Archives for 2011

Hair, Beetles and Beaver Anal Glands in our Food

Hair, Beetles and Beaver Anal Glands in our Food

Doesn’t sound like very tasty eating, right? Well, according to Bruce Bradley, a former food executive, these questionable ingredients have been given more pleasant-sounding names and added to processed foods labeled “all natural”. So all those “natural” foods you’ve been eating lately under the assumption they’re purer and healthier can easily contain any of these three additives without you knowing they’re there.

  • Ever noticed any yogurts or beverages SO vibrantly red, they looked as though a scarlet neon wand had colored them. Their labels usually list Carmine, Crimson Lake or Natural Red #4 coloring. Which happen to be industry synonyms for a red food dye made of crushed cochineal beetles.
  • Speaking of beetles, the critters also make an appearance in sweets on ultra shiny candies and sprinkles. Produced from secretions of the female Lac bug, they can be spotted on food labels under the far homier-sounding “Confectioner’s Glaze”.
  • How could anyone, you wonder, intentionally add human hair and/or duck feathers (called Cystine in Process Food-land) to the food we eat. Especially considering how one little hair in food can freak us out. I give you the bread and baked foods industry that uses the ground up stuff to “improve” the texture of their products and because Cystine is considered a natural ingredient by the FDA, no one who buys baked foods will suspect it’s full of hair and feathers.  (This unsettling info is added to the equally unsettling recent news about wood pulp being added to bread, the long  respected staff of life that’s looking less respectable by the minute)
  • Last and certainly not least we get to those beaver anal glands, an odiferous combo of glands and urine that beavers use to mark their territory. The process food people instead use this charmer called Castoreum to spike up vanilla and raspberry flavoring in food and beverages. Surprise –you’ll never find those glands listed on any food label in any store. You will however find it legally buried under that familiar disguise called “Natural Flavoring”.

If you attempt to contact any food companies to inquire if Castoreum is present in a specific food, you will be informed — as Bradley was — that food processors don’t explicitly use Castoreum.  Because All their flavors are vendor supplied and proprietary information, the companies oh so conveniently can’t speak for their vendors.

If you sense food manufacturers in their quest for richer profits are putting up ever-higher barriers between the public and the truth about the foods they produce, Bradley would agree with you. And as a former food-marketing insider at multinational corporations, he should know.

So How Much Wood Pulp Did You Eat Today?

If you started your day with Aunt Jemima’s blueberry pancakes, chowed down on a McDonald’s fish patty for lunch, snacked on a Weight Watcher’s Ice Cream Sandwich, polished off a Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese for dinner and sipped a beddie-bye cup of Nestle’s hot chocolate, chances are you ate a decent helping of wood pulp. Processed from that pulp into a food extender, cellulose (the white powder shown above) is being substituted for costlier ingredients in more and more of America’s processed foods. An industry insider estimates that food producers save as much as 30% using cellulose over more expensive extenders like oats and sugar cane fibers. The Street put out a partial list of manufacturers featuring cellulose in a surprising range of products.

While I’ve long noticed cellulose listed on various food ingredient labels, I only recently discovered the stuff was actually made out of gritty wood pulp. Which doesn’t sound like it would be too terrific for one’s digestion. Which in fact it isn’t. Cellulose is indigestible which makes it, according to food manufacturers, a great, cheap sugar substitute for low sugar items so popular with consumers.  Because it mimics fat so well, cellulose is also increasingly being shoveled onto the low-fat food bandwagon.

Beyond being used as an extender, cellulose also makes ice cream taste creamier, imparts a smooth mouthfeel and consistency to salad dressings, provides a firmer texture to baked goods and helps prevent clumping in shredded cheese.

Versatile as all get out, cellulose is also spun into vastly different products such as pet litter, automotive brake pads, glue, plastics, detergents, welding electrodes, construction materials, roof coating, asphalt and emulsion paints, among  other-um, interesting items.

But have no fear (as of today at least). The FDA has waved it’s “safe for human consumption” wand over cellulose in the food on America’s plates. And they have found no reason to limit the amounts that can be added to  food products. A director of research at J. Rettenmaier USA, a cellulose supplier, exclaimed that he had never dreamed a loaf of bread could now contain 18% of cellulose fiber. (Saving that bread manufacturer the cost of wheat for 18% of all the bread rolling down his line.)

All this may be fine by you. As for me, I can’t help feeling something’s not quite right about eating a piece of bread that contains 18% of processed wood pulp, a concoction also used to crank out asphalt, plastic, detergents and pet litter.

How do you feel about the growing use of cellulose in foods?

