Why I am in a Food Fight (against Junk!)

I will not stop ... until filling her with junk food is just as socially unacceptable as giving her a cigarette.

Why do we not give cigarettes to kids? Because while they may like the feeling for a moment, we know it will end badly.

Why do we not let them drive a car? Because while they may like the feeling for a moment, we know it will end badly.

Why do we not give them drugs? Because while they may like the feeling for a moment, we know it will end badly.

Why do we not send them off to school full of toaster pastries (candy disguised as breakfast?) Because while they may like the feeling for a moment, we know it will end badly.

Oh, how I wish that last one were true. But somehow our culture has slipped, we have lowered our collective bar, to the point where we don’t even think it’s odd any more to:

And when a parent tries to call foul on this bizarre behavior, he/she tends to be viewed as “extreme,” and to be hear they should “let kids be kids.”  OK, pass them a cigar – they may like that, too.

Instead, what if we could find a way to tune out the words of the food marketers (whose job it is to increase consumption of their brands – not to increase your health) … and to instead make independent, informed choices for what to feed our families and ourselves?

What would our meals look like?  What would our kids’ snacks look like?  And what would be the impact on our collective health?

I believe we can reverse the trend in child obesity rates, which have quadrupled, from 5 to 20% in the last 30 years, along with hospitalizations of children due to obesity complications.

I believe we can reverse the highly related Type 2 Diabetes crisis (healthcare costs of $110 billion in 2011, projected to rise to nearly $157 billion by 2017).

And, call me crazy, but I think this can and must happen quickly, overnight, even.  Let’s effect a culture shift that makes healthy choices the norm … the “default” behavior, and makes unhealthy choices uncomfortable.

If you are a parent, you can help be a driver of the shift.   Bring beautiful, healthy snacks and meals when called upon by your school.  Demonstrate that in-season fruit, water (maybe flavored with some fresh fruit?), and veggie snacks will be gobbled up as quickly as junk food, but with FAR better long-term results.  And at home, cook, or at least assemble!  If you start with whole ingredients like vegetables, grains, eggs, etc., and keep the focus more on vegetable sources, it is incredibly hard to make unhealthy meals.  It’s the so-called “convenience” foods that come pre-packaged, pre-measured, pre-sliced that are most dangerous to your family’s health.  Think:  making your own chips vs. buying them in bags.  You may have them from time to time, but the volume would be drastically reduced.

If you are an educator, make your classroom a “marketing central” for a healthy lifestyle.  Kids who look at appetizing pictures of fruits and veggies all day tend to choose and eat more of these foods at meals!  And for goodness sake, please ask parents to send only snacks that support health.

If you are a doctor or nurse, PLEASE don’t be afraid to suggest that families limit their foods to those made from fresh, whole ingredients.  It’s not “fringy” or “crunchy” … it’s based in science and just makes sense.  Years ago, a few words from a pediatrician helped call my attention to a dietary choice I was making (for “convenience”) that compromised my children’s health.  He made a huge impact on our lives.

If you are an influencer of others – and this includes all celebrities, athletes, journalists, bloggers, etc. – please wield your influence wisely.  Since you have to maintain high energy for your high-impact life, you probably already make awesome food and lifestyle choices.  Be public – very, very public – with them.

And whoever you are, for yourself, as you go through your day, ask yourself whether each food choice you’re about to make supports or damages your health.  If it is damaging, exercise this opportunity to hold yourself to a higher standard … to tell yourself a new story about your value, and what your body deserves by instead choosing foods that are healthy and life-affirming.

It really doesn’t take many good choices before they suddenly start to be the easy norm for you … and even those around you!

Strawberry Lies: What’s NOT in your food may surprise you!

quakerYour strawberry-loving kids had Quaker Strawberries and Cream oatmeal for breakfast, with Hershey’s Strawberry milk. Strawberry Fruit Gushers for dessert for lunch, and Straw-Banana-Rama Double Crush Cup Yogurt for an after-school snack. At practice, they drank Kiwi-Strawberry Vitaminwater, and then had Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups after dinner.

So how many strawberries did they eat, for goodness sake? EXACTLY NONE.

