Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Many ways to “green” Christmas giving

More often than not the only things “green” about Christmas are the trees and wreaths. For most it’s a season of excess, much of which is wonderful, but much is wasteful too and not really essential to creating the joy that is Christmas.

If you’re aiming for a Christmas with all of the sparkle and without the hefty carbon footprint consider giving gifts that help the recipient make their life a little greener. Below are a few suggestions for easy-to-find gifts that have an eco-friendly twist. They’re practical, but fun.

Help wean someone off microwave popcorn with the gift of a hot air popcorn popper and a bag of Speerville Four Mill organic popping corn. Visit your nearest hardware store for the popper (Home Hardware has them for $19.99) and the natural food section of the grocery store for the popcorn. You could tuck in some popcorn recipes.

Make it easy for someone to get rid of their non-stick fry pan (and the environmental toxins in it) with the gift of a cast iron pan or a sturdy stainless steel pan. Splurge on a copper fry pan if you have a true foodie in your life. Cooking with cast iron helps to add iron to your diet and once well-seasoned requires little oil to keep food from sticking.

Fill a stocking with non-toxic personal care products like Green Beaver toothpaste and deodorant and Aubrey Organics or Kiss My Face shampoo and conditioner. It’s a fun, practical gift that will help the recipient eliminate parabens, phthalates, SLS and other chemicals common in most personal care products. Naturally for Life The Eco Store, The Feel Good Store and the natural food section of grocery stores carry a good selection of these products.

Good old shaving soap is getting popular again and makes a great gift for the man in your life. Olivier Soap offers non-toxic eco-friendly shaving soap made with olive oil, cocoa butter, beeswax and fragrant oil. It costs $9.95 the shaving brush costs $11.95. You can buy both at the Olivier shop in the City Market or order online.

Give the gift of stoneware baking pans to someone looking to get rid of their non-stick bakeware. Pampered Chef has a great selection of baking pans, muffin pans, pie plates and more. They’re made with lead-free clay and come with a three-year warranty.

Help someone get back to baking from scratch, and incorporate more organic food items into their diet, buy giving ingredients for homemade cookies. Package together organic chocolate chips (or organic chocolate bars that can be chopped for baking), organic cocoa, organic sugar and Speerville Flour Mill flour (whole white, whole wheat or spelt). I have a great recipe for double chocolate chip cookies below that you could include too.

Practical gifts don’t need to be boring and are as thoughtful as any other gift you might choose to give (perhaps more so).

Double chocolate cookies

These cookies are deliciously soft if you’re careful not to bake them for too long. They’re also great for homemade ice cream sandwiches. Make a more grown-up version by adding candied ginger or orange zest (see below for more ideas).

½ cup butter, softened
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup canola oil
2 eggs
2 t vanilla
2 cups flour (mix whole white with whole wheat or spelt)
2-4 T ground flax or chia
½ cup cocoa powder
½ t salt
½ to 1 cup chocolate chips

Mash butter with sugars. Add oil and egg and beat. Mix in vanilla.

In a separate bowl combine flour, flax, cocoa and salt.

Add flour mixture to wet and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips and dried cranberries.

Drop by spoonfuls onto parchment-covered baking sheet.

Bake @ 350 for 10 – 12 minutes

Some great variations:

Add ½ cup chopped candied ginger

Add ½ cup dried cranberries or cherries

Add grated zest of an orange

Add 1 t instant espresso powder (add with the oil & egg)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Staying warm this winter

One way to enjoy winter is to stay warm but keeping your home cozy can be expensive. Heating can account for up to half of your home energy bill and most of your home’s carbon footprint so for the sake of your wallet and the environment the more efficiently you can heat your home the better.

Start by doing everything you can to keep the heat in. I know it sounds obvious but there are many sneaky ways that heat can escape a home.

Air leaks can increase your heating bill by 10% a year so caulking & sealing every crack can keep your hard-earned heat from escaping. Caulk around window and door trim, caulk the top and bottom of your baseboards and quarter rounds and not just those on exterior walls. No crack is too small to be sealed. (Be sure to use indoor caulking.)

Insulate your light switches and outlets with special foam gaskets designed to fit neatly behind your light switch and outlet cover plates. Child-safety outlet plugs help too.

Check your weather stripping around windows and doors and replace any that isn’t doing its job. Use a feather to see if drafts are coming in (or heat is going out).

Install programmable electronic thermostats and set them at a constant heat for when you’re home. Set them a bit lower for when you’re sleeping or not home. You’ll save 5% on your heating bill for every degree you lower your thermostat below 70.

How you heat your home is of course something else to consider. High efficiency furnaces (90% efficient) are great but if you have an older model keep it well-maintained. Have your furnace cleaned annually and clean your furnace filters monthly during heating season.

If you heat with electric baseboard or an electric furnace, ensuring your home is nice and tight can have a huge environmental impact since in NB our power generating plants are big polluters.

If you have a fireplace, outfit it with an insert. This can become an eco-friendly source of heat but also make your fireplace airtight so heat doesn’t go up the chimney. From an air quality standpoint a natural gas or propane insert is preferred (they emit fewer VOCs and particulate matter). But those who burn wood will likely tell you that the quality of heat from a wood stove or wood insert is superior. If you do choose to burn wood follow these tips to ensure you’re burning as efficiently and cleanly as possible.

To improve combustion and decrease wood smoke, use an EPA-certified woodstove or insert. Well-seasoned wood burns more efficiently (and more cleanly) and hot fires burn more cleanly too so refuel often and don’t let your fire smolder. With a good hot fire the gases coming out of the chimney should be practically invisible. Don’t shut down the damper at night. Although this keeps the fire going through the night it also creates more emissions. Burn only wood in your woodstove or fireplace.

Heavy woolen socks will help you stay warm too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Is your deodorant safe?

The other day a friend asked me about deodorant, wondering if there is a link between deodorant and breast cancer and if aluminum in the product is still a concern. These are tough questions, mostly because there are no definitive answers.

There is no conclusive evidence that the aluminum in many deodorants contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s. And no study has conclusively linked the chemicals in deodorants to breast cancer. But studies haven’t proven otherwise either and ongoing research continues to raise questions about the safety of one of the most frequently used personal care products.

What we do know is that most deodorants contain chemicals that have been linked to a number of health problems. Here is a rundown on four very common deodorant ingredients: Propyleyne glycol (also known as antifreeze in 100% concentrations) is a chemical you’ll see in many brands, including some “natural” brands. It and related chemicals (like polyethylene glycol) are a concern because they may be contaminated with 1, 4-dioxane which may cause cancer. Parabens are preservatives suspected of interfering with hormone function. The mixture of chemicals in synthetic fragrances has been linked to allergies, cancer and nervous system disorders. And finally, triclosan is an antibacterial that may cause thyroid problems. These chemicals are environmental toxins too.

With so many unanswered questions about the safety of chemicals in deodorant I prefer to err on the side of caution. I figure, if science raises doubts and there are alternatives available, why not switch?

Yesterday I did an interesting test. I put aside my eco-friendly deodorant and used a deodorant crystal that I was given a few years ago. The crystal is an actual chunk of rock salt (alum) that you wet any apply like regular deodorant. After a full day of work, two walks back and forth to the bus stop and an evening out I’d say it worked well.

But since everyone’s body chemistry is different another option is Green Beaver deodorant. This product is made in Canada and carries the Ecocert logo, meaning that the plant ingredients are organic, production and packaging are eco-friendly and it’s free of synthetics, chemicals and aluminum. Green Beaver works well for me and is my everyday brand. (My favourite is their citrus scented deodorant but they offer three other scents and one unscented.)
On my list to try is Olivier deodorant (made in NB) As with all Olivier products, the ingredients are natural and uncomplicated. This is a spray deodorant and is on the pricey side.

A few other brands to consider are Aubrey Organics, Avalon Organics and Alba. Look for these in the natural food section of the grocery store. If you’re wondering how safe your current brand is check out Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nix the microwave popcorn

“The case of the deadly microwave popcorn” and the “Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act” sound to me like fodder for a Wallace and Gromit movie but they’re not. The U.S. House of Representatives actually passed the Act and there is ample information linking microwave popcorn to a variety of health issues.

It seems that there are a couple of things to worry about when it comes to microwave popcorn. The major concern is a chemical coating on the inside of the bag added to repel grease and keep the popcorn from sticking. The chemical is perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and is also used in non-stick pans and Gore-Tex clothing.

This chemical builds up in the body over time and, in animal tests anyway, has been linked to reproductive and developmental issues and problems with the immune system and the liver. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers it a probable carcinogen and asked companies to voluntarily phase it out by 2015.

