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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: I’m in the market for a new set of non-stick cookware for my kitchen, and I’m wondering which type is healthiest? -- Rose Castillo, Santa Fe, NM

Non-stick cookware cleans very easily and some health-conscious cooks appreciate that it requires less cooking oil than uncoated varieties. But the convenient cooking surface comes with potential risks when it is used with high heat. At temperatures exceeding 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the synthetic fluoropolymer coating in Teflon non-stick cookware begins to break down and release toxic perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) into the air.

The Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested how quickly three different non-stick pans (lightweight, medium and heavy) heated up to 500ºF. Scrambled eggs cooked on medium heat for three minutes in a lightweight pan peaked at a safe 218ºF, but all three pans heated on high reached temperatures above 500ºF in less than five minutes. The cheapest, lightest pan of the three got there in under two minutes. Even with oil added, the cheapest pan surpassed the 500ºF mark in two and a half minutes. Cooking steak in a lightweight non-stick pan yielded a pan temperature exceeding 600ºF in less than 10 minutes. At temperatures of 660°F and above, non-stick coated pans may emit fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever, a temporary flu-like condition with symptoms such as chills, headache and fever. While the fumes aren’t fatal to humans, they can kill pet birds.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit focused on health and the environment, recommends cast iron and stainless steel cookware as safer options for stove top cooking, and oven-safe glass for baking. High-quality stainless steel pans are durable and can last a lifetime if treated with care. They also have greater searing and browning capabilities than non-stick pans while still being relatively easy to clean.

Cast iron creates an even, intense heat that helps seal in juices and keeps foods moist. Cast iron is also more versatile than non-stick cookware, as it can go from stove top to oven. While cast iron is heavy and needs to be “seasoned”—a process that involves coating the pan in oil and baking it—it is a more affordable option than stainless steel. Cast iron is also scratch-resistant, so any kind of utensils can be used when cooking with it. While there are a growing number of new cookware options on the market, including ceramic options advertised as a zero-toxin, eco-friendly alternative to Teflon, EWG reports we don’t know enough about them yet to be certain they live up to such claims.

Keep in mind that any non-stick cookware you currently own that’s not chipped and in good condition can still safely be used with foods that are quickly cooked on low or medium heat, like eggs or pancakes.

“I personally do not advocate throwing away or giving away your non-stick pan,” says Simona Balan, senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI). “That doesn't solve the problem: If you throw it away, it will end up in a landfill from where it will leach PFASs into the environment, or even worse, it will get burned, which will release even more toxins.”

But if you’re buying new cookware, the experts agree the best way to play it safe would be cast iron for stove top cooking and glass for baking.

CONTACTS: Good Housekeeping Research Institute, www.goodhousekeeping.com/institute; EWG, www.ewg.org; GSPI, www.greensciencepolicy.org.

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that big game hunting can actually be good for wildlife? -- Ronnie Wilson, Ft. Myers, FL

When Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil, a much-loved wild 13-year-old black-maned lion, with his bow and arrow in July 2015 outside a protected section of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, animal advocates were outraged. The University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit team had been studying Cecil and his family—protected as long as they stayed within the invisible borders of the park—at the time. In response to the extensive media coverage and public fury following the incident, Delta, American and United airlines announced in August that they would no longer allow hunters to transport big game trophies, including buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion or rhino, on their flights.

Cecil’s death also helped draw attention to big game hunting and its effects on wildlife populations and their ecosystems. Globe-trotting big game hunters imported more than 1.26 million “trophies”—the part of the animal they keep for display—to the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, according to a new report by Humane Society International (HSI). That’s an average of 126,000 trophy imports a year, or 345 a day.

But hunting proponents found the sudden backlash over Cecil’s death unsubstantiated. Dr. Alan Maki, conservation chair at the prominent hunting group, Safari Club International (SCI), argued that, considering that Africa’s human population is projected to double to two billion in the next 25 years, more and more land will be needed to support this growth, resulting in lots of lost wildlife habitat. Safari hunting, a $200 million annual industry, provides substantial value to wildlife, he said, by paying for anti-poaching patrols, national park operations and conservation programs that support local communities.

“We’re too busy showing everyone what great hunters we are, and we’re not doing enough to show what kind of conservationists we are,” says Ivan Carter, an African hunting guide and host of Carter’s W.A.R. on the Outdoor Channel. “We have to change the perception that we are just trophy killers and we’ve got to focus on the fact that we’re conservationists, and we do that by having and sharing the right information and research, and taking the time to post properly on social media.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that trophy hunting is benign, let alone beneficial. HSI maintains that widespread corruption in some of Africa’s most sought after big game destinations means that money raised from trophy hunting in places like Tanzania and Zimbabwe is more likely used to line officials’ pockets than to help ailing wildlife populations. (This unavoidable corruption was part of the reason Kenya banned trophy hunting altogether within its borders some four decades ago.) HSI also points out that trophy hunting may be more about ego-stroking than conservation, with wealthy American hunters willing to pay top dollar to compete in contests to kill the most wildlife for awards (such as the “Africa Big Five” that includes lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and Cape buffalo). 

