microwaving-food-in-plastic-dangerous-or-not

2. http://time.com/4229503/plastic-in-microwave-is-it-safe/

3. http://www.nontoxicrevolution.org/blog/7-types-of-plastic
Life

Tips for Traveling With Less Plastic

You don't have to sacrifice convenience for sustainability!

Traveling for the holidays can be super stressful… the early flights, long lines, and last-minute delays seem inevitable. Traveling can also be a hidden stressor on the environment; it's been identified as a significant generator of plastic waste. The convenience of single-use plastic can be tempting, especially with the stress of holiday travel, but even one plastic item can add to the pollution problem. And this problem only seems to be getting worse, since only 10% of plastic is recycled, and around 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans per year (1, 2). Luckily, it's really easy to limit your plastic consumption while you travel! Here are our tips for traveling with less plastic:

  1. Bring a reusable water bottle - Traveling can be exhausting and it's definitely important to stay hydrated, and reusable water bottles are an easy way to cut down on plastic use. Americans purchase roughly 50 billion plastic single-use water bottles per year and only about 20% get recycled (3). Plus, who wants to pay outrageous airport prices for something that can be free!
  1. Bring your own shampoo - As cute as the tiny shampoos provided by hotels are, these containers require lots of plastic for little shampoo so it's better for the Earth if you pass them up. Instead, pack your own shampoo! There are great shampoo options with plastic-free packaging. Check out our plastic-free shampoo roundup for inspiration!
  1. Avoid buying travel-sized toiletries - Once again, although cute, small toothpaste containers, mouthwash bottles, or any other item you can buy in travel size uses way more plastic than necessary and is usually tossed after just a few uses. Bring the larger containers when you can or fill reusable containers with your toiletries from home.
  1. Say no to plastic bags - Whether this be shopping bags or ziplocs, there are always better alternatives! Your reusable grocery bag can make an excellent souvenir holder and small stainless steel containers are perfect for packing snacks and toiletries!
  1. Bring your own utensils! - Most plastic straws and cutlery cannot be recycled. Packing a washable utensil set takes up barely any space, and can reduce plastic consumption significantly! Half a million straws are used and thrown away in the world every day (3).

You might be stuck in that airport security line for hours, but you can feel good knowing you're still doing your part to reduce plastic consumption! One day of convenience doesn't have to add up to a mountain of plastic waste.

Citations:

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/plastic-pollution/#close
  2. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
  3. https://www.earthday.org/2018/03/29/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/
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Life

Flame Retardants in TVs Need a Commercial Break

Watching your favorite shows doesn't have to involve harmful chemicals

Beth Kemler is the Mobilization Director for Safer Chemicals Healthy Families

The holiday season always feels like a great time to buy a TV- think of the Black Friday sales! Plus, watching holiday movies is always better in HD. But did you know that the plastic casings of many TVs on the market contain hazardous chemicals called organohalogen flame retardants. Of course, you don't want your TV to catch fire during a binge-watching session, but there are better ways to protect ourselves rather than flame retardants.

What's the problem with flame retardants?

While they may seem like a good idea, flame retardants actually do more harm than good. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, impaired fertility, and developmental problems. They also don't stay in your TV (or other products where they're found)—they leach into the air and stick to household dust. Children and adults alike breathe them in, eat them when they touch surfaces coated with them and then handle food and even absorb them through their skin.

Studies have found them in the bodies of adults, children, and fetuses in the womb. They've even been found in breast milk and scientists suspect that the rise in flame retardants in our homes is linked to a rise in thyroid disease they've seen in indoor cats.

And when products containing flame retardant chemicals burn, the chemicals can make the smoke even more hazardous for firefighters. They can also be especially dangerous to workers and children who recycle the plastics from TVs and other electronics in facilities around the world. And these chemicals make it much harder to recycle the plastic—adding to our global plastic waste crisis. There's basically nothing good about flame retardants.



Toxic TV Binge: hazardous flame retardant chemicals uncovered in Best Buy, Amazon TVs

Despite the hazards, it's almost impossible to find a TV in the US that doesn't contain flame retardants. A recent investigation by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, where I work, and our partner organization Toxic-Free Future found flame retardants in every TV tested. Every single TV contained organohalogens, the worst class of flame retardants. One TV even contained deca-BDE, an organohalogen flame retardant that is banned in five states.

There are other ways manufacturers can reduce fire risk without relying on these harmful chemicals. Apple, for example, has replaced brominated flame retardants with safer alternatives and, in some cases, the company "eliminated [them] altogether through the use of naturally flame retardant materials such as aluminum." Remember when your Macbook used to be made out of plastic? That's a key reason they switched from plastic to aluminum — so they didn't need toxic flame retardants.

