Monthly Archives: January 2011

Stop reading labels and start reading ingredients

All week I’ve been seeing stories about Walmart-style food reform and food manufacturers’ self-serving nutrition labels, about fake meat, fake blueberries and fake maple syrup. Stories about all the ways the food industry tricks us, and all the ways people get mad about the food industry tricking us.

So here’s a thought: Let’s stop playing the game. Ignore the labels. Don’t look at numbers. Don’t believe the box or the commercial or the nice kid at the counter. Just… read the ingredients.

Numbers, schmumbers

When we talk to our children about food, we don’t say, “Here, sweetie, eat these 270 calories and 6 grams of protein with 16% of your daily fiber requirement.” No, it’s just, “Here, try this granola.” Or this apple or egg salad or cookie. We talk about the food, the taste, the fact that the granola has cashews and locally grown oats and real maple syrup. Or that the eggs came from a farmer at the market. The apple, too. And that the cookie is so damn good because it’s made from real food, not industrial oils or refined sugars. (I’m talking to you, Girl Scouts.)

When we cook together, we measure and chop and make a mess. (And I, at least, try to keep my Type A in check.) We don’t calculate daily nutrient values or worry whether recipes conform to the archaic and lobbyist-driven USDA food pyramid. We don’t confuse “food” for food, or accept that a box o’ fortified nutrients is a substitute for the real thing.

The food industry, though, wants us to do exactly that. It wants us to think in terms of nutritionism, which puts the focus on percentages and components instead of straight-up ingredients. If the package touts calcium or Vitamin C or nothing-short-of-a-miracle health claims, we’re supposed to forget the ingredients list the size of a brick (and about as healthful, too). Or be so confused that we pick the prettiest box and call it a day.

And it works. Lots of smart, thinking people don’t read ingredients. Which is how food manufacturers get away with healthy-labeling claims like the outrageous “Better for You” program that greenlights more than 200 barely edibles including Chocolate Lucky Charms and Kid Cuisine Carnival Corn Dog. And which is why food marketing to children has become so egregious. (Remember the McEducation nutrition workshops?) If we didn’t buy into it, they wouldn’t do it.

So let’s not. Sure, it’s tedious to read ingredients. Ingredient-speak can seem indecipherable, and restaurant ingredients aren’t obvious unless you ask or check websites. But it’s not rocket science. If you could conceivably use an ingredient in your own kitchen — and it came from nature, not a lab — then, for the most part, you’re good.

Once you do start reading, brace for epiphanies of epic proportions. No joke. We’re talking eye-opening, life-changing stuff. (Like the insane prevalence of artificial colors, which we’ve been discussing here.)

Two resources that help break it down bite-size:

“Food Rules,” Michael Pollan’s condensed version of “In Defense of Food,” is a short, clear guide to making wise food choices. Pollan lists 64 “rules” (don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk… sweeten and salt your food yourself… avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce). But there’s nothing absolute or militant here. It’s all about using good sense.

Fooducate’s free iPhone app scans UPC codes to assess products with an algorithm that favors real ingredients, actual (vs. fortified) nutrients and minimal processing. I just downloaded the app and haven’t tried it yet, but it looks promising.

Another round of labeling madness hits Monday, when the USDA is set to release updated dietary guidelines, but I won’t be batting an eye. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the food pyramid or front-of-package labels or the “nutrition facts” panel. If there’s a number attached to it, ignore it. Read the words, understand the ingredients, eat real food. You with me?

Update on February 1: Jenna Pepper over at Food with Kid Appeal has a good assessment today of why the new USDA dietary guidelines once again miss the big picture. (Scroll down to the section titled “My reaction to the USDA dietary guidelines.”) Jenna explains why “reducing factory food is a better dietary guideline than reducing calorie consumption.” (Sing it!) That includes factory-made low-fat milk, because, as she correctly points out: “Last time I checked, milk coming out of a cow contains fat; it takes a factory to remove it and add it back in in varying percentages.”  

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

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The color of trouble

Before I started Spoonfed, I began collecting “kid food” advertisements with the intention of skewering them on a regular basis. But as those torn pages piled up, I realized they were all the same.

Different products, different gimmicks: Lunchables give kids brain power! Pop-Tarts are the cornerstone of a balanced breakfast! McDonald’s is healthy for hipster moms and their stylish offspring!

But the same message: Kids are dumb. Parents are tired. Let’s distract them with bright colors and voodoo nutrition. (Then laugh all the way to the bank.)

Look, Mom, petroleum!

So I tossed the pile. And all the ads since have blurred into each other like a bad dream. Then this one caught my eye:

It’s Kool-Aid telling us to “change the way your kids see water.” Water. Because apparently water now is as vile to the wee, senseless ones as spinach and (white) milk.

