Many of the candles on the market today force us to play the game “Would you rather?” Would you rather breathe toxic fumes that could cause allergies or lung cancer or contribute to deforestation and loss of habitat around the world? Horrible choices, right? Well, not all the candles on the market are unhealthy. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular candles and find a few we’d feel good about burning in our home or giving as gifts.
The vast majority of candles on store shelves today are made from paraffin wax, which is a petroleum by-product. Yep, that pretty candle is dependent on the fossil-fuel industry. There hasn’t been a lot of independent research on the health effects of burning paraffin candles, but a highly cited 2009 study by researchers at Southern Carolina State University found that paraffin candles emit toxic chemicals like toluene and benzene (CNN), both of which are known carcinogens. And most paraffin candles are scented with synthetic chemicals, like limonene (a citrus fragrance), which…
Burning a paraffin candle once in a while isn’t going to kill you, but burning them frequently and without adequate ventilation could put you at a greater risk for developing allergies or even lung cancer.
Soy candles (derived from soybean oil) are touted as vegan, cleaner than paraffin, and eco-friendly. But the truth is it isn’t that simple. Soy is natural, but soy wax isn’t. In order for soy to turn into soy wax it has to be chemically distilled with hexane, bleached with chlorine (to make it white), deodorized with boric acid (it would smell rancid otherwise), and then hydrogenated.
The other issue is soy is a “soft” wax with a low melting point. It won’t hold the shape of a taper or pillar candle without being blended with another wax, and that’s often paraffin. In addition, soy doesn’t hold scent well, so it requires even more chemicals to make it smell like a “fresh” summer day.
WHY SOY CANDLES SHOULDN’T BE VEGAN
Technically, soy candles are vegan because they come from the soy plant. But that’s not to say that soy candles aren’t without serious consequences to animals and the environment. The soy crop requires a large amount of farmland to produce, which has lead to massive deforestation of rainforests around the world, especially in South America (Reuters). Many vulnerable species found nowhere else on Earth are at high risk of extinction due to the cultivation of soybeans (World WildLife Federation and The Guardian). One example is jaguars. Their populations have been reduced by one-third due mainly to soy and cattle production. That affects a lot of animals. Beeswax candles, by contrast, aren’t vegan, but they aren’t capable of wreaking that kind of global devastation on wildlife.
Soy is also the largest GMO crop in the US (about 94 percent of all the soy grown in the US is a GMO). GMOs are routinely sprayed with chemical herbicides (MIT) that can threaten local ecosystems, decrease biodiversity, kill soil microbiology, and increase water and air pollution (Phys.org). Spraying herbicides on soy crops also harms beneficial insects, like pollinators.
The world’s most used weed killer [Monsanto’s Roundup] damages the beneficial bacteria in the guts of honeybees and makes them more prone to deadly infections, new research has found. — The Guardian
Karen Oberhauser, a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota, estimated that as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread across the Midwest, the amount of milkweed in farm fields fell by more than 80 percent. Oberhauser determined that the loss of milkweed almost exactly mirrored the decline in monarch egg production. — Slate
Conventionally grown GMO soy is not a sustainable crop; it harms wildlife, and is not eco-friendly. Soy candles are vegan, but only by the narrowest of definitions.
ORGANIC SOY CANDLES
Candles made from organic soy do minimize the impact on the environment. But if the label on your candle claims it’s made from 100% organic soy, be suspicious, especially if the price is low. There aren’t a lot of organic soy farmers in the US and organic soy can be cost prohibitive for many small candle companies.
COCONUT CANDLES ARE A BETTER CHOICE FOR VEGANS
The good news is coconut farming isn’t linked to the kind of deforestation that soy is. Coconut wax holds fragrance well and burns slowly and cleanly. The downside is, like soy, coconut produces a soft wax. It can be poured into containers, but won’t be solid enough to make pillars or tapers. Coconut wax is often mixed with a firmer wax, like beeswax or soy, to give it more body. If your candle says 100% coconut wax, reach out to the manufacturer and ask just to be sure. Overall, coconut candles are more eco-friendly than soy or paraffin and are a good option for vegans.
There’s a lot to love about pure beeswax candles: they’re made without preservatives, fragrance, additives, or artificial chemicals; they burn longer and cleaner than most store bought candles; they’ve been used since the 1500s; and they don’t require farmland to produce, like soy or palm oil. Plus, beeswax candles produce a warm glow and a natural honey scent.
