A few weeks ago, I ran out of the wonderful Roma tomatoes I'd purchased and canned from Terra Verde (Everson) at the Farmers Market. That presents a problem for locavore eating, since I cook with tomatoes nearly every day. (A locavore is a person who eats only locally grown food as much as possible.)
In past years, I would have just purchased some non-local canned tomatoes to tide us over until the next crop is ripe later this summer. This time, though, I couldn't bring myself to do that. Here's why: bisphenol-A (or BPA).
According to an article in the New York Times (Sept. 6, 2010), BPA "has been widely used since the 1960s and is also in some medical devices, dental sealants, thermal paper for cash register receipts and the epoxy resin that lines most food and drink cans. The United States produces about a million tons of it a year."
"Most food and drink cans" includes about 99 percent (or more) of all canned tomatoes, beans, soups, soda pop, juices and many other commonly consumed prepared foods - almost everything you see in a can. Before I began transitioning to locavore eating, I used these kinds of products virtually every day.
You may have heard of BPA with regard to plastic bottles. BPA is considered an "endocrine disrupter" because it interferes with the hormone estrogen, binding to and blocking estrogen receptors in the body. Researchers believe this may cause fertility and sexual dysfunction problems. BPAs have also been associated with breast cancer, prostate cancer, early onset of puberty, childhood obesity and a host of other health issues. While evidence is not yet conclusive (these kinds of studies take years), enough negative results have accumulated that many scientists and medical experts recommend applying the "precautionary principle" - a "better to be safe than sorry" approach.
As a result of research to date, the use of BPAs in plastic bottles has decreased substantially. Sunoco, a large manufacturer of BPA, now even refuses to sell BPA except to customers who guarantee it will not be used in food products.
Children are particularly susceptible, since their livers are not fully developed and they do not eliminate BPAs from their bodies as quickly as adults. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while insisting that there is no harm to humans, nevertheless supported and encouraged the food industry to remove BPAs from bottles and food containers for baby food. Bottle manufacturers have complied but very few can manufacturers offer BPA free options.
Do cans contain enough BPA to matter? Hundreds of studies have shown that they do, though some disagree. What is definite is that eating canned food can dramatically increase your exposure to BPA.
Nationally recognized clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas cites a study funded by the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute which found that "families that avoided canned foods or foods packaged in plastic, and instead ate clean, fresh food, had 60 percent lower levels of BPA after just three days." Three days!
In November, 2011, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in which 75 people ate one 12-ounce can of a popular brand of vegetarian soup a day while another group was given an equal amount of a freshly prepared vegetarian soup. After just five days, the BPA level in the canned soup subjects had risen an average of 1221 percent.
I don't buy canned tomatoes anymore, or canned anything, except on very rare occasion. Instead, I soak my beans overnight, and I create recipes without tomatoes when I run out of those I have canned myself in glass jars.
Is it less convenient? For cooking perhaps, but is there anything more inconvenient than poor health?
TOMATOLESS UNCANNED BEAN AND GROUND BEEF STEW
1 cup dried kidney beans (Alm Hill Gardens, Bellingham)
8 cups water, split
1 clove garlic, crushed (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
2 teaspoon hazelnut oil, split (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
1 pound ground beef (Second Wind Farm, Everson)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped (home garden, Lummi Island)
1 teaspoon dried basil (Half Acre Farm, Ferndale-yes, over a year old...)
2 smoked cayenne peppers, finely minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
11/2 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, chopped (Spring Frog Farm at Holistic Homestead, Everson)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
1 baby bok choy (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
1 tablespoon flour (Fairhaven Organic Flour Mills, Burlington)
1/2 cup cream (Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, Lynden)
Soak beans overnight in a pan full of water. Drain.
Place beans in a large pot or Dutch oven and add 6 cups water and 1 crushed clove of garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a gentle boil for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir occasionally. When done, beans should be soft but not mushy. Drain in a colander, and rinse in cold water. Return to pot and set aside.
In a large skillet, add 1 teaspoon of hazelnut oil and turn heat to medium high. When oil is warm, add ground beef, oregano, basil, peppers and salt. Cook until browned. Drain off fat and put browned beef in pot with beans.
In the same skillet, add another 1 teaspoon of hazelnut oil. When oil is hot, add chopped onion and cook until lightly browned. Add to bean pot.
Mix ingredients in bean pot well, add two cups of water or stock, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add apple cider vinegar. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer.
Cut off just enough of the root end of the baby bok choy to separate the leaves. Starting at the bottom of the stalks, chop into very thin slices across the stalks and continue to the top of the leaves. Add the portion that is mostly stalks to the bean pot.
After the bean mixture has been simmering for about 15 minutes, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon flour and mix in well to thicken the liquid. Add a little more, if necessary, or simmer a little longer.
Add cream and stir in well. Add remaining leafy part of chopped bok choy. You can reserve a little to use as a garnish, if desired. Cook for 3-5 minutes to wilt the bok choy, and remove from heat.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.