Tag Archives: refined sugar

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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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.

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Lesson at the bakery case. But who learned what?

Sticky situation?

We’d left school and were driving to a nearby art studio to pick up a print I’d won in a raffle. Tess was in the backseat, cranky, tired, whining about needing to pee, despite being asked that exact question at least four times before we’d left school. Not wanting to descend upon the artist with a crabby and incontinent child, I stopped at a coffee shop so she could use the bathroom.

Tess usually ignores the bakery cases in coffee shops. Not today. She was all over it, one of those kids pressing in close, breathing hot germy clouds across the glass, fingers smudging as they targeted one item after another. “What’s that?” Ten times. Maybe 20. We’d not even made it to the bathroom yet. “Come on,” I pulled her away, “you said you have to go.”

On the way back out, I stopped to buy a coffee. Probably not the smartest thing to do under the circumstances, but there you have it. And so the breathing and smudging and questioning started again.

None of the wholesome treats I always carry were good enough. And there wasn’t time to suggest a trade. I wasn’t even sure she was actually hungry. But we had to be to the art studio in a few minutes, so after quizzing the cafe staff and ruling out anything with food dyes or that had been baked off-site (since the ingredients were complete unknowns), I settled on a piece of chocolate-chip pumpkin bread. Made with tons of refined sugar and GMO canola oil, it was still the best of the bunch. And, really, I just wanted to avoid a meltdown.

But I told Tess she’d have to wait until we were in the car. And on the way to the car, I had a revelation. I wasn’t going to let her eat it. I was going to explain to her that I’d bought it only to avoid a scene, and that avoiding a scene isn’t a good reason to buy something, especially food.

So, back in the car again, that’s what I did. And here’s what she did: After expressing concern that I was going to “waste it” (legitimate, and I did feel bad about throwing it away), she said: “But, Mommy, I was just asking questions. Sometimes I just get curious about things.”

Huh. “So, if I’d just answered your questions about what everything was, and then told you that we didn’t want to buy those things because of the ingredients, you would have been OK with that?” She nodded, said an emphatic “yes” and buckled her seatbelt.

I don’t think the kid was playing me. She really was just curious. And that’s the whole point of raising a thinking eater, right? But in my haste and desperate attempt to avoid embarrassment, all I saw was a difficult child and an easy way out. And that, maybe, is a whole lot of the reason so many parents buy the candy at checkout or the Lunchable at the grocery store or the mac-and-cheese on the kids’ menu. It’s because it’s about the parent, not the kid at all.

True? Not so? And why do kids have to smooch glass anyway?

This post is linked into Fight Back Fridays, Vegetarian Foodie Fridays and Wholesome Whole Foods.

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