Category: nutrition

Embracing preserved produce

Organic Blueberries

Photo by Flickr member Artizone, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fresh produce is great for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to give up on all lightly processed veggies and fruits. Kiera Butler has a nice post at Mother Jones that’s worth checking out. For example, she explains that

Some of the vitamins and minerals in produce start to degrade soon after harvesting, explains Diane Barrett, a food scientist at the University of California-Davis who has studied the nutritional differences between processed and fresh. By the time a stalk of broccoli makes it from the farm to the supermarket to your refrigerator, it has already lost some of its nutritional value. “Fruits and vegetables are frozen within hours of harvest, so that actually allows you to retain those nutrients,” says Barrett, who receives industry funding.

As I’ve said previously, when it comes to frozen peas, I couldn’t agree more.

Butler’s piece has “ifs,” and “mays,” and other qualifiers scattered throughout, but that’s largely a strength of her writing, not a weakness. (See, for example, her note above that Dr, Barrett’s work has had industry funding. That doesn’t in and of itself mark the findings as illegitimate, but it should give us pause.) This nuanced hedging reminds us that understanding the immense modern food system requires both an eye for detail and an appreciation of the complexity of modern life.  Check out the full post here.

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The birth of the children’s menu

1947 Union Pacific Railroad Menu

Photo of 1947 children’s menu from Flickr user John Atherton, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last month Slate ran a fascinating article by Michele Humes that was subtitled “A brief history of the children’s menu.” A she describes,

When the English novelist Anthony Trollope toured the United States in 1861… he was astonished to see 5-year-old “embryo senators” who ordered dinner with sublime confidence and displayed “epicurean delight” at the fish course.

Prohibition spelled the end for 5-year-old epicures. Taking effect in January 1920, the dry laws forced the hospitality industry to rethink its policy on children: Could it be that this untapped market could help offset all that lost liquor revenue? The Waldorf-Astoria in New York thought so, and in 1921 it became one of the first establishments to beckon to children with a menu of their very own. But even as restaurants began to invite children in, it was with a new limitation: They could no longer eat what their parents ate.

Humes identifies pediatrician Emmett Holt as the the early 20th century’s chief designer of children’s nutrition guidelines, a “hodgepodge of medicine and morality” that dictated to “mothers, nurses, and, apparently, chefs that young children were not to be given fresh fruits, nuts, or raisins in their rice pudding. Pies, tarts, and indeed ‘pastry of every description’ were ‘especially forbidden,’ and on no account were such items as ham, bacon, corn, cod, tomato soup, or lemonade to pass a child’s lips before his 10th birthday.”

The full article is well worth a read, especially since it encourages a questioning of the current state and continued existence of the children’s menu. Check it out here.

“Natural” not all it’s cracked up to be

All Natural!

Photo by Flickr user chris.franson, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

So-called natural foods are everywhere you look in the supermarket. As Marion Nestle describes in a recent post for The San Francisco Chronicle,

In the last decade, new products marketed with “natural” claims have proliferated, and it’s easy to understand why. Marketers love the term. “Natural” sells products, not the least because consumers consider it a synonym for healthful and, often, for organic. Anyone would rather buy “100 percent natural seltzer water”—”calorie-free, no sugar, no sodium, gluten-free” (things never found in water)—than plain seltzer.

While “natural” does not necessarily mean “healthy” or even “healthier,” it works splendidly as a marketing term and explains why many junk-food manufacturers are switching from expensive organic ingredients to those they can market as “natural.”

The FDA isn’t fixing this situation because, according to a statement in response to a petition by Center for Science in the Public Interest, it’s “not an enforcement priority.”

Manufacturers of highly processed foods could not be happier with this nondecision.

For the full piece, which probes the FDA’s squishy definition of natural, head here. For more on the subject, check out my earlier post on this issue which is chock full of links.

Zero grams trans fat!

Flamin' Hot Cheetos

Photo by Flickr user Eva [sadaqah], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Scientific American recently ran a nice post from Bonnie Swoger at their Information Culture blog. In it, Swoger considers how

we are constantly bombarded with food and health related information. Websites, commercials and infomercials all tell us how good particular products or diet plans are. Filtering out the good from the bad requires a bit of critical thinking. The first question to ask is, “Are they trying to sell me something?” And almost always, the answer is a resounding “YES!” Sometimes the sales pitch is overt…. Sometimes it is more subtle…. We have to remember that whatever information these folks are giving us is only because they want us to buy something….

Second, the savvy consumer of nutrition and diet information will ask “Where does the information come from?” Of course, this is directly related to our first question: if the information comes from someone trying to sell you something, you need to be more skeptical of the claims made.

I’m reminded of the question that I learned to ask in the “Social Problems” class that was the catalyst for me to eventually become a sociologist. When analyzing a particular social condition, arrangement, or institution, ask “Who benefits?” and see where the answers lead you.

The onslaught of “information” about food and nutrition that we are subjected to really is incessant, so Swoger’s piece provides a nice reminder of the dangers of partial truths, misinformation, and outright lies from folks who have something to gain. Armed with a critical eye, we can hopefully remain skeptical the next time we see a product trumpeting its nutritional qualities or hear a news story about the latest and greatest food that promises to improve our health. Check out the full post here, which begins with her consideration of Cheetos’ boast of “0 grams trans fat.”