Murder Among the Geraniums

Murder Among the Geraniums

Last summer on my terrace, bugs murdered a lovely, overflowing plant of geraniums — don’t ask me how — only days after I brought it home. I suspect budworms were the culprits since they immediately attacked my next pot of geraniums, subjecting it to a much slower death. First they gobbled up all the tiny flower buds, stealthily destroying them from the inside out. Next they stuffed themselves silly decimating every single geranium blossom, while simultaneously chowing down on the plant leaves, leaving behind only a few pathetic, stripped leaf skeletons.

Surrounded by numerous tall apartment houses with MANY windows, I had no doubt numerous neighbors had witnessed my ineptitude in the plant kingdom. Not looking forward to being dubbed the neighborhood plant killer, I prepared a three pronged attack for dealing with the pests this summer.  Unfortunately my newest geranium purchase happened BEFORE my research, which informed me budworms had become such a raging scourge in the northeast, many gardeners have totally dispensed with growing the bug’s favorite targets — petunias and geraniums. Swell. Although the worms, which turn into large, fat green caterpillars, apparently also have the hots, though not so passionate, for plenty of other flower species too.

But this time when I purchased my new plant I had at least spoken to the grower about my pest problems. His solution? Beer. Works every time, he claimed. So following his advice, I placed a small shallow dish of beer in the planter on top of the soil. So far, at refilling time all I’ve seen in the dish are a dead fly, some unidentifiable fuzzy white things and small black streaks that could be either soil or extremely skinny budworm corpses.

If the beer fails to eradicate the budworms, my next move will be to concoct a “ruthless murder spray” of garlic, chili peppers, vegetable oil, detergent and water.

And if THAT odiferous brew fails to bring the budworms down, it will be on to Plan Three, which entails taking out my wallet and plunking down greenbacks for an organic pesticide called BT. As it happens, this product also has its tricky side. More than just whiffing the BT spray, the bugs must actually eat the stuff. So it must be applied early, before the budworms begin their drilling-and-disappearing-into-the-flower-buds routine.

And how’s your bug situation these days? Dealt with any troublesome critters of your own this summer?

When Does an Internship Become a Slave Ship?

Internships don’t usually come with position titles, so the ad on Craig’s List for an Intern – Gallery Photographer and PhotoShop Editor, caught my eye. The internship called for a student who owned and was an adept user of a DSLR camera with on-board flash. This pricey piece of equipment would have set any student back at least $600 to $3000 in the lower price range. Additionally, the job required good digital photo editing skills and the availability to work 8 to 12 hours a week for 8 weeks or more.

The intern’s job duties entailed photographing numerous antiques (with the intern’s OWN CAMERA), editing and retouching the photos, then uploading them to websites where the antiques were to be sold. Rather than assisting, the intern would essentially be doing the exact same work as a professional photographer, retoucher, editor and digital production team whose services could easily total many thousands of dollars for this kind of job. The intern, on the other hand, was to be paid the exultant sum of zip-zilch-nada. Actually it was more like MINUS zip-zilch-nada, since the employer made no mention of paying the intern’s expenses. Assuming the intern worked three days a week for 8 weeks, the transportation tab alone could total a minimum $120.00. Tack on the cost of camera batteries, memory cards and that intern was about to PAY up to $300 bucks for the privilege of saving that antique broker a huge hunk of money.

But hold on, you say, what about the professional experience the intern would receive? Along with the portfolio boost of published photos and online exposure to potential clients?  Yes, the ad also pointed out these advantages — along with words that are magic to a beginning photographer: “Full Photo Credit.” Curious, I visited the employer’s website and there — Among zillions of small, crowded photos of antiques — not a single photo credit was visible. Of course the employer hadn’t specified a “visible” photo credit, so a photo credit could certainly have been buried deep somewhere inside the text.

As to the style and quality of the photos — they appeared to be strictly low-end, catalog shots. The lighting in all the photos was identical and every antique was silhouetted against an identical white background. So not only would a photographer’s skill and style not be further developed on this job, they could easily be set back some.

Nor did any other of the usual advantages of internships — like networking and learning from experts in one’s field of interest — appear to apply here. Because the intern was going to be working pretty much alone, taking the photos and editing them (on a slow, cheap version of PhotoShop, it turned out, known to crash a lot), there would be few, if any, people to network with. And with no other photographer on the scene, let alone one with expert ability and experience, the intern would have no mentor to help sharpen photo skills.

From where I sit, it looked like this employer was taking advantage of a tight, super-competitive job and intern market. What do you think?

Delicious One Dish Meals for a Song!

Delicious One Dish Meals for a Song!
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I like to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible, so economical one dish meals are by far my favorite to cook. My ideal recipes contain three key ingredients: a protein, a carb and veggies. Also required is simplicity. I want to get that grub together in that pot one two three and I don’t want to run all over town searching for ingredients. I also want plenty left over to freeze for additional meals. The icing on the cake, of course, is ending up with only one main pot to clean.