If that doesn't send you running in the opposite direction, consider this: the artificial butter flavouring often contains a chemical called diacetyl that when inhaled has been known to cause “popcorn lung”, a rare lung disease found in workers at microwave popcorn packaging plants. Some manufacturers have removed it from their products but now there is concern that the replacement chemical might cause respiratory issues too. Popcorn producers are not required to label Diacetyl and may list it simply as flavoring.

A couple of years ago I rediscovered the simple pleasure of stovetop popcorn. What had seemed daunting as a child is really as simple as sautéing onions. Sure you need to give the pot a few shakes as it cooks, but it isn’t as labour-intensive as it once seemed. Hot air poppers work great too.

Making popcorn from scratch means you can also avoid the excessive packaging used for the microwave version. Choose organic popping corn since corn is commonly genetically modified and heavily sprayed (Speerville Flour Mill offers organic popping corn).

Here is our favourite popcorn recipe:

3 tbsp canola or olive oil

½ cup popcorn kernels

2 tbsp butter

1or 2 tbsp maple syrup

Add the oil and then the popcorn to a large stainless pot with a lid. Cover and cook over medium-high heat, shaking a few times while you wait for the first pop. When the corn starts popping in earnest, shake the pot occasionally to keep things moving. When the popping has almost stopped remove from heat and when all is quiet tip the popped corn into a big bowl. Add the butter to the hot pot and swirl until it melts. Add the maple syrup to the melted butter and let it sit until it bubbles slightly. Swirl to combine the two and pour it over the hot popcorn.


Vitamin B boost:
Melt the butter as above and pour it over the popcorn, then sprinkle over 1-2 tbsp nutritional yeast. It adds a great nutty flavour. (Look for nutritional yeast in the natural food section of the grocery store or in health food stores.)

A bit of spice:
Or, add a small clove of garlic (sliced in half) to the butter as it melts. When melted add 1 tsp curry powder or chili powder, stir to combine and cook until fragrant (about a minute). Remove the garlic and pour over the popcorn. Squeeze a little lime juice overtop and season with salt and pepper before eating.

Melt butter as above and pour it over the popcorn, then sprinkle with 1/2 to 1 tsp of dried dill. Season with salt and pepper.

Get to know the "dirty dozen" of the cosmetic world

Ever wonder what's in your shampoo, toothpaste or face cream? David Suzuki lists the 12 worst toxic ingredients in cosmetics. Read more here:
CBC News - Consumer Life - David Suzuki targets 'dirty dozen' toxic ingredients

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It’s easy to grow your own garlic

One of the things that irk me to no end is that virtually all fresh garlic available at the grocery store is imported from China. I’m not opposed to importing foods like oranges and bananas, foods that can’t be grown in our climate. But garlic? Anyone with a patch of garden the size of a phone book can plant garlic. It thrives in our climate and is one of my pet examples of how we have become dependant on imported versions of produce that can so easily be grown locally.

Don’t feel that you have to buy imported garlic this time of year. Visit Acorn or Buy Local NB to search for local growers. Another option is Hope Seeds (based in NB but soon moving to NS). They usually offer seed stock for growing but this year are selling what they call “table” stock (for cooking). If you’re into garlic you’ll love this because they offer several varieties of garlic in a sampler.

If you’d like to try growing your own garlic, mid-October is the time to plant. Halifax Seed offers garlic seed stock from Ontario and Nova Scotia and provides a handy sheet with tips for growing and harvesting. The seed stock bulbs look like regular old garlic to me. You can also try planting grocery store garlic or garlic from a local producer (already naturalized to our climate). Choose the largest cloves for planting.

Growing garlic is as easy as planting tulips. To get started at home here are a few tips:

Choose a sunny, well-drained area. (I have friends who plant garlic in among their perennial flowers.) Plant the individual cloves two inches deep and about six inches apart, pointed end up. Cover with a layer of mulch or leaves once the ground freezes.

In early summer watch for coiled flower stalks (resemble silly straws) called scapes that must be snapped off. This directs energy into developing the bulb rather than a flower. The scapes make great pesto and can be added to any dish that calls for garlic. Weed your garlic patch well since garlic doesn’t like competition.

Sometime in early August you’ll notice the leaves turning brown from the bottom up. When the bottom three or four leaves are dead and the top five or six are still green you can lift the bulbs. If you're not sure, dig a bulb and check. According to one grower, a mature bulb is fully swelled, well sized and has some partially decomposed wrappers. Pull the bulbs out gently and tie in bunches to hang for a couple of weeks in a well ventilated area out of direct sun. After they’re well dried, trim the stalks and roots and brush off any loose soil (or you can braid them).

One of the keys to growing garlic that stores well through the winter is to stop watering it 2-3 weeks before harvest and to choose a dry day to pull the bulbs. Store it at room temperature.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Look for Speerville Flour Mill products (if you live in Atlantic Canada)

For those of you not familiar with Speerville FLour Mill, they're located right here in New Brunswick. They mill Maritime-grown wheat but also deserve much credit for their efforts in developing a home-grown (literally) market for local organic products. They source the best quality organic products from as close to home as possible. Take a look at their catalogue for more info.

If you're interested in their products let me know. I run a whole food buying group through Speerville Flour Mill, making it easy to shop from their catalog, get bulk rates and free shipping. We have access to a greater variety of Speerville products than is available in local stores and in larger sizes (saves on packaging and lugging from the grocery store and is  less expensive).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Choosing a better (and greener) shampoo

Have you ever felt confused trying to find your way among the hundreds of hair care products available in local stores and salons? I have trouble sifting through all of the ginseng-infused, vitamin B-added claims. I often associate hair washing with green washing since these front-of-the-label claims often mask the not-so-great ingredients in many shampoos, conditioners and styling products.

There are many ingredients common to hair care products that are best avoided. “Natural botanicals” or not, if your products contain sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, phthalates (usually labeled “fragrance”) or parabens you should consider looking for another brand.

Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate (SLS) is one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in shampoos. It’s the ingredient that causes that nice rich lather you see in ads, but also dries your scalp, stripping oils that are important to a healthy scalp and hair. It has also been known to cause skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, hair loss and follicle damage.

Phthalates are the synthetic fragrances that are known to be hormone disruptors (linked to reproductive problems, allergies and skin problems) and parabens are preservatives that mimic female hormones and have been found in breast tumor samples.

Any sort of product that you spray on is best avoided as well, since you’re bound to inhale what doesn’t land on your hair.

Also, buying health store-type brands doesn’t necessarily guarantee a less toxic product.

Health Canada requires that manufacturers list all ingredients on the product label, which sounds very responsible of them but what ordinary consumer has any clue what is and isn’t a toxic ingredient? Shampoo and styling product ingredient lists are complicated. That’s why I default to the brands that list upfront what isn’t in their product. Kiss My Face, Burt’s Bees and Desert Essence are three that are helpful in this way. Others, like Olivier (New Brunswick-made) have so few ingredients that it’s no problem at all.

The Environmental Working Group Skin Deep database ( is a helpful tool for determining just how safe your hair care products are. They classify products into hazard ratings of low, medium and high based on the know ingredients.

Aubrey Organics score well in this database, as do Kiss My Face products. Burt’s Bees and Desert Essence have a hazard rating of low to low-moderate. Many regular drug store brands score middle of the road but a lot score in the red (high) zone. Shampoo bars score lowest of all. Not in the database but a great choice is Canadian-made Green Beaver shampoo.

One note about SLS-free shampoos, they often get a bad rap because they’re not as sudsy as regular drug store brands but you don’t need a thick lather to end up with clean, manageable hair.

Since all of these products get washed down the drain and into our waterways, be sure to use as little as possible. Chances are you don’t need to “apply generously” to get the job done.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Choose zero-VOC paints for your fall reno projects

Fall has always seemed like a good time to paint. I suspect it’s because we’re suddenly indoors more so can’t ignore scuffed walls, or are in need of a change before settling into winter.

I love the look of a freshly painted room. Slapping on a coat of new paint is one of the simplest and least expensive ways to renovate, a quick and easy way to lift your spirits. But while fresh paint may look wonderful a freshly painted room can be toxic. As long as you can smell fresh paint it is off-gassing VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which are toxic chemicals that can cause everything from headaches and dizziness to respiratory tract irritation, memory loss and visual impairment. Many VOCs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and are suspected of being as dangerous to humans.

The toxicity of these fumes can depend on a few things. Dark coloured paint emits more VOCs, some people are more sensitive to these chemicals, and the ventilation in the area where you’re painting will impact toxicity.

Before you get paranoid about repainting the kitchen there are a number of low or zero-VOC paints available locally that can have you breathing easier in your home.

