Letters to the editor, April 2016

This article was originally published in April 2016

Avoiding carbs?

I enjoyed the interesting and thought-provoking article by Nick Rose, “Avoiding carbs: a look at the low-carb craze” (February). I wondered, do we know how far back into prehistory humans may have added starches, such as corn, rice, the potato and beans, into their diets? Were starches adopted universally by prehistoric peoples all over the world?

— Jonathan Freedman

PCC replies: There’s evidence that humans were growing and eating grains 12,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, and that grains were the foundation of human diets in the region. Wheat and barley were the first grains farmed there; lentils came shortly after.

New archeological findings suggest humans were eating grains at least 32,000 years ago. Stone-grinding tools with residues of cooked oats, millet and acorns suggest grain consumption predates the agricultural revolution. Corn and potatoes were farmed at least 8,000 years ago in North and South America and eaten in their wild forms for thousands of years before that.

Carbohydrate intake varied regionally based on what plants were available. But whenever digestible starches were available, if they could be pounded and cooked, they were consumed.

The dictionary defines phobia as “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something,” which makes your recent article and posts about carb-phobia a bit hyperbolic.

While many people do indeed avoid carbs for a number of legitimate reasons, I would wager a guess that very few of those folks are truly phobic. And those who truly are phobic would not be considered mainstream. In this age of hyperbole, a more exacting use of our language would be appreciated.

Keep up the good work — from a carb avoidant but not phobic member!

— Cindy

Sprouting grains and beans

I’m reading about sprouting grain and beans. I found some websites that list their grains and beans as organic and sprout-able. In PCC stores I see the bulk bins with things labeled organic but they don’t say anything about being sprout-able. Do you know if grain and beans that are labeled “sprout-able” would be any different than what are in the bulk bins in the PCC store?

— Fred

PCC replies: Many spices, seeds, grains and nuts are steam-sterilized to reduce the potential for bacterial contamination. This process also makes the foods un-sproutable. Some of our bulk foods may sprout but we can’t guarantee it. If you’re interested in sprouting at home, some of our stores sell Botanical Interests seed sprouters and seeds to grow sprouts, such as alfalfa, buckwheat, lentils and more.

Liquid smoke

What is “liquid smoke” and could it be carcinogenic or otherwise harmful?

Thank you for all your great work.

— Ali Naini

PCC replies: Natural smoke flavorings are produced by burning wood chips, then collecting the smoke flavor using condensation, filtration and mixing with water. They can be listed on food labels as “liquid smoke” or “natural smoke flavor.”

There’s potential for these ingredients to contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) as a result of the smoking process. The levels of PAHs are influenced by the type of wood used, the temperatures for burning the wood, and the level of filtration/distillation after the smoke is collected.

It’s unclear what concentration of PAHs end up in foods containing liquid smoke, such as barbecue sauce, and at what amount these compounds become problematic. PAHs also are found in meats cooked to high temperatures (such as grilling), as well as any smoked meat or seafood.

Theoretically, liquid smoke could be carcinogenic because of the potential PAHs, but we can’t say with certainty that the quantity of PAHs would be a concern as part of a product’s flavoring.

Sugar in the deli/bakery

Why does PCC’s deli choose to use cane or brown sugar instead of other sweeteners, most specifically stevia? Knowing what we know about sugar and its disadvantages toward health, inflammation and mental rewards — even in small quantities — it would be awesome to see PCC use alternatives in the bakery and deli. Any avenue to reduce sugar in foods made outside of the home always is welcome, since dining out makes that impossible!

In most recipes, how much sugar is estimated per serving? Also, could you speak to the differences between sugar and honey or maple syrup and why those are regarded as the best natural sweeteners (as opposed to brown rice syrup or molasses)? My impression is that they aren’t much different in their effects on our glycemic index, inflammation and the brain’s reward system. Also, is stevia interchangeable with all sweeteners?

As a disclaimer, I understand it’s not just sweeteners that affect our glycemic index — other starches do, too. But I’m led to believe sweeteners act differently than starches, particularly because of their fibers.

— C.J.

PCC replies: We use cane or brown sugar instead of stevia in our bakery because they produce the best results. Sugar lends a better texture, shape and structure than stevia, which also has a bitter aftertaste. Stevia is best used in beverages. We’ve tried making baked goods with alternative sweeteners and they don’t sell well.

