What’s the deal with pet insurance?

If you have a pet in your life, then you know how much joy and laughter pets can bring to our day to day. It’s not surprising that many people want to ensure that their pets live the longest and healthiest lives possible. To help achieve that goal, more Americans are starting to purchase pet insurance policies. The idea is that these policies will help cover potentially expensive veterinary costs, like if a pet has an accident and is seriously injured.  

There are many companies that provide pet insurance policies and the policies they offer can be different in a variety of ways. But the policies can be confusing and leave many consumers wondering if pet insurance worth the cost. And if it is worth the cost, how do you pick the policy and company that is right for you and your pet? So, today I want to help answer some of those questions.

Image by Helena for rawpixel.com

First, is pet insurance worth the cost?

Like many things in life, the answer is that it depends. If you have an older pet, a pet that has been ill previously, or certain breeds of pet you might find that insurance is not as worth the cost. This is mainly because of the way premiums are calculated and the coverage limits. A premium is the amount you pay (usually monthly) to be covered by the insurance policy. Premiums can vary based on many factors, so let’s consider age as an example. Since pets typically need more care as they age, older pets tend to have higher veterinary costs. To account for the increase in costs, insurance companies usually increase the premium as the pet gets older. So, if you have an older pet you might end up paying significantly more for insurance.

Coverage limits refer to situations where the insurance will not pay or has a limit to the amount they will pay. Often pet insurance will not cover breed specific conditions or pre-existing conditions. Remember, pet insurance uses similar terms to human health insurance but it is set up differently. For human health insurance, insurance companies cannot deny you coverage or charge you more just because of your pre-existing conditions. But pet insurance is actually a type of property insurance, so it does consider these factors. If you have a breed of dog that commonly has certain types of cancer or joint issues, pet insurance may not cover these conditions. Similarly, if you have a pet that has a history of a certain illness, it may be considered a pre-existing condition and anything related to it may not be covered.

The key here is to make sure you are looking at cost estimates and coverage that are specific to your pet, and not just generic estimates. These estimates can change depending on your pet and your situation. Shop around and get estimates from several companies before you decide!

When you shop around, you’ll want to compare more than just cost. You can contact companies to ask for a quote, but you’ll want to make sure that quote includes information about what the plan in the quote would cover. Some questions you can ask about the plan include:

  • What type of coverage is provided? The options are usually Accident Only or Accident and Illness, although you may also be able to add Wellness coverage for an additional cost.
  • Are there waiting periods? The plan might require you to wait a certain amount of time before it will cover any costs.
  • Are there any pre-existing conditions or other exempt conditions that this plan would not cover?
  • How does reimbursement work?

Don’t feel bad about asking questions! You want to make sure you understand exactly how the plan will work and what it will cover before you sign up. Keep in mind that you could also create a savings account that is specifically for pet expenses. Moving a set amount of money there every month can help you build an account you can use to cover unexpected expenses. Regardless of whether or not you decide to get pet insurance, planning for future pet costs is a great thing to include in your budget and financial planning!

Go Green for National Public Gardens Week

Spending time in nature has been proven to provide mental and emotional health benefits, and according to the American Psychological Association, can also improve cognitive abilities. But you don’t have to live in close proximity to hiking or walking trails to spend time enjoying the natural beauty surrounding us; instead, try visiting a local public garden.

At The Whipps Garden Cemetery In Ellicott City Maryland, April 2019” by France1978 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

This week we’re celebrating National Public Gardens Week, observed annually beginning the Friday before Mother’s Day. Public gardens have provided green space for urban areas and town spaces for ages, although the official recognition of the week, established by the American Public Gardens Association, didn’t occur till 2009.

Public gardens include botanic gardens, arboreta, zoos, universities, and museums, and encourage visitors. There are a number of public gardens in Maryland and the Md Department of Tourism provides a list of 15 in the state that people can visit. 

If you’re interested in more than just visiting a garden and you’re thinking about creating your own, check out the University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center for help getting started!

Help Finding Food

With the cost of everyday essentials skyrocketing, and the extra SNAP benefits from emergency allotments ending, many families are finding it more challenging than ever to put food on the table.

