The subject of the email was “High Levels of Arsenic…” and the first sentence, written by Ali, my babysitter, was “Did you see this?” (Never a good sign.) Attached was a link to an ABC News story telling us to watch out for elevated levels of aresenic in organic powdered formula, cereal bars, energy bars, or anything that listed “organic brown rice syrup” as the first ingredient — like, for instance, the granola bars from Trader Joe’s that our children had been consuming five days a week for three years now.
I googled a bit more to see what else I could find — for whatever reason, it makes me feel better in these situations when an alarmist title like “Arsenic in Baby Formula” doesn’t spread like wildfire. I like to convince myself that the media is more savvy about these things, so they don’t fall for sensational health stories the way I do. But in this particular case, the lack of info about the organic brown rice syrup out there might have had something to do with the fact that the media was consumed by pink slime. Or the E Coli outbreak with spinach. Or the filthy conditions uncovered at Kreiders, our country’s largest factory-farmed egg producer. Or any number of terrifying food safety issues we are almost de-sensitized to by this point. I mean, it’s organic brown rice syrup for chrissakes. Isn’t buying organic supposed to protect us from this kind of stuff? Or am I just buying into a false sense of security.
The question for me, as always, is: How do you know what to believe? And once you decide what to believe how do you apply that belief in your own kitchen. Remember how devastating it was to hear about BPA in baby bottles? I think it was more devastating for me because we were past that stage. There was literally nothing that could be done about all those leaching plastic bottles we ran through the steaming hot dishwasher and nuked in the microwave. (It hurts just to type that.) The BPA bottle situation was completely and utterly beyond our control.
This is in the back of my head during situations like this. (And also when I pack school lunches in BPA-free containers like these.) I decided to stop buying the Trader Joe’s granola bars because it was — somewhat — in my control. If the bars had been something our kids ate every now and then, I don’t know if we would’ve cared too much. But they were VIPS in the lunch box and on the afterschool snack plate. I even had a box of them under the armrest in the Mazda for those days I end up going right from the train station to soccer to ballet to soccer to…you get it. It seemed we had to at least cut back. But it’s not like I feel better about anything. It’s not like I don’t feel like I’m stuck in a giant game of whack-a-mole when it comes to this stuff.
If it is about control, though, I don’t think there’s a better solution to this problem than cooking from Alana Chernila’s beautiful new book, The Homemade Pantry. You may know Alana. She writes about food and family on her blog Eating From the Ground Up. She has two daughters. She is married to a guy who loves books. She lives for her Saturday farmer’s market. (Is this sounding familiar?) And she’s spent the last few years figuring out how to make basic things at home that she once thought only the supermarket provided. Things like jam, pickles, cheese, hummus, pop tarts (!!), mayo, chicken nuggets, veggie burgers and….GRANOLA BARS!
I told her she was my hero for getting this book out there, and this is how she responded. “Making this stuff does give us the power. If we feel freaked out by brown rice syrup in a recipe, we can keep the ratio, and mess around with some other sticky stuff, and then- voila!- we have a bar that we can feel good about giving our children.” That’s the beauty of this book, the control part. “When we get into the kitchen, and we see the components that make up, say, a snack bar, we just make it like we want it. And then we are all heroes.”
The Nutty Granola Bar (or “Car Snack 3”)
From The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying & Start Making, by Alana Chernila
Note from Alana: Although there are a lot of ingredients, putting the bars together only takes a few minutes. Makes sixteen 2 1/4 by 3 1/4-inch bars
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup coconut oil (or butter)
3/4 cup Nut Butter (homemade — it’s in her book — or storebought)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar (homemade or storebought)
2 tablespoons Vanilla Extract (homemade or storebought)
1/3 cup honey
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 cups raw sliced almonds
1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconuts
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup oat bran
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving extra paper to pull the finished product out of the pan.
In a large saucepan, combine the butter, coconut oil, nut butter, brown sugar, vanilla, honey, and 2 tablespoons water. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until you have a uniform syrup. Remove from heat. Add the oats, almonds, coconut, chocolate chips, oat bran, sesame seeds, and cinnamon. Stir until the dry ingredients are thoroughly coated. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan, and press it as firmly into the pan as possible, first using your hands, then using a spatula or wooden spoon to flatten the top. Sprinkle the salt over the top.
Bake until the edges darken, 35 to 40 minutes. The mixture will be soft when you take it out of the oven, but allow it to cool completely before taking it out of the pan and cutting into 16 squares.
They can be stored at room temperature in a covered container for 10 days and in the freezer, cut and stored in a covered freezer-safe container (with layers of parchment paper) for 4 months.