Confused?  Read on, and follow the links to credible sources for ingredients, if you want to check for yourself (and you should)!

I’m picking on strawberries, but this is by no means limited to them.

Crystal Light’s “Natural Lemonade” mix doesn’t even contain a single drop of lemon or lemonade (though it does include under 2% of “lemon juice solids, meaning solids extracted from lemons and then turned into a powder)!  Please tell me what’s “Natural” about that?

kraftguacamoleKraft sells a “guacamole dip” that contains less than 2% avocados.

Knorr “Pasta Sides” Chicken Broccoli Fettuccini has more corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein, and salt than there is Chicken or Broccoli.


These food marketers are counting on your being too busy (and trusting) to worry with reading the label.  They think that because they add fruit flavors or colors, you’ll be duped into buying their products and feeding them to your families.  And unfortunately, for many of us, they’re right.

If a blouse were marked as “silk” but then you found out later that it was imitation silk, you’d return it.  If you stopped for your morning “coffee” but then later learned it was made of a colored water that was flavored to taste like coffee (but didn’t have any of coffee’s physical or nutritional characteristics), you’d be up in arms.  So why are we giving food marketers so much leeway with chemical colors and flavors that help THEM save money, but dupe us every day?

How to Fight Back

1.  Read labels.  Don’t assume that because you see it on the label, it’s in the box.  Or that if it’s not on the label, it’s not in the box.  

2. Avoid buying packaged foods.  I know, it sounds extreme, but it’s actually easier than you think.  Stay away from the middle of the store – shop the periphery, where most non-processed food lives.  Buy strawberries rather than strawberry-flavored gook.  Make a game of it for a week, just to see how you do – you may be surprised at how simple and tasty your meals become!

3.  If you’re going to choose a packaged food, choose the simplest one the brand offers.  As an example, next time you’re in the grocery store, compare the ingredients in Triscuits (whole wheat, oil, and salt) to the ingredients in any other Triscuit flavor (too long to list here, and includes MSG, ugh).  Or compare regular Quaker Oatmeal to the “strawberries and cream” abomination mentioned above.

Here’s one more for the road:  Snyder’s of Hanover Eat Smart Veggie Crisps claim to be “A bountiful blend of potato, spinach, and tomato chips.”  However, they boast more potassium chloride than spinach.   Doesn’t sound very bountiful to me.

The Petition to Amend the Standard of Identity for Milk … and the REAL Reason it Matters

Glass of milk on tablecloth
Janine Chedid / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Confused about all that you’ve been hearing about aspartame and milk?  Me too … until I did a little digging.  Now I’m not confused, I’m furious.


In 2009, the National Milk Producer’s Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association jointly submitted a petition to the FDA (you can see the information here) to allow the use of “any safe and suitable” sweetener as a flavoring ingredient for milk and 17 other dairy products … without (and this is the key) having to include prominent front-label notices that the milk is “reduced calorie” or “reduced-sugar,” and “artificially sweetened.”  Note that manufacturers already can, and do, use the artificial sweeteners with the labeling.   Also, they can and do use the unmodified “milk” label on milk with added caloric sweeteners like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as on unsweetened milk.

The FDA has just opened the petition “for public comment and data,” which is why you’re hearing about it now in the news.

Don’t be Fooled: What’s Actually at Stake

Presumably fueling the controversy is aspartame, which is surely one of the most well-known controversial ingredients around today … and I’ve written about that below.  But as is so often the case, what we’re arguing about (aspartame) is actually just a distraction to the real, FAR FAR FAR more troubling issue:  the dairy industry wants to add ingredients without clearly stating that they are there.  Following is a verbatim (bolding is mine) snippet from the Federal Register’s request for comments:

“However, IDFA and NMPF argue that nutrient content claims such as ‘reduced calorie’ are not attractive to children, and maintain that consumers can more easily identify the overall nutritional value of milk products that are flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners if the labels do not include such claims.”

REALLY??  But oh … it gets worse:

“Further, the petitioners assert that consumers do not recognize milk—including flavored milk—as necessarily containing sugar. Accordingly, the petitioners state that milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners should be labeled as milk without further claims so that consumers can ‘more easily identify its overall nutritional value.'”