IMPACT ON BEES
If you’re concerned about how bees are treated, buy beeswax candles from companies bearing the “Bee-Friendly Farming” logo. It means the beekeeper complies with guidelines designed to promote pollinator-friendly systems that protect bees from harm.
HOW TO FIND THE BEST BEESWAX
Candle manufactures aren’t required to tell consumers how much beeswax is in their candles, so make sure your candle is labeled 100% beeswax. If you want the purest beeswax candles, buy them without color or fragrance.
Lead wicks were banned in 2003, but some wicks still contain metal cores that can produce unhealthy toxic soot. If you see dark smoke coming from your candle, stop using it or make sure you have adequate ventilation. Look for wood or 100% cotton wicks, ideally unbleached or organic. Avoid wicks made with metal cores, lead, or zinc.
Big Dipper Wax Works makes this Bee-Love Pillar with 100% beeswax and a cotton wick, $13.50. Pair with these HomArt bee matches, $3.95.
Elizaville Beeswax makes these spring time colored tapers. They are handmade, 100% beeswax, have organic cotton wicks and non-toxic dye. They’ll burn for 20 hours and are smokeless and “relatively” dripless, when burned correctly, $12.75.
Pair with a box of fern matches, $3.95.
Bee Organic’s 100% beeswax candles are USDA certified organic and made with unbleached cotton wicks. Bee Organic has partnered with Extraordinary Ventures Michigan, who employs “differently-abled” adults, many of whom have autism, to help label their candles. Their large pillar candle set, $57.99.
Honey Candles are made with 100% pure Canadian beeswax and have cotton wicks. If you want colored candles, they use only a small quantity of non-toxic, environmentally friendly dye, $31.99-$59.99.
MOSTLY COCONUT CANDLES
KEAP’s Love Candle Set includes free shipping, a hand-written love letter, and a matchbox. The candles are made with coconut wax and a touch of soy. KEAP is a Certified B Corp, or a purpose-driven company. Their packaging is 100% plastic-free and you can return your candle and reuse it. “Legendary” French perfumer Christophe Laudamiel created their scents. The Love Candle Set scent is wild fig and crushed berries, $44.50.
Ethic Supply Co makes this Ojai Pixie Blossom candle from 95% organic coconut wax and 5% white beeswax. The candle is hand-poured in California and the fragrance is a blend of premium grade aromatic oils, $38.
Pair with these Lemon and Orange matches by HomArt, $3.95.
The Overview Effect candle by Ethics Supply Co. is inspired by what the Earth looks like from space. Like all their candles, this one is 95% organic coconut wax and 5% white beeswax. The scents are “Winsome Stardust, Refreshing Ozone, and Wild Clary Sage,” $36. Pair with a solar system decorative match box (below), $4.00.
Ethics Supply Co. also make several “Libations” candles. This one is Whiskey & Sage, $38.
Perfect with these Burley Man matches, $4.
A FLAMELESS CANDLE
It doesn’t mean your heart doesn’t burn if you want to skip traditional candles altogether. Luminara candles use Disney technology to create a flickering effect that’s very realistic. And you can set them to automatically turn on and off at the same time everyday. They’ll flicker for five hours. Or you can use a remote (sold separately) to turn them on and off whenever you want. Available at Bed Bath & Beyond, $19-$39.
Feature image of beeswax candles courtesy of Vitranc@iStock
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How to Find the Most Nutritious Produce at the Farmers Market
Farmer’s markets are full of USDA certified organic produce. But how do you know if the carrots at one booth are more nutritious than the carrots at another? Taste is’t always a reliable indicator of nutrition, and not all organic fruits and vegetables are the same. If buying produce with the highest level of nutrition is your goal, here are few questions to ask your local farmer.
Where is your farm located?
It’s best if the farm is within a fifty-mile radius of where you live.
How many acres is it?
A small farm is 10 acres or less.
Are you a division of a larger farm?
Organic food is becoming more popular and profitable and some of the large-scale conventional farmers have taken notice. Many large-scale farmers, eager to cash in on the demand, have started organic divisions. But beware, they may not be as committed to organic practices as small, local, and family-run organic farms. A philosophical commitment to organic farming coupled with years of experience can translate to healthier and more nutritious food.
When did you get your USDA organic certification?
It takes about three years to get USDA organic certification. If your farmer is in the process of getting certification or has received it very recently, they may be in organic farming just to catch a trend.
What agency certified you?
