Fed up with artificial colors, fragrances and taste enhancers

Science is complicated.

Just because something happens at the same time as another thing or just after another thing does not mean one caused the other. Sometimes it does. But sometimes they are just two things happening at the same time. Correlation is not causation.

But when something happens only when (or much more intensely when) something else happened right before it in many different places and at many different times to many different subjects, then the first thing probably does in some way, direct or indirect, cause the second thing.

That is what is happening and being reported by parents all over the world when it comes to artificial food coloring, fragrances and taste boosters—food additives with those indecipherable names clogging the ingredients lists of most packaged foods. One thing happens (a child eats something containing these substances) and then another thing happens (the child shakes, cries, screams, throws extraordinary tantrums, breaks out in unaccustomed skin rashes or has other reactions). Parents have reported these observations again and again, in every parenting forum I have ever come across.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

But medical studies claim the evidence is “inconclusive.”

Granted, the spectrum of substances suspected of causing reactions is broad and the reactions caused are diverse. And not all kids react. Kids with attention and sensory issues tend to react more… a lot more.

It is also difficult to differentiate the energetic boost delivered by sugar and other simple carbohydrates almost always contained in the same foods from the effects of other additives. Most studies have tried to separate the two. But we don’t actually know that it isn’t the combination of sugar and the additives that is a problem for these children.

Many of the substances used to create colors, fragrances and taste boosters have been progressively banned in more safety-conscious countries in Europe, usually due to vague neurological effects, but new ones—all too chemically similar—are continually being invented.

As a parent with one child with high sensitivity to food additives and another child without particular sensitivities, I can clearly see the differences. One child doesn’t make a study, but the experiences of thousands of parents routinely dismissed and belittled by the medical establishment make for a very suspicious situation.

Given the massive lobbying capabilities of the food industry and the extreme profits garnered by these cheap substances added to foods to make them instinctively addictive to children, I call foul. I have not seen adequate research and investigation into this area yet, but the past few weeks have lit a fire under me.

Due to various allergy-type reactions to milk and other foods, I had both of my children tested for all standard food allergies about a month ago. Both of them tested negative in every category. The test did not include a test for lactose intolerance, which isn’t actually an allergy. But as soon as I got my son lactose-free milk, his symptoms cleared up.

My confidence in the allergy testing system is shaky at best, if they aren’t even with it enough to refer a kid with allergy-type reactions to milk for a lactose intolerance screening. I have also seen my ten-year-old daughter collapse, screaming with shaking hands for two or three hours at a stretch after eating a moderate amount of green food coloring on several occasions. I’ve seen her exceptionally irritable and impulsive after eating everything from a single piece of candy to a few handfuls of fake-cheese-flavored chips.

Then just recently, in the month since the allergy testing, she acquired some much coveted children’s lipstick with chemically induced “cupcake” flavoring. She smeared it on liberally and by her own admission ingested a small amount. This was after a day of eating only very familiar foods, but after a few hours she was covered with extreme allergic eczema from her knees to the knuckles of her hands.

Fortunately, anti-allergenic mint salve (see the recipe here) stopped the itching within thirty minutes and cleared up the eczema in two days, a result the doctor proclaimed “miraculous.” Our pharmacist told me antihistamines generally soothe the itching within 24 hours and clear up that level of eczema in seven days.

(Caveat and disclaimer: There has not been enough study of mint extracts for eczema. There are few side effects reported, but skin rashes should be consulted with medical professionals. If your doctor agrees, mint salve might help. I have seen it help in many cases, but with other types of allergies it had no effect.)

The lack of rigorous research on the harmful affects of food and cosmetics additives continues to be problematic. This is not a difficult issue. There is no need to color foods or cosmetics or enhance fragrances or tastes. What if companies were forced to compete based on the actual basic quality of their product, plain and simple, rather than relying on manipulative manufactured substances?

How does a company making lipstick marketed specifically to young children get away with including heavy-duty fragrances and taste enhancers that make children obsessively want to eat a product that has not been tested as a food?

I am constantly under attack from these products. My kids beg for the products they see in advertisements on children’s TV shows or that their friends have. Other adults gift them to my children. The worst of them are very dangerous. But beyond that many of them are just damaging and hazardous to long-term health. Some sensitive children react to these harmful substances immediately. But that does not mean that they don’t still silently harm the health of less sensitive children as well. It is altogether possible that children with sensory and attention “disorders” are our canaries in a coal mine.

Because I want to protect my children from hazardous substances contained in most of the products on the supermarket shelves and I actually stand my ground on it, I am called an “extremist” or accused of having “extremely high standards.” These shouldn’t be considered high standards.

Just make food. Just make lip gloss. I can grow the ingredients and make both from my own home with no chemicals and they taste great and they last.