Honey and maple syrup are praised as whole, natural foods but they still will spike your blood sugar levels if consumed in excess. Brown rice syrup and molasses can be used in baking, but like all liquid sweeteners, they require adjustments in recipes. Find more information about alternative sweeteners in our “guide to sweeteners at PCC” brochure in stores and online.

Sugar content in our baked goods varies by item. You can find nutrition facts on our website.

You’re correct that carbs from sweeteners are worse for human health than starchy veggies and grains that include fiber and other nutrients.

Toxic cashew resin?

I just learned that harvesting cashews can harm the workers who do the harvesting, due to the toxicity of the plant. It seems like not many people know about it. Also, I was wondering whether PCC’s cashews are sourced from farms that protect their workers from this problem?

PCC replies: The double shell surrounding the raw cashew, which is technically a seed and not a nut, contains urushiol, a resin that can create skin rashes and can be toxic when ingested. Urushiol is the same chemical found in poison ivy. People who work in cashew processing plants reportedly tend to exhibit greater allergies to cashew shells over time.

About a half dozen countries export cashews and most of those sold in bulk at PCC could be coming from any farm from the country of origin.

To best protect cashew workers, who often face poor labor conditions, choose organic, fair trade cashews, such as those from Equal Exchange, when they’re available at PCC.

They’re grown by cooperatives of farmers in El Salvador and India.

Animal welfare standards

When reading the website standards section, I came across this statement about meat and poultry:

“PCC offers only natural or organic meats sourced directly from ranchers who are committed to humane standards. Read our vendor agreement, which bars cloned animals or their offspring from PCC. All PCC meat is from pastured or free-range animals.”

I read the website and the vendor agreements on cloned animals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but did not see anything that defines what “humanely raised” means exactly to PCC. What are your criteria for calling meat “humanely raised?” How do you determine if your suppliers are raising beef, poultry, pork and lamb in a humane way? Do you send representatives out to the farms to make sure they are in compliance? Is there a policy to do periodic checkups to ensure that producers continue to treat food animals humanely, without cages and allowing for normal socialization, and that their end is pain-free and out of sight of other animals?

I live near the new Columbia City PCC and love it!

— Lynn Curtis

PCC replies: Please see our August cover story, “Animal welfare: PCC standards” to learn how we define and implement animal welfare standards.

Reusable containers

I’ve been a PCC member for a few years and I’ve grown to love my local Columbia City store — we know almost everyone who works there, shop there every week and have taken several classes there! I’m glad PCC does the homework for us in terms of selling produce that’s sustainable, local and healthful.

Our family decided to adopt a “Zero Waste” lifestyle. This means we buy bulk items using our own reusable bags. We’ve been doing so with most of your grain bulk items and produce without much difficulty — thank you for making this available! What we really would like to reduce is the plastic packaging from the deli, meat department and prepared food. When we use disposable/recyclable plastic, we’re casting a vote for more plastics to be made.

Your staff’s courteous responses have been confusing — without fault of their own, because law can be confusing! Some have explained they’re unable to put the salad directly into my container. Some said they can but they need to place wax paper between the container and the item bought. Ditto with purchasing things from the meat and fish departments.

Would you please clarify the law regarding consumers using their own containers?

We wholeheartedly support PCC’s commitment to embracing sustainability and consumer education. As more and more of us adopt sustainable lifestyles, I hope as a community we can turn this around and make purchasing with customers’ own containers more accessible.

— Mariska Audriani

PCC replies: We share your concern about reducing waste. The Washington state Food Code, WAC 246-215-03348 “Preventing contamination from equipment, utensils, and linens — Refilling returnables,” limits reuse of customer containers for deli food.

While it refers to take-home containers being refilled and not other containers, we have spoken with health department personnel several times and we’re told we cannot allow reuse of any containers that customers bring in. The exception is, as you’ve learned, if we place food on a waxed paper square and then slide it into the container outside the deli case.

Also in this issue

Breeding better organic produce locally

Farmers and scientists are collaborating to breed more local, organic versions of desirable crops essential for a changing climate. Along with flavorful new vegetables, the work is yielding healthier crops, a more robust market, and farm resiliency.

Buy honey, save the bee

PCC honey vendor GloryBee donates a portion of proceeds to research about causes and solutions to Colony Collapse Disorder.

From veggies to panels: solar energy from farms

Many local and organic farms are installing solar panels.