Let manufacturers know you're ready for a change!

Here's the good news: electronics companies can replace these harmful chemicals with safer alternatives. Some companies are already using alternative chemicals or innovating to avoid these chemicals altogether. Some electronics brands, like Apple, have done this for computers, and TV brands can innovate too!

In fact, the European Union recently voted to ban these chemicals in TV plastic casings starting April 2021. If the European Union can do it, so can the US!

That's why we started a petition to Best Buy, North America's #1 electronics retailer. We're asking the company to use its power to get toxic chemicals out of the TVs it sells. If European families will be getting TVs without these toxic chemicals, American families deserve the same. And Best Buy has the power to make it happen!

In the meantime, how can you reduce your family's exposure?

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to avoid all organohalgen flame retardants. Since manufacturers and retailers aren't required to disclose their use of chemicals in most products, we can't recommend any alternative TVs. But research has shown that you may be able to reduce your family's exposure with frequent cleaning. Dust, vacuum and wash everyone's hands often, especially before eating. Because flame retardants end up in household dust, reducing exposure to dust can help. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and regularly wet dust and wet mop.

The bottom line is that buying a TV shouldn't pollute your home with toxic chemicals—or exacerbate the plastic waste crisis. If you agree, please sign the petition to Best Buy!

12 Non-Toxic Baking Pan Essentials

for everything from cupcakes, to pie, to cornbread we've got you covered

Updated for 2019!

Whether you are a full on baker or just someone who struggles with the directions on the back of a box of cake mix, having the right pans is always a necessity. While nonstick may seem like an amazing invention to help with this, you should shy away from it (read this to learn why) and check out these great alternatives. Same goes for cooking, so check out our non-toxic alternatives to non-stick pans roundup.

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Food

Wondering What To Do With Your Germ-y Kitchen Sponge?

Here's a simple swap that will maximize cleanliness in no time!

Have you ever walked over to your sink to do the dishes, only to wrinkle your nose at how smelly your sponge is? We'll let you in on a secret… smelly sponge = lots of germs. And too many germs is the last thing that you want in your kitchen and on your dishes. So what can you? We've got a simple swap for you!

If you're using a sponge right now - Stop!

Why, you ask? To put it scientifically, sponges are gross. Studies looking at the bacteria count of "the dirtiest areas of a kitchen" repeatedly found that sponges come in first for harboring the highest germ counts (1). Sponges hold so many bacteria because they're constantly wet and easily catch food during washing (1). The wet environment combined with the food scraps create a perfect storm for encouraging germs to multiply (1). If you're dead set on using a sponge, researchers recommend either replacing your sponge weekly (which isn't good for the environment), or cleaning sponges in a bleach and water mixture (which isn't good for you) (2). Either way, it's a lose-lose. So what's the solution?

Swap your sponge out for a dish brush instead

Yep, it's truly that simple. Simply swapping out your kitchen sponge for a dish brush will help decrease the number of bacteria because:

  • Brushes have bristles that don't hold water and dry faster (3).
  • Food scraps are easier to wash off on bristles than in the nooks and crannies of sponges (3).

And the best part? Brushes don't need to be replaced as often, because they don't harbor as many germs. Hooray for a solution that is budget-friendly and earth-friendly!

References

  1. www.microbiologyjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/JPAM_Vol_11_No4_p_1687-1693.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6379783/
  3. https://time.com/5254808/how-to-wash-dishes-sponge/
Life

Our Top Three Tips for Better Recycling

What to do when you can't reduce or reuse

We all try our best to recycle, but it's not always easy! Reading the labels on plastics can be like deciphering a different language. Although we try to do our best, recycling in America is still a work in progress. Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, only about 10% of it gets recycled (1). The other 90% winds up in landfills and floating in oceans, polluting nearby ecosystems. It's not just plastic that's the problem- plenty of other materials like glass, paper, electronics, batteries, and clothing are discarded in environmentally unfriendly ways.

There are still many misconceptions of what is and isn't recyclable. We've covered what those little recycling numbers actually mean, but there's still a lot to learn. The complicated process can actually discourage people from attempting to recycle, and even when they do, complicated rules can cause significant recycling bin contamination. Until there is a change in the structure of the recycling industry in the United States, we have to step up our recycling game. Here are our top three tips on how you can make your recycling as efficient as possible!

1) Familiarize yourself with your local recycling laws and regulations. A quick google search can inform you on what you your municipality recommends for cleaning, separation, and collection. You can even keep your city's recycling guide posted on your fridge for easy access!

