The Tomato Project: An Introduction

We are in the midst of tomato season right now, which means I am busy stockpiling oven roasted tomatoes in my freezer to use as sauce base for the rest of the year, but my sister told me yesterday that even during the summer she only buys canned tomatoes.  In bulk, she says, they are the cheapest option, and they taste pretty darn good.  I was aghast at the idea of consuming so much BPA, but Mark Bittman made the same point in the Times this past weekend in his piece “Not All Industrial Food is Evil.”  Bittman doesn’t even mention BPA! Canned tomatoes do taste better than the hydroponically farmed ones in supermarkets in the winter, but this is August.

My sister is stubborn, and we argued for a while about the cost of canned tomatoes vs. the risk of BPA exposure.  She is committed to living on the cheap, and will probably never switch away from canned food, no matter how toxic, unless a cheaper option is presented.  And as Bittman points out, canned tomatoes are dirt cheap thanks to the international market.

Home canned tomato sauce, yum! I wish the lids of Ball jars weren’t also lined with BPA/BPS.

My mind is blown by how difficult it is to avoid foods packaged with BPA. You have to really TRY, and in my experience, you pretty much have to spend either a lot of money or a lot of time (i.e. buy organic tomatoes in fancy jars or can your own).  I don’t think that this doesn’t have to be the case, though.  Living in a city, I have a lot of options for buying food, and I bet that I can find cheap, non-BPA tomatoes in bulk for at least a reasonable price.

…and so the tomato project was born.  I am going to be living in this city for a while, and I certainly buy lots of groceries, so I think it will be worth the time to study sources of tomatoes and other major foodstuffs in the city of Pittsburgh. Plus, I need to prove to my sister that it is possible to live cheaply and avoid major, um, not-so-beneficial food additives.

Here’s how this is going to work: I am going to visit all of the places in the city I can think of from which I can buy tomatoes (fresh, canned, jarred, or otherwise) and document them with my camera. I don’t have a car, so everywhere I go will be accessible by public transportation. I plan to check out:

  • Giant Eagle Market District (standard grocery store chain)
  • Whole Foods
  • Trader Joe’s
  • East End Food Co-op
  • various farmer’s markets
  • Pennsylvania Macaroni Co (huge Italian specialty store)
  • Costco

In my assessment, I will be considering:

  • Price (by weight)
  • Packaging*
  • Source (domestic or international)
  • Organic (or not)
  • Additives (sugar and other unnecessary additives are a no go)

*Note: I do not consider cans designated “BPA free” to be ok if they don’t say what replaced it.  Most BPA free plastics use BPS instead, which is a structurally similar molecule with similar endocrine disrupting properties.  It just hasn’t gotten as much publicity yet. 

While I am investigating tomatoes, I am going to research a few other major foods as well. I most often shop around for dairy and nuts because they are expensive.  Because of the high fat content in dairy products, it is important to me to buy organic (and hormone free) because many toxins, especially pesticides, partition into fat rather than water. Nuts I would prefer to buy in bulk because it is usually cheaper and saves packaging, but I have found that the nuts in the bulk bins at Whole Foods are much more expensive per pound than the packaged ones because the bulk bins are stocked with “fancy organic pecan halves” whereas the packaged ones are just pieces and almost half the price. (Whole Foods is probably set up like this just to trick conscientious shoppers.) Finally, I’d like to find the cheapest and least packaged way to buy unbrominated unbleached and preferably organic flour.

The project will start this weekend, and probably will take a while.  In the meantime, the next post in the tomato project series will be an exposé on the threat of BPA with the purpose of convincing you that you should want to pay more to avoid it. Hopefully I will soon be able to prove that you don’t have to.

 Any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for other foods I should look into? Leave a comment!

A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

This post is for Steph, who wanted to know what I though about the Atlantic’s July/Aug cover article. 

Last March, my mother was oh so excited that McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes were back, but I spoiled her fast food party plans with this info graphic on the ingredients in one of those processed premixed cup-full-of-chemicals.

