Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Castor Canundrum: Miracle Bean or Toxic Curse?

Castor Oil:
Castor oil is a wonderfully unique oil, rich in glycerin esters of ricinoleic acid. It is widely used throughout the world in everything from industrial applications to folk remedies and, of course, in soap! It's unique composition adds many wonderful qualities to soap. It promotes a rich bubbly lather, is very soothing and acts as a humectant to draw moisture to the skin. But it is not without controversy.

Background: How did Castor Oil Get Such a Bad Rap?
  • Castor beans contain ricin.
  • Ricin is one of the most toxic substances found in nature. According to numbers released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one castor bean contains  enough ricin to kill 300 people (
  • Ricin has been a known biological weapon since WWI and is considered a category B threat by the CDC, meaning it is in the second highest category of agents
  • There is no known andecdote for ricin poisening
  • Castor plants are also highly allergenic
  • The majority of castor oil is produced in India, Brazil and China
Castor Oil itself does not contain ricin. It is removed during the extraction process, but it is in the waste "mash" that is produced. So although castor oil iself is not a toxin, people seem to have two main concerns:
  1. human rights concerns surrounding the factory and farm workers who harvest and process the beans
  2. the disposal of the ricin rich "mash"  
Castor and Human Rights: The Claim
Over and over again, people purporting to take a moral stand  use the same argument to demonize Castor beans. Word for word, that argument is this:

"Allergenic compounds found on the plant surface can cause permanent nerve damage , making the harvest of Castor beans a human health risk."

You can find this exact phrase here and here and here and here and, sadly, even here on one of my FAVORITE company's blog.

It is also written word for word on several forums, including:

And the list goes on and ON AND ON. 

I'd be willing to bet most of these people pulled this off of Wikipedia, which cites their source for their information as:  Go to this site and you'll see there is no further citation, no stats and no data to back it up. In fact, I can not find ANY hard stats or data on ANY of the sites that use this phrase.  

The Facts:

  • I found no substantiated evidence that exposure to the plant's leaves causes permanent nerve damage, in fact Castor plants grow quite readily throughout the United States (predominantly in Florida, Texas and California). They are even used as ornamental plants in gardens.
  • However, prolonged contact with the plant's sap, flowers, seeds or leaves may result in a rash. If introduced to the eye, conjunctivitis may develop (you can read more here). 
  • Also, like ragweed, the Castor plant (Ricinus communis) does produce a great deal of pollen, which can cause allergies. In severe cases, people may develop asthma.
  • Perhaps the most documented effects of Castor are seen in the factory workers where the oil is produced. Factory workers exposed to dust from the Castor seeds may develop allergies and suffer from asthma (you can read more here). 
So how bad is all this?

Well, the same risks and ailments are common among
So, in my view, the negative effects associated with Castor processing are really more of an occupational hazard than a call to arms or reason to boycott. This site published a fairly comprehensive table outlining a variety of biological agents that have been linked to occupational asthma across a variety of occupations.

I think some people like to target Castor because it is largely produced in developing countries. They argue that the workers are at greater risk because of laxed labor laws etc. But I think the above studies, which were conducted all over, from Papua New Guinea to Croatia to Tennessee demonstrate that the same occupational hazards exist everywhere.

The fact is, many of the foods we eat and the things we enjoy entail some level of occupational hazard for the workers involved. From firemen and cops to coal miners and crab fishermen, people risk their life every day so that the rest of us can enjoy the many things this world has to offer. It is simply ridiculous to target Castor oil and boycott it as if it were a singular offender.

Disposal of the Ricin Rich Mash
Another concern people frequently have regarding Castor oil is the waste mash that results from processing the beans. The mash contains all of the deadly ricin and is highly toxic, so can it really be disposed of safely? Yes! The "waste" actually has many wonderful uses:
So relax... don't worry. That Castor oil you buy isn't likely to be contributing to the development of biological weapons by terrorists... nor is it likely to be destroying the nervous systems of exploited workers in third world countries. Castor may be deadly, but it is a wonderful plant with hundreds of beneficial uses throughout the world. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Vegetarian atThanksgiving?!