Substances must be thoroughly investigated, including long-term health and neurological effects, before being approved for food or cosmetics use. Even more fundamentally, there is no reason for substances which manipulate and deceive the senses. No manipulative or addictive product should ever be marketed to children.

It is not that I want to control what other people do. I don’t want them around me. I don’t want them invading my space. I don’t want to be pressured over them. I don’t want my children manipulated by them or given them by friends.

If it isn’t cupcakes, it shouldn’t taste and smell like cupcakes. Cupcake flavor and smell should be what it is—flour, sugar, butter, real strawberries, in season, brief and real. Period.

Easy vegetarian, herby campfire roasting - Fire Snakes

The summer camping season is officially open in most of the northern hemisphere. Sleeping, cooking, eating and playing outdoors and close to nature is a good way to ground your body and soul, build self-sufficiency skills and relieve the stresses of the daily grind.

But being crammed into a crowded campground full of fumes and junk food may not qualify as either healthy or stress free. The negative aspects of camping can be mitigated by seeking out places that are not overburdened with visitors or even just sleeping and eating outdoors in your own backyard. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book   Shanna and the Goddess

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book Shanna and the Goddess

The act of sitting around an small fire and preparing food is extremely powerful, and that probably has something to do with our genetic memories of thousands of years of doing just that with our families and clans. Cooking outdoors over a fire connects you to ancestors, regardless of what corner of the earth your people come from. Beyond just the closesness with nature, that connection can be healing. 

But most of us are overwhelmed enough by simple camping and cooking a real meal over a fire can be daunting. The easiest thing to prepare over a fire is something you can put on a stick and roast. Most of us roasted hot dogs and marshmallows as kids. But those may not be endlessly appealing today.

Whether you're vegetarian, vegan or just tired of the choice between ultra-unhealthy sausages and ultra-sugary marshmallows as campfire roasting treats, I have an easy and delicious option for you. Much tastier than just roasting a piece of bread over the fire, you can fire-bake your own bread in a few minutes, and it will have all the flavor of fresh bread along with the tang of the campfire. It's simply delicious. 

This recipe is a free excerpt from the children's and family Summer Solstice story Shanna and the Goddess

Fire Snakes

Fire snakes are bread dough formed into long snakes, twisted around a stick and baked over an open fire (or in the oven, in a pinch). 

They are very simple to make and can be dipped in everything from peanut butter and honey to cinnamon and sugar or ketchup, herbs, cheese sauce and bacon bits. Toppings are unlimited.

You can use any yeast or sourdough bread recipe that is not too sweet (sugar will tend to burn, so add it after cooking). Here is a basic recipe:

  • 1 1/2 cup warm water
  • 3 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 4 cups (or more) all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • A handful of dried or fresh, savory herbs, such as basil, thyme or rosemary (optional)

Mix the water, sugar and yeast in a bowl and let it sit for ten minutes.

Then stir the flour and salt in a large bowl.

Add the yeast mixture and the olive oil. 

Mix well and add extra flour as needed until it forms a heavy dough that can be molded. 

Let it rise for an hour. 

Cut off pieces about the size of a golf ball. 

Sprinkle flour on a clean surface and on your hands and roll out the balls to form snakes. (With large hands you can do this without a rolling surface in camping conditions but it can be tricky for kids). 

Then poke a marshmallow roasting stick through the end of a snake and wind the rest of the snake around the stick in a corkscrew pattern. Pinch the end together around the stick firmly. 
Roast over the fire and dip it in toppings as you eat.

Camping tip: Forage for tea and enjoy a vitamin boost

Nine years ago I packed food and video equipment in to a Greenpeace blockade camp in a military zone in the Czech Republic, dodging patrols and slipping up unmapped trails. The goal of the camp was to protect a couple of tree-sitters and thus to occupy a strategic hilltop marked for a US radar base that would put the first foreign troops in the country since the Soviets were kicked out in 1989 and destroy a fragile ecosystem in the process. 

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

I'm delighted to report that Greenpeace and local activists won that fight. 

I don't recall our packs containing anything like tea or even coffee when we carried supplies in and maybe this wasn't actually an oversight by the more experienced blockaders. In the end, other than a renewed sense of what can be accomplished by non-violent activists and the unsung little victories of environmental and social justice, I came out of the Brdy Hills with an item I no longer needed to carry in my camping kit - tea. 

I'm a tea drinker--herbal, black, green, you name it--and especially on camping trips, a hot drink in the morning is essential, though I can live with or without caffeine. As a result, I have always carefully stocked and refreshed a tea supply in my camping kit and I suffered greatly a few times when it ran out at an inopportune moment. 

