Archive for the ‘Products’ Category

bath favoritesA few of you have been asking me to post more product recommendations; after all, I am a product junkie. However, some of my favorite products are specific to my skin type, which means my recommendations would be less useful or not at all useful to those with a different skin type than mine. (Just for the record, my skin is “mature” and combination, and my biggest complaint is sun/age spots, although a few wrinkles are starting to stick around even when I’ve stopped smiling or finished laughing.)

But here are two products that work for any skin type. I list them at “budget” because they’re very reasonably priced, but I’d use them even if I wasn’t cost-conscious.

Everyday Shea’s bubble bath “for babies and up” is made with truly all-natural ingredients, is fair-trade certified and contains shea butter to gently moisturize. It’s phthalate-free and packaged in a PVC- and BPA-free bottle–although at 32 oz, it’s more like a jug. It costs approximately $10, but you can occasionally find it for as little as $7. I like the “calming” scent, which contains lavender and lemon (because I like the idea of winding down my little ones before bed instead of amping them up). It also comes in “comforting” eucalyptus mint, which seems appropriate to use when your little one is feeling under the weather. There is also an “adult” version available in three scents, including unscented for those with extra-sensitive skin.

Moving from the bath to the shower, my personal favorite is Shikai’s All Natural, Moisturizing Shower Gel, $6-$10 for 12 oz. There are nine scents available: Cucumber Melon, Vanilla, Yuzu, Sandalwood (my favorite!), Pomegranate, Honeysuckle, Starfruit, Gardenia and Coconut–all of which are pretty amazing.

A comment about sandalwood… Years ago–at least 20, a colleague from India traveled to his home country for work and brought back a small gift for me: a letter opener made from sandalwood. I remember smelling the incredible scent even before I had unwrapped the paper covering the small wooden knife. I still have it to this day, and remarkably, it still smells amazing, just far less strong.

As many of you know, I “vet” all my products with the Environmental Working Group before recommending them, so you can imagine my shock and dismay when I read that the EWG gave my beloved Shikai shower gel a “5” (moderate hazard) because one of the ingredients it contains–cocoamide DEA, is rated as a high hazard due to issues with (non-reproductive) organ toxicity from contamination. Evidently cocamide DEA, although naturally-derived from coconut oil, is chemically-modified.

Naturally, I immediately contacted Shikai. A company representative immediately followed-up and assured me that they have been aware of the issue and have pulled all product containing cocamide DEA from their distribution centers. Furthermore, the new formulation does not contain this potentially hazardous ingredient. The Shikai representative also told me that eight out of their nine scented shower gels use only natural essential oils for fragrance, but that the sandalwood uses a “tiny amount of chemical fragrance to boost the natural sandalwood scent.” Since it’s a product you rinse off immediately (unlike lotion or a facial mask), I will happily keep using this wonderfully-smelling, very moisturizing shower gel.

Bath time!


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Simplify and freshen your Spring beauty routine!

These products are some of the best I’ve used (and being a product “junkie,” I’ve tried many, and am constantly scanning the horizon for new ones). These products boast all-natural ingredients, but they are also well-priced* and have other excellent properties, such as anti-aging, moisturizing and naturally beautifying.

Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmers ($5) – You won’t be able to resist buying more than one! They’re super-moisturizing, come in a wide range of colors (some which don’t have shimmer), and they’re just the right size for slipping into a pocket, purse or yoga bag. The color shown here is “Strawberry”, a sheer, shimmery pink which has a slight peppermint taste/smell.

Hemp Organics Lip Tint by Colorganics ($6.95) – These tints are similar to the Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmers, but they offer slightly “deeper,” less shimmery colors and I love that there are only six ingredients in them. Like the Lip Shimmers, they’re a super-convenient size and very reasonably-priced. Try “Kiss” for a sheer, cool berry color with barely a hint of shimmer.

Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm ($7) – Last I checked, these came in nine subtly -tinted colors. They’re super creamy, very emollient and lightly tinted. This is the perfect option for when you want a little color and need a little moisture but don’t want to appear as if you’re actually wearing make-up. The super-versatile peachy-nude color shown here is “Honeysuckle.” This color is also the perfect thing for when you want to moisturize and/or subtly tone down a bright lipstick.

Jane Iredale Pure Pressed Eye Shadows ($19) – I love many of Jane Iredale’s products, but I’m highlighting the shadows because they’re excellent quality, go on beautifully (with brush or finger), and wear well. And, of course, they’re all natural. The very versatile, perfect for Spring color shown here is “Slate Brown,” a soft, taupe.