Last fall we repainted two-thirds of our home’s interior. After doing a little research we chose Home Depot’s Natural line (CIL brand) of water-based latex zero VOC paint for our trim and walls. It’s the base that has no VOCs. Tinting the base will add VOCs so sticking with pale colours is your safest bet. This line of paint is EcoLogo certified.

Another option is Benjamin Moore’s Natura line of zero-VOC paints. These are more expensive (almost twice the price of the Home Depot paint) but according to Benjamin Moore the base and the tints are both zero VOC. If you’re looking for deeper tints this might be your best option.

Although these paints are zero VOC, they can still pollute waterways when washed down the drain. To minimize the impact to the environment when cleaning up after a painting project consider the following:

• Wipe the brushes with newspaper before washing in water.

• If you’re mid-job (or just taking a break) wrap your paint-laden brush in plastic.

• If you’re taking a break for more than a day, wrap your wet brush in plastic and place it in the freezer.

If you have used paint to get rid of, Recycle NB offers a recycling program that sees old paint recycled into new and even the paint cans recycled. This recycled paint (Boomerang is the brand) comes in 16 colours and is available at Kent Building Supplies. To participate in the program just drop off your unwanted paint to one of the Recycle NB depots (visit for a list of drop-off locations). Old paint cannot go in the garbage.

With little or no paint smell to deal with, zero VOC paints make living through home renos easier than ever.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Reusing is my key to back-to-school sanity

The end of summer is one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, second only to Christmas. It’s a time when people shop for back-to-school clothes and supplies, whether school is part of their life or not. In the rush to get organized for September people often buy more than they need, which leads to an oversized carbon footprint for the season.

I know that back-to-school shopping has been underway since mid-August (earlier for many) but in our household we hardly give it a thought before September 1st. It’s not that we’re disorganized, it’s because there isn’t much that needs buying. We have simplified the whole process using two principles: reduce and reuse.

Last year we turned school supply shopping into a speedy, one-stop exercise simply by reusing school supplies from the previous year. This is our new back-to-school routine: In early September we sift through the pile of duotangs and such that came home from school in June to see what’s salvageable. We sharpen used pencils, gather last year’s erasers and scissors and dig out the few Hilroy notebooks that didn’t get used last year. With luck all we’ll have to buy this year are a few glue sticks, some loose leaf and a couple of packages of Hilroy Notebooks.

Back-to-school clothes shopping is even easier. It involves hauling out all of our children’s fall and winter clothes to see what fits, and then deciding what we need to buy before the snow flies. We’re never rushed to go shopping for fall clothes on warm, sunny August or September days especially since our kids likely won’t wear much of it until cooler weather hits in October.

If you have yet to finish (or start!) your back-to-school shopping, here are a few tips to make it a bit more eco-friendly and healthy:

• Do an at-home inventory before you shop so you can focus on what you actually need. This goes for clothes as well as school supplies.

• Consider second hand stores for your first round of shopping. When our children need pants we always shop at Value Village. They have a good selection of children’s clothes and they’re well-organized on racks, meaning we can be in and out in about fifteen minutes.

• When you buy new clothes wash them at least once before wearing. New clothes can be chemically treated with formaldehyde so they have a wrinkle-resistant sheen. That “new clothes” look you love can be toxic, especially for children. (Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer and reproductive problems.)

• When buying school or home office supplies look for those made from recycled materials. Staples carries a variety of products, from pens and pencils to duotangs and computer paper made from recycled or reclaimed materials. Naturally for Life – the eco store, carries some too.

• Use this September as a launch pad for packing a litter-less lunch. Use reusable containers, stainless-steel cutlery, cloth napkins and refillable drink containers to eliminate waste from your family’s lunches.

Reducing and reusing can be your keys to shopping sanity throughout the year.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lots of superfoods are grown locally

I had my first feed of local blueberries this week and each bite tasted like the essence of a sunny New Brunswick summer. A couple of weeks ago I ate my first NB-grown, field-ripened tomato of the season and thought, this is what a hot July day tastes like. It was the same with the season’s first raspberries and strawberries. A little bit of heaven on a spoon.

This is the time to indulge in local delights but then tuck some away in the freezer so that you can still get a taste of this hot sunny summer through the winter. That’s what we do and I can’t tell you how wonderful a blueberry smoothie tastes in February.

It’s the abundance of fresh local fruit and vegetables this time of year that reminds you how food is supposed to taste. Picked ripe, eaten fresh. If taste and texture are important to you then local produce is the way to go. (No matter how cheap those berries are at Costco, they hardly taste real compared to home grown.) And the bonus: Fresh food consumed close to where it’s grown is more nutritious and has a smaller carbon footprint.

If you’re into food for health reasons you’ll be happy to know that there is an abundance of “super foods” (those foods that are so packed with nutritional goodness that you should make them part of your regular diet) that are grown right here in Atlantic Canada.

A few green blogs I follow recently posted info on super foods and as I scanned these lists I couldn’t help but feel a little smug about the fact that many of the foods featured are grown nearby. That makes them doubly super, since you can get all sorts of goodness without the carbon emissions and buying local supports the Atlantic food economy.

Blueberries top the list for local nutritional goodness since they contain high levels of antioxidants. Strawberries, blackberries and cranberries make the lists too and all grow well in Atlantic Canada. Local blueberries are available at the big grocery stores but look to local markets for the other berries (and blueberries too).

Beans make the list because they’re high in protein, fibre and iron plus they’re low in fat. Some NB-grown dried beans are available through Speerville Flour Mill.

Tomatoes are a super food because they’re so high in lycopene, which supports the immune system. Look for local, field-ripened tomatoes at markets.

Oats contain fibre that has been found to lower total cholesterol and the bad type of cholesterol (LDL), lowering heart-disease risk. Speerville Flour Mill sells rolled oats (called Newfound Oatmeal) made from oats grown right here in the province.

Honey contains B complex vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and can help increase good bacteria in the colon. Most markets carry Atlantic honey.

Broccoli (and other green veggies) are considered super foods for a dozen reasons and all can be found at local markets.

Given all of this, why would we not buy local?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Enjoy roasted beet hummus

I'm always looking for more ways to cook with beets, especially when they're so plentiful at local markets. I devoured this dip at a friend's house and immediately set to work creating my own version.

Not only is this a yummy dip, it's one of the lovliest I have ever seen.

Roasted beet “hummus”

1 beet, roasted and skinned

1-1 ½ cups cooked chick peas

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

Juice of 1 lemon

1 small clove of garlic

3 T Olive oil

Pinch of cayenne pepper

½ to 1 t plum, sherry or cider vinegar

Sea salt & pepper

To roast your beet, wrap the unpeeled beet in foil, place in a pan and roast at 375 for about 40 minutes or until it can be pierced with a fork.
When the beet is cool enough to touch side the skin off, chop roughly and place in a food processor with remaining ingredients (except salt & pepper). Whiz until it’s smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste, and a bit more lemon if you like.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Choose DEET-free bug repellent

I have never been comfortable with insect repellent. Even in my backwoods camping days it took a lot for me to dab bug spray on my body to keep from being devoured by mosquitoes. But that was in the days before West Nile Virus and before most of us knew of Lyme disease or thought about ticks.

For the past few years we have relied on bug shirts (the mesh cover ups that zip right over your head and offer sanity in black fly season), pants and long sleeved shirts, and citronella oil if we’re going to be outside during the busiest biting times (early morning and dusk). But now that ticks are on the radar in our region I have been giving more thought to insect repellants that are effective against ticks too.

The thing is I want to avoid products containing DEET. Although DEET has been approved by Health Canada there hasn’t been a review of the product in years and research has shown that DEET exposure can cause neurological harm -- dizziness, headaches, nausea and psychological problems -- in people who used it often (once a day for five days or more). A bit more background: DEET is a member of the same chemical family as solvents used in paint removers.

There are plant-based repellents that have proven to be as effective as DEET, but just don’t last as long. (They offer up to three and a half hours of protection, depending on the product). Most contain one or more of the following: citronella, lavender, geranium, peppermint, soy bean oil. The challenge is finding them.

Druide citronella soap bar, available at Naturally for Life, helps to repel mosquitoes. Broody Chick Bug Be Gone is a safe product for babies, also available at Naturally for Life.

Buzz Away, a product containing soybean, geranium, castor, citronella, peppermint and lemongrass oils, is effective against mosquitoes but not ticks. You can find this in the natural food section at SuperStore.

Two DEET-free products that get the highest rating from the Green Guide (published by National Geographic) are All Terrain Herbal Armour (repels mosquitoes and ticks) and Badger Anti-Bug Balm (repels mosquitoes). Both can be purchased online.