The Greenpeace campers taught me how incredibly easy it is to forage for tasty, drinkable leaves if you're out in the woods anyway. After learning this, it seems almost silly to pack the stuff. 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

The basic thing to remember is that if you are used to eating the berries, you can usually brew the leaves. Wild huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves make a great base for tea. Raspberry and blackberry taste pretty similar to black tea and you can treat them much the same. But instead of caffeine you'll get an extra dose of iron and other nutrients, which is particularly useful for when you're outdoors and active. 

Beyond these, the year's newest fir needles are an excellent addition to make a more fragrant tea. Mint and wild thyme or wild oregano flowers can usually be found as well.

Fresh forage tea is particularly high in nutrients and flavor, and you'll enjoy the break from dried teas. However, there are a few cautions to observe while you're doing this:

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

  • Don't eat or brew plants you can't identify or are not sure are edible.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within a few yards/meters of an established campsite. First of all, the campsite will become stripped. And second, the males of our own species and those of one of our most friendly species (dogs) have a habit of marking the edges of such campsites with their urine. You can't be sure who has been there before you.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within 20 yards/meters of a minor road or 100 yards/meters of a major road. You don't want toxic heavy metals along with your iron supplement. 
  • Don't pick plants in protected areas, national parks, high mountain meadows or particularly fragile habitats. If planning to camp in these areas, you do need to pack in everything. (And pack everything you brought in out again, of course.)
  • When harvesting wild plant leaves for tea, be careful to take only a few leaves from each plant. Don't pull or you may damage the roots. If possible use scissors. Take only what you need. Harvest for future use, only if there is a great abundance of a particular plant and then be careful that you don't damage the plants or topsoil. 
  • Before harvesting wild plants, sit a moment in the area and get a sense of it. Does it smell right?  Do you have a relaxed feeling or an uneasy feeling? Any sense of disturbance or unease you feel could indicate that you should not pick plants there. Human beings are still quite capable of instinctively sensing the health of plants without knowing logically why. The area could be polluted or too fragile and your body might pick up on that.  
  • Give your thanks to wild plants you harvest from, whether silently or out loud, when you are finished.

Next time you're camping and have access to hot water out in the woods, brew up fresh forage tea and you will have an immediate connection to the local land and the earth itself.

A faith I can see and touch

My new ESL student walks in and he's gigantic, even taller than my 6'6'' dad. He's a Czech military medical doctor and an expert on Ebola and other nasty stuff. His desire for absolutely perfect English is rivaled by few.

He's usually both tough and cheery, but on his second visit, he admitted that he had a bit of a toothache. It was making it difficult to concentrate, but he said he didn't want painkillers.

So, I cautiously mentioned my work with herbs. We had a surprisingly frank conversation about the doctor-herbalist divide. He said he resents herbal hype by supplement advertisers. I agreed that the hype is problematic and that most "supplements" are of poor quality and ineffective, explaining that fresh, local and minimally processed herbs are much more useful. 

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

"The important thing to me is that we see modern medicine as the primary health care and herbs and other alternatives as secondary," he said. We discussed the placement of the English article in that sentence--which is surprisingly complicated, if you get right down to it.

Then I went so far as to agree that while I use homegrown herbs for 90 percent of my family's health needs, I'm very glad for modern medicine when we really need it, such as the occasional lifesaving antibiotic or surgery.

He laughed and agreed to drink some herbal tea for his toothache. Every lesson since then he has wanted more herbal tea, even though his toothache is gone.

That discussion ended well, but his statement about primary and secondary health care stuck with me. I mulled it over for a few days, and realized that I actually disagree with that premise.

Homegrown herbs are definitely our first line of defense in health issues. Our doctor and pediatrician almost never see us and that is a good thing. It shows that we're doing something right.

During the late winter this year a series of particularly nasty viral infections swept through the local schools. Every family we know succumbed--whole groups of friends usually taking ill at once.

With a feeling of grim resignation, I dosed my children with a syrup made out of sweet glycerin, echinacea flowers and lemon balm leaves from our garden--a non-alcoholic substitute for antiviral tincture. I figured that with some advance preparation, our symptoms might at least be somewhat mitigated. 

I never thought we would escape the epidemic entirely, while everyone else I spoke with was in bed for at least ten days and two of my friends' children had to be hospitalized with opportunistic pneumonia. But the frigid, gray end of winter finally gave way to a wet and chilly spring and now the sun has come in earnest, drying out the sickness and leaving us unscathed. 

When this sort of thing happens, we never know for sure if our herbal concoctions have saved us or if it is more a combination of luck and eating vastly more vegetables than the rest of the town.

This was the first year in four that we didn't fall to the viral epidemic of the winter and also the first year I had been able to make the antiviral glycerate. Cake-decorator's glycerin is a strangely controlled substance by local pharmaceutical regulations.

