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Apart from the big dinner, holidays are filled to brimming with gingerbread cookies, jam-filled Hanukkah doughnuts, popcorn balls, plum and bread pudding, yule logs, fruit cake, fritters, hot chocolate and hot cider, fudge, nuts, oranges ... and the list goes on! Regardless of whether you’re celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, there are piles of ways to enjoy sustainable, healthy holiday snacks and baking.

Ingredients for eco-friendly holiday baking and snacks

Making snacks with the kids or preparing baking before the guests arrives with healthy, earth-conscious ingredients is easy if you just keep these general principles in mind:

  • Go organic: When shopping for ingredients for from-scratch or pre-made options, look for Certified Organic and Certified Fair Trade chocolate, flour, fruit (fresh and dried), popcorn, and nuts, as well as beer and wine for those adult beverages and baked goods. By opting for these earth-friendly organic ingredients, you’ll also ensure that your snacks are GMO-free.
  • Choose vegan: If you’re making items that contain meat, dairy, or eggs, you may want to consider vegan alternatives instead. It has been shown that raising livestock may be more detrimental to global climate than driving your car, so you could claim that your vegan snacks are also low-carb (even if they’re full of sugar and flour)! Plus, you’ll be preventing cruel animal treatment—a problem on factory farms. You can find vegan recipes on the Vegan Society and ChooseVeg.com websites.
  • Use eco-sweeteners: Sugar can really amp up a dish's sweet factor, but it offers little in terms of nutrition and its production as an agricultural crop can be harmful to the planet. Honey, on the other hand, has some vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants and is essential for honey cake. Plus, bees are important for our ecosystems—they pollinate some of the most valuable crops (food especially), yet are dying at alarming rates. Choosing honey, therefore, supports beekeepers and bees alike, hopefully spurring research into the problems and solutions.

Find it! Eco-friendly baking and snack ingredients

Many of these healthy and organic foods and ingredients can be found at your local health or natural food store, but just in case your community lacks one of these fine establishments, you can order online.

Eating healthy, eco-friendly baking and snacks helps you go green because…

  • Organic ingredients are grown without harmful chemical treatments, and organic farming practices may also be key in fighting global climate change.
  • Although the jury is still out, it is believed that genetically modified crops do more environmental harm than good.
  • Fair Trade Certified products promote ecologically sound, often organic, small-scale farming practices.
  • Vegan food reduces greenhouse gas emissions and protects farm animals from cruel treatment.

The perpetual eating common in American homes over the holidays delights the senses, but can also b a downer for the earth. From sugar to flour, eggs to chocolate, nuts to fruit, most of the foods eaten in the latter part of December have some impact on the environment, most of which can be mitigated by choosing organic, fair trade, or vegan products.

Organic ingredients

The organic food industry—worth $23 billion in 2002—is a growing one with annual consumer demand rising an estimated 20 percent each year.[1][2] Baking ingredients, like other organic products, must meet criteria set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be officially certified as organic: it must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are not only believed to be harmful to human and animal health, but also pollute ecosystems and waterways. It's estimated that approximately 670 million birds are exposed to pesticides used in farming annually. Ten percent die as a result.[3]

While omitting chemical pesticides and fertilizers helps to protect human and animal health as well as prevent soil and water pollution, organic farming may also be key in fighting global climate change. A >study of conventional versus organic farming methods by the Rodale Institute discovered that organic farming combats global warming through carbon sequestration. In agricultural applications, the more organic matter that is retained in the soil, the more carbon is sequestered. While conventional farming depletes organic matter through the use of chemical fertilizers, organic farming uses animal manure and cover crops, which actually build soil organic matter.

Organic farming further reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by using 37 percent fewer fossil fuels than conventional farming.[4] The Rodale Institute estimates that if all 160 million acres of corn and soybean farmland in the US were switched to organic farming methods, it would be equivalent to removing 58.7 million cars from the road, and would satisfy 73 percent of the proposed US Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction.[5]

Fair trade ingredients

The average American enjoys a substantial number of chocolatey interludes, consuming about 12 pounds annually.[6] But for the millions of cocoa farmers, life may not be that sweet as they frequently see a disproportionately small portion of the profit. These farmers struggle to remain viable, and those who don't make it often clearcut the land to sell the timber or graze livestock.