Dr. Hauschka Eyeshadow – The color range is limited, but I also like these completely natural shadows as an alternative to Jane Iredale. The pale gold shimmer (“01 Sunglow”) does magic as a highlighter to the brow bone area or inner lids.

ecotools brushes are the perfect choice for applying your natural make-up. They use soft, cruelty-free bristles wrapped in recycled aluminum with bamboo handles. This “Sharpen & Smudge Duo” blends eyeliner or shadow along the lashline and is a bargain at $3.99!

Andalou Naturals All in One Beauty Balm, Sheer Tint with SPF 30 ($19.95) – OK, I think this may be one of my all-time favorite products. I’ve been looking for a “beauty balm”–commonly referred to as “BB,” and nearly everyone and his/her brother now offers one. However, I’ve immediately discounted all the usual drugstore and department store brands since they contain too many chemicals, synthetic fragrances and other yucky stuff I don’t want to put on my skin. Surprisingly, not very many natural skin care lines have introduced “beauty balms”. I was pleasantly surprised (actually, ecstatic) to try the Andalou Naturals BB. It provides very sheer coverage, blends in amazingly well, gives mineral-based, broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and smells wonderful on top of it all. If you want more coverage, you can apply  foundation or powder directly over this product.

Sequoia Beauty Sun Damage Repair Serum ($44) – This is a wonderful product from my new favorite skin care line. All the products in the line are about as pure as they come, made locally to where I live and produced in small batches. Every product smells absolutely amazing and uses high-quality plant extracts and oils. This serum is what I apply each morning before my BB and each evening before going to bed.

John Masters Lip Calm ($6) – This is the last product I use before going to bed. I can’t tell you how many different lip balms I’ve tried, but this one always helps dry lips, doesn’t irritate and doesn’t have a too strong scent or flavor. (Remember, even all-natural products that use essential oils to flavor and scent their products can be irritating to sensitive skin.)

Happy Spring!

*Please note: the prices I’ve shown here are the prices listed by the manufacturer. Most of the products I’ve highlighted can be purchased at significantly cheaper prices by buying them from natural foods markets or on-line sellers.

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favorite thingsOK, so I mainly write about food and occasionally about things that can affect our health, such as household cleaners and skincare products. But today, I couldn’t resist sharing just a few of my favorite (non-food) things.

I selected these items because they look great and have a sustainable or world-friendly component which I think you’ll find pretty cool.

backpackFor sightseeing this summer 

I recently bought this backpack from Baggu. I’d been looking for a “day pack” that wasn’t too big for my small frame (nearly always an issue with the name-brand backpacks), and that had some recycled component. This cotton canvas backpack by Baggu is made from 100% recycled cotton, and the company offers this pack in a wide variety of colors including some great basic as well as some on-trend brights. (I got mine in marine blue stripes because I had the South of France on my mind.) Baggu also offers a larger version, but this size easily fits an insulated lunch bag, water bottle, wallet and scarf or light sweater. It also has a zippered pocket inside as well as on the outside–handy for keys and cellphones.

yoga bagHit the yoga studio in (fair-trade) style

This super-cool yoga mat bag by I AM. is made with fabric hand-woven by women in Guatemala, and each bag is hand-signed by the woman who helped make it. I AM.’s mission is to provide high-paying weaving work to Mayan women who live in impoverished communities. I also love the concept of connecting creators with users.

The Maya yoga bags come in great color combinations, have a wide and comfortable strap for slinging over your shoulder, and are roomy enough to store a wallet and light blanket or fleece in addition to your yoga mat. The inside is lined in recycled scraps of material, and there’s a waterproof inside pocket for any sweaty or wet items.

earthlustNever buy another plastic water bottle

Earthlust water bottles are my favorite because they’re light, BPA-free, use non-toxic paint, have small “mouths/necks” so you aren’t spilling water all over your face and they have the most gorgeous designs. Here I’ve shown one in matte paint as well as the more common glossy paint. I also love that they come with an aluminum carabineer clip for hooking onto your shorts, backpack or yoga bag.