So I don't exactly have proof that my herbal antiviral concoction was what saved us, but I have enough evidence to enthusiastically try it again. 

In many other situations the results are so obvious that denying them is ridiculous. Even my children know that a paste of plantain leaf will almost instantly relieve the pain of bee and wasp stings, nettle tea will immediately wash away the burning of an allergic reaction to nettles and a cough syrup of honey, plantain, thyme and mullein will quiet relentless hacking. They've seen it happen again and again.

Sometimes the same results can be had with a white, pink or colorless substance from the pharmacy in town. But too often for comfort, those substances are ineffective or cause nasty side effects.  

I take yarrow tincture just as any woman would take pain-killers for particularly bad cramps. It is as easy as popping a pill and results in no follow-up headaches. 

When my daughter caught a very unpleasant skin parasite from dangling her arms in a murky pond last summer, the local pediatrician spent six weeks proscribing medicated creams and harsh disinfectants. I am not used to skin ailments that don't quickly bow to my herbal salves, so I carefully followed the doctor's instructions. 

Finally, in despair because the weeping sores on my first-grader's arms showed no improvement either with herbal salves or the latest in pharmaceuticals, I cut large slabs of goo off of the aloe vera plant that sat mostly forgotten in our living room and mercilessly taped them on every single sore.

Then I covered the child's entire arms with bandages each night. After a week, the infection was gone. And though the aloe vera plant had been reduced to a nub, it has now rebounded to three times its former glory in time for another summer of wild children. 

The military doctor is unimpressed and calls my observations, "anecdotal." I agree that I love scientific studies--like those that have greatly advanced the use of lemon balm as an antiviral in recent years. 

"You just have faith in herbs?" he asks in what appears to be genuine curiosity.

If you want to call it that. My faith doesn't have to be "pure" and unquestioning.  I do have trust. It's a faith I can see and touch. 

The healing draft - A poem on home herbalist medicine

I have trusted my life to doctors and surgeons and I have trusted my life to dusty herbalist tomes along and my own brain. I've done each in its time and with a lot of forethought. 

I have written these experiences about reclaiming my own health and I've debated in minute detail with proponents of the "medical model" approach. 

My family depends on our herb bed for 90 percent of our medicine and health care. We're lucky to have built up a good perennial supply and the skills to use it. We're also lucky to avoid most chronic illnesses requiring medications with unpredictable interactions.

Still we've seen time and time again that herbs grown and used at home are far superior in action to pills and drugs bought from the pharmacy. We are as careful about the pharmacy as we are about the herbs (and we have a good friend who is a pharmacist to advise us when we do go that route). 

Even with this experience, the drumbeat of advertising and skepticism about herbal medicines is so constant that we have the same discussion every year--just me and my husband as well as with our extended family. We've seen herbs work again and again. And yet there is a resistance to believing that something so simple could be so powerful or that if it is so powerful that it could ever be used safely. 

After a recent skiing trip--during which my husband was too apathetic to put herbal salve on his sore muscles or take echinacea tincture to stave off an encroaching cough, while I breezed through both with the help of these simple medicines--I am tired of the endless argument. I am tired of citing studies and debating with a behemoth industry with my relatives as surrogates. 

This is the season of inspiration and intuition, the days just before Imbolc, and so instead of another detailed treatise, I put it into a poem:

Every day an anecdote,
Sickness, headache, injury or pain
Washed away as if through clear water.
You've got two wore legs-
One rubbed with salve,
The other left to rest and ache.
One is new again in the morning,
one is stiff and swollen.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

It means nothing, they say.
A child crying in pain,
Blisters raised on the skin.
A six-year-old sister goes to pick the leaves,
to brew the tea, to place the cool cloth
against the flaming skin.
And the child smiles,
the blisters disappear
in ten minutes by the phone clock.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

How many times must you see it?
I ask my brother, my friend, my doctor, my dear one
How many times makes a study?
How many people sick with a lasting cough,
How many who drink the garden draft,
who get up and tend those who took pills instead?
How many times before you understand
that medicine is not in an ad?
It isn't Big Pharma or Big Natura.
It is in the hands, the care, the knowledge.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind. 

The questions fall heavy and predictable
like the drum beats of a campaign.
What if you make a mistake?
What if it doesn't help? 
What about the things you cannot fix or cure?
What about all the studies with freeze-dried herbs?
Who are you to say?
You have no double blind or placebo.
You have only whispers
gathered over a thousand years.
You have only the bright faces of your family.
You have only this little plot of growing things.
You have only your own health taken back.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

This is my wish to all in this season--health, healing and inspiration. May your home be snug and your well of strength brim full.