Fair trade fosters an economically stable relationship between consumers and farmers while promoting safe, humane labor conditions. A high percentage of Fair Trade Certified products are also environmentally friendly, although they are not required to be. Because fair trade producers are commonly small holders who are unable to invest in environmentally damaging practices that are also costly, such as synthetic pesticides and clear-cutting, many agree to grow certified organic products and direct premiums toward concerns such as health care, education, and housing. When a product is both Fair Trade Certified and Certified Organic, it will display two separate labels signifying this.

Vegan ingredients

Conventional farming techniques require fossil fuels for the production of fertilizers and pesticides, fueling machinery (to produce animal feed), and transporting animals and meat, as well as packaging, processing, and storing food. In fact, a recent Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report suggests that livestock generate greater quantities of greenhouse gases than do all the cars on the road across the globe.[7] One greenhouse gas, methane, is produced both during normal digestion in cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels, as well as during the anaerobic decomposition of livestock manure, especially when handled as liquid manure. Another, nitrous oxide, results from the nitrification and denitrification of nitrogen in livestock manure and urine.

Controversies

Organic crops

The move toward organic farming has also received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes organic farming techniques are detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist he claims that low crop yields from organic farming result in the destruction of more land, while using synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, avocado trees, in a small area of cultivated land.[8] Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resulting increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use.

A 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, revealed that organic produce often travels farther than its conventional counterparts to reach kitchen tables. Due to the harmful CO2 emissions associated with long-distance transportation, the environmental benefits of buying organic are essentially canceled out. For example, to reach Edmonton, organic mangoes had to travel from Ecuador or Peru, while conventional mangoes would have shipped from geographically closer Mexico.[9] Other critics charge that retailers often sell organic-certified products to target consumers for whom price is no object, regardless of whether the product carries environmental and/or economic benefits.

GMO crops

A main point of contention in the GMO debate—aside from the ethical and moral questions—are the possible effects that genetic modification may have on the environment. Supporters of GMO production believe that crops implanted with certain genes benefit the environment. And as the global population grows at a rapid pace, backers of genetic modification believe it may be a way to feed the world without depleting natural resources.

Critics of GM farming consider it eco-tampering and a threat to biodiversity. One possible hazard: pests may become resistant to GMOs that produce their own pesticides, just as some mosquitoes became immune to DDT, which was once used in conventional agriculture. Another concern is the unintentional spread of transgenes through cross-pollination—in other words, the genes of GM crops can be transferred via pollen (through wind and insects) to non-GM crops, making it difficult to tell which crops are actually bioengineered and which are not. Self-pollinating plants, such as soybeans and tomatoes, do not pose such risks.

A notable debate relating to cross-pollination began in 1999 after the results of a study revealed B.t. (insect resistant) corn to have lethal effects on the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Although corn is not fatal to monarch caterpillars, there is worry that pollen from the B.t. corn can travel by wind into nearby fields and contaminate milkweed plants, a caterpillar food source. The caterpillars might eat corn pollen off the milkweed plant and die. However, the initial findings weren't conclusive, so the potential risks of GM crops to other species continues to be researched and debated.

Related health issues

Artificial food colorings, found in foods such as chocolate candies, sweet energy drinks, macaroni and cheese, frozen waffles, and certain cereals, some medicines, and cosmetics, have recently been shown to contain harmful substances such as mercury, arsenic, and lead, substances which have been linked to many human health problems. Many confection colorings rely on artificial dyes as well, which may concern those preparing cakes and icings at home, as well as those purchasing pre-made bakery items.

White sugar, ubiquitous in baked goods and holiday treats, is relatively non-nutritious, lacking fiber, vitamins, phytochemicals, and minerals. Artificial sweeteners are also devoid of any nutritive value and are a subject of controversy. Many claim that these sweet options cause cancer, but the National Cancer Institute maintains that there’s no scientific data to back up those claims.[10] Others look warily on artificial sweeteners, suggesting that there isn't yet enough information on which to base a conclusion about their health effects on human bodies.

Glossary

  • carbon sequestration: The process by which carbon is captured (in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and incorporated into soil, ocean, and plant matter.
  • DDT: A once-common pesticide until banned in the US in 1972. It still enters the environment through use in other countries where it isn't banned. Human exposure comes from eating contaminated leafy and root vegetables and fatty meat, poultry, and fish.
  • genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature.
  • food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.
  • monoculture: A method of farming in which one type of crop is planted over a large space. Although this method allows for the specialization of machinery to manage the crop, and large yields are often achieved, there are ecological drawbacks.

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