In general, choose your repellent based on how badly you’ll need to be protected, for how long you’re going to need coverage and what you need protection from. Remember too that clothing offers good chemical-free protection (pants, socks, long sleeved shirts).

If you do choose a product containing DEET, keep this in mind: A 30% concentration of DEET (the highest available in Canada) offers six hours of protection, compared to two hours protection for products containing a 5% concentration. The higher concentration doesn’t offer better protection, just longer. Children (12 and under) shouldn’t use concentrations any higher than 10%. It should be applied sparingly and not to the face or hands. DEET should not be applied more than once a day. Also, be sure to abide by all of the instructions on the label.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A great summer burger - minus the meat

I have been experimenting with burger recipes and discovered that you can create a great burger out of almost anything. One of my early favourites is black bean burgers. Paired with mango salsa they make a yummy meal on a hot summer evening.

Black bean burgers

2 cups cooked black beans
1/4 cup finely diced onion
1 clove garlic
½ cup panko (bread crumbs) or crushed tortilla chips
Juice and zest of one lemon or lime
1 ½ t chili powder
½ t cumin
1-2 T salsa
1 egg, beaten
¼ c chopped cilantro
¼ cup feta
Salt & pepper to taste
Panko for coating
Oil for frying

In a medium bowl mash the beans, leaving some whole. Add remaining ingredients and form into small patties (3”). Let sit in the fridge for 30 minutes (if you have time).

To cook, pan fry over medium heat for a few minutes each side. It you like them crispy coat with panko before frying (sprinkle panko on a plate and press both sides of the burgers onto it).

Mango salsa:

1 mango, diced
2 tomatoes, diced (can seed them too, if you prefer)
1 very small clove of garlic (pressed)
3 scallions or 2-4 T finely diced onion
1 T or so of olive oil
Juice and zest of a lemon or lime
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
Your favorite herb (chives, basil, cilantro…)

Combine all ingredients in a blue bowl (looks very pretty).
This salsa goes well with chicken and fish too.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Taking care of your compost bin

Our compost cart took a turn for the worse this week, erupting with hundred’s of tiny (really awful) larvae. This is the second outbreak this summer and it suddenly occurred to me that there might be a way to avoid it.

After a bit of research I discovered that we have inadvertently been cultivating the growth of pests in our compost cart. To get out of this nasty cycle, Fundy SWAT recommends the following:

• Crumple newspaper in the bottom of your compost cart to absorb liquid.

• Tightly wrap meat, bones, fish & dairy in newspaper to deter flies. The newspaper will provide a natural carbon filter.

• Include garden clippings, wood chips, evergreen branches, sawdust, leaves, or baking soda in your cart to act as a natural filter.

• Always put your cart out for collection on pick-up day.

• Regularly rinse the cart with a garden hose.

• Make sure that the air vents at the bottom of the compost cart are kept clear. These holes enable the compostable material to receive air, helping to keep it from getting smelly.

• Rub Vicks Vapour Rub or A535 (a muscle ointment) on the air vents on the Compost Cart to mask odours and deter animals.

• Store your compost cart in a ventilated, shaded area.

• If you have a large amount of meat or fish, freeze it until compost pick-up day.

• If you do get bugs in your compost cart, sprinkle garden lime in your cart. (It raises the pH level, creating the wrong environment for the larva to live.) Also try cleaning your cart with a toilet brush using a mixture of warm water and borax (2 T to 1 litre of water)

Don’t let bugs (or other pests) deter you from using your compost. Something as simple as tossing food waste in the bin can cut your household waste – and what goes into the landfill – by as much as 40%.

Friday, July 9, 2010

More info on safe sunscreen

I have continued my search for safe, effective and easy to find sunscreen lotions. My last recommendation, I was disappointed to learn, wasn’t that easy to find after all. (It had almost identical packaging with two readily available Coppertone products so I was initially duped). I have now replaced our family sunscreen with the following brands that are very easy to find locally:

Coppertone Water Babies (the pink bottle) offers excellent UVB protection, good UVA protection, excellent stability (doesn’t breakdown in the sun) and has a low/moderate toxicity rating of 3. Be sure to buy the cream, not the aerosol. This is by far the easiest sunscreen to find and is great for people of all ages (not just kids).

My best find yet is the Badger Sunscreen Face Stick. It offers good UVB coverage, excellent UVA protection, excellent stability and a low toxicity rating of 1. Look for this at your local eco or health food store.
Another I researched but haven’t tried is La Roche-Posay Anthelios 45 (not the 60). It also has a toxicity rating of 3, excellent UVB & UVA protection and excellent stability. Be forewarned - it's pricey (over $20 for a small tube)/ Look for this at Shoppers Drug Mart.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Get out of the grocery store and create your own local food network.

I used to think that having a couple of major grocery chains nearby constituted choice. That was before I was tuned into the local food movement and before garlic imported from China irked me. I changed my tune around the time I learned that some major chains consider produce to be “local” if it can be trucked from its source within 24 hours. I didn’t agree so began putting developing my own “food network” - a list of growers and producers, shops and markets that offered easy access to food that is grown right here in the province.

Now is a great time to create your own local food network, to get out of the grocery store and into a community of growers, producers and sellers who will help to connect your table to the land and help us all become less dependent on food that is trucked in from faraway places.

The best place to start is to visit your local markets, the seasonal and year-round sellers of produce, meat and dairy. Most of these markets buy from their own network of local producers and can easily tell you what on their shelves was produced in province.

If you’re looking exclusively for organic producers visit ACORN a non-profit based in Sackville that promotes organic agriculture in Atlantic Canada. Their website includes an easy-to-search database of all certified producers and processors in Atlantic Canada. You can search by province and by product type or you can bring up a map of the province and click on the icons for information on the farmers and producers in different regions. You can buy directly from most of these producers and may of them also sell through local markets.

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick manages a similar database called Buy Local NB . In their database you can layer your search to find, for example, restaurants between Saint John and Sussex that use local ingredients. Or you can search for a butcher, a baker or a grocer in your geographic area of choice. (My search for garlic netted five local sellers.) This site just launched last year so has lots of room to grow, but it’s a good starting point if you want to become more familiar with people and places that sell locally produced food.

The newest online source for information about local food is Smart Eat TV, an online community with a goal to connect people with the wonders of local food produced throughout the Maritimes. It’s part TV channel (will soon feature episodes about local food) part blog, part recipe-swapping forum.

Another source of locally produced food is Speerville Flour Mill. They produce a variety of flours using Maritime-grown grains and offer a great selection of other products from Maritime producers. I run a buying group through Speerville Mill so if you’re looking for a greater variety of their products than is available at the grocery store just let me know.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Finding a better sunscreen

One of the more complicated green living decisions in our household each year is choosing sunscreen. That might sound a bit ridiculous but based on a lot of recent research, making a choice can get quite complicated. Here’s why: Sunscreen contains toxins that can be harmful when absorbed through your skin; your sunscreen is likely to be much less effective than the SPF rating leads you to believe; chances are it won’t protect you from harmful UVA rays; and the higher the SPF you choose the more time you’re probably going to spend in the sun slathered in a false sense of security.

These are the findings of Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) fourth annual review of sunscreen. For this year’s report they analyzed 500 sunscreens, including all of the major brands, and rated them according to their safety and effectiveness.

EWG isn’t trying to scare us away from sunscreen (although that might be your first reaction) their goal is to help us choose our sunscreen very carefully.

Potentially hazardous oxybenzone is an ingredient in about 60% of the sunscreens tested. It’s a hormone-disruptor that gets absorbed into your body through your skin. About 41% of sunscreens tested also contain a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate (a compound that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found could promote the development of skin cancer because of the way it reacts with sunlight.)

Studies show that on average we only apply about a quarter of the amount we should to get the SPF protection promised and we don’t reapply often enough to sustain protection.

Even if you apply and reapply as directed your brand still may not protect you against UVA radiation, the sunlight that doesn’t cause burns but still damages your skin.

And finally, studies have also shown that those who choose sunscreen with a really high SPF rating spend a lot longer in the sun than those who sport products with a lower SPF.

Before you stress out over what to slather on this summer remember that there are plenty of ways to stay safe in the sun, with and without sunscreen.
Cover up with clothing and a hat to protect your skin from the sun. (Sunscreen should never be your first or only line of defense against the sun.)
Search EWG’s database of sunscreens to find a safe and effective brand of sunscreen . EWG has slotted brands into three categories: green for recommend, yellow for caution and red for avoid. The database also provides a UVA and UVB protection rating and rates how well the sunscreen lasts. On the site you’ll find the list of what they consider to be the base (none of which have I seen around here).