Do your shopping in eco-friendly style

Make a personal commitment to reduce the 380 billion (!!) plastic bags used in the U.S. alone each year. (That number averages out to 1200 bags per person!) It’s estimated that only 1-2% are recycled, and thousands of marine mammals and more than 1 million birds die each year from plastic pollution. Ever since I committed to stop accepting plastic grocery bags, I’ve been amazed at how easy it is. I’ve gone as many as 6 months without taking a single plastic grocery bag. Granted, on those rare occasions I forget to bring my own and paper wasn’t an option, I’ve walked out of the stores with all my groceries precariously balanced in my arms.


Envirosax makes great reusable bags. I love the bamboo bag featured here from the company’s Organic Series (which also offers organic cotton and hemp bags). Bamboo is incredibly strong, 100% sustainable and grows naturally without requiring pesticides or fertilizers.

Envirosax offers an incredible array of sizes, patterns and colors in several different fabrics. The company’s nylon bags fold (or stuff!) down into a pouch the size of a tangerine, so they’re super easy to keep in your purse or glove compartment. They’re also less than $10 each and last for years.

Of course the first rule of the three Rs is Reduce (before Reuse and Recycle), and while I didn’t own a backpack, I certainly can’t justify buying any new water bottles. But if you’re in the market for a new item or need a gift for a friend, please consider environment- and world-friendly options such as these.

Happy shopping!

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cleaning 1Most people think they need an arsenal of products to get their home really clean. Unfortunately, many people buy more products than they actually need, and they often buy products that contain unnecessarily harsh and toxic ingredients, such as formaldehyde and other chemicals that release  volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have both short- and long-term health effects.

You only need a few essentials to get your home really clean while avoiding potentially toxic chemicals  and other substances that can harm you and your family’s health as well as our environment.

1. I can’t say enough about plain unfiltered or distilled white vinegar.* Mixed with plain water it cleans everything from windows, sinks, showers, tubs, faucet fixtures, laminate floors and mirrors. Simply dilute 1 part vinegar to 1 part water in a small bucket or spray bottle to use. Vinegar naturally kills bacteria, mold and germs. Studies have shown that even at 5-10% strength, vinegar kills roughly 90 percent of bacteria and viruses. For disinfecting cutting boards, soap scum, grime and mildew, use it full strength. For windows, simply spray on and dry with newspaper. 365 Every Day Value Distilled White Vinegar, $3.29, available at Whole Foods Markets nationwide.

2. If you need a little more oomph for tackling stubborn mildew, soap scum and other gunk, use a tub and tile cleaner, Bathroom Cleaner, $4.99, methodhome.com or a good, old-fashioned all-natural abrasive cleanser (below), $1.69, bonami.com.

cleaning 33. Stop using paper towels, and switch to reusable cloths. These have a terry towel side and a scrubby mesh side. Scrubby Dishcloths, $6.95 for 3, crateandbarrel.com.

4. Natural cellulose and plant-based sponges are soft and incredibly absorbent. French Pop-Up Sponges (above), $7.95 for 6, crateandbarrel.com or Twist Euro Sponge (below), $1.99, twistclean.com.

cleaning 23. Dishwashing soap isn’t just for dishes. Use it to clean countertops, walls and painted wood. Ultra Dishmate Dishwashing Cleaner is fully biodegradable and made in facilities powered by 100% renewable energy, $2.99, ecos.com.

4. Simply having your hands in and out of water frequently can lead to excessively dry and chapped hands. Protect them with gloves while you wash or clean. The pair shown above is made from FSC certified natural latex and is cotton-lined. Household Gloves, $3.99, ifyoucare.com.

Think Spring!

* Since vinegar is highly acidic, it can dissolve mineral deposits and fibers. I don’t use vinegar on my stone surfaces, but I’ve read you can. Simply dilute with water and test in an inconspicuous place first.

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Naturally and artificially colored products, and dye-free labeling

Two recent outings with friends prompted me to want to research and write about the safety of artificial coloring in our foods.

On the first outing, an obviously health-conscious mom declined to give her son a red velvet-flavored cupcake because she didn’t want her boy “affected by the red dye.”

The second outing–just one week later, was with some good friends who, knowing I can be very strict about sugar, apologized for the amount of sugary snacks they had on hand for the kids. I can be a real pain about sugar, but it was my realization that many of the snacks they were referring to also contained artificial dyes that left me wanting to know more–for myself and my children and to share with others who might be just as curious.

Of course, some of you may remember hearing about the original health scares involving artificial colors. Orange No. 1 dye was banned in 1950 after numerous children fell ill from eating their Halloween candy which contained the dye. Later studies suggested the dye was toxic. But perhaps more notorious was Red No. 2. The FDA banned it in 1976 based on studies that suggested it was carcinogenic.