Our SNAP-Ed team is working to help families ensure that they can use their benefits to find and prepare healthy, affordable meals. Our team has resources for signing up for SNAP or WIC, information on free and reduced price school meal programs, and how to find local food pantries and nonprofit groups like the Maryland Food Bank.

Families and individuals already using SNAP benefits can also find useful information, like how to stretch their dollars by shopping at local farmers markets.

Be empowered to manage your family’s food budget and use available resources through the SNAP-Ed online resources on the Extension website.

Garlic Breath for Good Health

Celebrate the flavor of garlic during National Garlic Month. Garlic is closely related to onions, shallots, scallions, chives and leeks, since they all are members of the allium family. Garlic is rich in nutrients especially vitamins A, B1, B6 and C as well as potassium, calcium, zinc, iron, manganese and selenium. 

Garlic is known for its pungent smell, on your hands and your breath. The smell can be removed from your hands by running them under cold water while rubbing a stainless steel object. Chewing on fresh mint or parsley leaves, apples or lettuce after eating garlic can neutralize the sulfur compounds that cause the odor and minimize “garlic breath.”

These sulfur compounds are made from the active ingredient, allicin, which is thought to be responsible for garlic’s health benefits. Allicin is formed when a garlic clove is chopped, crushed or chewed. To get the most health benefits, let the garlic sit on the cutting board for at least 10 minutes before cooking it. 

Garlic has a long history of popularity for its taste as well as its health benefits, dating back to Greek and Roman times. Health benefits often associated with garlic include lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced risk of cancer, an improved immune system and anti-inflammatory effect. Not all of these claims have strong research to support them. Many of the studies have used various forms of garlic such as fresh, supplements or oil; while others have looked at overall intake of allium-family vegetables. Many small studies show promising results for continued research.

The strongest evidence of a health benefit is the association between garlic intake and heart health, specifically reductions in cholesterol and blood pressure. It is not intended to replace medication but may be a complement. However, be sure to check with your health care provider before increasing garlic in your diet or taking garlic supplements. They may interfere with some medications, especially blood thinners. A word of caution: some people are allergic to garlic or develop indigestion after eating it.

When purchasing garlic, select firm, tight, heavy bulbs. Avoid ones with dry skin, sprouting or dark areas. Each segment of a garlic bulb is called a clove. A single bulb may contain 10-20 cloves, depending on its size. Store unbroken garlic bulbs in a cool, dry place and it will keep for 3 to 4 months. Once the bulb is broken, the individual cloves will only stay fresh for 5 to 10 days. You can also store whole garlic in the refrigerator until ready to use. Leftover minced or peeled garlic can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or the freezer up to 1 month without losing flavor. Purchase garlic in small amounts to avoid keeping it too long, the fresher garlic has more concentrated active ingredients for flavor and health.

It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time!

Who doesn’t love a PB&J? April 2nd is National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day, so celebrate with one of America’s most popular sandwiches. Soldiers in World War II are credited with the popularity of this sandwich combination because peanut butter, jelly and bread were on the Army’s food ration list.

Let’s look a little closer at the history of the mainstay of this sandwich: peanut butter. Peanut butter is a food-paste made from ground-roasted peanuts. It takes about 540 peanuts to make a 12-ounce jar of peanut butter. This popular nut butter made its debut as a protein substitute at the 1883 Chicago World’s Fair. After the commercialization of the peanut industry in the early 1900’s, peanut butter became more affordable for everyone.  

Many people avoid peanut butter because of the calories and fat, however there is more to know about the nutritional value of this nutrient-dense food. A 2-tablespoon serving of peanut butter provides around 200 calories. This portion also provides fiber, protein and fat; which helps to keep you full longer. Although it is high in fat, these are mostly healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In fact, peanut butter has the same ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats as olive oil. Peanut butter also provides important vitamins and minerals including vitamins E and B6, magnesium and potassium.

I recently was shopping for peanut butter in the grocery store. It is amazing what you learn when you turn the jar around and read the nutrition facts label and the ingredient list. Don’t be fooled by statements on the front that say “natural”.  Peanut butter made solely from peanuts is easily identifiable. The ingredient list is simple: peanuts.