I searched some of the most common brands around and found that Coppertone Pure & Simple and Sensitive Skin lines have a moderate rating of 3, just one point out of the “recommend “zone. Beware of other popular brands like Banana Boat, Hawaiian Tropic and Aveeno. Most of these brands fall to the “avoid” zone, even the lines for babies and kids.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another family friendly way to eat Swiss chard (or any early greens)

I often over-buy greens in the spring because I'm so excited to have something fresh and local. Lucky for me I'm building a bank of delicious ways to eat them. This galette recipe is my favourite so far. Those of you who have tried my Swiss chard pasta recipe will recognize the filling -- it's exactly the same only with eggs added.

The great thing about a galette is that you don't have to be a whiz with pastry and the free-form assembly always looks great. Don't let the length of this recipe fool you into thinking it's complicated to prepare.

Swiss chard galette
Cooks at 375 for about 45 minutes


2 1/2 cups whole grain pastry flour (regular flour works too, if you don’t have pastry flour)

1 cup butter (cold, cold, cold)

1 t sugar

½ t sea salt

½ cup ice water


1/3 cup currants

Juice of 1 lemon

1 onion, diced

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 large bunch of beet greens or Swiss chard

Zest of 1 lemon

¾ cup feta, crumbled

¼ cup pine nuts (or almonds or walnuts)

2 eggs, beaten


For the pastry:

Combine dry ingredient in a food processor. Add butter in chunks and pulse until butter is pea-sized. Add ice water and whirr just until dough starts to come together. Remove from processor and place on a lightly floured counter. Knead gently just until you have a smooth dough. Flatten into a disk and refrigerate for at least an hour. (Pastry can last in the fridge for a week or so).

For the filling:

In a small bowl, squeeze the juice of one lemon over the currants and set aside.

Remove stems from greens and chop into 1 cm pieces. Roughly chop the leaves.

Over medium heat sauté the onion in olive oil until soft. Add garlic & cook one minute. Add chopped stems to the onion mixture cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir and add the chopped leaves. Cook until soft (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat & add a few grinds of black pepper & the currant-lemon mixture.

Stir in feta, pine nuts, lemon zest and egg just before you scrape it onto the prepared dough (you don’t want the egg to start to cook).


Use 2/3 of the dough (save the rest for a fruit galette). On a lightly-floured surface roll out dough into a rough circle about ¼” thick. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet (sided sheet is best, in case the galette runs over).

Scrape filling onto the pastry, leaving a 2 ½ - 3 inch border. Gently fold the border in over the filling, overlapping the dough where needed.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until pastry looks golden in spots. Remove from oven and let sit for 5-10 minutes before cutting.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lots of action in New Brunswick's local food scene!

A new food channel of sorts, Smart Eat TV is a site that's setting itself up to be (in its own words) "the social network where east means best – the best ingredients, kitchens and stories."

Don't we Maritimers say that some of the best parties (and online communities) end up in the kitchen? Looks like this'll be another. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Benefits of eco-friendly shaving

My top pick for a non-toxic eco-friendly
shave is shaving soap
I recently read that the average adult uses nine personal care products each day which combined contain about 120 chemicals. If you’d like to reduce the number of chemicals in your life choosing more natural versions of these everyday products is your best route.

A case in point is shaving. It’s something that most men do on a daily basis and hardly give a second thought. But it is worth thinking about if you’re using conventional shaving products because the toxins found in women’s cosmetics and personal care products are found in men’s products too.

Conventional shaving creams usually contain synthetic chemicals that could be carcinogenic, hormone disrupting and at the very least irritating. The synthetic fragrance alone could cause reproductive problems, as do the preservatives (called parabens). Some studies have also linked them to liver and kidney tumours. Using warm water to prepare your skin for shaving opens your pores, making it easier for these toxins to penetrate your skin and build up in your body over time.

My top pick for a non-toxic eco-friendly shave is shaving soap, along with a shaving brush. Forget the perception that using old fashioned shaving soap takes more time. It takes all of ten seconds to create a thick creamy lather in the soap dish and it’s quick and easy to apply. The rest is the same: Shave. Rinse. Go about your day. I have also read that many dermatologists recommend using a shaving brush and shaving soap since the brush works the soap into the hair bristles, making the shave closer and less irritating.

Olivier shaving soap is your best choice. It’s truly natural (made with olive oil, cocoa butter, beeswax and fragrant oil), costs $9.95 and lasts practically forever. The brush costs $11.95 and you can buy both at their shop in the Saint John City Market or order online at Their soaps are hand-made in small batches at their soapery in Ste. Anne de Kent, New Brunswick.
The chemicals in conventional shaving products aren’t the only un-green aspect of the daily ritual. Half a billion razors and all that packaging get tossed out by Canadians each year. Here are a few things you can do to ensure you’re not adding to the pile:

Choose reusable razors instead of disposable razors and buy good quality blades so they last longer. To extend the life of your blade consider buying an EverBlade, a razor blade stand designed to repel rust and corrosion from the blade. According to many enthusiastic reviews I found online a single blade can easily last four to eight months thanks to this stand and at a cost of $30 it will likely pay for itself in a month (

With Father’s Day just around the corner consider giving one of these eco options as a gift this year.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

It's June! Start cooking with fresh, local ingredients

Where I live beet greens are just about the first local ingredients to be found at the markets (after fiddleheads, that is). Make a meal of these tasty greens with this delicious pasta recipe.

Pasta with greens (beet greens or Swiss chard)

1/3 cup currants

Juice of 1 lemon

1 onion, diced

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 large bunch of beet greens or Swiss chard

Zest of 1 lemon

5 oz of goat’s cheese or feta

¼ cup toasted pine nuts (or almonds or walnuts)

Sea salt and pepper

¾ lb pasta (penne works well)

-Set pasta water to boil in a covered pot.

-In a small bowl, squeeze the juice of one lemon over the currants and set aside.

-Remove stems from greens and chop into 1 cm pieces. Roughly chop the leaves.

-Over medium heat saute the onion in olive oil until soft. Add garlic & cook one minute. Add chopped stems to the onion mixture cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir and add the chopped leaves. Cook until soft (about 5 minutes).

-When pasta is cooked drain and return to the pot. Add greens mixture, lemon zest, currants and lemon juice, and cheese. Toss, season with salt and pepper and serve immediately, with pine nuts sprinkled over.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Eco-friendly mowers

I love the smell of fresh-cut grass but don’t care for all that goes along with it: the noise, the exhaust fumes, the smell of spilled gasoline.

Gas-powered mowers pollute way beyond their worth. An hour of mowing with a traditional gas-powered mower pollutes as much as driving 320 kilometers in a typical car. So throughout the mowing season obsessive mowers could be polluting the equivalent of a 4,000 km road trip while never leaving the yard. Environment Canada estimates emissions from off-road engines (lawn mowers included) make up about 9% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions. On top of this, millions of gallons of gas are spilled each year by owners refilling their mowers.

I agree that mowing is a necessary evil but there are less evil ways to cut the grass. A goat would be my preferred but for all sorts of practical reasons that solution doesn’t suit our household (or neighbourhood).

For several years we used a reel mower – one of those old-fashioned-looking push mowers. The new versions are much lighter than the tank I recall in the corner of our basement when I was little. A reel mower is great for biceps, and offers a practical solution for nice flat lawns that aren’t too big. They’re quiet enough for early morning mowing and don’t pollute. Ours however became too much work for our large bumpy yard. Based on observation (I don’t mow, I garden) lawn mowing as an athletic workout for my husband lost its charm after five summers of pushing.

Figuring we needed a new, but still eco-friendly, way to mow he did a little research on rechargeable mowers and just this week came home with an Earthwise cordless electric mower. Electric mowers are great for many reasons. They’re quieter than gas-powered mowers, reduce pollution from mowing by about 90% and use only as much power as a toaster. Over the summer an electric mower will use roughly $5 worth of power.

I was inspired to give ours a try and was impressed. What I love about this new mower is that it’s easy to start; you just insert a key and pull a lever (no yanking on a cord). I found it heavy but not too heavy to push comfortably (ours has a 20” cutting path so is on the bigger side). It cut easily through thick grass and mulches the clippings so they’re left to nourish the lawn. Best of all I wasn’t walking through a path of smog that is typical for gas-powered mowers.

The battery lasts an hour, which is about enough mowing for me and recharges overnight. If you’re in the market for a mower there are several cordless options to choose from. We bought ours at Kent Building Supplies but Home Depot carries several brands too. If you’d prefer to try a reel mower they’re easy to find. I have even noticed a few promoted in hardware store flyers recently.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bringing Michael Pollan's "Food Rules" to your table

Fresh cut shoestring fries

The key to making these oven-baked fries crispy is to cut them as thinly as possible

One sweet potato
3 medium potatoes
2 T olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Peel potatoes or just give them a good scrub if they’re thin skinned. (Sweet potato will have to be peeled).