Let me try re-phrasing this:  ‘Consumers (particularly children) aren’t smart enough to know that flavored milk contains sugar.  It would just confuse them if we told them, and we don’t think they really want to know anyway, so we shouldn’t tell them.  Instead, we should just quietly replace it with fake sugar, which we think will be better for them.’

Apparently the Dairy Industry thinks we can’t handle the truth.

Next on this slippery slope:  ‘Consumers have an illogical fear of <rodent meat, insects, or anything else you can imagine>, unsupported by scientific evidence.  Rather than troubling them with the details, food manufacturers should be able to include this valuable protein source without calling attention to it.’

Let’s Spread the Word

How do YOU feel about this petition … about the IDFA and NMPF statements above?  PLEASE add your comments to this post, and share your thoughts with others.

Related Information

In include the following information because it is indeed related.   But please help spread the word that it’s the least of the problem with the petition currently under consideration.

The Aspartame Controversy

One side maintains that aspartame is an “excitotoxin” or “neurotoxin” that causes brain changes that lead to ADD/ADHD symptoms, impaired learning/memory, brain tumors, and worse.  I dug really hard, and while there is a lot of media noise around this, there are actually very few published reports that support this view.  Many on this side accuse the powerful food lobby of “hiding” research that shows the neurological and other ill effects.

The other side points out that despite heavy assault from internet memes and hoax emails, asparatame has consistently passed the scrutiny of scientific studies, including ones by the National Cancer Institute, and has been determined to be safe for human consumption.

Personal note:  For myself and my family, I’m sticking with molecules that have been around for long enough to understand long-term (and I mean generational) effects.  Aspartame, introduced in 1981, doesn’t make the cut.  Also, I’m negative on anything that supports further development of my sweet tooth – and at 200 times sweeter than sugar, aspartame is a taste bud bomb I don’t need.

What is Phenylalanine and how does it relate to this issue? 

It has an awkward name, but it’s actually a naturally-occurring essential amino acid (amino acids are the building blocks of protein).  It’s found in most animal products – meat, dairy, eggs, even human breast milk.  And it is one of the breakdown products of aspartame.

The reason you see warnings about it is that about 1 in 15,000 people have a condition called Phenylketonuria, which prevents them from metabolizing phenylalanine; it instead builds up in their bodies.  These warnings allow them to make safe food choices given their condition.

Oscar-Worthy Healthy Celebrations

The 2013 Academy Awards are tonight, February 24, 2013

The 2013 Academy Awards are tonight, February 24, 2013

Are you celebrating the Academy Awards with friends or family tonight?

Don’t use it as an excuse to blow your commitment to healthy eating … use it as an opportunity to introduce others to how DELICIOUS real food can be!  Wouldn’t you prefer that your friends remember your amazing Kale Quinoa Tabbouleh than remember a post-party pizza-wings-chips hangover?

And, healthy celebrations do NOT have to be boring – quite the contrary!  One of the best things about healthy foods is how beautiful they are.  Cheese and veggie platters can be virtual works of art … nature’s rainbow!  Imagine an hour into your party: contrast cold, congealed pizza with avocado chimichurri bruscetta or layered fiesta salad.

Need ideas?  Here are a few to get you started!

The fabulous Jamie Oliver has whipped up an Oscar-winning menu of ideas.

Healthy celebratory ideas from Frances Largeman-Roth, RD.

The Examiner.com even added some healthy “formal” cookies :-)

Fitness magazine has published a guide of the “10 Healthiest Party Foods.”


Eating Out Healthfully: New Research from RAND Corporation

en:User:Rdikeman / Food Photos / CC BY-SA

Based on a recent study of the top 400 Chain Restaurants (by sales) published in the Cambridge University Press, it looks like eating out healthfully (at least at the most popular chain restaurants surveyed) is still a challenge.  But even where it’s hard to find a great choice, there are still some choices that are better than others.

Key findings

  1. Appetizers had more calories, fat and sodium than all other item types.
  2. Children’s menu specialty beverages had more fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates than comparable regular menu beverages.
  3. As few as 3% of entrees were within limits for sodium, fat and saturated fat.
  4. Main entrées had significantly more calories, fat and saturated fat in family-style restaurants than in fast-food restaurants.
  5. Restaurants that made nutrition information easily accessible on websites had significantly lower energy, fat and sodium contents across menu offerings than those providing information only upon request.

