So, you’re adopting a green lifestyle and you’ve decided to cut out processed foods. Your grocery list includes plenty of organic produce and whole ingredients rather than hyper-processed to-go meals. Great!
Cooking from scratch or eating whole foods is a good start. But beware: your kitchen may have tools, seasonings, and amenities that pose health or environmental risks. Read on to learn how to “green” your entire kitchen.
Clean With Natural Products
We’ve previously covered the dangers of various household cleaning products. Even your seemingly innocent countertop spray may not be healthy. Here are a couple of kitchen cleaners that contain toxic synthetic chemicals:
Dish soap often contains parabens, phthalates, and ethanolamines. All of these have been linked to hormone disruption. DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine) convert to nitrates and nitrosamines in the body, increasing your risk of cancer. Read labels carefully — even dish soaps labeled as “natural” or “paraben-free” often contain fragrances (i.e., phthalates) and sulfates, which can be irritating.
Countertop sprays are ostensibly safe for food prep surfaces, but they’re often hazardous to your lungs. Most formulas use quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, to disinfect your counters. Quats have been linked to asthma, allergies, endocrine disruption, fertility issues, and nitrosamine production.
Brands have released “natural” or “eco-friendly” versions of kitchen cleansers. However, be on the lookout for greenwashing. Just because a formula claims to be non-toxic doesn’t mean it’s so! Unfortunately, U.S. manufacturers aren’t required to list all the ingredients.
To play it safe, stick with the home remedies. They’re time-honored and safer for you and the planet.
You’d be amazed by what a mix of baking soda and vinegar can do. Let it froth for a satisfying deep-clean of your sink, countertops, and more. Or mix vinegar slowly into the soda to form a paste. It works wonders in removing stuck-on food or grease.
Dump the Plastic
Many super-processed foods are packaged in BPA- or phthalate-lined plastic. By avoiding this, you’re already limiting your exposure. But what about your reusable food storage containers? Many of them contain BPA, and even if they don’t, they often use BPS and BPF that may be just as harmful.
These chemicals are more likely to leach when heated. You should never microwave food in a plastic container, especially if it’s a to-go box or flexible plastic.
So, what are you to do with your leftovers? There are some eco-friendly options on the market, but they can be pricey. And again, any plastic may have unknown health risks.
When you can, switch to metal or glass storage containers. Repurposed mason jars are great for storing leftover sauce, soup, etc. Beeswax wrap is an eco-friendly, reusable way to cover leftovers.
If you must use plastic storage containers, follow these guidelines:
- Never re-use a plastic storage item if it’s scratched or discolored.
- Avoid storing fatty or oily foods in plastic. Many chemicals are fat-soluble, so they may leach into your leftovers.
Skip the Non-Stick Cookware
The coating on your nonstick pans is usually Teflon or a similar material. This is why made the DuPont corporation famous — and not in a good way. Teflon uses perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the large family of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, aka PFAS, the forever chemical.
PFAS have been linked to everything from high cholesterol to birth defects to cancer. And because they break down so slowly, they pose a persistent hazard to our health.
The good news is that Teflon did cease using PFOA after a 2013 ban. If your cookware was manufactured in the United States after that, it does not contain PFOA. But if you’ve had your nonstick pan since before 2013, toss it. Be wary of Teflon knock-offs made in China and other countries where PFOA is not banned — and very much in use.
Still, most Teflon pans will advise you not to use them above 500°F, which is medium heat on most stovetops. You should never use metal utensils that could scratch the coating and release fumes.
Better yet, choose another option, such as ceramic-coated, stainless steel, or cast iron cookware.
Prep and Season Your Meal with Whole Foods
So, you’ve stocked up on organic non-GMO produce, grass-fed beef, and unbleached grains. Now it’s time to check your oils and seasonings.
If you’re like most people, you prefer your food to have some flavor. Food manufacturers have released a wide variety of seasoning products. Unfortunately, these can re-introduce the excess sodium, fillers, and preservatives you’re trying to avoid.
For example, many seasoning blends contain:
Maltodextrin: This hyper-processed starch product, used as a filler, can [spike your blood sugar and harm your beneficial gut bacteria.
Corn Starch: Another highly refined carb, this additive quickly converts to blood sugar.
Tricalcium phosphate: This common anti-caking agent is also a calcium supplement. While seasoning blends don’t contain as much, be aware that tricalcium phosphate can interfere with some medications.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG): This infamous seasoning/preservative seems to be safer than previously believed. However, some people are sensitive to it and may experience cognitive effects. In any case, consumers often want to control their intake.
Salt: While salt is an essential nutrient, Americans consume way more than they need. Be cautious of adding salt to your food if your seasoning blend already contains it.
Also, check your sauces, marinades, and oils. Many contain thickening agents or extra salt or sugar. Your cooking oils may be super-processed, derived from GMO crops, or both!
For example, canola oil is produced from genetically modified rapeseed. It contains trans fats, which can harm your cardiovascular health, and a high percentage of omega-6s. This leads to an imbalance with omega-3s, which has been linked to neurodegenerative and heart disease.
Even if you don’t buy canola oil yourself, it may show up in salad dressings, marinades, etc. Other common culprits include vegetable oil (which may be a mix of canola oil, corn oil, and others), cottonseed oil, and environmentally destructive palm oil.
Whenever possible, choose sustainably sourced, minimally processed oils. Good choices include olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and sesame oil. You can also use peanut oil, but only at lower temperatures.
Clean Up Your Cooking Style
Perhaps you’re avoiding scented candles, air fresheners, and other sources of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). But as the name suggests, these respiratory toxins are organic…and cooking releases them into your air.
Cooking fumes can also include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other poisonous gases. It’s usually not enough to pose an immediate risk, but some people feel the effects.
So to keep your kitchen green — and safe — follow these guidelines:
- Always use the exhaust fan while cooking on your stovetop.
- Avoid preheating your oven or pans. Most heat up so quickly that there’s little point. And your nonstick pans should never be heated above 500°F or left to heat with no contents.
- Use the right-sized burner for each pan.
- Minimize the use of your oven and stovetop. Toaster ovens and toasters are more energy-efficient, too.
Also, try eating more foods raw or minimally cooked! Many vegetables are more nutritious — and delicious — when consumed raw. If you must cook them, steam them a bit rather than sautéing or baking them.
Your kitchen is one of your home’s most vital rooms. It’s the hub of both your nutritional and environmental health. So, it’s well worth your effort to green it up!
However, toxic or unhealthy ingredients may be lurking where you least expect them. Do an audit of your kitchen, then toss out any problematic cookware, cleansers, or manufactured food products. With a bit of diligence and creativity, you can enjoy easier, healthier meals in a safe, clean environment.
This article is inspired by an interview with James Barry, celebrity chef, co-author of The Naked Foods Cookbook, and creator of Wholesome2Go.