Fun Food Fact: The drying action of salt on food

Amongst its many properties, a key aspect of salt is that it draws water out of cells. In the presence of salt, water moves across a cell membrane to try to equalize the concentration of salt on both sides of the membrane — this process is called osmosis. So when you add salt to a food, water moves towards the salt and the food dehydrates. This is why salt has been so useful historically as a food preservative. Once a certain stage of dehydration has been reached, the activity of the bacteria responsible for the rotting within the food is stopped. 

Interestingly, this drying property of salt could jeopardize some of your dishes. Let’s take beans for instance: never add salt to your beans before cooking. Salt reacts with the seed coat, which forms a barrier that prevents absorption of liquids. For this reason, if you add salt to the soaking water or to the cooking liquid, the beans will never get softer, no matter how long you cook them.

On the other hand, adding salt to your beans once they have reached their best texture can be very useful: it will prevent them from disintegrating due to overcooking. During the cooking, you can test beans for doneness by pressing a few of them under a fork on a flat surface to see how easily they mash. Once the texture of the beans is just right for your taste, adding salt will allow you to re-heat them or cook them further with other ingredients without any change to their texture. 

In fact, beans will react in the same way as with salt in the presence of any acid ingredient such as tomatoes, vinegar, lemon juice, or molasses, at any stage of the cooking process — the seed coat will toughen and they will resist further tenderization. Acid ingredients are a good alternative to salt in case your doctor recommends a low-salt diet. 

submitted by N. Rémond, on behalf of the Food Issues Committee

 

Fun Food-storage Fact

Did you know that some produce can spoil much faster than you would expect just because they are stored next to the wrong neighbours in your refrigerator or pantry? This is because many crops release ethylene as they ripen, a plant hormone that can cause nearby fruit and vegetables to decay faster. The biggest ethylene producers are apples, avocados, bananas, some melons, strawberries, mangos, pears, peaches and plums, tomatoes and potatoes. On the other end, among the most ethylene-sensitive species are asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce and leafy greens, garlic, onions, and squash.

Carrots, for example, can keep all of its food value for weeks if properly stored in a dark, cool, and humid place. But if it is too close to big ethylene producers, such as apples or avocados, the gas released by these neighbours will lead to the formation of bitter compounds in the carrots. To protect them, keep them in a sealed plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.

Try to store big ethylene producers together and away from ethylene-sensitive fruit and vegetables and you will be able to enjoy their food value much longer than you would otherwise.

 

Nathalie Rémond, on behalf of the Food Issues Committee.

 

Non-GMO certification, explained

Non-GMO certification and product labelling can be confusing.

The leader in non-GMO certification is the Non-GMO Project. Developed by The Big Carrot in Toronto and The Natural Grocery Company in California, it has provided and continues to develop a standardized definition for non-GMO products in the North American and international food industry.

The Non-GMO Project initially partnered with the US-based company FoodChain ID for scientific and technical expertise in non-GMO testing and verification. Non-GMO testing has since expanded to a global industry for verification and certification, with a number of testing labs that comply with the requirements in the non-GMO Product Standard listed on the Non-GMO Project website. These labs perform third-party testing, detection, inspection and audit tracking.

Not all labs listed test all products, but all must adhere to the Non-GMO Project Standard requirements. These requirements, and EU regulations, are the foundation for the majority of other consultation companies that also provide third-party verification.

One company, US-based NSF International, a technical advisor to the Non-GMO Project, has created its own certification label ‘Non GMO/GE Certified by NSF’. They have recently come under criticism for certification of a sweetener produced by fermentation by genetically modified yeast. NSF has said that they exempt products produced by genetically engineered enzymes or microorganisms, if they are not present in the final product.

The Non-GMO Project continues to apply the most stringent and reliable verification for non-GMO status of products and companies.

Check out the Non-GMO Project website to find products and companies that carry the Non-GMO Project label.

submitted by Daria Love, on behalf of the Food Issues Committee

Alert on glyphosate

Foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMO) are certainly the first ones to eliminate from one’s diet in order to keep away from toxic residues. Indeed, these crops have been purposely modified genetically to withstand higher doses of herbicides and pesticides used by farmers in order to increase yield. However, the growing use of herbicides is not restricted to GMOs and concerns a large list of crops. The Food Issues Committee has been paying attention to this increasing trend in agriculture for GMO crops and beyond.

One common herbicide of concern is a chemical called glyphosate, also known by its trade name Roundup. A 2015 memorandum on glyphosate usage from the US Environment Protection Agency, presented data on 70 crops grown in the US using glyphosate, including cucumber, tomatoes, spinach, strawberries and almonds, to name only a few. The report points out that the quantities of glyphosate applied have been growing for 47 of the 70 crops, compared with similar data from 2007. 

In addition to application to GMO crops, another reason for the growing use of glyphosate is that farmers have changed their practices and now rely even more on chemical sprays than would be necessary just for weed control purposes. Crop desiccation, the process of spraying crops with pesticide just prior to harvest, is a good example. This practice is intended to correct for uneven crop growth, achieve more even ripening, allow earlier harvest (and therefore earlier replanting), and diminish strain on harvesting machinery.

