Sunday, December 9, 2012

Food for Thought with Alex Bielak- Loaves and Fishes

Stainless Steel
In my younger days I used to poison fish for a living. To learn why that bit of trivia is not quite as disturbing as it sounds, read on. This may give you pause for thought about your holiday baking and actually help you with your Christmas shopping.

In the seventies, I was a budding biologist working as part of team to find out whether nickel and chromium interacted at very low concentrations to become more toxic to rainbow trout than either of these metals alone at far higher levels. Cool eh?

This was one of my first real jobs, and so I have always felt an affinity for toxicologists and the important work they do to keep us and the environment, safe.

So I was very interested when I read in the December edition of my favourite environmental policy bulletin,

the influential Gallon Environment Letter (basic subscriptions are free), about a study recently presented at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) meeting held at Long Beach, California.

The Editor of the newsletter, Colin Isaacs, said that, like many people, he had phased out his aluminum cookware and purchased stainless steel because of health concerns related to the former. (Aluminum exposure has been suggested as a possible contributory cause to Alzheimer’s disease.)

He then went on to report about the study, authored by a team of scientists from Oregon State University, and titled “Nickel Beyond Environmental Exposure: Stainless Steel Cookware’s Contribution to Nickel Exposure from Cooked Foods”.

In a nutshell, their work showed “nickel leaching from stainless steel into tomato sauce” in a test designed to mimic a home-cooking situation. Isaacs noted “the testing covered three variables: grade of stainless steel, cook time, and repeated cooking, for nickel leaching from stainless steel pots into tomato sauce.” The reported leaching levels were much higher than what is recommended by the Nickel Institute for food-grade cookware, noted Isaac.

The Oregon State project website notes “Nickel may be introduced to the diet via leaching from stainless steel cookware into foods during cooking processes, contributing to flare-ups of allergic contact dermatitis.” Ouch.

Now, I don’t want to be alarmist in any way, stainless steel is pretty inert – for more information on this you can check out this Finnish study. Nevertheless, before doing your first bunch of mashed potatoes in a shiny new pot, hopefully from a reputable manufacturer, you might follow the Nickel Institute advice echoed in the Gallon Letter: Thoroughly wash “new cookware in water and detergent and boil water in new pots and discard the water.” Given that tomato sauce is acid, I wonder if it wouldn't be better to put some vinegar in that water when you boil it. Perhaps this is an avenue for a further study! You heard it here first.

Not satisfied with providing me with a blast from my past, the ever-thoughtful Isaacs had another great piece in the newsletter. By now we all have heard the pro and con arguments related to real Christmas trees vs fake ones. I was delighted to hear recent newscasts suggesting real evergreens may in fact be better for the environment. If this is a debate in your household, check out this site for the Ontario Forestry Association’s pitch in this regard.

Isaacs has taken this one better with a piece on “Holiday Baking and the Environment” in which he poses basically the same question. Bake or buy? You’ll have to read the piece yourselves, but he says this argument comes down pretty squarely on the purchased baked goods side on an energy-per-unit-baked basis.

Noting that he “does not want this news to be seen as excessively Grinch-like, especially as baking is so much a part of the holiday season” among other suggestions for home bakers, he links to a study that “concludes cereals from organic production and flour from industrial mills have least environmental implications.”

The implications for my household full of accomplished bakers (I’m not one) are mixed: We do buy some traditional Polish and German baked treats at this time of year, but our oven is in almost daily use for bread and cookies.

And that’s Food for Thought!

Alex (Alex can be reached at fft@thehamiltonian.info ) or on twitter @AlexBielak

Food for Thought logo, designed and kindly donated by Ninka Bielak. Ninka can be reached at ninka.bielak@gmail.com.


  1. This is an EXCELLENT article. I am an avid cook and found this information very interesting and helpful.


  2. Thanks so much Lil, it is always great to hear back from readers,
    Happy cooking


Your comments are welcome. Please abide by the blog's policy on posting. This blog facilitates discussion from all sides of issues. Opposite viewpoints, spirited discussion and even pointed comments are welcome, provided they are respectful. Name calling is not allowed and any posts that violate the policy, will simply not be authorized to appear. This blog also reserves the right to exclude comments that are off topic or are otherwise unprofessional. This blog does not assume any liability whatsoever for comments posted. People posting comments or providing information on interviews, do so at their own risk.

Comments posted on this blog, may be used as excerpts in whole or in part, in other media sources .
This blog believes in freedom of speech and operates in the context of a democratic society, which many have fought and died for.

Views expressed by commentators or in articles that appear here, cannot be assumed to be espoused by The Hamiltonian staff or its publisher.