When you look at the jars on the shelf, they are the ones that have a layer of oil above the peanut paste in the jar. This is the natural oil from the ground peanuts. Before using, stir the oil into the paste to create a creamy texture. This can be tricky to maneuver but once you have stirred the oil into the peanut paste, it will give you a smooth, creamy mixture that is easy to spread. Store the jar in the refrigerator upside down to keep the mixture from separating.

So, what is in those other “peanut butter” jars on the shelf. First you need to know that products that are called peanut butter must be at least 90% peanuts with no artificial sweeteners, flavoring, or preservatives. Other brands that do not meet these criteria are often called peanut butter spread. Here are some things to look out for in the ingredient list when selecting a peanut butter:

  • hydrogenated oil
  • sugar or honey
  • salt

Some brands mix other ingredients like grape jelly, honey or chocolate into the mixture. Look at the nutrition facts label to learn more about calories, saturated fats, sugars, and sodium. For example, reduced-fat peanut butter has less fat but often adds sugar to replace the fat, which increases the calories. The higher the sodium content of the spread, you have less natural peanut flavor.

There are many variations to the traditional PB&J sandwich today. Try it on whole wheat or raisin bread. Add a new flavor of jelly like strawberry jam. Add some fruit like bananas, apples, or blueberries. Try grilling the sandwich or making it into a French toast. Sprinkle a layer of dry cereal or potato chips to give it some crunch.   

Keep in mind that peanut allergies are the second most common food allergy in children so use other nut butters as a substitute. Be sure to alert others when you are serving peanut butter because the allergy can be triggered just by being close to the peanuts.

Although peanut butter is a great source of protein and contains healthy unsaturated fats, it can be high in calories so portion control is important to maintain a healthy balance of calories.

Wild-Caught Versus Farm-Raised Fish: Is One Better?

As a kid I remember getting up at the crack of dawn with my dad, and with fishing poles in hand, we walked to the Atlantic ocean with high hopes of catching our dinner. If successful, we would enjoy fresh-caught blowfish, snapper, flounder, or bluefish with home grown vegetables for dinner. We loved living off the land (and sea), for a few weeks each summer!  Now, as an adult, out of convenience, I purchase seafood locally at markets.

Image by Jakub Kapusnak for rawpixel.com.

Eating seafood continues to gain popularity in the U.S. Annually, we increased our consumption from 11 pounds (1968) to 19 pounds (2020). Nutritionally, this is great news! Seafood is an excellent source of high-quality protein, is low in fat and high in omega 3 fatty acids, which are heart-protective. But, meeting the rising demand for these aquatic powerhouse foods is challenging, nationally and globally.                                      

Aquaculture or ‘fish farming,’ has been successful in increasing the seafood supply. However, many questions have been raised about ‘farming our fish.’ As a registered dietitian, I often receive and respond to questions regarding wild-caught versus farm-raised seafood. For example:

Are farm-raised fish safe to eat?

Like all foods, there are food safety hazards associated with seafood. Farmed-raised and wild-caught seafood can be safe to eat; however, it’s important to consider the source. Seafood from the U.S. has high inspection standards and is closely regulated. This may not be the case in other countries. Contaminants have been found in both. Antibiotics and toxins have been found in some imported farmed seafood and mercury and pollutants have been found in some wild-caught fish. 

Does farm-raised fish have the same nutrient quality?

Like farm animals, the nutritional quality of fish depends on what they eat. Wild-caught fish consume diets natural to their habitat (ocean, lake, stream) and can be lower in calories and saturated fat than farm-raised varieties. Farmed fish may be slightly higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids but also saturated fats, which should be limited. 

Fun Fact: 3 billion people worldwide depend on seafood as a protein source.

 Nguyen, L, Gao, Z, Anderson, JL. Perception shifts in seafood consumption in the United States. Marine Policy 148 , Article 105438

How do I know if I am buying or eating farm-raised fish?  