Glyphosate was first authorized by the Canadian government for pre-harvest treatment on wheat, barley, soybeans, peas, lentils, canola, and flax in 1992, shortly after the establishment by Health and Welfare Canada of Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for glyphosate in the Food and Drug Regulations. Even though pre-harvest spray increases the possibility of glyphosate residues remaining in/on harvested crops and surrounding environment, this new practice was not considered harmful to consumers as long as the residues remained below the MRLs. Even in 2019, Health Canada continues to maintain this position although a 2016 report from the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” from a hazard perspective, but unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure when below MRLs. 

In short, the development of GMO crops is only one of the reasons behind the increasing use of glyphosate, and it is becoming harder and harder for us as consumers to distinguish which food items are more likely to contain toxic residues. One guarantee remains valid, though: organic specifications prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, with a few rare exceptions, and glyphosate is not among those exceptions. If your own personal MRL for glyphosate is zero, choosing organic food is probably the safest option available today. Unless, of course, you know your farmer and trust their practices.

submitted by Nathalie Rémond for the Food Issues Committee

Thank you to Karma member Kenneth MacDonald for forwarding a news article on this issue to the Food Issues Committee.

Almond milk and bee health

A Karma member recently approached the Food Issues Committee with a concern about the connection between the almond milk industry and bee decline. Since Karma carries two different brands of almond milk — Blue Diamond, which is conventional, and Pacific Foods, which is organic — it’s worthwhile to consider whether buying one over the other makes a difference. Both milks are sold at similar price points.

Here’s a quick background on the almond industry. The vast majority of the world’s almonds are produced in California (over 80 per cent, according to the Almond Board of California). In the 2012–13 crop year, California produced 1.88 billion pounds (850 million kg) of almonds, almost 70 per cent of which were exported, contributing $11 billion (US) to the state’s gross domestic product. It takes 800,000 acres (320,000 hectares) of land to grow all those almond trees, all of which must be pollinated by bees — 1.6 million bee colonies. The bees are vital to the success of the industry, which is why it’s all the more troubling that the very practices of conventional almond farmers could be contributing to bee decline. How is this so?

When spraying trees, conventional almond farmers use a mix of pesticides and additives called adjuvants. Adjuvants ensure that the pesticides coat the almond leaves evenly, thus making the spray more effective. In recent years, we have seen improved adjuvants hitting the market that allow the pesticide to not only coat the leaves but actually penetrate them, thus preventing the pesticide from getting washed away. Adjuvants are considered inert by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and are therefore not subject to regulation the way pesticides are. However, a 2012 study published in the journal PLOS ONE showed that the new-and-improved adjuvants may be contributing to a decline in bee health by giving the pesticides a pathway inside the bee. Tank mixing of pesticides and adjuvants (the practice of mixing many pesticides and adjuvants together) is suspected to be the major reason behind the 2014 bee die-off, when 80,000 bee colonies were either destroyed or damaged after almond farm pollination.

So does buying organic rather than conventional almond milk make a difference? Well, if we’re concerned about bee health (and we should be: a third of our food comes to us courtesy of bees and other pollinators, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council), buying organic is the way to go, since organic almond farmers don’t use the kind of synthetic pesticides and adjuvants that conventional farmers do. (It’s important to note, however, that the issue of bee decline is complex and there are many more hypothesized causes than adjuvants alone.)

If you have any concerns or questions regarding any of the products carried at Karma, please reach out to the Food Issues Committee at foodissues@karmacoop.org.

submitted by Martyna Krezel

First published in The Chronicle (Spring 2015)

Aquabounty’s AquAdvantage Salmon has been approved for sale in Canada

Between April and June of 2017, approximately 4.5 metric tonnes of genetically modified salmon were imported into Canada and most likely sold in Quebec, according to the National Observer. This salmon is not labelled as a genetically modified organism (GMO), nor does it legally have to be.

The GMO Atlantic salmon, created by AquaBounty Technologies, was approved for sale in Canada by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2015 for food and livestock feed, first in the U.S. and then in Canada. To create the fish, AquaBounty introduced a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a gene from the ocean pout into Atlantic salmon to ensure it could grow quickly all year round. The company was required to submit information to Health Canada outlining how the product was developed, its potential for new toxins, its potential for causing allergies, and its chemical safety. Health Canada scientists then reviewed this information. The Government of Canada determined that the genetically modified salmon created by this biotech company is “as safe and nutritious for humans and livestock as conventional salmon,” and said that the salmon does not have to be labelled for consumers as genetically engineered.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency oversee food labelling in Canada under the Food and Drugs Act. These government departments require the identification and labelling of foods only when they determine that there is a significant health risk or a change in nutritional standards, such as the presence of an allergen. They provide guidance to manufacturers who create GMO foods for sale in Canada, but they do not require the labelling of genetically modified foods. The Standards Council of Canada — a federal Crown corporation that reports to Parliament — has asked AquaBounty to decide whether they would like to voluntarily label their GMO salmon. Health Canada says that if consumers want to know whether they are eating genetically engineered fish, they should contact the manufacturer directly.