Today, food coloring–natural and artificial, can be found in products ranging from crackers and candy to sauces and beverages. Coloring is sometimes added to enhance natural colors or to adjust natural variations in color. Coloring is also used to combat color loss from exposure to light or temperature changes. And coloring is often used to add color to colorless foods or to make foods seem more “fun.” Examples are numerous and include Kellogs Fruit Loops, Jell-O brand mixes, Pepperidge Farm Colored Goldfish, some Kraft Macaroni & Cheese dinners, Florida oranges and Minute Maid Lemonade. For example, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Colors contain several artificial dyes including Blue 2, Red 40, Red 3  and Blue 1, and colored M&Ms contain Blue 1, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40. Of course the products I’ve listed represent only a tiny fraction of the products that contain artificial colors, and only “foods” that contain synthetic dyes. If you include candy–most of which I do not consider to be “food,” synthetic colors abound. In fact, nearly all mass-produced candy that has a color other than dark brown (from chocolate) contains synthetic dyes.

Are these artificial colors safe, particularly for developing brains and bodies, such as those of our children?

There have been numerous studies over the years linking artificial food coloring and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but the results of those studies were often considered inconclusive, in part because artificial dyes are often used in conjunction with other artificial ingredients, such as preservatives. This made it difficult to determine if the increased hyperactivity diagnosed in children in the studies was attributable to the artificial coloring or the preservatives, or a combination of the two.

Recent FDA Ruling

In March of 2011, after decades of claiming artificial coloring agents were safe, the Food & Drug Administration asked a panel of experts to review the body of evidence and advise on potential policy changes. Prior to this, the FDA had stood firm on its position that artificial dyes are completely safe.

A year earlier, the science-based consumer advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) proposed to food safety regulators a ban of eight of the nine artificial dyes currently approved by the FDA. The group also petitioned to have–in lieu of a ban–a warning on products containing artificial dyes. The suggested verbiage: “artificial colorings in this food cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children.”

In April of last year, the expert panel appointed by the FDA concluded there is insufficient proof that foods containing artificial colorings cause hyperactivity in most children, and that these foods do not need to carry a special warning label as suggested by the CSPI. However, the agency scientists determined that while the average child may be unaffected by artificial dyes, children predisposed to behavior problems may see their symptoms worsen by eating food with synthetic color additives.

What surprised me most in my research is that FDA testing has concluded that several commonly used food dyes contain small amounts of carcinogens, and yet these are still permitted in the U.S. One of these is Red 40–the most commonly used food coloring in the U.S. today according to my research. And Yellow 5 has been proven to cause allergic reactions in people with aspirin allergies. Another artificial food dye, Yellow 6, has been shown to cause kidney and adrenal gland tumors in lab mice during FDA tests. Despite these findings, the FDA has concluded that Yellow 6 “does not pose a significant risk to humans”–and this is the third most widely used food dye in the U.S. today.

Then again, I guess those of you who regularly read my blog know I’m not a huge fan of the FDA. There are too many to list chemicals that our FDA allows that have already been banned in the EU. In fact, foods sold in the EU that contain synthetic dyes must carry a warning label on the packaging. How have American food giants, such as Kelloggs, KRAFT and General Mills responded? They have eliminated synthetic dyes in their products sold into the EU. If we were sitting around my dinner table right now, enjoying a glass of wine and a fine meal, and I continued with this thread, here is where I would launch into a tirade about the incredible, nearly unchecked power of U.S. industry lobbying groups which cripple the FDA and make much of function worthless.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that artificial food colorings are primarily derived from coal tar and petroleum products. I guess the fact that they’re carcinogenic when ingested shouldn’t come as a big surprise given their origin.


So what to do? For starters, eliminate artificial dyes from most if not all the food you allow your children to eat. Artificial dyes don’t enhance flavor; in fact, they can increase bitterness, prompting manufacturers to add more sugar to compensate. When did we (or anyone for that matter) decide that some of our foods needed to be turquoise blue or hot pink? Why can’t a lemon-flavored drink be flavored with real lemon, and its color be that of real lemonade–that is, nearly clear? Why shouldn’t our crackers look cracker like–that is, wheat colored? And if a drink doesn’t look like it’s strawberry flavor suggests it should, why not add a little beet or pomegranate juice?