Better Bets

So, the message is to skip the restaurant if it doesn’t provide nutrition information.  Skip the appetizer. DEFINITELY skip the kids drinks.  And if you’re in a family-style restaurant, choose a veggie salad or share a main entree with others.

Better yet, skip chain restaurants altogether, and patronize a restaurant that offers clean, fresh, healthy food for your family – usually local establishments with owners truly invested in the health of the community they serve.

Or, cook at home, where you have full control of the ingredients.  For less than the cost of a restaurant meal, you can buy pre-prepped veggies that can be quickly steamed or sautéed  then tossed over quinoa or other grains … give a new herb or spice a try once a week or so to keep things interesting and add a boost of health!  If you’re looking for healthy, simple recipe ideas, check out list of Vibrant Health Recipes or (if you’re really out of time) our list of Super-Quick Meals and Snacks.


Study Cited:  Helen W Wu and Roland Sturm (2013). What’s on the menu? A review of the energy and nutritional content of US chain restaurant menus. Public Health Nutrition, 16, pp 87-96. doi:10.1017/S136898001200122X.   http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S136898001200122X

The Dirty Art of “Leanwashing”

Sugar Smacks ad from 1977 (Leanwashing has been around for a while!)

Sugar Smacks ad from 1977 (Leanwashing has been around for a while!)

Have you seen the Leanwashing site?  This website, from Enviromedia Social Marketing, founded by Valerie Davis and Kevin Tuerff, lets consumers report brands that use vague of misleading claims about health benefits that make a food seem like a smart choice when it is not.  Examples are 100-calorie snack packs of highly-processed gunk, or sugar-drenched cereals that scream “WHOLE GRAIN!” on the package.   I’m a huge fan of this site!

From one of their Advisory Panel members, former Big Food exec and healthy eating advocate Bruce Bradley, “Over the past decade or so, Big Food increasingly acts more and more like a snake oil salesman, shilling sugary, salt-laden, fatty processed foods and calling them ‘healthy.'”  Exactly – and the result is a generation of mothers – and their kids – who have come to believe that fruit actually comes “by the foot.”

Enviromedia’s guidelines for identifying Leanwashed products:

  • Does the product mislead with words?  (common Leanwashing words include “natural”, “whole-grain”, and “wholesome”)
  • Does the product mislead with visuals, sponsorship or imagery? (athletes on candy packages, for example)
  • Does the product make vague health claims?
  • Does the product exaggerate how healthy it is?
  • Does the product appear to mask information, making a product seem healthier than it really is?

Check out the site and share it with others … and be on the lookout for Leanwashing in the grocery stores and restaurants you visit.  When you see it for what it is, it loses its hold on you!

CNN: Study Finds That World Wastes Half its Food

This is one of the saddest articles I’ve read in a long time: The World Wastes Half its Food.  And much of it due to blemishes or imperfections that the healthiest, heritage, organically-grown food will be more prone to … while the snack cakes live on.

As consumers, we are either part of the solution, or part of the problem.  What we can do:

  • Teach the market not to throw away viable food : insist on organically grown fruits and vegetables, and accept the imperfections that come with that. The worm in the tip of the corn, the dark spot on a banana, or the overripe leaves on the outside of a cabbage are normal and easy to strip away.  Accepting this small investment of time will help teach producers and grocers not to throw away these items (and drive prices up to cover the waste).
  • Be deliberate in your own shopping choices: think of the effort and work that went behind the vegetables you are buying, and the lives invested in the meat items.  Refuse to squander this – buy only what you can eat or store, and if you wind up with a surplus, invite a friend to share dinner, or pass the ingredients to a local food bank before they spoil.
  • Does your CSA or garden sometimes overwhelm even your hungry family? Invest in freezer space and dehydrating tools and challenge yourself to live with as little waste as possible.  Fruits can be made into fruit leathers, veggies into great soups for office lunches, and more.

Have other ideas?  Please comment below and share them … let’s work together to reduce this terrible waste!