Why to Choose Fair Trade, Organic Chocolate This Valentine's Day

By now we all know chocolate can be good for one's health. Chocolate, particularly less-processed dark chocolate, contains high levels of antioxidants and flavonoids which protect against cancer, heart disease, and other diseases. Cocoa is also high in magnesium which is good for the circulatory system and heart.

Yet, despite all these great benefits, chocolate can have some very negative consequences for the people whole cultivate it and the environment.

Most of the world's cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast and Latin America. Several years ago it came to light that cocoa producers in these areas were engaging in forced child labor and trafficking. While some of the worst offenders have been shut down, the problem still persists in too many places. Even if child labor is not an issue, workers on conventional chocolate farms endure difficult, even hazardous, conditions and low wages. And in many cases the farmers themselves receive only a fraction of what the unscrupulous middlemen make.

One way to help small, local farmers provide better working conditions and wages for their workers, as well as engage in sustainable farming practices, is to support the fair trade industry. To be certified as fair trade by the Fair Trade Federation companies must guarantee a "fair price" to producers, as well as meet rigorous, transparent social and environmental standards. The goal is to help producers in developing countries become economically self-sufficient, protect the environment and bring improved living conditions to the people of these regions. Today, consumers can purchase fair trade coffee, tea, apparel and linens, grains, flowers, fruits, honey, nuts, olive oil and sugar, as well as chocolate. Just look for the TransFair USA Fair Trade logo. TransFair is the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States.

Organic chocolate is also a growing market. Chocolate certified organic uses cocoa beans and other ingredients grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. Organic cocoa trees are grown under a thick canopy of rainforest vegetation. These trees filter rain and moisture down through the vegetation and provide rich organic material which falls to the forest floor below. Organic cocoa production helps ensure the health of the rainforest’s ecosystems.

Fortunately, the options for organic and fair trade chocolate continue to grow, making it easier to choose chocolate that is better for the environment and for the people who cultivate it. This Valentine's Day opt for organic, fair trade chocolate to show how much you really care.

Green Pet Care

Pets can make wonderful companions and pet ownership is associated with multiple health benefits, including lower blood pressure. It only seems fair to care for your pet in the healthiest, most natural way. Plus, if you're an environmentally-conscientious person, reducing your pets' carbon paw print is just a natural part of being “everyday green.”

Here is Everyday Green's Guide to Green Pet Care:

Opt to adopt. Each year between 3 and 4 million dogs and cats in the U.S. are put to death due to overcrowding in shelters. Yet, many people still insist on buying animals from breeders. Not only are they overpriced, but many keep their animals in poor living conditions and engage in unscrupulous practices such as inbreeding, over-breeding, and culling of unwanted animals. The greenest (and not to mention kindest) way to get a pet is to adopt one.

Spay or neuter your pet. Help put a curb on the 70,000 cats and dogs born every day in the U.S. and have your pet spayed or neutered. Spaying and neutering not only help reduce the numbers of abandoned animals, but help prevent certain types of cancers and disease in pets as well.

Give your pet a cleaner, greener diet. Avoid pet foods with the chemical preservatives BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin. Look for organic or free-range ingredients rather than the assortment of animal by-products found in many pet foods. Vary your cat's food to reduce its exposure to mercury in seafood. A great way to give your pet a safe, healthy diet is to make your own pet food. If you're up for it, there are plenty of recipes available online.

Green up your waste management. Clean up after your dog with biodegradable dog waste bags, available from most pet supply stores. If you own a cat, make sure to avoid clumping clay kitty litter. The clay is usually strip-mined, which causes extreme environmental damage during extraction, and contains carcinogenic silica dust which is associated with a variety of health problems. Instead, opt for green kitty litters made from plant sources like recycled newspaper, wheat, pine, corn or wood chips.

Opt for green toys and accessories. Nowadays most pet supply stores carry at least one line of green pet toys and accessories, which are better not only for the environment but your pet's health as well. Look for pet toys, scratch posts, bedding, collars, leashes, and other accessories made with recycled materials, sustainable fibers like as hemp and organic cotton, plant-based dyes, and BPA-free plastics. Replace pet bedding or any other products with old (pre-2005), misshapen, or broken down foam as it's likely to contain harmful PBDEs.

Check labels for safer grooming products. Pet shampoos and grooming products can contain harmful and even toxic chemicals. Read product labels and avoid anything that contains parabens, ingredients ending in “eth”, PEG, urea, or fragrance. Also, take a pass on anything without an ingredient list.