Here are five recipes that hit my culinary spot. Their ingredients may be simple, but their combined textures and flavors are full bodied and heartily satisfying:

Beef and veggie stir-fry: Southern Living~ Featuring a colorful combo of veggies: asparagus, carrots, bell pepper, mushrooms and scallions and flavored with garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce, this stir fry meal takes only minutes to cook. Served over rice, it’s also versatile. You can substitute your favorite veggies or even omit the meat if that’s your pleasure. Unlike restaurant take-out, you can be assured all the ingredients are of super quality and prepared with your own high standards of care and attention.

Lentil stew with butternut squash: Good Housekeeping ~ Around since Neolithic times (don’t ask me the date, but it sounds like forever), super economical and healthy, lentils are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.They’re also an excellent source of protein and dietary Fiber. This stew paired with butternut squash, another healthy heavyweight, packs a powerhouse nutritional punch. The only herb called for is 1/2 teaspoon of dried rosemary. While it does have Romano cheese shavings for zing, I’d sample it for flavor and if it seems a little too tame I’d add some additional favorite herbs — maybe thyme, basil or cumin — a bit at a time. Not having a slow cooker, I’d simmer this on the burner and start testing it for tenderness after about 30 or 40 minutes.

Potato, sausage and kale frittata: Food and Wine ~ This gem of a recipe can be put together, cooked and brought to the table in 30 breezy minutes. Bursting with the protein of both eggs and sausages, it also incorporates potatoes for stick to the ribs carbs along with kale for a gutsy veggie. Parmesan cheese adds a pop of flavor. This is one of those rare satisfying meals that seems both light and robust at the same time.

Skillet lasagna: Food Network ~ This dish appeals to me for 2 big reasons. I adore lasagna, but rarely use my oven (it’s a pain taking out and replacing all my pots and pans every time I use it) so employing a skillet to cook lasagna on top of the stove has my name written all over it. I see the recipe calls for fresh tomatoes which might be a little tricky in the winter, so if it were me I might substitute canned tomatoes or (let me whisper here) prepared tomato sauce. Because the ingredients are all yummy to begin with, I can’t imagine even a neophyte cook messing up this one.

Short ribs, carrots, leeks and rice with lime: Robin Miller ~ If you’re looking for a perfect winter night meal, this hearty dish of slow-cooked braised ribs, carrots and leeks simmered with sherry, honey, garlic and ginger over brown rice is the ticket. Cooking can be done either in a crock pot or if your kitchen is bereft of that appliance, in a dutch oven on top of the stove which will take about half the time — three or four hours. The brown rice calls for the painless instant variety and the lime zest is a snappy flavor addition.

20 Lowest Sales Taxes in USA

Before exploring the country’s lowest sales taxes, I always assumed New York was the primary sales tax monster, hitting us up for 8.875% sales tax* every time we New Yawkas made a purchase. But lo and behold, another state turns out to be an even bigger tax biter: the gentle state of Tennessee charges its southern citizens a whopping 9.41% combined state and local sales tax, the highest in the country.

Of the 20 lowest sales taxes in the U.S., the residents of five states are fortunate enough to be charged zero state sales tax. But of those five states, two charge local sales tax which leaves only three, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon, with a combined state and local sales tax of absolutely zero. If you live in any of these three states and decide to purchase some new furniture for $3,000 bucks you will not have to tack on a penny for sales tax. But if you buy that same furniture in pricey Tennessee, you’ll have to cough up a whopping $282.30 to cover the sales tax bill. Quite a difference, especially if you’re on a super-tight budget, retired or thinking of furnishing an entire new home.

One reason why Alaska has a zero state sales tax rate (though it charges a local 2.15% sales tax) is Oil. Companies happily enrich the state coffers for the privilege of drilling for the stuff.

Combined State and Local Sales Tax Rates from Tax Foundation (September 2009)

  1. 0%       Montana
  2. 0%       New Hampshire
  3. 0%       Oregon
  4. 1.13%  Alaska
  5. 1.92%  Delaware
  6. 4.38%  Hawaii
  7. 5.00%  Maine
  8. 5.00%  Virginia
  9. 5.38%  Wyoming
  10. 5.42%  Wisconsin
  11. 5.52%  South Dakota
  12. 6.00%  Connecticut
  13. 6.00%  Idaho
  14. 6.00%  Kentucky
  15. 6.00%  Maryland
  16. 6.00%  Michigan
  17. 6.00%  North Dakota
  18. 6.00%  Vermont
  19. 6.00%  West Virginia
  20. 6.15%  Alabama

Check out Tax Foundation for the ranking of every state’s combined state and local sales tax rates.

* Includes 3/8% for the benefit of the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District.