Week of 5/11/2008

Dear EarthTalk: I really want to eat healthy and organic but am constantly traveling and on the go. How can I eat fast food without having to always end up at McDonalds and Burger King?

—Dylan Baker, Seattle, Washington

The latest trend in fast food is healthy and organic, and luckily for conscious consumers, several chains offering just such fare are taking root in different parts of the U.S. One of the leaders of this small but scrappy pack of fast food upstarts is O"Naturals. The small chain currently runs two stores of its own in Maine (Falmouth and Portland) and one in Acton, Massachusetts, and franchises out additional locations in Kansas and Florida. O"Naturals" menu contains lots of vegetarian-friendly items, including "build-your-own" flatbread sandwiches, salads, noodle stir-frys and soups. The meat the restaurant does serve is grass-fed and hormone-free, while the chickens are free-range and the Alaskan salmon is wild.

Another healthy option is EVOS, which currently runs five "quick-casual" restaurants in Florida and is planning a major expansion into the western U.S. Vegetarians can rejoice in the chain’s wide selection of vegetarian and vegan items. While its hormone- and antibiotic-free burgers are still only about as healthy as red meat gets, their soy burger satisfies without the guilt or the cholesterol. Also, EVOS uses organic field greens in its wraps and salads, organic milk in its milkshakes, and fresh fruit in its smoothies. Additionally, the restaurant air-bakes its fries and other typically deep-fried items to keep the fat content as much as 70 percent lower than the same kinds of foods found elsewhere.

Fast food doesn't have to be fattening and unhealthy. Even the major chains are taking steps toward healthier menus by reducing or eliminating trans-fats, offering veggie burgers and other meatless items, and using organic greens and fresh fruits.© Getty Images

Meanwhile, Seattle-based Organics-To-Go, with five locations in Washington and California, lays out a wide array of "grab-and-go" organic and natural foods so customers can make up their own meals out of a cornucopia of healthy choices. Other fast food alternatives offering lots of health (as well as vegetarian and vegan) options include Au Bon Pain, Bruegger’s Bagels, Noah’s Bagels, and World Wraps, while Subway and Quizno’s alike can be good options for those willing to study the menu carefully.

Even though many alternatives exist, it is hard to beat the reach of the major fast food chains, several of which are making small steps toward healthier menus and will undoubtedly continue to do so if consumers bite. McDonald"s, KFC, Burger King and Wendy’s have reduced or eliminated trans-fats. Burger King now offers a veggie burger, and McDonald’s is testing one in California. Taco Bell offers many non-meat options, including a bean and cheese burrito, a veggie fajita wrap, and a 7-layer burrito, which can be had without the cheese and sour cream. Carl’s Jr. also has many tasty and healthy vegetarian options despite an otherwise standard fast-food menu. Vegetarians and vegans looking for more ideas about what to eat when time is of the essence should consult any number of websites with pages devoted to the topic, including Vegetarian-Restaurants.net, VegCooking, FitWise and Vegetarian Resource Group.

And remember, nothing beats seeking out local restaurants when you’re on the road, to soak up some of the local culture. And with trends as they are it shouldn’t be too difficult to find many that do serve healthy menus—just not quite as fast as "fast food" but probably fast enough.

CONTACTS: O"Naturals; EVOS; Vegetarian-Restaurants.net; VegCooking; FitWise; Vegetarian Resource Group

Dear EarthTalk: Are sunscreens safe? Which ones do you recommend that will protect my skin from the sun and not cause other issues?

—Bettina E., New York, NY

Tests conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that most sunscreens provide inadequate protection against the sun
s harmful rays and may also contain unsafe chemicals. Fortunately, there are safer and more effective sunscreens now on the market, mostly available at natural foods markets.© Getty Images

Getting a little sunshine is important for helping our bodies generate Vitamin D, an important supplement for strong bones, and f or regulating our levels of serotonin and tryptamine, neurotransmitters that keep our moods and sleep/wake cycles in order. Like anything, though, too much sun can cause health issues, from sunburns to skin cancer. For those of us spend more time in the sun than doctors recommend—they say to stay indoors between 11 AM and 3 PM on sunny days to be safe—sunscreens can be lifesavers.

Getting too much sun is bad because of ultraviolet radiation, 90 percent of which comes in the form of Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that are not absorbed by the ozone layer and penetrate deep into our skin. Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays make up the rest. These rays are partially absorbed by the ozone layer (which makes preserving the ozone layer crucial for our health), and because they don’t penetrate our skin as deeply, can cause those lobster-red sunburns. Both types of UV rays are thought to cause skin cancer.

Yet while most sunscreens block out at least some UVB radiation, many don’t screen UVA rays at all, making their use risky. According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), by far most of the commercially available sunscreens do not provide adequate protection against the sun’s harmful UV radiation and may also contain chemicals with questionable safety records.

In all, 84 percent of the 831 sunscreens EWG tested did not pass health and environmental muster. Many contained potentially harmful chemicals like Benzophenone, homosalate and octyl methoxycinnamate (also called octinoxate), which are known to mimic naturally occurring bodily hormones and can thus throw the body’s systems out of whack. Some also contained Padimate-0 and parsol 1789 (also known as avobenzone), which are suspected of causing DNA damage when exposed to sunlight. Furthermore, EWG found that more than half the sunscreens on the market make questionable product claims about longevity, water resistance and UV protection.

As a result, EWG has called on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to establish standards for labeling so consumers have a better idea of what they may be buying. In the meantime, consumers looking to find out how their preferred brand stacks up can check out EWG’s online Skin Deep database, which compares thousands of health and beauty products against environmental and human health standards.

The good news is that many companies are now introducing safer sunscreens crafted from plant- and mineral-based ingredients and without chemical additives. Some of the best, according to Skin Deep, are Alba Botanica Sun’s Fragrance-Free Mineral Sunscreen, Avalon Baby’s Sunscreen SPF 18, Badger’s SPF 30 Sunscreen, Burt’s Bees" Chemical-Free Sunscreen SPF 15, California Baby’s SPF 30, Juice Beauty’s Green Apple SPF 15 Moisturizer, and Kabana’s Green Screen SPF 15. Natural foods markets stock many of these, or they can be found online at websites like Sun Protection Center and Drugstore.com.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group; Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database; Sun Protection Center: Drugstore.com