But it’s not even that someone is trying to sell parents on tricked-out water (hello! sports drinks!). It’s that the main appeal of this tricked-out water is that it’s bright red (or purple or yellow, if you go with Gigglin’ Grape or Laughin’ Lemonade instead of Partyin’ Punch). Kool-Aid Fun Fizz isn’t touting better nutrition or bigger brains. These “drink drops” are all about making water “fun.” And, really, at “just 5 calories,” who cares about those 16 (at least) ingredients?

Yet, as I’ve written before, artificial colors are the charlatans of food additives: enticing, seemingly harmless… then wham. Linked to long-term health problems, these petroleum-derived chemicals often have immediate and devastating effects on children’s behavior and ability to learn. And unlike when we were kids (and our parents were kids), artificial colors are in everything, from food to toothpaste to medicine, even things that are white or look natural (check your pickles and “blueberries” ). Since 1955, that’s added up to a five-fold increase in dye consumption. Not. Good.

Some kids are ultra sensitive to food dyes (and other food additives, too). But even kids without that wiring can go nuts fast. I’ve seen it with my own daughter, a wild child within minutes of eating grocery-store birthday cake at friends’ parties. (It’s not the sugar, folks.) And with schoolmates who bring neon-frosted cupcakes for snacks, and dye- and preservative-laden Lunchables for lunch, then can’t listen or concentrate. It’s to the point where I actually feel ill watching kids eat this stuff.

Thanks to hard lobbying by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Feingold Association and concerned parents, the FDA will finally be examining the dye-behavior connection with a hearing in March. I don’t expect speedy resolution, but it’s progress. In the meantime? Read ingredients, ask questions, be diligent. And remember, as school-food activist Susan Rubin notes in this recent post, it’s not just about what your kid eats. It’s about what every kid around your kid eats:

“I point to this blue slushie and talk about second-hand smoke. If just one kid is bouncing off the walls because of some Skittles or other crazy colored/flavored junk, every kid in that classroom is impacted. The teacher has to work harder to gain the attention of the entire class.”

My daughter’s teacher gets it, so while I can’t control what individual kids bring for their own consumption, we have been able to avoid food dyes (and other junk) for classwide celebrations. I also love this idea from Nourish MD about a “real red” Valentine’s Day class party, where the kids talked about artificial colors and brainstormed naturally red foods. (Thanks to Food with Kid Appeal for that V-Day heads-up.)

Now. One last thing. Join me as I say goodbye to the final color fix left in our lives: The Birthday Cake.  As I explained here, we’ve long avoided food dyes as a rule, except for the birthday cake I make my daughter each year. All the other ingredients are wholesome, but then I go and junk it up with petrochemicals. I mostly blame inertia. It’s once a year, I view these cakes more as decoration than food, and I figured I’d never find natural dyes as vibrant as the fake stuff. But I’ve grown increasingly wary of food dye in any amount. The effects are too obvious, and the remedy too easy. So I got myself a set of India Tree dyes and, voila.

As luck would have it, Tess wanted a doll cake for her recent birthday, which meant I got to use the same mold I used for her mermaid cake last year. Which means I now get to do dramatic (not really) before-and-after shots:

Queen of the (neon) sea vs. nature girl

We served the cake with good ice cream, and raspberries and clementines on the side. (And water. Plain, clear water.) Nobody bounced off the walls or climbed tables or otherwise dissolved in chaos. But there was silliness and the limbo and flapping of butterfly wings. Fun fueled by little girls, natch.

Thoughts on neon food, red water, ballistic children? How do you deal with the dyes?

This post is linked into Fight Back Fridays and Food Revolution Fridays.

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Food donations revisited: Dealing with the junk

Just saw an interesting NPR story called Overburdened food banks can’t say no to junk. And that brought to mind a Spoonfed discussion from November: Would you feed your own kid the same food you donate to food pantries? 

The NPR piece notes that most of the unhealthy food given to food banks comes from grocery stores and food companies, which makes sense given the sheer volume of those donations. And that’s a big challenge with implications far beyond food banks. But our earlier conversation (including comments from food-pantry workers) shows that individuals can make a difference. Whether that’s by donating wholesome food or giving money so food banks can buy healthy fare in bulk, our choices matter.

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Daily (Show) dose of funny. With fries.

This bit on banning Happy Meal toys aired last week, but I couldn’t pass on a chance to cite The Daily Show and tweak McDonald’s at the same time. Because, really, while Comedy Central is poking fun at those of us who think food companies ought to lay off our kids (while we parents also parent), McDonald’s doesn’t exactly get off scot-free. And that’s the way I like it. Funny with a side of reality.

(Now I want a Crappy Meal adorned with the Periodic Table of Elements.)

More McCrazy from the Spoonfed archives:

Retire Ronald? Or reclaim responsibility? (April 29, 2010)
Parenting amid predatory marketing. And why McDonald’s should be held more accountable than most.

Forget Happy Meal Toys. Let’s ban McEducation. (November 5, 2010)
McDonald’s holds nutrition workshops for grade-schoolers. Really.