Slice them as thinly as possible and toss in a bowl with oil and salt and pepper.

Spread in a single layer on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. (Oil the sheet lightly if you don’t have parchment paper).

Bake at 450 for about half an hour (or until they’re crisp to your liking), moving them around the baking sheet every 10 minutes or so.

Remove from oven and serve at once.

Great variation:
In addition to the salt and pepper toss with ¼ t Chili powder and ¼ t oregano.

Quinoa salad with peppers and peas
This grain cooks quickly, has a wonderful texture and is especially nutritious. This recipe works well with rice, barley and bulgar too.

1 ½ cups quinoa
3 cups water or broth
1 red pepper, finely diced
1 cup frozen peas, boiled for one minute
2 T (or to taste) of whatever fresh herb you have on hand.


Juice & zest of one lemon
5 T olive oil
1 T honey or maple syrup
Sea salt & pepper

Put quinoa and water in a medium pot. Cover and bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and cook until water is absorbed (about 20 minutes). Remove from heat and fluff with a fork. Scrape into a bowl.

Meanwhile, scrub the pepper well before dicing.
Add the pepper and peas to the quinoa and toss with dressing (you won’t need the whole batch).

Season with salt and pepper.

Shave red cabbage overtop before serving (very pretty).
Add finely diced mango instead of the peas and use lime juice in the dressing
Add chopped baby spinach or arugula

Speedy salmon burgers
My kids devour these like they're cookies.

1 lb raw salmon or trout
1 large potato, boiled and mashed
1 egg, beaten
½ cup panko or dry breadcrumbs
1 T plain yogurt
Salt & pepper
3 T fresh herbs (Chives, dill or tarragon) or 1 t dried
Good squeeze of lemon

Chop the fish and mix with remaining ingredients.
Form into 3” mini burgers and fry in oil until cooked, flipping halfway through.

Works with other fish too.
Try patting in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) before frying.

Greening-up your diet just got easier

If you’re on a mission to green-up your diet and are looking for some quick guidance you’re in luck, Michael Pollan has a new book that proves it really isn’t that complicated to adopt a diet that’s healthier for you and the planet. Titled Food Rules, it’s a 140-page paperback that can be read in an hour but you might want to read it more than once and may be leave it on the counter as a reminder.

Pollan has written a couple of great books on how to eat but in this new book he has distilled his key ideas into dozens of easy-to-understand (some highly amusing) statements about what and how to eat. If ever there was a Coles Notes for eating well (in the green sense of the word) this book is it.

As I have mentioned before, I often get asked for green eating guidance. I only wish I was as clever and concise with my advice as Pollan. He’s the guy who summed up his food philosophy in seven words: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” By this he means eat whole food that you have prepared yourself, rather than prepackaged, highly processed edibles. He recommends that everyone eat more vegetables and treat meat more like a condiment. And in the context of these first two principles he recommends that we spend more on quality ingredients and eat less overall.

If you’re wondering where to begin with greening your diet the format of Pollan’s book works really well. He offers 64 starting points (what he calls rules) that make perfect sense and are so memorable that they’ll be running through your head at the grocery store just like a catchy tune.

Here are a few of my favourites:

-Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.
-It’s not food if it arrives through the window of your car.
-Avoid foods that you see advertised on television.
-Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
-Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
-Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to prepare it.

Pollan is tough on highly processed foods, calling them “edible foodlike substances” and he backs up his criticism with a mix of facts and opinion that might have you feeling a little sheepish, depending on how you feel about your current diet. But he does end with the rule “Break the rules once in a while” because eating well most of the time is what we all need.

If you’re looking for more ways to green-up your diet I’ll be speaking about food at the Maritime Green Living Expo at the Trade & Convention Centre on Sunday, May 30.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Be choosey about the toothpaste you use

Have you ever read the warning label on a tube of toothpaste? Are you alarmed that toothpaste even has a warning label? I’ll guess that few people have bothered to read the safe use instructions on the package, including not swallowing the toothpaste and, on some popular brands, “Recommended for adults and children over 12 years.”

Why should we all be concerned about this? Because most people haven’t a clue what’s in toothpaste and digging up a list of ingredients takes more than a little effort.

You might be surprised to discover that conventional toothpaste contains the artificial sweetener Saccharin. Health Canada banned the use of Saccharin in food 30 years ago due to animal studies that linked consumption to an increased risk of bladder cancer. (They are currently rethinking that ban, due to heavy lobbying from the diet-food industry, but many scientists continue to recommend against lifting the ban.)

Most brands also contain Triclosan as an antibacterial agent. The EPA considers Triclosan a pesticide and part of a class of chemicals that is thought to cause cancer in humans. Most whitening toothpaste also contains lye, considered a poison by the FDA

Then there is the controversy around fluoride. It’s not that fluoride is bad it’s just that we may be getting too much of it. When you combine toothpaste, fluoridated drinking water in some communities (not Rothesay or Quispamsis) and the consumption of all sorts of processed foods that are made with municipal water that is fluoridated, some health experts are worried that we’re ingesting too much fluoride. It builds up in our bones and among other things is linked to increasing rates of bone cancer in young boys.

Children under the age of two shouldn’t use toothpaste with fluoride and all children should be supervised while brushing to prevent swallowing. Not that it helps. The commercial brands for kids are formulated to taste just like candy and putting a toothbrush spread with children’s toothpaste in a child’s mouth is like giving them a lollypop and telling them not to swallow.

Now that you know some ingredients you might like to avoid, there are several alternatives to conventional drug store toothpaste, including options for children.

Tom’s of Maine gets a good rating since it’s saccharin-free, Triclosan-free and offers several options without fluoride, as do Natures Gate, Jason and Green Beaver (made in Canada). All carry a great variety of flavours. My children won’t budge from Tom’s of Maine Apricot and I prefer Nature’s Gate Fennel.

These brands are more expensive than convention brands but keep in mind you only need a small amount to do the job. For a little extra whitening power (minus the lye) keep a little pot of baking soda by the sink and brush with that a few times a week. Combined with proper flossing you won’t be compromising your dental health for the sake of overall wellness.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Do you colour your hair? Switch to eco-friendly (and less toxic) alternatives

In my life, the last thing to go green was my hair. Chemically-speaking I was taking much better care of my lawn than I was my own hair…which probably sounds ridiculous but the truth is that for the longest time I ignored the fact that covering up my grey hair was a toxic habit.

I doubt anyone would be truly surprised that hair colour is toxic, considering the eye-watering smell. Almost all hair colourant (temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent), contains a laundry list of petrochemicals and other toxins. In particular hair dye contains ammonia and p-Phenylenediamine (PPD for short) and although there are concerns associated with both of these chemicals it appears that PPD is the most worrisome. PPD is on Health Canada’s “Hot List” (Health Canada’s term, not mine) a list of prohibited and restricted cosmetic ingredients and as such manufacturers are required to list warnings on both the inside and the outside of the packaging.

There is a lot of research to back up worries about hair dye. A number of studies link higher instances of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to prolonged use of hair dye, particularly deeper colours. According to another study, those who use permanent hair dye are twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as those who don’t and yet another study links long-term use of hair dye with ovarian cancer. Allergic reactions to PPD are also well documented.

Permanent dye is more toxic than semi-permanent and darker tints are more toxic than lighter tints. If you’re someone who lightens their hair you still need to worry, just not as much.

The truly green thing to do would be to let my hair go grey at its own pace. But since I’m not ready for that I went looking for a less toxic dye that wouldn’t keep me up at night with worry and would keep my hair its previously natural colour.

I have found two salon brands that are ammonia-free with lower concentrations of PPD. So far I have tried a Schwarkopf product called Essensity that has no odor and covers my grey just fine. Next I’ll try Aveda hair colour. They offer a range of products that are 93% to 99% plant-based.

If you prefer the do-it-yourself kits, experiment with some alternatives to mainstream brands that contain lower concentration of the worst chemicals. Try a less-toxic brand like Herbatint permanent or semi-permanent hair dye. Both are ammonia-free, the permanent has low concentrations of PPD and the semi-permanent is PPD-free. Naturcolor is another brand to look for.

Then there is always henna. Made from the leaves of a desert shrub you can’t get more natural and non-toxic than that.