Between traffic jams, family and the pressure of preparing a delicious multi-course meal for dozens of people, Thanksgiving can be trying enough without the added challenge of having to feed a vegetarian. But don't panic! It doesn't have to be hard. You don't need tofu, tempeh, seaweed or any other exotic ingredients. We vegetarians eat normal food too! Just last night, I made a delicious soup that would make a great, hearty meal for any vegetarian and most of the ingredients are things you'll have around on the big day anyway!

You'll need:
3 Yukon Gold Potatoes
A dash of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 an onion
2 carrots
2 stalks of celery
2 vegetable bouillon cubes+ 4 cups of water (or 4 cups of veggie stock/ broth)
1 can of diced tomatoes
1/2 cup of peas
1/4 cup tiny star pasta (optional)
And a dash of:
soy sauce
ground coriander
celery seed
...or anything you have laying around! These are just the things that I had.
In one pot, bring your peeled and halved potatoes to a boil. Cook until they just begin to soften, but are still fairly firm. When they are the right consistency, remove them from the pot and chop into 1 in pieces.

In a second pot, pour a dash of olive oil on the bottom. Add the onion, carrots and celery and saute for about 5 minutes, or until the onions begin to get tender. Add 4 cups of water and the bouillon. Bring to a gentle boil. Add the remaining ingredients (except the peas, star pasta and potatoes). Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the peas, star pasta and potatoes. Simmer for 10 more minutes.

Voila! Your veggie friend now has a delicious, hearty, healthy dish to enjoy with your rolls, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, salads, and all your other naturally veggie dishes!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GMO what's the BFD?-- Part 2

Effect on Farmers

1970- The US Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) giving breeders up to 25 years of exclusive control over a new, distinct varieties of plants with a few important exceptions. Most notably, under the PVPA, farmers using protected varieties of seeds were allowed to collect seeds from their crop each season for planting the following year.

1980- The Supreme Court ruled that patents could be issued for living things if they have been altered by humans. This landmark ruling essentially cleared the way for companies like Monsanto to patent their GMO seeds and gain exclusive rights without being subject to the exemptions of the PVPA.

2001- The Supreme Court ruled that utility patents, like those issued for GMO seeds, supersede the PVPA, meaning that companies holding a patent on a seed could take legal action against farmers caught saving seeds.

Anyone with any business training might be wondering why this is a big deal. I mean.... business is business, right? So if the farmers want to collect seeds, they can find some other seed to use. On the other hand, if they want the benefits of GMO crops (like easier pest control, higher crop yield, etc.) then they can pay for the seeds each year. Unfortunately, things aren't quite so cut and dry when you are dealing with pollinating crops grown outdoors in a relatively uncontrolled environment.

Pollen can be carried on the wind, by bees, or any number of ways from one crop to another. Seeds may fall off a truck, pass through a turbine or be carried by birds. When pollen or seeds are introduced into a new crop, this is what is known as pollen flow or genetic drift... and there is really no way to prevent it.  Why is this important?  Well, if a farmer chooses to use non patented seeds, their crops may still be contaminated by pollen or seeds from their neighbor's GMO fields. A farmer may have no idea that their field acquired GMO material through drift, but once a patented material is introduced into a crop, that farmer automatically becomes legally bound to respect the patent holder's rights or risk legal action.

It might be hard to believe that a giant company like Monsanto would bother to spend the time or money to seek out and prosecute small time farmers, but believe it, because they do. In a press release Monsanto had this to say, "Backed by U.S. patent law, Monsanto is vigorously pursuing growers who pirate any brand or variety of its genetically enhanced seed..." They go on to point out some of the failed defenses farmers unsuccessfully used in court, including "forged signatures, ignorance, accident or mistake by farm employee, or pollen flow from neighboring field."