This just in: Fast food is unhealthy (November 9, 2010)
Shocking (not) findings about the nutritional value of kids’ fast-food meals.

More McDonald’s madness (November 17, 2010)
McDonald’s advises British food policy. McTeacher’s Nights drum up PR and indoctrination. And why government involvement in food isn’t automatically bad.

Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2011 Christina Le Beau

Let’s talk Girl Scout cookies

Iconic. I know, I know.

I was talking to a friend this past fall about Brownies. The Girl Scout kind. Her daughter had just joined a troop, and, remembering how much I’d loved camping and earning badges as a Girl Scout myself, I asked for details, thinking my daughter might like to join, too.

I’d kind of forgotten about the cookies.

Years ago, before I got squicky about things like refined sugars and oils, GMOs and chemicals in my food, I thought nothing of buying a few boxes from co-workers and neighborhood kids. Then I learned what’s in Girl Scout cookies (including pesticide-laden cottonseed oil and eco-nightmare palm oil), lost my taste and haven’t thought about them since. Tess has never had a Girl Scout cookie. We don’t have family or friends who pester us to buy them. (I haven’t seen a door-to-door Girl Scout in forever.) And when we’ve walked by the tables local troops set up outside banks and stores, we’ve just smiled and kept going.

So when my friend mentioned that if Tess joined in the fall, she’d be starting in the midst of our region’s cookie sales, I had one of those huh moments. Huh, I’d better look into this. And gee, I wonder if we’re allowed to opt out. “I sort of wondered if the cookie thing might be a conflict of interest,” my friend joked (sort of), when I said that I needed to think things through.

Turns out you can opt out, though the Girl Scout website makes you feel like a loser for even considering such a thing. But I decided to wait anyway. Tess already has art and sewing classes besides school, and sometimes swimming lessons, too, and that’s all plenty. But, really, I just need time to think about the cookies.

Oh, there’s no way I’d let her sell them. Our food habits are far from perfect (whatever that means). But I’d feel like a hypocrite. Or a drug dealer. Go on, tell me I’m overreacting. But, seriously, I couldn’t in good conscience let my daughter sell something I believe to be patently unhealthy. (Just as I’m not a fan of donating Girl Scout cookies to food pantries.) And not that I’ve personally tasted one lately, but people tell me the cookies aren’t even that good. Maybe that’s because of ingredient changes. Or maybe because when you eat more real food, you lose your taste for crap. But, no matter. No selling.

10% to 20%. Worth it?

But is that all? Do I just quietly opt out and let Tess enjoy the many great things the Girl Scouts do offer? Or do I talk to the council, the troop, whoever makes these decisions, about some fundraising alternatives? I mean, even if you don’t want to consider the ingredients, there’s the money thing: While about 70% of cookie proceeds go to the local council, individual girls and troops keep only 10% to 20% of the price of each box. And it’s not like the girls gain any values lessons here, as they could with, say, selling seed-starting kits or fair-trade goods. Seems we could do better, yes?

But then what? Do I raise a stink at higher levels? Try to get the Girl Scouts of the whole U.S. of A. to see that forcing little girls to shill nasty, unhealthful cookies hardly upholds the ideals of an organization that published a report called “Weighing in: Helping Girls Be Healthy Today, Healthy Tomorrow”?

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a 2006 op-ed called “Killer Girl Scouts” that set the Nanny State complainers abuzz. My favorite part:

“Maybe it’s unfair to pick on the Girl Scouts, because trans fats are all around us… But that’s the problem we have in risk assessments. There are certain kinds of risks — say, fears of Saddam Hussein — that galvanize us to mobilize an army and devote $1 trillion to confront the challenge. Meanwhile, we do nothing about threats that are much more likely to kill us — like trans fats peddled by cute little girls.”

This was before the Girl Scouts toned down the trans fats in their cookies. But trans fats are still in there. Along with all the other unhealthy oils, refined sugars, and artificial colors and flavors. Yet these are the same cookies the Girl Scouts use as a foundation for cookie badges that ask girls to, among other things, analyze cookie ingredients (for realz) and consider farmers’ roles (as if).

The Scouts should be careful what they ask for, or they might end up with whole troops like these two savvy 12-year-olds, who created an alternative fundraiser and education campaign after learning that the cookies contain rainforest-destroying palm oil.

I did learn about one badge that makes me feel like not quite such a nudge. Organic Pastures, a raw-milk dairy in California, has created a Raw Milk Badge for Girl Scouts who visit the farm to learn where milk comes from and why raw milk from healthy cows is good for you. Of course, they have to go and mention that whole milk-and-cookies thing, but, hey, it’s a start.

Now it’s your turn. As cookie season fires up all over the country, what are your thoughts? On the cookies. On the money and the fundraising. On how you’ve handled this with your girls or troops. Yell at me, agree with me. But let’s talk about this.

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

On February 11, this post was reprinted by Fooducate.

Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2011 Christina Le Beau
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