Ooh, they’ve got salad … I’ll have the fries

Yummy celebratory McDonald's feast for lunch. The 1955 burger is ANIMAL. #foodporn

Photo by Sinéad Cochrane [iamvisi] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Stephanie Clifford had a nice article in The New York Times over the weekend. In it, she reported on social science that considers a counter-intuitive effect: as restaurants like fast-food chains offer more healthful options, folks tend to opt for even less nutritious selections than they would have in the absence of the better-for-you choices. As she explains,

Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor who studies consumer psychology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, has researched the disconnect.

In studies, he has presented participants with a range of menu choices — sometimes just unhealthy items, sometimes neutral items (like a fish sandwich) and sometimes healthy choices like salad. It turned out that including a healthy option did change people’s behavior — by making them eat more unhealthily.

“When you put a healthy option up there on an otherwise unhealthy menu, not only do we not pick it, but its presence on the menu leads us to swing over and pick something that’s worse for us than we normally would,” Mr. Fitzsimons said.

Why? Mr. Fitzsimons called the phenomenon “vicarious goal fulfillment.” By seeing a healthy menu option at a restaurant, “it basically satisfies that goal to be healthy,” he said, and gives consumers leeway to order what they want.

Find the fascinating full article here.

Bringing the farm to the school cafeteria and classroom

Radish Girls

Photo by Suzie’s Farm via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Joan Fischer recently had a nice piece in grow, the magazine of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS). In it, she examines many of the challenges and successes of efforts to bring fresh, local produce into schools. For example, she notes that

Children at schools with Farm to School programs consumed 40 percent more fruits and vegetables than kids at schools just starting Farm to School. Moreover, students in schools with several years of Farm to School programs were more likely to choose a greater variety of fruits and vegetables.

And Wisconsin kids need that help. Nearly a fourth of high school students are overweight or obese. “Many children consume diets in which more than 25 percent of their energy comes from sugar, and one in three high school students consumes fruit or vegetables less than once per day,” notes [CALS nutritional sciences professor Dale] Schoeller. “This diet pattern is associated with excess weight gain. A change in the diet pattern is needed, and one place to start that change is in school meal programs.”

His study of Farm to School has made him a believer in the program not as a magic bullet but as part of a long-term strategy toward better eating habits.

“This is something that needs to be done more broadly and year after year,” Schoeller says. “It’s not like getting an inoculation—something that you do once and it lasts for years. It has to be constantly reinforced until it becomes an ingrained behavior.”

Find the full article here. For more on school lunches, check out some of my earlier posts here, here, and here.

“Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you”

073/366 - Breakfast II

Photo by THEMACGIRL* [Pam Culver] (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As with Michael Moss’s new book, Salt Sugar Fat, which I ended up posting about not once but twice, I decided that although I posted last week about Melanie Warner’s new book, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, her work deserved a second shout out.

As Yoni Freedhoff describes in a blog post,

Warner reports that her interest was piqued consequent to her tremendously odd processed food collection – a collection she started to satisfy her desire to see how long beyond a processed food’s printed best before date that food would continue to be edible. From 9 month old only slightly brown around the edges guacamole, to 2 year old somewhat shrunken and crystallized processed cheese slices, to cereals older than 2 of my children that still look and taste like new, to chicken “nuggets” that rather than being immortal, liquefied (rather than rotted) within 10 days, Warner set out to figure out why.

Her book explores the history of some of the food industry’s biggest sellers: “Eternal” sliced cheese and the mistake that led to its creation; processed cereal and the story of a man who bragged that he never consummated his 40 year old marriage; discretionary fortification of foods and how and why your milk might contain extracts of sheep wool to return to it some of the vitamins stripped clean by the unbelievably harsh world of processing; the growth of soy and a tale of food flavourists and the debate over omega 3 and 6 ratios; whether or not there is such a thing as a healthy processed food, and much, much more.

Warner attributes her interest in food to her mother Therese who both accidentally ate the 9 month old guacamole (without negative effect), and also instilled in Warner two important messages, “What you put into your body matters, Melanie”, and, “Just because it’s edible doesn’t mean it’s good for you”.

As Carey Polis writes at Huffington Post,

Pandora’s Lunchbox explores the world of processed food, whether it is understanding exactly what American cheese slices are made of, or explaining how soybean oil is showing up in so many different foods. Warner doesn’t expect people to suddenly give up processed foods after reading her book — this isn’t quite “The Jungle” here — and even admits that when she was writing the book, she ate and fed her children more processed food than she typically did. She faced the same problem countless of Americans do: sometimes there simply isn’t time to cook a healthy, well-balanced meal. “I don’t think it is realistic for people in this day and age to cook every night of the week,” Warner told The Huffington Post.

“Everyone has food that they hate to love. Some of that is totally fine,” she explains. “Some” is the key word here though — Warner is far from thrilled with the current state of the food system. But since a massive overhaul of major companies isn’t likely, she suggests some more realistic solutions. “In an ideal world, the processed food industry will be much much smaller,” she says.

The $1 trillion industry isn’t doing everything wrong, though. Minimally-processed foods, such as frozen vegetables, are a step in the right direction, she argues. They can still provide some nutrients and convenience while not offering tons of added chemicals or preservatives.

For more, check out Warner’s conversation with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, which Goodman introduces this way: “As we continue deep inside the $1-trillion-a-year ‘processed-food-industrial complex, we turn to look at how decades of food science have resulted in the cheapest, most abundant, most addictive and most nutritionally inferior food in the world. And the vitamins and protein added back to this processed food? Well, you might be surprised to know where they come from.” The interview is available online in two parts, here and here.