A 2007 report released by The Center for Food Safety documents the extent of Monsanto's aggressive tactics. According to the report:
  • By October 2007, Monsanto had filed 112 lawsuits against farmers
  • These cases included 372 farmers and 49 small farm businesses
  • The lawsuits span 27 states
  • The largest judgment was $3,052,800.00
  • The smallest judgment was $5,595.00 (Yup... they went after $5, 000!)
  • The number of suits filed increased every year between 2005 and 2007

It's likely that the numbers above (compiled from public court records) don't even begin to reveal the true picture. According to this same report:
  • The number of seed piracy matters reported by Monsanto is 20 to 40 times the number of lawsuits found in public court records
  • As of June 2006, Monsanto had instituted an estimated 2,391 to 4,531 “seed piracy matters” against farmers in 19 states
The bottom line is Monsanto, in their push to dominate world food markets, is employing ruthless tactics and deliberately destroying people's livliehoods even when circumstances (like genetic drift) are beyond anyone's control. You don't have to be a tree-hugging, earthy-crunchy hippy to realize this is wrong.

Monday, November 15, 2010

GMO What's the BFD?-- Part 1

When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMO) there are few areas of our lives that aren't impacted. GMO's are frequently either touted as miricle food or cited as a potential hazard for the environment and human health, but they are having a huge impact on farmers, business and economics as well. Since they are such a huge part of our lives, I thought I'd take a closer look at the consequences of GMOs in a few different blog posts.

Health Concerns:
Did you know US grown long grain rice is banned in Japan because it was found to contain bacterial DNA that makes the rice resistant to weed killer, and isn't approved for sale in the US? ... or that 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the US contain a Roundup Ready trait designed to allow farmers to bath their crops in glyphosate (a chemical designed to kill plants). In fact, nearly everything from alfalfa to potatoes to corn, cotton and wheat have had bacterial, viral or other outside genetic material inserted in their DNA. In some ways this has been a boon for farmers since they no longer have the laborious task of tilling the soil in an effert to control weeds. Instead, they can simply drench their crops in herbicides. This alone can be unsettling for many consumers, but if it is not enough to know that a large portion of your food was awash in deadly chemicals like Roundup before arriving on your dinner table,  think about the effects of these transgenic modifications themselves. Studies are emerging that link GMO food to severe health effects.

A frequently cited study from the 1990's outlines the potential for transgenic alterations to introduce allergens like tree nuts into otherwise benign foods. Thankfully, the study, which looked at a strain of soybean containing a  gene from the Brazil nut, prevented the modified and highly allergenic soy from ever reaching the market. However, recent studies link GMO food that is currently on the market with a number of severe health effects.

This study, published in the International Journal of Biological Science in 2009 links 3 types of corn (manufactured by Monsanto) with organ failure According to the study, the 3 strains of Monsanto corn cause organ toxicity and are linked to liver, kidney and heart damage. And I'm not just picking on Monsanto here. Really, it should be no surprise that Monsanto is at the center of this controversy. Monsanto is the largest GMO seed producer in the world, contributing GMO technology to 90% of the world's GMO seeds. Nearly every controversy around GMO food can be linked in some way to Monsanto.

Of course, Monsanto vehemently defends their GMO products as safe. But, I'm sure they did the same thing when they introduced DDT, Agent Orange, saccharin, rBGH...

In my next post, find out about how GMO foods are affecting the farming industry... including organic farms.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Soap and Social Media

Facebook is a great place to
showcase your soap... but be
careful what else you're
Facebook is a wonderful tool to catch up with old friends, stay in touch with family and even promote your business. One of the things I like most is connecting with other soap makers to network, learn new tips and tricks and drool over their amazing creations! But as wonderful as all this is, Facebook can also lead to huge disappointments and even hurt your business if you let your posts stray too far from your page’s purpose. I’m sure none of your fans will boycott your page just because you post the occasional off topic tidbit, but it depends what that tidbit is…

I recently became totally disillusioned with one of my all time favorite soap makers after they posted a politically charged edict that, not only had nothing to do with soap, but was divisive, self-important and down-right antagonistic. It revealed to me their ideology, their values and how they spend the money they make off of customers (like me)…none of which I agree with.  