The process of creating GMO salmon creates significant greenhouse gas emissions. GMO Atlantic salmon eggs are first created in a facility in Prince Edward Island, then shipped to Panama to grow into adult fish, and finally shipped back to Canada and the U.S. for sale. The hatchery in Rollo Bay West, PEI, that engineers these eggs is currently expanding their operation of GMO salmon to produce 250 metric tonnes of GMO Atlantic salmon per year according to a report by the CBC in June 2017.

Aquaculture — the harvesting of fish in a controlled environment — “crops” are often selected based on consumer demand rather than sustainability. According to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee, the worldwide demand for fish protein has increased significantly and overfishing has contributed to the decline of the Atlantic salmon and its addition to the endangered species list. AquaBounty is marketing its GMO fish as a “faster-growing salmon,” arguing that faster-growing fish will satisfy the global demand for animal protein and help reduce pressure on wild fish stocks.

Why doesn’t Karma sell AquaBounty salmon if the government has determined it is safe for consumption?

In October 2002, Karma created a Product Policy to help staff and members source products with environmental, political, economic, nutrition, health, and ethical considerations. At its core, the Product Policy identifies, evaluates, and takes action concerning products that could have a destructive impact on our natural environment and on animal welfare, among others. As such, the Product Policy condemns the genetic modification of plants and animals, citing both environmental and ethical considerations.

What are some of the environmental or health concerns surrounding AquaBounty GMO salmon?

  • Food pellets for farmed salmon require large amounts of smaller fish, harvested from the wild, that may otherwise be used as a human food staple. Although the  AquaBounty website claims that its faster-growing fish creates shorter production cycles resulting in more efficient use of feed, using wild fish to create food pellets for farmed fish still contributes to the decimation of wild fish stocks worldwide.
  • AquaBounty considers the risk for escape of their salmon to be low and states that their GMO salmon are sterile. There is, however, up to a 2 percent error rate with the process used to sterilize the salmon, so it is not a guarantee that all of the GMO salmon will not escape and breed with wild salmon.
  • The levels of growth hormone found in the AquAdvantage fish were not detectable based on tests performed by AquaBounty. However, more sensitive tests were available — they were just not used by the company.

The FIC welcomes any questions or thoughts about food issues that may affect our environment or our health and wellness.  Our email address is foodissues@karmacoop.org .  For more information about Karma Coop’s product policy please visit http://karmacoop.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/ProductPolicyOctober2002.pdf.

By Cindy Willems, Anna Cairns, and Danielle Waters on behalf of the Food Issues Committee

Karma’s best practices for reducing food waste

Karma members have a yearning to enjoy food at the height of its quality. Karma members also feel a deep sense of responsibility for the impact of our food consumption on the environment and society. One aspect of this is to ensure that food is enjoyed as much as possible and not wasted. Canada wastes $31 billion worth of food annually [Toronto Food Policy Council], so the cooperative takes this responsibility seriously and is committed to maintaining quality while reducing food waste. Karma endeavors to reduce waste at three stages of the value chain:

At home

Approximately 47% of food waste in Canada is produced in consumers’ homes [Toronto Food Policy Council]. To help avoid surplus food that ends up being wasted, Karma is committed to offering many food items in bulk, allowing shoppers to buy the amount they need and not more.

In store

Karma routinely checks products and produce nearing the end of their shelf life early enough to divert them. Prices are reduced before the expiry date for certain foods, including bread and prepared food, to sell them quickly, and damaged produce is placed in the half-price bin. Each week, the equivalent of two big banana boxes full of unsellable but still edible items are donated to the kitchens of Fort York Food Bank and Christie Ossington Neighbourhood Centre to support the 850,000 Canadians who use food banks each month [Food Banks Canada]. Every day at the store, organic scrap gets carefully separated from recyclables and garbage, to allow efficient processing of each type of waste. Most unsalvageable food is composted in the City of Toronto composting program, which returns nutrients to the soil, reduces methane emissions, and stimulates carbon sequestration. These are other important and harmful aspects of food waste. Worldwide, “the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated to 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalent: as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China” [Food and Agriculture Organisation]. Furthermore, some of Karma’s organic waste is collected by farmers to be used as animal feed. Finally, part of the organic waste — about 50 litres a week — also goes to the booming worm population in Karma’s dedicated compost binto be transformed into valuable soil amendment and plant tonic.

At the suppliers

Among other benefits, Karma’s priority to local suppliers means food travels shorter distances, and less food is spoiled during transportation. Karma’s quality standards are based on nutrients rather than aesthetic aspects, so fewer shabby vegetables get discarded and wasted for that reason. Karma’s buying practices do not involve signing many contracts with volume commitments and thus avoid encouraging big inventories at both Karma and its suppliers, which are associated with greater food waste. Karma has close links with four farmers, which allows them to come and offer items left over after a market.

It would be extremely difficult to quantify the positive impact of these efforts on human and animal life and the environment. They show us how Karma achieves the sense of community that its members are so proud of and committed to. Yet, they are only part of the larger contribution of members to reduce, at home and everywhere possible, the food wasted in Canada each year.

 

Nathalie Rémond, on behalf of the Food Issues Committee