If you’re going to stick with your regular brand be sure to heed the warning label, including the safe-use instructions, don’t leave the hair dye on any longer than directed by the package, always wear gloves when you apply hair dye, rinse your scalp well (and cross your fingers).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Eco-friendly furniture

Who among us doesn’t have a favourite chair to lounge in at home? I know I do. Mine is a comfy red armchair that came from my mom and dad’s house, and my great aunt’s before that. It’s sturdy and elegant and just the place I like to sit with my coffee each morning.

It’s hard to believe that something as simple as a stuffed chair or couch could be rife with environmental issues. Here’s the problem: Since the late 1980’s the foam and fabric in furniture has been treated with flame retardants, which is a great concept except that they’re highly toxic and have been linked to liver and thyroid problems. Flame retardants build up in our fatty tissue and stay there forever. Even Environment Canada considers them toxic but the government has only phased out two of the tree most worrisome ones.

So what can you do about your existing furniture or what if you’re shopping for new?

If the foam in your existing furniture is showing wear then consider having it replaced with eco-friendly foam (soy-based foam is becoming more common). Worn out foam creates nasty dust that you don’t want to be breathing. It’s good to be in the habit of dusting and vacuuming often too (note to self). If you’re having furniture reupholstered choose natural fabrics (they don’t need to be treated) or inquire if your fabric of choice has been treated.

If you want something brand new there are eco-friendly options available. IKEA is a good choice since they banned the flame retardants in question in 2000. La-Z-Boy has a new line of environmentally conscious furniture that has soy-based cushions and fabrics made from recycled water bottles (although they don’t say how the fabric is treated). DeBoer’s everGreen line is healthy choice with eco-friendly fabric like wool, organic cotton, hemp, flax, and linen and natural latex foam cushions. If these don’t appeal to you ask for foam and fabric options when you’re buying new, so you can avoid the worst flame retardants. (The polybrominated family, also know as PBDE, is what you want to steer clear of).

There are many more ways to green your furniture. Before you buy anything brand new think about other options. My favourite way to revive tired furniture is to have it slip covered or reupholstered (and re-stuffed if necessary). That avoids the chain reaction of having something end up in the landfill. I also love secondhand furniture. If it’s solidly constructed (and the old stuff usually is) and has great lines then it’s worthwhile to have a piece refurbished. Check kijiji or local second hand stores for bargain finds and then put your money into buying just the fabric you want.

One more thing you need to know, stain guard fabric treatments do not offer peace of mind. They’re formaldehyde or Teflon-based so highly toxic and prone to off-gassing. To avoid stain guards (and hopefully stains too) try to keep food and drink away from your furniture and treat spills and splotches immediately.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Celebrate Earth Hour, Saturday, March 27 (8:30-9:30)

Saturday March 27, from 8:30 to 9:30, is Earth Hour, a global event that invites you to have fun in the dark as a way to speak out against climate change.

Earth Hour started as a single event in Sydney Australia in 2007. In that first year 2.2 million residents and businesses took part by turning out their lights for an hour on one coordinated evening. The result was a 10 per cent reduction in power draw on the grid which prevented 25,000 tones of carbon dioxide emissions.

Last year Earth Hour grew to one billion participants worldwide, ten million of which were Canadians. Who would have thought that a 60 minute event could change the world?

You can consider Earth Hour a global political movement, a convincing statement that we think the environment is important. No wise politician (and I’m not being facetious) would ignore it: More than half of Canadian adults took part in Earth Hour in 2009 and this year, on the heels of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, organizers are expecting participation to be even greater.

I’m all for the political agenda of the event but I think the potential of Earth Hour goes beyond politics. It’s proof that the world doesn’t stop when the power goes out and that there are a lot of fun, off-grid things to do in an evening. (Wouldn’t it be great if we were a little less dependent on the power grid for our evening’s entertainment?)

Earth Hour can be as fun as a childhood power outage with all the convenience of a well-planned party. (A meal can be cooked and ready to serve. No stumbling in the dark looking for flashlights.) I have fond childhood memories of the Groundhog Gale and a Christmas Day power outage where everything but the already-cooked turkey was prepared on the woodstove. My mom may have been near heart failure but it was like a grand adventure for us kids.

Why not recreate the adventure by planning your own celebration with family and friends:

- If you have an outdoor fireplace, invite your neighbours over for a chat by the fire. Toast marshmallows or make s’mores.
- Share a candlelit meal with family or friends, or just you and someone special. You can be intrepid and cook the meal on the woodstove, or make a fondu, to reduce your evening’s carbon footprint even more.
- Play cards or a board game by candlelight.
- Stargaze.
- Sit by the fire and chat
- Bundle up and go for a walk
- Read outloud by candlelight

Give it a try and you’ll discover that togetherness feels different when the power is out. We engage more with one another without the distractions of television or the computer and I think we listen better in the dark.

However you choose to celebrate consider registering your participation on the Earth Hour website so you’ll be counted ( The site will also provide real-time updates on the event across Canada and around the world.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Who needs meat when great vegetarian recipes abound?

Moroccan Chickpea Stew

  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed (or more, if you like)
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets
  • 2-3 good tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup broth (or water)
  • Pinch of saffron
  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas
  • Sea salt & pepper
  • Good squeeze of lemon
  • Fresh cilantro or mint
  • 2 Tbsp. diced preserved lemon (optional)
  1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large pot. When warmed to shimmering add the paprika and cumin. Swirl around for a minute and add onions and garlic. Cook until soft.
  2. Add carrots and cauliflower. Stir and cover. Steam for about 5 minutes, stirring a few times.
  3. When vegetables lose their crispness add the tomatoes. Cook until bubbling.
  4. Add the chickpeas and broth, along with the saffron and preserved lemon. Cook until vegetables are tender.
  5. Season with salt & pepper and lemon juice. Stir in your herb of choice.
Serve with couscous.

This is also great with green or black olives added. Feel free to increase the quantity of spices, and look for smoked paprika: it adds a wonderful dimension to the flavour. You can also toss in a 1 inch piece of cinnamon stick in to the mixture, or ¼ t of cinnamon when you add the other spices.

Black bean fajitas

1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic
2 t chili powder (or more)
2 tomatoes, diced
1 cup cooked black beans
Squeeze of lime
Zest of 1/2 a lime
Sea salt & pepper

Saute onion and garlic until soft. Add chili powder and cook for a minute. Add tomatoes and black beans. Cook until heated through and thickened. Season with salt & pepper. Add lime juice and zest.

Serve with warmed tortilla shells and a selection of garnishes. Our favourites are avocado slices, slivers of red pepper, salsa, and carrot cabbage slaw.

It’s important to give the red pepper a good scrub in hot soapy water and rinse well since bell peppers are known to have high pesticide residue.

The best thing for the environment? Eat less meat.

For years health care practitioners have been telling us that if we ate less meat we’d all be a lot healthier. The average North American eats twice as much meat today as we did fifty years ago and it’s taking a toll on our collective health. Is it any surprise that our voracious appetite for meat is taking its toll on the environment too? The environmental impact of meat production (we’re talking mostly the large factory farms) is so extensive that the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that the best thing you can do for the environment is to eat less meat.

To put it in perspective, the Canada Food Guide says a serving of meat (or fish or poultry) should be about 2.5 to 3 oz. and as little as 1 oz. for a child. A quick search of restaurant websites shows a lot of 8 oz. and 10 oz. steaks on menus, a serving that could feed a family of four.

What does that mean for the environment?

According to a UN study, the mass production of meat today accounts for 18% of green house gas emissions world wide. That’s more than the combined emissions from planes, trains and automobiles.

Deforestation to create pasture land and to grow crops to feed livestock is another issue. An acre of trees disappears every eight seconds (including rain forest) to create pasture and crop land. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide the impact on global warming is significant.

Factory farms, the source of most meat, pollute a lot. Manure run off can seep into waterways, a problem that is thought to be behind the deadly E. coli outbreak in Walkerton several years ago that killed six people.

If E. coli in our drinking water worries you consider this: 50% of antibiotics used in Canada are fed to livestock. Cramped quarters in factory farms means diseases are rampant so live stock is fed a steady diet of antibiotics to keep the animals from getting ill.

I could go on and on (ethical issues surrounding the treatment of animals on factory farms, pollution from meat processing plants) but suffice to say that cutting back even a bit on meat consumption could help the earth in many ways. (If Americans ate 10% less meat there would be enough grain left over to feed 60 million people. So in simplified terms there really is a solution to world hunger.)
If reducing the amount of meat you consume poses a challenge in your household here are a few tips to get you started:

Look for organic or naturally-raised meat. Livestock fed a natural, organic diet are happier, healthier and more nutritious. To find local producers check out these websites:,,

Reduce the portion size when you do eat meat and load up on more whole grains and vegetables.