Check COOL (Country Of Origin Label). It’s required on all fresh or frozen seafood sold in the United States. Frozen seafood will also have a label indicating where the fish was packaged. Read the label carefully. Fish caught or farmed from another country can be packaged in the U.S.

Wild-caught or farm-raised?  The choice is yours. Read the labels and do your research so you can make informed choices about your seafood. Check out the Seafood Nutrition Partnership for some great recipes!

PFAS – Not just Forever, but Everywhere and Harmful – What to Know and Do

My last blogpost introduced the group of chemicals, polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, also known as “forever” chemicals, and their risks to the environmental and public health. For this post, I want to stress the extent of our exposure to these chemicals and their impact to our health.

The fact that there are more than 4,500 PFAS compounds produced ought to tell us that they are found in a huge number of products. Also, the question of why do we need so many non-stick like chemicals  comes to mind. Most of us may only be familiar with only a few of products that contain PFAS — non-stick cookware, and stain resistant fabrics for clothing, carpet, and furniture. In reality the number of common everyday products containing PFAS number in the hundreds, and many of these will surprise you. For example, PFAS can be found in some: candy wrappers, cleaning products, cosmetics, dental floss, electronics and circuit boards, fire-fighting foams, food packaging, hydraulic fluid, inks, metal plating paints, pesticides, photographic processing paper, polishes, shampoo, surfactants, and other related products. With PFAS in so many products we use or are in contact with daily, it is no wonder that 98% of us have PFAS in our blood, and the extent that they are found in our water and the environment. So, including the descriptor “everywhere” in addition to “forever” is reasonable.

Being forever and everywhere alone is reason for alarm, but combining the growing understanding of the impacts to human health, greatly escalates the danger of this group of compounds. Research studies on PFAS and human health are relatively recent, but the variety of adverse health risks known to date are highly significant and should prompt immediate response. Studies have shown the health effects include increased risk of: asthma, diabetes, decreased birth weight, cancer (kidney, testicular), increased cholesterol, kidney and liver disease, decreased immune response, decreased fertility, obesity, thyroid disease, and reduced vaccine response. These health impacts are what we know now from studies that have only looked into a small portion of the PFAS compounds.

All this information on the persistent, ubiquitous, and harmful characteristics of PFAS compounds should be a wake up call for all of us — consumers, manufacturers, regulators, and policy makers. Fortunately, the level of concern and action is slowly increasing in society. EPA is investing many resources in new regulations and research, and some states are moving rapidly to set higher drinking water standards and bans of PFAS in some or all products. A few recent examples include:

  • California banned PFAS in paper products and requires cookware to disclose the presence of PFAS, and further they will ban PFAS in children’s clothing
  • Colorado banned use of fire-fighting foams with PFAS
  • New York state ban of PFAS in detergents and paper products in 2022 
  • Maine banned the intentional addition of PFAS in food packaging in 2019  and has banned added PFAs in all products, and will be phased in
  • Pennsylvania has limited two common PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to 14 and 18 parts per trillion.
  • Vermont will ban PFAS in food packaging, carpets, rugs and ski wax
  • Washington state prohibited PFAS in food packaging in 2022
To date 2,850 locations in all 50 states are known to have PFAS contamination (Check out Environmental Working Groups’ interactive map: https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/pfas_contamination/map/).

Unfortunately, there is still much to learn, and we can expect new research to expand our understanding of the risks and seriousness of this issue. What can we as consumers do now?

A couple of suggestions are:

Check out these other tips from Clean Water Fund.

Living Well

March is Living Well Month! The National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (NEAFCS) encourages families to live well through raising kids, eating right, and spending smart.

Physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally strong families provide strength for future
generations and Extension initiatives enable Maryland residents to build the knowledge and skill to lead full and productive lives.

The University of Maryland Extension Family & Consumer Sciences team provides comprehensive education for individuals in a variety of areas including nutrition, physical activity, mental health, chronic disease prevention and management, personal finance, and so much more.

Celebrate healthy living and the great work FCS professionals do to educate individuals, families, and communities in Maryland, and across the country, by engaging in one of the Living Well Month activities!

Follow the recommendations of the NEAFCS, or come up with some of your own goals to start Living Well!