What’s that in my food?

October 2, 2016

inglabelParticipating in #OctoberUnprocessed this year gives me another opportunity to take a closer look at what’s really in the food I eat. Thousands of ingredients are added to foods for sale in the U.S. and can include chemicals that act as preservatives, change texture or appearance, or add flavor. These must be listed on ingredient labels unless they are present at “trace” levels and have no functional purpose in the food.

Later this month I’ll post on health effects associated with some of these ingredients. But today I want to talk about how to choose foods that are free of potentially toxic ingredients. One approach I’ve heard is to choose foods with no more than five ingredients listed on the label. Another is to avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or identify. The second approach is probably the safest bet, since many foods made from whole foods can contain more than five ingredients and still be healthy – like ten bean soup, for example. The only limit to this approach is that some botanicals (e.g. plants) have Latin names that even a chemist like me struggles with identifying.

It’s also a good idea to skip ingredients with generic names like “flavors”, which can consist of a mixture of human-made chemicals, or “natural”, which is no guarantee that the ingredient has not been altered from its natural state. Keep in mind, avoiding unrecognizable ingredients in your food does not protect you from exposure to other chemicals that leach from packaging or are formed as byproducts of processing.

Bottom line: Just as it is possible to avoid many pesticides in food by choosing organic products, you can avoid artificial ingredients by reading food labels and skipping anything other than those you recognize as a whole food, like apples, beans, or oregano.

Share your strategies for avoiding potentially toxic ingredients in the foods you love (of course there will be a post on chocolate later this month).


September 30, 2016

OUlogo.jpgJoin me for the #OctoberUnprocessed Challenge! Starting tomorrow and for the entire month of October, I’ll be choosing to eat minimally processed, whole foods . And I will be posting at DocLaurel (Facebook) and @Laurel_Standley (Twitter) on ways that eating a less processed diet can reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals.

This is the 7th annual Challenge, which is hosted by Andrew Wilder (@EatingRules) on Facebook. To find the group, just search for October Unprocessed and join ~3,000 people participating this year. Even if you are only able to reduce rather than avoid processed foods during the month, you can make a big difference in eliminating unhealthy ingredients from your diet. Learn more about the Challenge at https://eatingrules.com/october-unprocessed/.

Please join the conversation – I’d love to hear your ideas!

Balcony Farm Girl

July 13, 2016

Growing your own food is a pleasure that even access to a great Farmer’s Market can’t beat. Plucking a ripe strawberry or tomato still warm from the sun offers the best flavor and burst of nutrients. It’s a wonderful venture for those of us seeking to increase organic, unpackaged food in our diets and the best way to avoid the many toxins associated with industrial farming and food processing. For those with a backyard, urban/suburban farming can expand to raising chickens or goats.

Like many balcony farmers, I am limited by the boundaries of railings and distance from the ground. And on hot days, the sun’s reflection off sliding glass doors can fry delicate. To cool things off when the temp rises above ninety, I have an umbrella to shade herbs and lettuces and a bamboo curtain that rolls down to cover the glass. This has the added benefit of keeping the indoors cooler. The bamboo curtain was suggested during last summer’s heat wave by my friend Jen Willis.

While my own balcony measures only 4.5×9 feet, I’ve created an expansive collection of “crops” by going vertical with stacked pots and trellises. As for many urban gardeners in Oregon, my “farm” is expanded by proximity to a nearby hillside covered in blackberry bushes. By mid-August my freezer is stocked with enough luscious berries to hold me until January.

I’ve been farming on this balcony for three summers now and have a wonderful collection of perennial herbs and strawberries and am continually working on expanding my collection of annuals. I’ve learned that cucumbers work, if you don’t mind a carpet of vines and big green leaves on the balcony floor. Zucchinis did not work, however. Perhaps they’re just not happy being constrained in a pot. The usually vigorous squashes never got past a couple of inches before turning brown and giving up.

SeedlingsSummer16About a month before the danger of frost (and in Oregon, hail) passes, I start laying out small little pots across window ledges and plant seeds for lettuce, tomatoes, arugula, and ready the packets of peas and edamame. I’ve learned to keep adding new peas, beans, and cilantro seeds to the pots every few weeks during the summer to keep the harvest going.

There are a few critical things to remember to reduce the presence of toxins in your home-grown produce. It is really important to avoid using pesticides, which have been linked to diseases like Parkinson’s and reproductive harm. While growing plants on a balcony can reduce competition from critters like slugs and other pests, some will still find their way up to your farm. Checking your plants for pests often and setting up nets around tomato and strawberry plants can help. And to some extent, it helps to let go and share some of your harvest with the bugs and squirrels. Although I admit that a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a handful of strawberries to ripen to perfection, I ran outside to chase off a squirrel determined to harvest the shiny red berries.

