Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fun with Canned Fish

During my thirty-day paleo period, I was grumpy and hungry, and often had headaches in the afternoon. When you cut out grains, you lose an inexpensive and easy source of abundant calories. (Never mind that those calories, even from whole grains, are relatively devoid of nutrients compared to paleolithic carbohydrate sources, such as fruits and vegetables). Besides needing to work harder to meet my calorie needs, I had another disadvantage -- I no longer could achieve the bloated, false "full" feeling provided by grains and dairy. So I needed to boost up my calories with lots (I mean LOTS) of vegetables, "good" fats and lean protein.

By "good" fats, I mean Omega 3 fatty acids, which you hear about a lot these days. Omega 3's generally act as an anti-inflammatory on the body, while their counterparts, Omega 6's, act as an inflammatory. Both are essential to the human body, in balance. Historically, hunter-gatherers kept their Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in a ratio between 1:1 and 1:2. In modern times, the ratio is closer to 1:10! We get plenty of Omega 6 from vegetable oils -- such as corn and soy, the building blocks of most processed food today -- but we get little Omega 3 within the Standard American Diet (SAD). This could be an underlying cause of heart disease, cancers, and even depression. Because plant-based sources of Omega 3, such as flaxseed and hemp hearts, need to be converted by the body into the Omega 3's found in animal sources, and that conversion process is very inefficient, I needed to focus on foods like fatty fish and grass-fed beef.

Also, in examining my pre-paleo diet, I discovered my protein intake was nothing short of pitiful. A couple slices of turkey on my sandwich, a gainer shake, and a protein bar with soy-derived protein was sometimes all I got for the day.

So my mission, Ethan Hunt, was to consume a lot more of everything paleo, focusing on carbs from vegetables, fats containing animal-based Omega 3, and protein -- without breaking my bank. And the food had to be easily accessible, whenever hunger struck. Impossible? Maybe.

I had the produce section more or less conquered, and after some research I chose the Kirkland Brand fish oil supplement. I then set out to compare and contrast Omega 3 protein and fat sources, zeroing in on dollars per pound or cents per ounce. On several different occasions, I walked the grocery store like a zombie, zig-zagging the aisles. Coconut "spread" vs. coconut oil vs. coconut butter vs. coconut flour, along with canola and olive oil...local grass-fed beef @ $9 per lb, fresh wild-caught salmon at $15 per lb...Omega-3 fortified eggs. Everything super expensive. Just when I began to lose hope, I honed in on the canned fish section.

My first big discovery was sardines. A nutrient powerhouse, sardines provide the Omega-3 fat, the protein, and the accessibility I needed. And I found the Wild Planet brand to be a delicious, low-mercury, sustainable choice. One problem, though: at $3 per 4 oz can, they weren't cheap. I could use them once in a while, buying them whenever Sunflower had a sale, storing them in my desk drawer and bringing them along on business trips when needed, but they couldn't be used on a daily basis without pushing my food budget far past my $100-per-week limit. (This budget was self-imposed after my food expenses went through the roof on paleo). 

Canned tuna is the ubiquitous choice, but I could only do it in moderation. While relatively low-cost, even for wild-caught sustainable brands, I have to consider the mercury, and I'm not a fan of the taste.

Wait a minute, what's that next to the canned tuna? They have canned salmon? Wow. At $3.50 per 15 oz can, the Whole Foods 365 brand pink salmon is $13 to $18 cheaper per lb than the fresh salmon. I tried it, and it's delicious. One 15 oz can gives me three days worth of healthy snacking, and is packed with Omega 3, calcium, and protein! You need to monitor the high sodium content, but that was a small drawback to an otherwise elegant solution. Success!

Just when I was clinking my mental champagne glass in victory (mental, because champagne ain't paleo), I read something on the Wild Planet Sardines label that made me hang my head in despair: "Certified BPA Free."

Cans have BPA in them? I thought BPA was just in plastic bottles! I got online and learned that BPA, or bisphenol-A, is a chemical found in some plastic sport bottles and most cans, and it's very bad.

So, if Wild Planet labels its products as BPA free, and the Whole Foods cans don't, does this mean that the Whole Foods canned tuna and salmon aren't BPA free?? I quickly got online to do some research, and the answer to my question is, yes, but only 27% of the time.

That's right. Whole Foods is "committed to helping our customers protect themselves and their families and as such are concerned about the growing body of research which connects BPA and other estrogenic compounds, including phthalates, to certain negative health effects." In other words, "we're working on it, and we'll get back to you." As of right now, 27% of Whole Foods' 365 brand cans are BPA free, but -- get this -- they have no idea which cans those are. Whole Foods' excuse is that cans are a commodity dominated by a few large companies, so the transition is going to be slow.

I was losing hope. My solution to all my paleo problems was disintegrating before my eyes. Refusing to give up, I did some more digging. I found a few organic companies have indeed made the transition to BPA-free, taking on their suppliers and forcing positive change. One company, Eden Organics, was an early pioneer to switch over, and has published its incredible story here. Eden deserves congratulations, but they're all about beans. And the other canned seafood companies listed as BPA free do not stock the shelves of any stores near me.

An unlikely hero emerges. Trader Joe's, the grocery store chain that at one time was called "Traitor Joe's" by some environmental groups and has been accused of very questionable practices, has quietly transitioned toward BPA-free. While TJ does not label its cans as BPA free, I've copied and pasted an email response from a customer service rep below:

Thank you for contacting us.  Here is the deal with BPA. First, regarding Tetra, all Tetra Pak is BPA-free.

Second, every glass jar item has a metal lid. All metal lids do have a layer of BPA coating. However, there is another coating put on after that. There is no direct contact of BPA to food. We have multiple supplier testing results showing there is no BPA detected from metal lids.

All our canned fish (and our canned chicken and beef too) are now in BPA-free cans EXCEPT: Sardines, Crab, Cherrystone Clams & Oysters (our suppliers are working for a 2012 solution).

All our canned fruits and vegetables (including tomatoes, and the Organic Canned Pumpkin when it returns this Fall) are in BPA-free cans EXCEPT: Mandarins, Hatch Chilies, Artichokes, Organic Baked Beans (expecting transition this Fall).

All of our canned Soups and Stews (and including Joe’s Os) are in cans that DO have BPA. Some of our suppliers are expecting they will be able to make transition next year.

Lastly, Coconut Milk is in a BPA-free can.

So, due to the proactive measures of Trader Joe's, I can safely and inexpensively meet my daily protein and fat needs. I highly recommend TJ's wild-caught canned salmon. The 14.75 oz can includes skin and bones, which are excellent sources of calcium.

Other resources for BPA-free canned goods can be found here and here.

I'll be posting about other cheap, sustainable sources of paleo nutrition in the near future, so stay tuned!

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