I’ll admit, natural food coloring dyes aren’t cheap, so if I were to allow artificial color anywhere in my children’s lives, I’d make the concession for cake frostings at birthday parties. Both Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe’s refuse to sell products that contain artificial dyes, and both chains purportedly carry all-natural food coloring options. (I say “purportedly” because while I’ve read this in several places, my local Whole Foods carries natural options, but my Trader Joe’s does not.)

There are also several natural food coloring options available on-line, such as India Tree, and Maggie’s Naturals. The India Tree colors are incredibly vibrant (a little goes a long way) and are all derived from natural vegetable color. In addition, India Tree has beautiful, naturally-colored sugar sprinkles for decorating cakes, cupcakes and cookies. In fact, those gorgeous plummy-purple colored sprinkles on my gluten-free birthday cake were from India Tree, and the sprinkles are relatively inexpensive.

Stay true to your colors!

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winter blah

It’s that time of year when the days start getting longer, the sun’s rays feel a little bit warmer, and our minds anticipate the approach of spring. It’s also that time of year that I start itching–literally and physically; itching to spruce up the garden, go to the beach and generally spend more time outdoors, and itching physically from all the dryness my hair and skin have experienced from the cold temperatures and dry, indoor heated air of winter.

Here are a few suggestions for revving up your circulation, sloughing off dull, dry skin and feeling smooth, moisturized and renewed.

I’ve never been a big believer in expensive creams and lotions, but I do believe in natural and simple products that get results.

These are a few of my favorites:

1. Use a natural-bristle “body” brush to aide your lymph nodes in eliminating toxins and boost circulation. (You can buy this type of brush in all natural products stores, including natural foods stores, as well as in many drugstores.) Simply brush your skin in small circular movements starting with the outermost extremities (hands and feet), working toward your heart as you go. Note: It’s best to do this just before your bath or shower.

2. In the bath or shower, scrub your skin smooth with a decent exfoliating body wash or scrub. I like the the walnut shell powder and almond seed meal in Queen Helene’s Organic Fair Trade Certified Cocoa Butter Body Scrub. The smell of this paraben- and SLS-free scrub will leave you skin smooth and moisturized and your mind drifting toward tropical island beaches. (At just a little over $6 a tube, this natural scrub is an amazing value!)

3. If you’re a tub person, soften skin by adding a pint of fresh milk (or 1 cup powdered milk) to the tub while it’s filling. Soften nerves, too, by adding 10-12 drops of your favorite essential oil for a total relaxing, skin-softening experience. Lavender, ylang-ylang and neroli are all good choices.

4. As soon as you step out of the bath or shower, apply a moisturizing body oil while your skin is still damp. This helps seal in moisture for longer-lasting hydration. There are numerous body oils on the market. Choose a natural blend (not one containing mineral oil!) or make your own; it’s incredibly easy. Try this recipe:

25 ml jojoba oil

25 ml almond oil

30 ml aloe vera (not the gel or juice, just pure aloe vera)

10 drops essential oil of lavender

15 drops of essential oil of ylang-ylang, neroli, rose, whatever you like.

Mix together in a 100 ml brown glass bottle. Apply as needed.

5. If the skin on your face is looking a little lackluster, apply an exfoliating and/or brightening mask 1-2 times per week. One of my favorites is Pangea Organics Facial Mask with Japanese Matcha Tea, Acai & Goji Berry. Careful you don’t scare the cat or the kids while the mask is on your face working its magic. It resembles mud with acai and goji fruit blended in, but leaves your skin feeling softer, smoother and brighter.

Another super quick and easy moisturizing mask can be found in the pantry. Honey is a great moisturizer. Spread a thin layer over freshly-cleaned, still damp skin, leave on for 3-5 minutes and rinse with tepid water.

It’s also important to avoid cleansers or toners containing alcohol, which are too drying for even the oiliest skin at this time of year. Look for moisturizers and toners with hyaluronic acid, a highly-effective humectant, which is purported to hold 100 times its weight in water. Just be sure to follow with a moisturizer if you’re using hyaluronic acid in a toner.

Happy scrubbing, soaking and slathering!

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Does it make sense to blog about hand creams in the summer when hands often get dry and beaten from too much sun and too much gardening, or wait until winter when dry indoor air and cold temperatures threaten to crack and parch even the best cared for hands? Given the fact that people say you can tell a person’s age just by looking at his or her hands, I figure any time is a good time.

Mine are constantly in warm water–doing the dishes, bathing the kids, etc., which is extremely drying. Warm or hot water and the handling of paper are the too biggest culprits when it comes to dry skin on the hands.