Just look at this image, and you will never want one again, not because of the calories, carbs, fat, and sugar, but because of all that other crap in there too. I prefer my milkshakes made with good old ice cream and milk, hold the polysorbate 80 please.

As an environmental chemist and foodie, I have a lot to say about David H. Freedman’s Atlantic piece “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  His main argument is that we can solve the obesity crisis in America by putting pressure on the fast and processed food industry to be healthier, rather than shunning it altogether.  The nineteen page article also devotes a significant amount of space to disparaging the grassroots real food movement and getting the science of common food additives disturbingly wrong. Continue reading

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Dear Interwebs,
I am sorry to have neglected you for almost all of July, but I have been very busy.  The month started out with a little vacation in Wisconsin, during which I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and liked it enough to want to tell you about.

Taylor and I have spent the rest of the month moving into a new apartment (together!), which has meant a lot of cleaning, organizing, furnishing, etc. I have a few new DIY project to write about!  Luckily T and I have fairly similar design aesthetics, but we are still in hypothetical furniture land, which has meant eating dinner on weird pieces of furniture and piling clothes on the floor.  I struggled with both of these issues until this week, obsessively trolling craigslist for a dining room table and dresser that I both like and can afford.  This is the main reason why I have been such a terrible blogger.  Craigslisting is difficult!

However, Taylor (via Henry David Thoreau) has cured me of my #firstworldproblems obsession with finding just the right table right now. Taylor has been reading Walden aloud to me while I sew, and I have realized that I am being silly.  A man who has more things does not necessarily have more.  I, like Thoreau, would rather patch my clothes (or wear jeans so loved they are full of holes) than buy new ones.  Simple living it is, and furniture will come later. Besides, we don’t want to clutter up our living room with stuff we don’t need.

But I digress. I want to tell you about Michael Pollan’s most recent book and why you should read it.   Continue reading

An Introduction to Slow/Real/Whole Food (for my little sister)

My little sister, who just completed her first year of college, was forwarded this buzzfeed page containing a list of 8 common ingredients in food that are banned in other places of the world.  She wanted to know if it was “legit”, and my answer was YES YES YES this is a big deal and if you don’t know all about this already you should!

Because most of the blogs I read are written by other like-mindedly green people, they (and subsequently I) tend to write about more nuanced aspects of green living, like for example my last post on how to minimize organic kitchen waste. This post is for those of you, like my sister, who not only don’t have a worm bucket, but don’t know how to navigate a grocery store without inadvertently buying carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Continue reading

Happy CSA Season!

Happy spring everybody! I have been a terrible blogger recently because I have had so much school work, but the semester is winding down and I am ready to get back to it.  There are so many things I want to write to you about!

First of all, in April we started getting weekly baskets of local food from our CSA! For those of you who are unfamiliar with Community Shared Agriculture (CSA), it is a way for people who love fresh local produce to buy directly from farmers.  It’s sort of an investment in a specific farm or group of farms, and you get a basket every week of what they might otherwise be selling at the farmer’s market.  It’s usually produce, but can also include dairy, eggs, meats, cheeses, grains, flowers, etc.  We’ve signed up for one of the biggest CSAs in the area, so we have gotten a whole variety of local food.  Our CSA suggests recipes for the food in each basket, which I have enjoyed as well.

polenta with mushrooms

One of my favorites so far was polenta made with organic corn meal topped with gruyere, chives, and crimini mushrooms sautéed in white wine, and broiled to melt the cheese.  Here is the recipe, directly from our CSA’s blog.

This week, my box included garlic ramps, a sort of wild leek.  I have never eaten or cooked with ramps before, and they seem to be a local spring delicacy around here, so I am excited to give it a try tonight.  I’m planning spaghetti pan-fried with ramps and basil, a variation on this recipe, served with broccoli.  Ramps also sound like they would be great with mushrooms and in risotto or quiche, so hopefully I will get more next week to experiment with!

To learn more about CSAs or find one near you, check out LocalHarvest.org