Archive for the “Environment” Category

Organic Wine Comes of Age

Organic Wine Comes of Age

Organic Wine Comes of Age

by Susan Weiner, Energy Times, September 2010

Everyone seems to like the “organic” label when it comes to raisins and lettuce, but the mere mention of a well-balanced organic wine can silence even the most vociferous vinophile. Suspicious of the sweet taste and short shelf life of wines from the 1980s and 90s, the stigma associated with early organic wine still lingers, despite award-winning vintages routinely produced by environmentally friendly vintners.

“Things change slowly. Early perceptions don’t die quickly, especially the old hippie syndrome,” recalls Scott Smith, founder and winemaker at Four Chimneys Organic Winery in Himrod, New York.

“As the author of some of the early organic wines, I would say they were often ready to drink at bottling and be consumed within the first year. We didn’t have an aging program and an extensive barrel program that are typical today.” Wines mellow and become softer as they age, so barrels—which impart flavors such as vanilla and butter—have a profound effect on the resulting wine, affecting color, flavor, texture and tannin profile.

With two different certifications in the United States, wine labeled “Made From Organic Grapes” still contains small amounts of sulfur to help stabilize the wine and prevent it from oxidizing. An Organic label, according to the USDA’s National Organic Program rules, contains no added sulfites, which can trigger headaches and other allergic reactions. “The original problem came in when wineries wanted to be sure their wines didn’t lose character sitting on a retail shelf somewhere,” explains Smith. “To call a wine ‘organic wine’ it must not contain any detectable sulfites. Some reds I have tried have been quite good without sulfur dioxide added.”

Healthful and Red

Red wines come from an assortment of 50 grape varietals ranging from reddish to deep purple, and even blue on the color scale. During the fermentation process, the grape skins determine the hue of the wine. The skins also help create the “body-type,” which refers to the mouth-feel and tannin structure of the wine; the higher the tannin level, the more “pucker power,” as in a medium-bodied Merlot or a full-bodied Cabernet Franc. Higher-tannin wines also contain higher levels of resveratrol and polyphenols, antioxidants with myriad health benefits.

In addition to raising good (HDL) cholesterol levels, studies indicate that moderate amounts of wine prevent rogue molecules known as free radicals from causing damage on a cellular level. This helps improve cardiovascular health, reduce tumor incidence and aid in the formation of nerve cells, which may be helpful in the treatment of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

A growing body of worldwide research on the benefits of wine have prompted the World Health Organization, the US government and the American Heart Association to issue statements highlighting scientific findings that associate health benefits with moderate alcohol consumption, particularly red wine.

Compared with their conventionally grown counterparts, organic red wines have been found to have up to 30% higher levels of polyphenols, resveratrol and antioxidant activity. Contamination with mycotoxin, a toxin produced by a fungus, was up to three times higher in conventional varieties compared with organic wine, since the lower levels of nitrogen and higher levels of antioxidants in organic grapes tend to reduce fungal growth and protect fruit from mycotoxin-forming fungi (Journal of Wine Research 12/03).

When it comes to red wine, researchers at the University of California at Davis have concluded that the flavonoid favorite—a type of polyphenol—is Cabernet Sauvignon, followed closely by Petit Syrah and Pinot Noir. Sipped from an oval-shaped glass with adequate surface area for allowing the wine to breathe, one four-ounce glass of red wine a day for women and two glasses for men, served at room temperature, is a good bet for an overall health boost. (Research has shown that excessive alcohol consumption, including that of wine, may contribute to cancer; the American Cancer Society does not endorse alcohol intake and notes that anyone who has or had cancer should not drink.)

Pesticide-Free Whites

It’s one of the most vexing problems facing connoisseurs of food and drink: Which white wine to serve with what meat? Since food and wine pairing is a highly subjective process, forget the old rules—red wine with red meat and white wine with fish and poultry. Instead, consider the complexities of today’s multi-ethnic foods and opt for a white wine that enhances the flavor of the meal without overpowering it. And, since grapes are among the most pesticide-laden produce, an organic white wine is simply a healthier choice.

White wine lovers have an array of full-flavored varietals to choose from, including Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc, although Chardonnay remains far and away the leading varietal wine in the US for the last decade, reports the Wine Institute ( Though it lacks resveratrol, white wine may be just as health-promoting as its red counterpart, offering similar cardio-protective benefits via its own strong antioxidants, tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol (also found in olive oil, a strong component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet). Moreover, a study from the University at Buffalo showed that regular consumption of white wine resulted in better lung health (American Thoracic Society, 2002).