2) Do not, we repeat, DO NOT put your recyclables in the bin inside a plastic bag. Plastic bags, like those from grocery stores, and plastic wrap packaging are major contaminants in recycle bins and cause problems for facilities that process recycled materials. These bags can be recycled but have to be brought to specialty facilities, and can be dropped off at many grocery stores. Try using paper bags instead, and be sure to toss them in the correct bin after use!

3) Purchase items you know to be recyclable! Stick to products that are made from paper, glass, aluminium, or steel. Always check with your local recycling center about what to do with plastic items- you'd be surprised how much plastic can't be recycled! And don't forget to thoroughly clean out any food residue before tossing a product into the recycling bin.

Why is it so important to recycle correctly? Well, bin contamination is a huge issue, especially now that China is no longer buying our recyclable waste. Contaminating recycling bins with non-recyclable products makes the recycling process more difficult, time consuming, and expensive. If batches of recyclables are too contaminated, they will get thrown in the landfill with everything else. Which is exactly what we're trying to avoid in the first place (2,3)!

Contribute to a healthier environment; support the industry by buying materials made out of recycled goods! And be sure to reduce consumption of disposable materials, and reuse items as many times as possible before recycling. If you are still not sure about best recycling practices, this EPA guide is a great resource.


References

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/
  2. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/...
  3. https://theweek.com/articles/819488/america-recycling-problem-heres-how-solve\
  4. https://www.recycleacrossamerica.org/tips-to-recycle-right
  5. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/20/750864036/u-s-recycling-industry-is-struggling-to-figure-out-a-future-without-china
Remember that takeout container you had last night? What color was it? It probably was black, right? While those flexible, bendy and just the right size for packing leftovers boxes might seem perfect, they are far from it. The black color of the plastics actually masks a lot more than that last piece of sesame chicken hiding in the corner.
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Food

Is Climate Change Making Your Food Less Safe To Eat?

The role of climate change in foodborne illnesses

Do you have big cooking plans this Thanksgiving? Us too! We love cooking when the holiday season rolls around, but did you ever think that climate change is something you would think while prepping your food? Well, the raw ingredients in your kitchen contain harmful microbes that can cause foodborne illnesses, and climate change has been linked to an increase in these diseases.

As the global temperature rises and rainfall patterns change, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other harmful vectors flourish. These changes in climatic factors increase disease transmission efficacy and improve survival rates of these vectors (1). In other words, climate change has allowed these harmful microbes to evolve and be better equipped to cause diseases. On top of that, they are more resilient and harder to kill.

So what should you be on the lookout for? Good question. Below are just a few examples of agents that may be altered by climate variability in the United States (1, 2). All of them can potentially be found on the foods that we consume.

  • E. coli O157: this specific strain of E. coli is particularly prone to climate change. We ingest this microbe through contaminated foods such as raw or undercooked ground meat products and raw milk (3).
  • Salmonella: Salmonella is caused by a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tract of animals. Just like E. coli O157, Salmonella can cause foodborne illnesses through consumption of contaminated ingredients.
  • Campylobacter: almost all raw poultry you see in the grocery store contains this microbe. This bacteria causes foodborne illnesses by cross-contaminating other foods and by surviving in undercooked meat. This makes Campylobacter one of the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States.

Overall, changes in climatic factors will be the largest culprit of food-related illnesses and mortality (4). This accounts for under-nutrition, communicable and non-communicable diseases, as well as vector-borne diseases.

The good news is that these foodborne illnesses are highly preventable!

While climate change may improve the environment in which these microbes thrive, we can take steps to prevent foodborne illnesses from happening in our own kitchens. The USDA recommends the Be Food Safe prevention steps (5):

  • Clean: Wash your hands and cooking surfaces frequently.
  • Separate: Don't cross-contaminate your foods. Keep your meats and veggies separate.
  • Cook: Cook ingredients to their proper temperatures.
  • Chill: Refrigerate foods promptly.

By following these guidelines, the vast majority of these harmful microbes can be removed or killed. Keep yourself and your family free from foodborne illnesses!


References

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0963996910002231
  2. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/foodborne/basics.html
  3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/e-coli##targetText=Sources%20and%20transmission&targetText=E.%20coli%20O157%3AH7%20is%20transmitted%20to%20humans%20primarily%20through,meat%20products%20and%20raw%20milk.
  4. https://www.who.int/foodsafety/_Climate_Change.pdf
  5. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/cleanliness-helps-prevent-foodborne-illness/ct_index
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