HSI, which has published several reports detailing the negative effects of trophy hunting on wildlife populations, is working to get additional airlines to refuse passage to hunting trophies, and has helped introduce legislation to Congress calling for a ban on the importation of large animal trophies altogether. 

While it appears that the debate is not going to be settled anytime soon, animal advocates maintain that upholding laws protecting species does much more to protect animals than killing them ever can.

CONTACTS: Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, www.wildcru.org; SCI, www.safariclub.org; Carter’s W.A.R., www.outdoorchannel.com/showvideos.aspx?show-id=33240; HSI, www.hsi.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that home rooftop solar only makes sense in certain parts of the U.S. with proper incentives as opposed to where the sun shines the most? -- Esther Knox, Wilton, NH

The short answer is yes: In the United States, whether or not it is easy and economical to go solar depends more on state politics than prevailing weather trends. In those states with ample sunshine and the legislative initiative to get solar panels on residential roofs, there has never been a better—or cheaper—time to put photovoltaic panels to use.

According to Solar Power Rocks, a website that helps homeowners understand the rules, incentives and investment returns on local solar panel installations, the top three states where switching over to solar power makes the most economic sense are in the Northeast (New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut). Maryland, Connecticut, Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont and Colorado round out the top ten.

What makes these states particularly prime for rooftop solar is their willingness to allow homeowners to lease photovoltaic equipment from third-party owners (like Sun Edison, Solar City, SunRun, etc.) and legislature-backed incentives to help keep costs down overall. Going solar in one of these states might end up being cheaper than remaining on the grid.

Surprisingly, a few states in the South (Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Kentucky), where solar panels would seem like a no-brainer, continue to resist this change for the better, in large part due to entrenched utility lobbies intent on maintaining their fossil-fuel-based lock on the status quo. According to a recent Rolling Stone article by Tim Dickinson, the recent ascent of solar power in the U.S. poses a grave threat to the business interests of big fossil fuel industry investors. Dickinson details how these entrenched interests are “mounting a fierce, rear-guard resistance at the state level—pushing rate hikes and punishing fees for homeowners who turn to solar power.” He adds that their efforts have “darkened green-energy prospects in could-be solar superpowers” like Arizona and Nevada. “But nowhere has the solar industry been more eclipsed than in Florida, where the utilities' powers of obstruction are unrivaled.”

“The solar industry in Florida has been boxed out by investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that reap massive profits from natural gas and coal,” reports Dickinson. “These IOUs wield outsize political power in the state capital of Tallahassee, and flex it to protect their absolute monopoly on electricity sales.”

While Florida might be a laggard on rooftop solar for now, that could all change if some residents are successful in their drive for an amendment to the state constitution to allow for third-party solar ownership (which would enable solar leasing). Of course, the state’s utilities have challenged the amendment by creating their own, designed to confuse voters into keeping solar panels off their rooftops. 

For more information on where your state stands in terms on rooftop solar, check out Solar Power Rocks 2016 U.S. Solar Power Rankings. Also, visit the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) for a full run-down of state-by-state, federal and other incentives for installing solar panels and other forms of renewable energy equipment.

CONTACTS: Solar Power Rocks, www.solarpowerrocks.com; Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, www.dsireusa.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What should I know about artificial sweeteners before I opt for them for myself or my kids in place of regular ol’ sugar? -- Gretchen Abdow, Philadelphia, PA

These days, it’s incredibly easy to consume a huge daily dose of sugar. Grabbing a non-fat, grande latte at Starbucks before work will start your day off with 18 grams of sugar. A Chobani Strawberry-on-the-Bottom yogurt with an 8-ounce can of Sprite in the afternoon will add 41 grams; and a 32 ounce bottle of Gatorade and an Almond & Apricot KIND bar at the gym shovels in another 65.5 grams. Consuming these common foods and beverages will bring your daily sugar intake to a total of 124.5 grams.

“Our ancestors probably consumed 20 teaspoons (100 grams) of sugar per year and we now consume that much per day,” says Dr. Sandy Seeman, a naturopathic doctor who also works at Campbell's Nutrition in Des Moines, Iowa. “We cannot continue to consume this amount of sugar and not have it impact our systems. Something has to change.”