As more people choose to protect themselves and the environment from pesticide exposure through increased organic purchases, organic wine sales exceeded $161 million in 2009, a 7.5% jump from 2008 sales. “During these economic times, people may not eat out as much, but more people are preparing meals at home featuring organic wine and other organic ingredients,” says Barbara Haumann, spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a business association for the North American organic industry (

Beyond Organic

Some wine producers take their farming process a step beyond organics, opting for a practice known as biodynamic farming, a set of techniques popular in Europe, notably France, for decades.

Working with lunar and other natural cycles, biodynamic farmers use natural predators instead of pesticides, use compost for fertilizer, save seeds and study the soil to determine which varietals will best express the vineyards. In contrast to organic wines, which can contain only 10 parts per million of naturally occurring sulfites, biodynamic wines may include added sulfites of up to 100 ppm.

“Biodynamics is not that far removed from organics. What matters more than anything is the ethical commitment to farming ecologically,” says Mike Biltonen, vice president of farm operations at Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, New York. Trained in transitioning farming towards greater sustainability, Biltonen holds a masters degree in pomology, the study of fruit trees, from Cornell University. “Organics is better for the planet, it’s better for the people who grow it. There’s an amazing amount of evidence that it’s more nutritious. That is based on the fact that when you apply chemicals, the plant doesn’t have to rely on its natural defenses.”

In tastings, organic wines consistently fare better than non-organic, yet organic wines are often overlooked on store shelves, reports a wine study from UCLA (Business & Society March 2010). “A lot of vineyards are organic, but they choose not to call themselves organic because some wine consumers consider it not as good,” says Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumer’s Association, a public interest organization ( Organic wine production, predicts Cummins, will continue to rise. “Made from organic grapes or straight organic wine is going to become the wave of the future.”

August 24, 2010 Posted Under: Energy Times, Environment, Wine   Read More

Preserving the Night

Preserving the Night

Preserving the Night
Artificial lighting casts a long shadow over animal and human health.

By Susan Weiner, Energy Times, November/December 2009

Before the lightbulb, people slept beneath inky skies with only the flicker of a candle or torch to hold the darkness at bay. Today we control when we sleep and when we rouse, staying awake late into the night amid domes of artificial light reflected from homes, businesses and streetlamps.

Cities can be seen from space, yet the bright world we’ve created has its downsides. More than simply hamper our view of the stars, artificial light—or light pollution—affects the migration, reproduction and feeding of wildlife, and is suspected of causing some cancers in people. Plants and coral reefs are also affected by artificial light as it disrupts their natural growth cycles.

Bright lights and haze can extend more than 100 miles beyond the borders of an urban area, exposing deer, coyotes, moose, raccoons, bats and other animals to predators and hindering their ability to search for food. Frogs and other wetland inhabitants become disoriented, leading to a decrease in reproduction. Moths and other insects encircle artificial lights, neglecting to reproduce and pollinate, dying of exhaustion or becoming targets for predators.

In North America, 100 million birds die in collisions with lighted structures. Near coastal areas, marine birds can fly off course to the point where they die of exhaustion. Sea turtle hatchlings, instinctively drawn to the ocean by the reflection of the moon and the stars, crawl towards roads and communities, ultimately dying from dehydration, cars, predators and fatigue.

“All life is related to light. Daylight regulates daily activities,” explains Travis Longcore, PhD, science director of The Urban Wildlands Group and author of Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting (Island Press). “We have completely altered the system that was predictable throughout all of human history.” According to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association (, only 10% of the US population is privy to clear sight of the galaxy on a regular basis.

From Dusk to Dawn

Night consists of sunset, twilight and dusk, followed by gradations of dark. The constant twilight resulting from man-made lighting interferes with the biological rhythms of wildlife. “As we homogenize the nighttime environment by making it perpetual moonlight, we homogenize their habitats,” says Longcore. “Behaviors are cued by the rhythms of light.”

For more than 20 years, scientists have speculated that increased cancer rates may be attributed to the rising use of electricity at night, which upsets production of a hormone called melatonin that regulates sleepiness. One study links decreased melatonin levels to increases in breast cancer (Cancer Causes and Control 5/06). A 2009 University of Haifa study found that men with the highest exposure to artificial lighting at night faced an 80% increase in prostate cancer risk. Scientists speculate that melatonin may protect against cancer by preventing tumor cells from growing.

Got Milky Way?

Light pollution squanders $2 billion in energy each year, according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA,, based in Tucson, Arizona. “Everyone who uses, generates and pays for outdoor night lighting is contributing to light pollution,” says Terry McGowan, chair of the IDA Technical Committee. “The job of the IDA is to first inform and educate, and then convince people to change their outdoor lighting practices so as to minimize and eliminate light pollution.”