Getting clean soil is also a top priority. The use of the word “organic” for soils and composts does not mean that they are free of pesticides. It means that they were made from plant or animal sources instead of minerals, which is what “inorganic” fertilizers are made from. So, whenever possible, ask for soils and composts that come from sources untreated by pesticides. It is also important to avoid soils and composts made from “biosolids”, which are the solids formed during sewage treatment. Although these materials are rich in nutrients, they can be contaminated by heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. One study by USGS researchers showed that soy beans grown in biosolids-treated soils were contaminated by the antimicrobial chemical triclosan.

There are other potential sources of toxins to be aware of when you live in multi-family housing. My home owners’ association occasionally treats the tile roof to reduce moss growth. This can result in toxins sprayed onto your plants while they’re working and runoff long after they’re done. I lay a plastic tarp over the garden while they’re spraying and make sure the gutters are working well to direct roof runoff away from my plants. Some HOAs may also spray surrounding landscapes with herbicides or insecticides. Ask to be notified when they do so that you can cover your crop. Better yet, ask them to find non-toxic ways to control pests.

chicken_roamingJust a note for those raising chickens and goats, which will also take up toxins from their environment and accumulate them in their meat, eggs, and milk. Though you can’t shield them from all toxins, the same cautions apply as those for growing produce. Clean soil is key. If you live in a home built before the seventies, be extra careful about letting the animals feed near the house where flakes or dust from lead paint may contaminate the soil. Raised beds filled with clean soil down to root depth can help overcome past contamination. Finally, if you live near a busy road, it might not be a good idea to grow food, as dust and exhaust from traffic may result in an overall toxic environment.

I would love to hear your stories about your urban farming adventures! Don’t forget to post pics of your crops.

Facebook posts

November 2, 2015

Hi Folks,

I finally created a Facebook page called Doc Laurel (www.facebook.com/DocLaurel) that I’m doing most of my posting about toxins and reducing your exposure. Please join me on that platform for more frequent postings.

I’ll still post here when I need to go into more detail.

Wishing you good health,


Imagine arriving in your city’s downtown core on a quiet electric train, whisked along tracks through residential and urban city blocks. You glance toward the mountains in the distance, visible through a sky free of smog.

As the train pulls into the station, you step out and inhale the clean air. Electric buses and trams move swiftly past you along the road and throughout the city in a widely accessible grid, similar to Curitiba’s efficient transport system. As you walk along broad sidewalks toward your office, the weight of each step triggers a small pulse of electricity that flows from the pavement’s array into the city grid.

Your company has offices in a riverside building, integrated into its environment like those in the eco-city Masdar. The building operates so efficiently that it contributes net energy to the grid and is powered by a geothermal system, wind turbines and PV panels synced with the sun’s arc across the sky. Retractable shades shield offices from the summer sun. You are fortunate to live and work in a city entirely connected to the earth’s plentiful energy systems of sun, wind and subsurface heat.

You settle into your office on the second floor, which is mostly illuminated by walls of windows and a glass atrium located in the building’s center. Structural materials and furnishings were created from nontoxic, sustainably harvested componentss, leaving the indoor environment as clean as mountain air.

After a few hours of work, you walk up a circular staircase lit by windows and take your lunch at the café on the top floor. Fruits and vegetables that fill your plate were gathered from the rooftop garden that morning; hummus, chicken and grains were harvested from farms located a few miles outside the city.

As the day ends, you power down your low-energy holoscreen and gather your belongings to return home. You return to the train, which has just sped into the station. The sidewalk that takes you from the station home glows as you walk, lit by phosphorescent molecules embedded in the pavement, lighting your way and reducing the need for streetlights that block the view of stars in the sky.

Walking toward your home, you glance up at an apartment building on your left and smile at the vertical vegetable garden winding up the southern face of the building. PV panels and a thermal solar array cover the roof and supply energy and hot water to each unit in the building.

Your city’s hydrological and organic systems are also integrated into the environment’s natural cycles. Freshwater that falls as rain and flows in streams down from the mountains is optimally utilized, including sufficient recharge of the region’s surface and ground water resources. Parallel pipes channel potable and treated reclaimed water to each home and building and then out again after use by residents. Fluid wastes are channeled to a quaternary treatment facility and then back out again for use in landscapes. Solid wastes are flushed to a collection center and used to generate biogas. Grey water is immediately filtered on site and used for flushing ultra-low flow toilets. Vegetables and other green wastes are harvested to create an organic, rich compost that is transported to farms within and surrounding the city, completing the capture of carbon-rich waste back into the food supply.

As the weekend approaches, you look forward climbing into your Tesla, powered by energy collected from PV panels on your roof, and heading out into the countryside for a drive.