Try eating one less meat-based meal each week. Substitute meat alternatives like beans for the meat in some of your favourite recipes.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Making the most of your CFL's

We all know that swapping out old incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) is one painless way to reduce your annual power bill. (Lights account for about 5% of overall household power use). CFLs use 75 percent less energy than their incandescent counterparts and last up to 10 times longer. When you do the light bulb math each CFL bulb can prevent more than 450 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. And depending on electrical rates you could save about $80 in energy costs over the life of the bulb.

If you’re going to make this worthwhile investment (and it is an investment, considering the cost) you’ll want to ensure each bulb lasts a good long time.

A friend was complaining recently that CFL bulbs in his home weren’t lasting nearly as long as they were supposed to. We were noticing the same thing so I did some research and discovered a few tips to help extend the life of your pricey bulbs:

- In fixtures on a dimmer switch use dimmable CFLs (should be stated on the packaging). Dimmers shorten the life of regular CFLs.

- CFLs are best in areas where they’re likely to be on for 15 minutes at a time or longer. Using them in places where they’ll be turned on and off frequently (like closets and bathrooms) will shorten their life.

- For totally enclosed fixtures buy bulbs that state clearly on that packaging that they’re designed for this use.

- If the bulb has been used according to the manufacturer’s instructions and still burns out early you may be eligible for a refund or a replacement. Energy Star certified bulbs carry at least a two-year warranty (covering manufacturer defects). The catch is that you need to save your receipts and contact the manufacturer directly.

Something else you need to know about CFL bulbs is that they all contain mercury. As a result they’re considered household hazardous waste and cannot go in the regular trash. Spent bulbs can be taken to the Crane Mountain Household Hazardous Waste Facility (Saturday mornings) or to convenient drop-off boxes at Home Depot. The mercury is recycled into new bulbs.

Because of the mercury you should be careful where you use the bulbs. Basically anywhere with a higher risk of breakage is not a good spot for a CFL (ex. lamps in children’s rooms or table lamps in high traffic areas).

If you break a bulb you should open a window, leave the room and close the door, turn off the air exchange system and go looking for a glass screw top jar and a roll of duct tape. After 15 minutes you can go back in (wearing gloves), put the glass fragments in the jar and use the tape to pick up the tiny bits. Put the tape in the jar too and use a damp cloth to wipe the area. Put the cloth in the jar, screw on the lid and take it to the Household Hazardous Waste Facility.

This is the ultra-conservative clean up method suggested by Energy Star. Apparently the overall the health risk is minimal (each bulb contains just a fraction of the mercury contained in a silver filling).

Monday, February 8, 2010

Soup can be a satisfying and speedy supper

Lentil soup

This recipe came from a dear friend who used to make it with green lentils but grabbed faster-cooking red lentils once. The result is a thick and satisfying soup that’s ready to eat in under an hour. You’ll see that grating the carrots and dicing the potatoes into tiny cubes also help it cook up quickly. Adding the red pepper at the end gives the soup a lovely red-orange hue.

More time savers: I buy organic carrots and organic, thin skinned potatoes so don’t bother to peel them. I simply give them a quick scrub before grating or chopping.

2 T oil
2 onions, finely diced
2-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped or put through a press
3-5 medium carrots, grated
2-3 medium potatoes, chopped into little cubes
2 cups crushed tomatoes or chunky tomato sauce
About 7 cups of water or broth or a combination of both
2 cups of red lentils
1 bay leaf
1 red pepper, whirred in a food processor
Sea salt & pepper to taste
Good squeeze of lemon

In a large soup pot over medium heat saute the onions in the oil until soft then add the garlic. Stir a bit then add the potatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes then add the carrots, tomatoes, water or broth, and bay leaf. Give it all a good stir, cover and bring to a boil. Add the lentils, stir again, and cover. Let it simmer away, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the whirred red pepper. Season with salt and pepper. Toss in your favourite herbs (fresh or dried) and serve with a good squeeze of lemon and feta crumbled over or grated parmesan.

My current favourite herb with this soup is fresh cilantro. But if I don't have any on hand I switch to dried thyme or oregano.

Add chopped cauliflower to the vegetable mixture
Toss in 1-2 cups of cooked chickpeas near the end
Add 1-2 cups of chopped spinach or swiss chard just before serving

Monday, February 1, 2010

How to eat organic and stretch your food dollar

When it comes to buying produce I often get asked what my preference is – local or organic. Buying local is definitely my preference but it doesn’t mean I always choose local over organic. Throughout the growing season it is easy enough to find local growers supplying organic produce so I get the best of both worlds. But when I don’t have local options that are also organic I’m choosey. Likewise, there are lots of items that I don’t bother to buy organic, even if I have a choice.

I know this sounds confusing so I’ll explain.

In conventional farming today there are a lot of chemicals in play. There are petroleum-based fertilizers that contain heavy metals and there is a crazy array of pesticides that are used in various combinations to kill insects, plants and fungi, in order to grow “perfect” produce. All of these chemicals make their way to our tables in various amounts when we eat non-organic produce. Eating organic is a way to avoid them.

The selective shopping that I explained above is my way to limit the amount of chemicals that my family ingests. Here’s how I manage it without tying myself in knots at the grocery store.

I have a handy guide that helps me decide what to buy organic and what non-organic fruits and vegetables are okay to eat. It’s all based on the amount of pesticide residue commonly found on the produce (after it has been prepared the usual way). My guide lists the 15 fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticide residue and the 12 with the highest.

The lists are published by Environmental Working Group (EWG) an environmental research organization based in the U.S. I last wrote about their findings in 2008 but they have since updated their lists based on a recent analysis of data (gathered by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food & Drug Administration.)

“Clean 15”
To help your food dollars go further you can feel comfortable consuming non-organic versions of these fruits and vegetables:
Sweet corn (frozen)
Sweet peas (frozen)
Sweet potato

“Dirty Dozen”
These are the foods with the highest pesticide residue so you’ll want to buy organic. Or consider limiting your consumption of non-organic versions of these foods.

Bell pepper
Imported grapes (outside of Canada & US)

The lists are a great tool to help you make good use of your food dollars and still eat well. Plus they provide some helpful guidance on when to buy local. To print out a tidy wallet guide visit On that site you’ll also find a complete list of 47 fruits and vegetables tested and more info in the study methodology.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Handle all batteries with care

If you’re anything like us you have a kitchen junk drawer full of spent batteries (or batteries you think are worn out but you really can’t remember where they came from or how long they’ve been in there.) I had been ignoring these batteries until, over Christmas, my brother-in-law asked me what should be done with them. It was a timely question - 40% of annual battery sales happen during the holidays. That’s no surprise when you consider the increased use of cameras and camcorders over the holidays plus all those battery operated gifts.

Since it is estimated that your average individual tosses about eight single use batteries a year, having a drawer full isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means that you haven’t been putting them in the trash.

Batteries don’t belong in the landfill. Whether they’re single use alkaline (AA, AAA, C, D), lithium, button style or rechargeable batteries, there is a safe place for each of these and it isn’t your household trash. Even though many manufacturers of single use batteries say they should simply be tossed when worn out (which isn’t true) all batteries need to be handled with care. Some are at the very least caustic while others contain heavy metals and other toxic stuff. All can be recycled to varying degrees so it’s important to help them get into their proper recycling stream.

For a one-stop drop off you can take everything (rechargeable batteries, single use alkaline batteries, cell phones, CD Players, MP3 Players, CDs, Portable DVD Players) to Future Shop and look for the Greentec drop box.

As another option, the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (established by battery manufacturers) operates a free rechargeable battery and cell phone collection program. In our area look for drop off boxes at The Source, Canadian Tire, Home Depot, Future Shop and Staples. Along with the common household rechargeable batteries you can drop off worn out rechargeable batteries from power tools, digital cameras, cellular and cordless phones, laptops, MP3 players and any other rechargeable that won’t hold a charge any longer. Visit their website ( ) for a complete listing of local drop off locations.
Or you can take your spent batteries to the Household Hazardous Waste Facility (HHWF) at Crane Mountain Landfill where they’ll be sorted and shipped off for recycling. Drop off is Saturday mornings from 8:00 a.m. to 12 noon. You’ll be happy to know that no item delivered to the HHWF ends up in the landfill.
Now that you know how to dispose of batteries safely, you might want to consider changing your battery habits. A great place to start is to ban single use batteries from your life (except for your smoke detectors) and switch to rechargeable batteries wherever possible. A standard rechargeable battery can replace up to 300 single use batteries.

And one more tip, before you buy something that is battery operated consider other options. Think about it…do you really need a battery powered toothbrush or a battery powered milk frother?