Ditch the flea collar. Flea collars are generally ineffective and expose your pet, you and your whole family to toxic chemicals. Instead, bathe your pet often, check regularly for ticks, vacuum frequently, and ask your vet about safer flea treatments and repellents.

Keep your home clean and safe for your pet. Vacuum with a HEPA-filter vacuum and remove your shoes at the door to reduce dust, allergens, and pollutants that can be harmful to you and your pets. Avoid using chemical pesticides and fertilizers on your lawn so it is safe for your pet (and the rest of your family) to walk, play, and lay on.

Tap Water: Better for Your Health and The Environment

Time and again we hear how great drinking water is for us. It aids in weight loss, flushes out toxins, prevents headaches and illness and giving us clear, supple skin. Yet, do we really know what we’re getting when we twist open a bottle of water?

According to the Environmental Working Group, most bottled water companies are not very forthcoming about what exactly is going into their bottles. Only 3 of the 173 companies the nonprofit analyzed disclosed information on where their water comes from, how or if their water is treated, and whether the results of purity testing are made public. Some of the worst-rated brands, from the companies disclosing little or no information, also happen to be some of the best-selling in the country. Aquafina, Dasani, and Poland Spring all received a grade of D for information disclosure.

According to the EWG, the only A grade option is filtered tap water. Properly filtered tap water is purer than bottled water, not to mention less expensive and better for the environment.

Unlike bottled water, tap water is regularly tested with the test results openly reported. A simple, faucet-mounted water filter can improve the smell and taste of drinking water by removing chlorine and bacterial contaminants. [Click here for additional water filtration options.]

Not sure you want to splurge on a $35 water filter and $10 re-usable bottle? Consider this: Some bottled water can cost up to 1,900 times more than tap water. According to the New York Times, a person drinking only bottled water will spend about $1,400 a year compared to the 49 cents it costs for a year's supply of tap water.

There's also the cost to the environment. One and a half million barrels of oil are used every year to manufacture disposable plastic water bottles for the U.S. That's enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. About 80% of those bottles will end up as litter or in landfills where they’ll take at least 450 years to break down. Plus, the process of bottling water actually wastes two gallons of water for every gallon of water packaged.

So, want to drink cleaner, cheaper, greener? Just turn on the tap!

Going Vegetarian Once a Week for Your Health and The Environment

The simple act of giving up meat once a week can make a significant difference in your health and your carbon footprint. Going vegetarian just one day a week can cut someone's saturated fat consumption by 15%, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. In the United States, over a third of all fossil fuel and raw material consumption is used to raise livestock. It is estimated that if every American lowered meat consumption by 20%, it would lower greenhouse gas emissions by as much as it would if everyone in the country switched to driving a hybrid.

Need more convincing? Here are additional details on how going meatless can benefit your health and the environment.
  • Multiple studies demonstrate that a low fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables lowers cancer risk, while the consumption of red meat and processed meat has been associated with increased cancer risk. High consumption of red meat is also associated with heart disease and diabetes. 
  • Reduced meat consumption can help prevent long-term weight gain. 
  • Some studies even suggest that low red and processed meat consumption can increase longevity. 
  • Animal agriculture produces more than 100 million tons of global-warming methane annually. 
  • Livestock requires significantly more water (up to 15 times more) than produce or grains. It takes 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. A pound of soy tofu, on the other hand, requires just 220 gallons of water. 
  • It takes up to 10 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat. Over 70% of the grains grown in the U.S. is used to feed livestock. The amount of food eaten by the world's cattle could feed 8.7 billion people. 
  • Going meatless benefits not only your health and the environment, but your wallet as well. Foods like vegetables (fresh or frozen), whole grains, beans and legumes cost much less than meat. Plus, they are more nutritious and have greater disease-fighting properties. Talk about more bang for your buck. 

Whether you go full out vegetarian or simply join the Meatless Monday campaign you can make significant impact – on your health and the environment's.

Organic vs. Natural

Food labels can be perplexing enough. With the growing number of companies looking to jump on the “all natural” bandwagon, they're becoming more confusing than ever.

When grocery shopping, most people just want to eat the best quality, healthiest options that fit into their budget. Unfortunately, some companies are preying on that desire by increasing prices on products that have undergone no other changes than a spruced up label with the word “natural” on them. That is why it is important for consumers to know the real difference between natural and organic.