If you’re concerned about slowing the aging of your hands, apply sunscreen to help protect the backs of hands from premature aging caused by UVA light. If you’re mainly concerned about keeping hands smooth and supple, apply hand cream often.

My “splurge” recommendation for hand cream is Skin Food by Weleda. It’s technically not a hand cream, but I’ve been using it as such for several years because it’s so effective.  It’s not inexpensive, but it relieves any degree of dryness overnight. I tend to use it more during the winter months. I typically prefer unscented products, but Skin Food has a not-unpleasant herbal scent that smells like you’ve been in the garden. Skin Food is sold at nearly all Whole Foods Markets as well as other natural food stores, although you’ll pay about $17. You can get a better price ($11-$12) on-line.

My “steal” recommendation is Burt’s Bees Almond Milk Beeswax Hand Cream. I use it all summer. I love the smell of almonds, it’s non-greasy and it absorbs immediately–in part, due to kaolin (clay) as one of its ingredients. Burt’s Bees Hand Cream is now sold in some Safeways for $7.99. You can get it on-line but for only slightly cheaper.

To younger-looking, softer-feeling hands!

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I apologize for the delay in publishing Part 2 of my two-part report on sugar. Once again, that wonderfully unpredictable thing called life simply threw off my plans. But this posting is a natural follow-on to Sugar (Part 1), which if you may recall focused largely on how our bodies react to sugar and how most of us simply are consuming far too much.

As it happens, I suffer from an annoying sweet tooth, which I constantly battle and/or make excuses for. From all the anecdotal research I’ve conducted over the years, I’m convinced I could lose the sweet tooth if I could give up added sugar entirely for a few months. But therein lies the problem… I don’t make it past a week or two, a situation exacerbated by my love of baking. So for people who share my challenge, it makes sense to know how much is too much and what the different options are for sweetening the food we eat.

Here, I’ve tried to summarize the various sugars we regularly use and/or have seen as a commonly listed ingredient. There may be one or two less familiar, as many sugar substitutes have entered the market in recent years. Some of this won’t be news, but I think there are interesting if not surprising facts for everyone.

For instance, many don’t realize that brown sugar is just ordinary white sugar to which a relatively small amount of molasses has been reintroduced. Normally, molasses is separated and removed when table sugar is created from sugarcane plants. Because of its molasses content, brown sugar does contain trace amounts of a few minerals, including potassium, iron and magnesium. But since the amounts are so minuscule, there really is no additional health benefit to using brown sugar. That said, there is a slight taste difference, particularly in baked goods, so if a recipe calls for brown sugar, it’s best not to substitute white.

Honey–if it’s raw honey, it’s considered nutritionally superior to table sugar or maple syrup due to its mineral content as well as its purported healing properties. It’s especially recommended for a cough or sore throat. Honey can also be moisturizing, healing and soothing to irritated skin.

Maple syrup is also relatively unprocessed as it can be used immediately after being tapped from the tree. However, be sure to only use organic maple syrup since common non-organic practices include the use of formaldehyde plugs where the syrup is tapped and lead buckets for collection.

It’s important to note that while honey has a slightly lower glycemic index than table sugar, both honey and maple syrup have significantly more calories than table sugar on a per ounce basis. So if you’re counting calories, you might want to opt for plain unrefined cane sugar or one of the other sugar substitutes mentioned below.

Agave syrup has received a lot of press over the last few years. Initially it was hailed as the ultimate answer to sweeteners because it purportedly didn’t cause a spike in blood sugar levels (due to its high fructose levels vs. sugar’s high glucose levels) making it ideal for diabetics and pre-diabetics.  However, research has shown that fructose may promote disease more readily than glucose because glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body whereas fructose is metabolized by only the liver–putting this particular organ at greater risk of disease. In addition, fructose may contribute to diabetic conditions since it reduces the sensitivity of insulin receptors resulting in the body having to produce more insulin to handle the same amount of glucose.

Furthermore, because it was often sold in natural foods stores, agave was considered a natural sugar. In reality, most agave syrup is highly processed using either heat or enzymes. If you use agave syrup, make sure you are buying “raw” agave syrup. It is heated at a lower temperature so few natural enzymes are destroyed. It’s also important to note that although one teaspoon of agave syrup has the same amount of calories as one teaspoon of sugar, because agave is 40 percent sweeter it should never be substituted ounce for ounce, cup for cup, etc., thereby reducing your calorie intake. I still use agave, but sparingly and only in one or two recipes.

Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute derived from a plant/herb in the sunflower family that is native to areas ranging from western North America to South America. It’s been used for centuries by various populations in Paraguay even though it was just approved by the FDA in 2008 (and approved for use in the EU just last year). It appears to have a negligible effect on blood glucose, making it an excellent choice for people on low-sugar and carbohydrate-restricted diets, although some people claim it has a slightly bitter or licorice-like aftertaste. However, I have sampled the Sweetleaf brand, and have not noticed any unpleasant aftertaste. It’s an easy sweetener to add to jams, sauces, tea or coffee where you don’t need it to also affect the texture. I’ve been experimenting with using Stevia in baking, but it’s a bit trickier, hence I can’t offer any specific substitution amounts yet.

The sugar alcohol Xylitol is also considered a natural sugar substitute. It occurs naturally in the fiber of many fruits and vegetables as well as corn husks and sugar cane stalks. Because gram for gram it has greater than one-third fewer calories than table sugar, it’s considered a good sugar substitute for diabetics and people with hyperglycemia. And unlike Stevia, is has virtually no aftertaste. That said, Xylitol has not been widely embraced, in part because like other sugar alcohols (e.g., mannitol and sorbitol), it can cause temporary stomach upset, including bloating, flatulence and diarrhea (oh, joy).

The sugar to avoid–at all cost–is corn syrup, particularly high fructose corn syrup. This highly-processed sweetener is the most common added sweetener in processed foods and beverages. It causes a huge spike in blood sugar levels and has been implicated in the dramatic increase in Type 2 Diabetes in the U.S. as well as the record levels of obesity and increased triglyceride levels (which leads to increased risk of heart attack).

A recent Princeton University study found that rats who consumed high-fructose corn syrup “gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.” Furthermore, the study found that in addition to the significant weight gain experienced by the high-fructose consuming rats, “long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides.” These same characteristics in humans are known risk factors for high-blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

Numerous studies have linked high-fructose corn syrup to the obesity epidemic plaguing the US today. Just think about it, 40 years ago, only 15 percent of people living in the U.S were considered obese. Today, more than one-third of Americans meet the definition of obese (20% or more over an individual’s ideal body weight).

And speaking of obesity rates in the United States, here is where I have to go off on a tangent and shed light on a worrisome phenomenon that in reality isn’t really a phenomenon, but a calculated practice. That is, chain stores are making larger clothes for the same sizes. What do I mean? My weight and standard body measurements have remained the same since my early 20s. That’s attributable in part to inherited high metabolism as well as the fact that I pay careful attention to what I eat, how much I’m eating and exercising, etc. However, with chains such as Gap and J. Crew, I have “shrunk” 2-3 sizes. A store manager at one of these stores, whom I have gotten to know over the years, confirmed that making larger clothes for traditional 0-14 and XS-XL was an intentional practice by the brand she represents. Clothing manufacturers don’t want customers to know or think they’re getting bigger, because customers will feel less positive about themselves and the store or brand that made them aware of this fact. I find it downright deceitful and manipulative, but that’s fodder for another posting.

Aspartame is the last sugar substitute I’ll mention in this posting. I’m including it only because I’m surprised to still find it in so many products. It is an artificial sweetener, that was originally sold under the brand, NutraSweet. Gram for gram, it has about the same number of calories as sucrose (regular table sugar), but because its sweetness is so concentrated (200 times greater than table sugar), the amount you might use to sweeten something is so small that the caloric count becomes negligible.

Aspartame was the center of controversy for decades. Reports linked it to everything from multiple sclerosis to seizures, headaches and brain tumors, but the reports themselves were controversial, and the FDA has continued to consider aspartame a safe non-nutritive sweetener at “current levels of consumption.” In fact, aspartame has been found by more than 90 countries worldwide to be safe for human consumption. Aspartame actually was at the center of what is considered one of the largest known internet hoax conspiracy theories. Due to all the claims and confusion, several large companies made public statements indicating they would no longer use aspartame in their products. Later this year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is expected to release it’s findings of a full re-evaluation of aspartame.

Perhaps because I don’t have undying faith in the FDA or because the added clause “at current levels of consumption” isn’t reassuring enough, I still avoid aspartame (entirely). It should also be noted that because one of the products aspartame breaks down into is phenylalanine, aspartame must be entirely avoided by people with the relatively rare genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU).