An entry to the Masdar Engage Blogging Contest www.masdar.ae/adsw/engage

Dear Toxins Blog followers:books

I am writing a book on the presence and source of toxins in our food and drinking water, whether they come through environmental contamination, are added as ingredients, or leach from packaging/cooking materials. One major chapter of the book will focus on how choosing different diets likely affects your exposure to toxins (e.g. plant-based, omnivore, paleo, vegan).

I would love to have feedback from you about what you would like to see discussed in the book, what questions you have on the topic that you think would be helpful for people to learn about. I am also very interested in including case studies on your experiences with toxins in foods (do you react to certain ingredients, taste contaminants, etc.).

Again, the toxins I will be focusing on for the book include:

  • environmental contaminants (e.g. dioxins)
  • pesticides used during cultivation of crops
  • ingredients added for preservation or other purposes
  • substances leached from packaging, storage, or cooking equipment.

When I have finished a draft copy of the book, I will be looking for several people interested in acting as beta readers to provide me with feedback before I publish. In gratitude for your services, I will send you a free eBook or paperback copy once the book is published.

Wishing you great health,


Ingredient list A friend just asked me about the safety of ingredients in a product that claims to enhance eyelashes (http://www.dermstore.com/lp/2268). Even though I’m a chemist, I still find it difficult to interpret product labels for safety of ingredients and can imagine how frustrating this is for people who simply want to know about the safety of products they apply to their bodies.

I decided to use this as an example for how you can figure these things out. To begin with, I checked to see whether the product was on EWG’s SkinDeep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep). It wasn’t, drat.

So I then checked the Database for each ingredient’s hazard score. Of the 27 ingredients listed for the product, all but one were in the Database (I’ve listed the individual ingredient scores below if you’re interested). Of these, the majority (17) had hazard scores of zero, which indicates that they were not considered hazardous based on available information. That was good news. And it wasn’t until the 16th ingredient on the label that a score above zero was listed. Only one ingredient, phenoxyethanol, had a score in the moderately hazardous range and it was 21st on the list of ingredients, meaning that it was present in low concentrations in the product.

That left one ingredient not listed in the Cosmetics Database. Chlor phenoxyethanol was the 22nd ingredient on the list and appears to have been added as a preservative to inhibit bacterial growth. I decided to look further to see what I could find out. After much searching on Google, I found nothing to answer my question about this ingredient’s toxicity. I actually didn’t even find the chemical in the top results of the search. So I shifted to EPA’s Aggregated Computational Toxicology Resource (http://actor.epa.gov/actor/faces/ACToRHome.jsp) and found – nothing – on its toxicity. Sigh…

lashThis is a place many of us are familiar with. And while I am painfully aware that few chemicals have been adequately tested before they are added to consumer products, it is still frustrating to be unable to fully answer my friend’s question about this product’s safety. I can only hope that this will change so that it isn’t such a chore to figure out how safe a product is to use. Or better yet, that the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products will end sometime soon.

Bottom line, I will tell my friend that most ingredients appear to be safe and of the two lower-concentration ingredients, one is moderately hazardous and that I don’t know about the safety of the other.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

Wishing you good health,


Here’s the list of ingredients and their scores on the Cosmetics Database:

Ingredients that had scores                               EWG’s score                     Supporting Data

Aqua/Water/Eau                                                         0                                       robust

Glycerin                                                                      0                                         fair

Butylene Glycol                                                       0 – 1                                    limited

Pterocarpus Marsupium Bark Extract                        0                                      no data

Myristoyl Pentapeptide-17                                         0                                      no data

Apigenin                                                                      0                                         fair

Glutamic Acid                                                             0                                         fair

Biotinoyl Tripeptide-1                                                 0                                      no data

Octapeptide-2                                                            0                                      no data

Panthenol                                                                   0                                       limited

Mannitol                                                                     0                                         fair

Biotin                                                                          0                                         fair

Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil                                         0                                        fair

Oleanolic Acid                                                            0                                         fair

Disodium Succinate                                                   0                                         fair

Sodium Oleate                                                            2                                       limited

PPG-26-Buteth-26                                                     2                                       limited

PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil                              3                                       limited

Cellulose Gum                                                            0                                         fair

Hydrogenated Lecithin                                               2                                       limited

Phenoxyethanol                                                          4                                       limited

Chlor Phenoxyethanol                                         not listed

Chlorphenesin                                                            2                                       limited

Sodium Benzoate                                                       3                                         fair

Sodium Citrate                                                            0                                         fair

Potassium Sorbate                                                     3                                       limited

Disodium EDTA                                                          0                                         fair

Scores for ingredients range from 0 – 10 overall, with values from 0 to 2 indicating a low hazard, values from 3 to 6 likely a moderate hazard, and those from 7 to 10 considered highly hazardous. The strength of information supporting these scores also ranges from no data available to a robust amount. For more information on how EWG determines the score for ingredients, check out their website at http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/site/about.php.