For a product to be certified organic, farmers and manufacturers must meet specific guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA-certified organic meat, dairy and egg products must come from animals raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and fed a diet free of animal by-products, fertilizers, pesticides and genetically engineered food. USDA-certified organic produce must be grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds for at least three years. Processed foods must contain 95% certified organic ingredients for a manufacturer to be able use the USDA organic label. All certifications are verified by an independent agency.

Although the natural or all natural label is used often on a variety of different foods, it is essential a meaningless term. The USDA allows meat and chicken to be labeled as natural as long as nothing, such as flavoring or coloring, has been added after slaughter, but even this meek standard is not third-party verified. The USDA and the FDA do not regulate the term natural for any other food or personal care products. Therefore, anyone can use the natural label without having to meet any type of verifiable standard.

A recent survey by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency, found that the majority of consumers believe the term natural to be federally regulated. In fact, respondents had more trust in the natural label, than the term organic, which they believed to be “a fancy way of saying expensive.” Many companies today are taking advantage of this misconception by using the term natural as a marketing ploy. These companies are not just duping customers, but they are undermining the organic industry. Foods labeled natural tend to cost less than organic food. Consumers, thinking they are getting better food for their money, opt for the natural label thus directing money toward crafty packaging rather than actual greener, healthier foods.

The only way to stop this “greenwashing” is to become better informed consumers. Read labels carefully and know which are truly greener options.

Eating Green

What does it mean to “eat green”? Eating green means eating whole, nutritious, minimally-processed foods that are healthy for you and the environment. Two important considerations for eating green are how the food is grown and where it comes from. Does that mean that everything you eat must come from a local, organic farm? Obviously not, but eating green is actually quite simple. Here’s what you should take into consideration.

Is it organic? The arguments for eating organic are plentiful: Organic foods are free of not only pesticides, but hydrogenated fats, artificial colors and sweeteners, and preservatives as well. Organic foods are not genetically modified, when the long term health effects of GM foods are still unknown. They taste better and studies show they are more nutritious and richer in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids than non-organic food. And when it comes to the environment, organic farmers avoid the pesticides and herbicides that contaminate groundwater, erode soil, and damage local ecosystems. Now on the flip side: Who can afford to only buy organic food and are all conventional foods really so bad? Knowing which organic food is worth the extra cost can be confusing. Fortunately the Environmental Working Group offers a great resource with its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of the 12 conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides, along with a list of the 15 cleanest fruits and vegetables. According to the EWG, you can lower your pesticide consumption by nearly four-fifths by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and instead eating the least contaminated produce. You can print out a wallet-size list or download the iPhone app at ewg.org/foodnews.

Is it local? Purchasing from local farmers is a great way to get fresh, healthy food that hasn’t been chemically modified to keep its appearance after traveling half way around the world. Find farms and farmer's markets in your area at localharvest.org. What if the farm you like isn’t certified organic? Earning organic certification is a lengthy and costly process that not all farmers can afford. Instead you can ask your local farmer if they use organic practices or, if they’re not organic, if they use non-synthetic pesticides and/or practice minimal spraying. If they answer yes to any of these questions, then you're likely buying from a conscientious farmer who’s producing good quality, minimally-processed food.

Is it in season? Even if you don’t get to the farmers’ market, you can still make an effort to purchase local produce at the grocery store. To buy local means to buy in season. Yes you can buy pretty much any type of fruit or vegetable any time of year, but what sacrifices in quality and impact to the environment do you have to make? By purchasing local foods when they are in season, you avoid the environmental damage caused by shipping foods thousands of miles and you’ll get fresher tasting fruits and vegetables. You can better plan your meals around what’s in season with the seasonal produce guide available at sustainabletable.org.

How else can you green up your diet? You can cut down on your waistline and your food budget, while doing the environment a good turn, by swapping one or two meat-based meals a week with a vegetarian or seafood dish. One of your best options for fish is Wild Alaskan Salmon. Because it is wild-caught, it's purer in flavor than farm-raised salmon (which is fed pigment and antibiotics) and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Another great option is canned sardines. Unlike tuna, sardines aren't in danger of being over-fished and are low in mercury.

Finally, one cost-efficient way to eat green is to simply cook at home and pack a lunch (in reusable containers) as often as you can. By preparing your own food you'll be better able to avoid preservatives, cut down on packaging (think of all those ketchup packets and napkins in take-out bags), and save money. Now that is eating green.