I will admit that there is nothing wrong with having opinions… even strong ones, but if you are going to try to grow or promote a business online, you better be careful about how and to whom you are revealing your opinions. I still love this persons soap… but I will absolutely NEVER give them another dime AND if they continue to use their soap page to push their political agenda… I will also “unlike” their page, essentially making them invisible to hundreds of potential customers hiding in my friends list.

My 3 rules for social media:

Keep it positive.
Keep it neutral.
Keep it clean

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Soap for Your Teeth!

Soap for your teeth!
Toothpaste is full of dangerous chemicals and harsh abrasives that can damage your teeth’s enamel. If you are looking for an alternative to traditional pastes, soap is definitely worth a try! You can make soap for your teeth without added fluoride, chemicals, glycerin or harsh abrasives. The result is a gentle cleanser that leaves your mouth fresh and clean.
I KNOW IT SOUNDS CRAZY!!! But really… I’m not crazy!  I first tried brushing my teeth with soap because I had suffered with very sensitive teeth for years. I read that the combination of abrasives and glycerin in traditional pastes slowly erode the enamel and prevent your teeth from re-mineralizing. After failing to find any relief in traditional toothpastes (even those specifically designed for sensitive teeth), I read a little about brushing with soap and figured, what have I got to lose? So I tried it… loved it! It DOES taste like soap…but you get used to it. I will never go back to paste again!

If you do decide to try making your own soap for brushing, I just have a few suggestions...
  • Use little or no coconut oil. Coconut oil is main culprit of that "soapy" taste. Sure it helps with bubbles... but do you really need a mouth full of foam?
  • I prefer unscented/ unflavored, but if you do add a scent make sure it is safe if ingested. You can use flavor oils or certain essential oils. Spearmint, cinnamon, and peppermint are popular, but check with your supplier to make sure the oils you are using are safe for use in your mouth.
  • Think about packaging... You can make a traditional bar or, if you want a great option for traveling, you can pour them into lip-balm tubes. Mountain Rose Herbs is a great source for these. I personally pour mine into tiny, little, ceramic finger bows that I found at a local restaurant supply store.
If you are looking for a great starter recipe, I like this one (of course you should run it through a lye calculator):
1/3 Olive Oil
1/3 Palm Kernel
1/3 Soybean Oil
Xylitol (I use about 1 T per pound of oils)

You can make this vegan by increasing the Olive and Palm Kernel and reducing the beeswax... you don't really need it to be rock hard.

Just keep in mind that while Xylitol is GREAT for our teeth it is highly toxic to dogs. If you have xylitol anywhere in your house (even a pack of chewing gum!) be sure to keep it away from your pets... it can be fatal. Also, most brands of Xylitol come from corn and are likely GMO. If you want a GMO-free alternative try Smart Sweet! I love it! It comes from birch trees instead of corn and  is guaranteed GMO free. You can find it here.

Happy soaping!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Little Honesty Please

Again and again I read posts by soapers who seem to be on a one man or one woman crusade to de-bunk the "natural" myth. Soapers who like to use micas and lab colors and fragrance oils and constantly feel under attack from the "granola" crowd. I understand their frustration, but I think attacking others with alternate philosophies is the wrong tack to take... plus it is just plain mean spirited. After all it is our different philosophies, ideas and products that make us (and our products) unique.

What bothers me are those people and companies who exploit the "granola" segment of the market by capitalizing on the unregulated use of the term "natural." Soapers who use micas, SLS, parabens, lab colors and fragrance oils yet still have the audacity to market their product as natural. Companies who name their business "Organic this" or "Natural that" yet stock a majority of conventional products. It is these unscrupulous people who undermine not just our craft, but the consumer's trust across the board.

We need to stand up to these shady business people by educating ourselves and our customers about our products, whether we choose conventional or natural, but also by respecting other honest people for the choices they've made. If you build your foundation on anything other than honesty, trust and respect, don't be surprised when it crumbles under your feet.