Most farmers will display their certification at the market. If you don’t see it, ask for the paperwork from their certifying agent. For example, in California it’s the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).
Do you spray non-synthetic pesticides or herbicides?
USDA certified organic farmers are allowed to use some forms of non-synthetic, organic pesticides. These pesticides are not always free of negative impacts—some may harm bees. If the farmer doesn’t spray, they are more likely to be aligned with the founding principles of organic farming.
They don’t have organic certification, but they say they don’t spray
Almost every vendor at the famers market will say they don’t spray (because why would you buy from them if they do?), but without independent third-party verification, there’s really no way to substantiate their claim. And that’s a problem. Support the USDA certified organic farmers who’ve gone the extra mile for you.
If they aren’t USDA certified organic, but you think they don’t spray
Ask how they deal with weeds and bugs. A few of the most common approaches include cover crops, compost, crop rotation, and hand weeding. Some farmers will plant hedgerows (rows of hedges to attract beneficial insects) and will even introduce predator species like song birds and bullfrogs to keep pests under control. The longer they’ve been at it, the more time a farmer has had to discover creative and effective solutions to avoid spraying chemicals on our food.
Can I visit your farm?
Farmers should be transparent; they grow food we put in our bodies. Ask if you can visit their farm. It’s a great education and may provide you with a better connection to your food and the real cost of producing it. Plus, it’s fun for kids.
Can I try a sample?
It seems so simple, but taste can tell you a lot. Are their carrots bland? Are their strawberries sweet? The tomatoes sold at most conventional grocery stores are completely lacking in flavor (and probably nutrients). When you taste a ripe, organic heirloom tomato, you realize why tomatoes are considered a fruit. So sweet! Ask your farmer if you can sample the food they’ve grown before you buy it. If it doesn’t excite you, try another vendor or another market.
How do you care for your soil?
This is a biggie. Organic farming isn’t just about spraying or not spraying; it’s also about caring for the soil. Excellent soil health can provide the best nutrients for the food you eat and ultimately your health. Ideally the farmer shouldn’t till the soil, but rather use organic compost, cover crops, crop rotation, and some soil enrichments. Ask what the farmer does to build up the organic matter in the soil. Produce should be full flavored, not tasteless or bland. If it is, it’s probably due to low mineral levels in the soil.
Do they grow something different than the usual suspects?
We are losing seed diversity because farmers often plant the easiest varieties to grow and transport. This doesn’t always translate to the best tasting or even the most nutritious produce. Why keep growing the Gala apple when the Sikkim apple (which is native to Nepal) has 100 times more phytonutrients? Did you know that there are more than 3,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes? Let’s challenge our farmers to try something new. We want to keep discovering all these flavorful and unique varieties. Our health isn’t optimized when we eat the same foods day after day. Ask your local farmers to surprise you with something off the beaten path. If they sense a demand, they may take a risk and grow something new.
Do you use heirloom, heritage, native, or USDA certified organic seed?
This is where it all starts. Healthy seeds produce healthy plants. It’s important to keep biodiversity alive by using open-pollinated, non-GMO (genetically modified organism), and heirloom seeds. Want to learn more about the differences between these seeds? Check it out here.
If you buy organic eggs from the farmers market, ask what the chickens eat.
They should be allowed to graze outdoors and eat green plants, wild seeds, earthworms, and insects.
Do you mind if I use a refractometer?
If you really want to be a member of the food geeks association, pull out your refractometer and test your food. A refractometer measures the way light bends when it passes through plant sap, fruit juice, or vegetable juice. It renders what’s called a “brix” or “degrees brix” reading, which is the sum of the pounds of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, and hormones in one hundred pounds of plant juice.
Take a garlic press with you to the farmers market and use it to extract juice for your brix reading. Put two or three drops of juice on the refractometer’s lens and point it toward the sun, then read the scale to get the brix reading. Typically, the higher the number, the more nutritious the food, but use this brix chart as a guide.
It may take some time to find farmers you trust, but once you do, you’ll be rewarded with higher levels of nutrition and flavor. And you’ll feel good about supporting farmers who care about your health and the health of the environment.
USDA – “What is Organic Certification?”
Bionutrient Food Association – “Brix”
New York Times – “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food” Seeds n Such – “Apples-From Potent Medicine to Mild-Manered Clones”
Bionutrient Association – “Brix Chart“
Feature image by Glenn Dettwiler on Flickr at Creative Commons