To that end IDA works with lighting manufacturers and approves environmentally friendly lighting with the IDA Fixture Seal of Approval. “Fixtures good for dark skies can also be good looking, energy efficient and inexpensive to operate,” says McGowan. Other ways to reduce light pollution include ensuring that fixtures shine light downward, minimizing wattage, shutting off unnecessary lights and using time controls, energy-efficient light sources and yellow spectrum bulbs.

Those who sleep beneath dark skies can count their lucky stars. But we have a long way to go before all people—and wildlife—can enjoy night as it occurs naturally.—Susan Weiner

November 28, 2009 Posted Under: Energy Times, Environment   Read More

Barbeque Blues

Barbeque Blues

Barbeque Blues
Pollution and cancer hazards mar a staple of summertime living.

By Susan Weiner, Energy Times, June 2008

When it comes to grilling meat over an open fire, early humans beat us to the punch some 30,000 years ago. But present-day folks indulging in chicken and cheeseburgers face concerns prehistoric man never envisioned: air pollutants and cancer-causing compounds.

Researchers have confirmed that grilling meats creates not one, but two types of compounds that can lead to cancer. What’s more, both briquettes and lump charcoal burn “dirty,” spewing hydrocarbons and soot particles that hasten global warming and contribute to health problems. Still, few among us can resist the pungent bouquet of barbecue. So instead of dodging crispy beef kabobs, learn to grill without the guilt and fewer health risks.

Grills Kill
Barbecue emissions rank well below those from motor vehicles and industry but the environmental effects are just as harmful, given that burning charcoal contributes to smog and, ultimately, global warming. Further, lump charcoal is made from charred wood, a factor in deforestation. A 2005 study from the University of California at Berkeley reports that just the emission-generating production of charcoal is harmful.

“It can be compared to fuels we use in furnaces and water heaters, including oil, gas and wood,” says Joseph Laquatra, PhD, Hazel E. Reed Human Ecology Extension Professor in Family Policy at Cornell University. “Like other fuels, charcoal produces respirable particles, or soot, when it is burned. These particles are air pollutants and microscopic solids that are inhaled and deposited in the lungs.” Particle pollution has been linked to asthma, strokes, heart attacks, lung cancer and reduced life expectancy.

When the Fat Hits the Grill
When animal fat drips onto the flame of either a charcoal or a gas grill it triggers carcinogenic compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that rise with the smoke and deposit on the meat. Other harmful chemicals, heterocyclic amines (HCAs), are formed on the food as it chars. The more time a hamburger, let’s say, spends on the grill, the more HCAs are created. These compounds do not form on vegetables—it’s the reaction with animal-based foods that generates them. However, over-charred food of any kind contains other types of cancer-causing substances.

“Grilling is simply a method of cooking that adds to the formation and deposit of cancer-causing substances on meat,” explains Michael Thun, MD, vice president, Epidemi­ology and Surveillance Research for the American Cancer Society. “Both substances are undesirable. They are both carcinogenic.”

The high heat of grill cooking produces more HCAs than, say, oven roasting or baking at lower temperatures, which create negligible amounts. But burgers, beef and chicken must be cooked at temperatures high enough to destroy E. coli and other illness-producing bugs.

So what’s a backyard barbecue enthusiast to do? “Cancer risk is influenced much more by long-term patterns than occasional patterns,” says Thun. “The goal is to have a diet that balances calories you take in with calories you put out, and to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.”

Grill Tricks
Since animal production is the largest source of the greenhouse gas methane and contributes to deforestation, grilling less meat and more vegetables reduces pollution on many levels. Additionally, vegetarian sources of protein, such as tofu, veggie burgers and mock meats, contain few or no HCAs when grilled. For those summer days when you can’t resist barbecue, forgo traditional charcoal for so-called “natural charcoal,” made from environmentally friendly wood sources and low-emission plant wastes such as coconut shells. All-natural charcoals should be chemical-free and derived from private farms, not clear-cut forests.

To minimize cancerous compounds on the grill, Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, with the American Institute for Cancer Research, says to cook at lower temperatures and flip the meat every one to two minutes. Marinating meat, poultry and seafood or precooking it in a microwave for two minutes also reduces HCA compounds. To lessen PAH formation, grill lower-fat meats with fewer fat drippings.

“Limit the animal protein portion and make vegetables and grains a larger part of the meal,” says Collins. “By this one simple step you minimize the carcinogens from the grilled meat and maximize a whole array of cancer-protective vitamins and natural compounds from the plant foods.”

Americans are about as likely to renounce barbecue as they are baseball—no one really expects you to say no to Uncle Joe’s char-cooked steak. So sit back, fire up some natural charcoal and enjoy some broccoli with that marinated burger. Your body, and the earth, will thank you.

June 12, 2008 Posted Under: Energy Times, Environment   Read More