The bottom line remains the same: Whether we’re spreading honey on our toast, drinking a carbonated beverage, or enjoying a cupcake from one of the many boutique cupcake bakeries that have popped up, we as a nation currently consume far more sugar than our bodies can handle without serious negative side effects. I feel as though it’s become my mantra, but what we need to remember is that sugar causes inflammation, and inflammation is the precursor to many major diseases including cancer and heart disease.

So how do you like your cup of tea: with one lump or two?

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Well yes, I’m a little behind. School is officially out–at least for my kids, and we’re already into summer. My only excuse is that I’ve been incredibly busy at my other job–planning the annual fundraising party for Empowered by Light.

But even though I haven’t found time–until now–to blog, I have been testing new sunscreen products like mad.

My three favorites for the whole family are Burnout KIDS (also recommended last year), Elemental Herbs Sunscreen Sport and Earthkind* Sunscreen Ointment. All three have an SPF 30 or 30+. All use zinc oxide as the sunscreen ingredient–the best for natural, broad spectrum (both UVA and UVB) protection. And all three go on virtually clear using micronizing technology, while still being free of nano-particles.

In addition to the attributes listed above, Burnout has a light, lotion-like consistency which makes it very easy to apply. Elemental Herbs has a slightly higher zinc oxide content and seems to be slightly more water-resistant. Earthkind has a great scent (reminds me of the paste I used in art class as a young child), and is very water-resistant. It doesn’t claim to be waterproof, but after coating my kids with it, and after hours of being in the water, it was still on and protecting. Of course, part of the reason for that is that it is very thick, so applying it takes a bit more effort. Earthkind is also the pricier of the three.

For myself, for any day I’m in the sun but not swimming, I use DeVita’s Solar Body Block. It’s also zinc oxide based, SPF 30+, non nano, etc., but it has a wonderful, light, whipped consistency and moisturizes my skin. The only reason I didn’t include it above is because it doesn’t seem very water-resistant, making it a poor choice for children during the summer months.

Remember, it’s best to stay out of the sun between the hours of 11:00am and 2:00pm, and it’s best to be covered by clothing that provides a SPF of 50+. You’ll also get the best protection if you apply your sunscreen well in advance of exposure. Some experts even suggest applying it the evening before. That seems a little extreme to me, but what’s important is trying to avoid waiting until the last minute so you’re not just applying sunscreen right before exposure.

Safe sunning!

*Earthkind is made by KINeSYS, but please note that other KINeSYS sunscreens use chemical UVA and UVB blockers.

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It’s already more than half-way through summer, and I’m just now sharing my top sunscreen pick for this year?? That’s what happens when one starts a non-profit while taking care of two little ones full-time. The new non-profit I co-founded is for a worthy cause, so when you have a minute, click over and check it out:  Empowered by Light.

Of course I had intended to make my sunscreen recommendation in the early part of June… We have at least three more months of sun here in Northern California, so I suppose it’s better late than never.

Previously I had recommended Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30+. While it used a good amount of zinc oxide and boasted good ingredients overall with few potential irritants, I also found it left too much of a white cast–the “casper” factor as some call it.

I tried BurnOut Kids Physical Sunscreen, SPF 30+ back in May and fell in love immediately. It’s rated as one of the top sunscreens for 2011 by the Environmental Working Group, and rates a 1 on toxicity–their lowest level. It has an amazingly light “lotiony” texture and is very easy to spread. It leaves no white cast unless you put on multiple layers throughout the day. While it is not waterproof, it is water resistant. Another thing I like is the very light, almost imperceptible smell. And of course, it’s all natural and contains no nano-particles.

BurnOut also makes an Ocean Tested Physical Sunscreen, SPF 30+ that is “very water-resistant, ocean safe, ec0-sensitive, etc.” My husband’s been using this on his face and body. We can’t actually tell the different between the two products. The ingredients lists vary only slightly in the plant extracts and natural oils used, but since the price is the same, I think it’s just a matter of personal preference.

Note: I also tried thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen, SPF 30+. EWG rates it slightly higher than BurnOut in its UVA protection due to it’s slightly higher zinc oxide content (20% vs. BurnOut’s 18.6%). However, the formulation is heavier, thicker and felt very drying.

You can find BurnOut at most Whole Foods Markets as well as on-line (e.g., Amazon). The regular price is $17.99 for 3.4 oz, but I picked up several at $12.99 when Whole Foods had a sale.

Safe sunning!

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