To avoid tooth decay, obesity, diabetes and other ailments associated with excess sugar intake, Americans have turned to artificial sweeteners, including aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’n Low), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium, neotame and others. But the potential dangers of such sweeteners have been controversial since the 1970s, when saccharin was linked with bladder cancer in laboratory rats. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 30 human studies have since shown that those results were irrelevant to humans and that saccharin is safe for human consumption.

The FDA stands by the safety of the sweeteners it approves, referring to aspartame on its website as one of the “most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply,” with 100-plus studies supporting its safety.The FDA also says that more than 90 studies support the safety of acesulfame potassium, while some 110 studies were reviewed in approving sucralose, 113 for neotame, and 37 for advantame.

“About the only way this stuff could harm you is if you were run over by a truck that was delivering it,” reports Josh Bloom, Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), when discussing the recent FDA approval of advantame on his blog.

But according to Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight loss specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, artificial sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent usage may limit tolerance for more complex tastes, that is, people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods (such as fruit) less appealing and unsweet foods (such as vegetables) downright unpalatable. In other words, overuse of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value. 

New York Times bestselling author Dr. Mark Hyman suggests that if you have a desire for something sweet, have a little sugar, but stay away from “fake” foods. “Sugar-containing foods in their natural form, whole fruit, for example, tend to be highly nutritious—nutrient-dense, high in fiber and low in glycemic load. On the other hand, refined, concentrated sugar consumed in large amounts rapidly increases blood glucose and insulin levels, triglycerides, inflammatory mediators and oxygen radicals, and with them, the risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.”

CONTACTS: Campbell’s, www.campbellsnutrition.com; FDA, www.fda.gov; ACSH, www.acsh.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Do scientists think there is a big environmental component to the huge rise in peanut allergies in recent years? -- Jay Williams, Fresno, CA

Peanut allergies among children in the United States has more than tripled, from 0.4 percent in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2010, according to a study by food allergists at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Of the eight foods that cause 90 percent of food allergies (milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish), peanuts are the deadliest. They result in an estimated 15,000 emergency room visits (half of the 30,000 due to food allergies) in the U.S.

Heather Fraser, author of The Peanut Allergy Epidemic: What’s Causing It and How to Stop It, says that despite the continuing intense attention given to the growing epidemic of peanut allergies in children, an answer to its cause(s) has not been found. Fraser adds that it is difficult to accept the startling increase in peanut allergies in just the last 20 years as a coincidence or to chalk it up to a genetic fluke.

Robyn O’Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, states that the sudden surge in American peanut allergies may be attributed to the fact that peanuts are grown in the same soil as Roundup Ready, or glyphosate tolerant, cotton. Unlike almonds, walnuts and cashews, peanuts do not grow on trees—they re actually a legume with a soft shell that grows in the ground. “Put anything in that soil and you can imagine how it gets absorbed into the peanut,” O’Brien wrote on her website, adding: “Put genetically engineered seeds in that soil and you get soil that is saturated with a controversial chemical, glyphosate,” a chemical that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked to gradually increasing, cellular-damaging inflammation.

But according to Fraser, the consumption of genetically modified foods does not correlate with the epidemiological facts of the peanut allergy epidemic. Fraser proposes that the use of refined peanut oil as a vaccine adjuvant, or enhancer, is behind the epidemic. According to Fraser, the use of refined peanut oil in vaccines resulted in the slow growth of the allergy primarily in children until the late 1980s when its prevalence exploded due to the extensive and sudden changes to childhood vaccination. There has been a 414 percent increase in vaccines given to U.S. children, says VacTruth.com. In 1950, an American child would have received seven vaccines by the age of six. Today, if an American family follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Family Physicians endorsed annual childhood vaccine schedule, their child will receive over 36 vaccines by the time they are six years of age.

With the direct cause(s) of the peanut allergy epidemic still open-ended, many pregnant women have taken to avoiding peanuts altogether to prevent their unborn child from developing the allergy. But a recent study found that children whose non-allergic mothers had the highest consumption of peanuts or tree nuts, or both, during pregnancy had the lowest risk of developing a nut allergy. The risk was most reduced among the children of mothers who ate nuts five or more times a month.

“Some studies actually showed that avoiding peanuts during pregnancy increased the risk of a child developing peanut sensitization,” said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University. Dr. Gupta emphasized that further research is needed to determine “why more and more children are developing food allergy and how we can prevent it.”

CONTACTS: Robyn O’Brien, www.robynobrien.com; Ruchi Gupta, www.ruchigupta.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network, a 501(c)3 non-profit. For more information, or to make a donation, check out www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: .question@earthtalk.org 


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