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“Smart Choices” labels: misleading at best

smartchoicesI am not shocked by this (via kottke.org), but still disappointed.  I have to believe that somewhere in the FDA is someone who really, truly, actually cares about trying to help Americans choose healthy foods.  But programs like “Smart Choices” really make me wonder.

From William Neuman’s NY Times article:

Mr. Jacobson objected to some of the panel’s nutritional decisions. The criteria allow foods to carry the Smart Choices seal if they contain added nutrients, which he said could mask shortcomings in the food.

Despite federal guidelines favoring whole grains, the criteria allow breads made with no whole grains to get the seal if they have added nutrients.

“You could start out with some sawdust, add calcium or Vitamin A and meet the criteria,” Mr. Jacobson said.

And what’s worse, your body can’t absorb added nutrients like it can when they naturally occur in a food.  It’s like Mr. Jacobson said: Vitamin A added to sawdust is quite a different story than Vitamin A in some butter from a grass-fed cow.

When foods like Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops get a checkmark for good nutrition, you can bet the fox is guarding the henhouse.  Once again, the FDA is completely in the pocket of industry, and why not?  They have no power to regulate anyone, anyway.  Can you tell I’m seriously fired up about this?  It’s insane.

I really appreciated Michael Pollan’s advice in In Defense Of Food: never eat anything that has some dubious nutritional claim plastered all over the box.  Word.


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The “greenwashing” of SIGG

I really like that term, greenwashing.  It’s the perfect way to describe what went on with SIGG water bottles:

“Last week, SIGG Switzerland, the makers of popular aluminum reusable water bottles — a must-have accessory for the fashionably eco-friendly set —  admitted that prior to August 2008, their bottles contained the chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA).”

siggbottlesAbout about two years ago, when BPA first started appearing on people’s radar, people started buying SIGG bottles like crazy because they are aluminum.  Therefore they don’t contain that harmful chemical associated with plastic, right?  WRONG.  Apparently SIGG bottles are lined with plastic, and that plastic contained BPA until one year ago.

So here’s a case where I guess I am lucky that I’ve been unable to afford the latest fad green item.  I picked up a couple of cheap BPA-free plastic water bottles at Target that we use.  I have to say though that I even eye BPA-free plastic with suspicion.  They replaced BPA with something, right?  Is it entirely possible that they replaced it with some other chemical that, in 5 years, will be exposed as carcinogenic?

What I really want to do is to just stop using plastic altogether and drink water out of a glass container.  The beauty of this is I could, for example, just use a quart-size canning jar.  Super cheap and chemical free, plus infinitely, easily recyclable.  Unlike plastic, which is hard or sometimes even impossible to recycle.  Note that I said “I want to” … I haven’t made this change yet.  It’s something in my hopefully-near future, but I’m not there yet.

The crappy thing about this business with SIGG was that they enjoyed a huge windfall based on misinformation about their product, and did nothing to correct the situation, for well over a year.  Read the entire article right here.


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Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

indefenseoffoodIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

This book’s been out for a couple years now but I only just got around to reading it.  And actually I didn’t read it; I listened to the audio book.

First a note on that: I don’t highly recommend the audio version.  The reader, Scott Brick, had kind of a nasally, annoying voice.  It wasn’t enough to diminish the importance of the material for me, but still something to note.

This is the book that launched the phrase, which I’m sure many of you have heard by now:

“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”

The book is broken down into three sections:  The Age of Nutritionism, The Western Diet, and Getting Over Nutritionism.

Nutritionism is the term Pollan uses (he did not coin it, however) to describe how we came to focus on the building blocks of foods (vitamins, minerals, nutrients, etc.) instead of foods themselves, and why that is problematic.  Margarine is such a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Because margarine is such a highly processed product, the food industry can change enough of its ingredients to make it appealing no matter what the current nutrition fad is.  So while a few years ago margarine was all about being low in cholesterol, now it’s all about being trans-fat free.

Pollan talks a lot about food processing and labelling, and blasts holes in a lot of sacred cows such as the lipid hypothesis (which is what connects a high cholesterol diet with coronary heart disease), and the idea that soy is good for you (his take: that depends on how it’s prepared).  Much of this information was also presented in Nourishing Traditions (by Sally Fallon), for which I still have to write up a review.

To be completely honest, part of me really wanted to dismiss Sally Fallon and Dr. Weston A Price’s ideas because they seemed so radical.  But to hear those same ideas coming out of someone as mainstream as Michael Pollan was kinda shocking in its own way.  When Pollan talked about Price’s research in this book, my first reaction was “Oh wow, this all might actually be true.  SHIT!”

Actually, Pollan himself has had a pretty big impact on my life.  It was the Omnivore’s Dilemma that convinced me to bring meat back into my life after spending 8 years as a vegetarian.  (Well, it didn’t help that I was pregnant with twins and having major steak cravings.)

If you are new to this stuff, I highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the movie Food, Inc. as a jumping-off point.  In Defense of Food, along with Nourishing Traditions, takes things to the next level.  I feel like I’m now in the sophomore year of my New Home Economics major.  I’m still a long ways from graduating though.

Pollan breaks his seven word manifesto down into what he calls “eating algorithms” to help us try to eat healthier without feeling so much anxiety about invisible nutrients and keeping track of which one is now good for us and which one is now bad for us.

As you might suspect, each part of his catch-phrase is slightly more complicated than it first appears to be.  Example: Eat Food.  He expands on that to help you understand that much of what you see at the supermarket isn’t necessarily real food.  A good example is something like plain, whole milk yogurt.  It’s been around for eons.  But to say that a product like “Go-gurt” (squeezable low-fat yogurt pouches flavored with high-fructose corn syrup, among other things) is the nutritional equivalent of the original yogurt?  Well, that’s questionable at this point.

Then he talks about the “Mostly Plants” part and breaks down the difference between eating mostly seeds (as we do now), and eating mostly leaves (as we did for all of human history until the last 100 or so years).  Hint: leaves are better.

Finally, the part that hit me right in the heart and gut: “Not too much.”  This is clearly one of my biggest hurdles (in addition to a good old fashioned sugar addiction).  For a long time, I’ve been telling myself,  it’s organic!  It’s homemade!  It’s all-natural!  It’s OK for me to have seconds and thirds because that just means more good-for-you stuff!  Well calories are still calories, unfortunately, and it would do me a lot of good to learn a little self-control.

I thought there were a lot of really great take-aways from this book, and even though I’ve read many of them before it never hurts to be reminded.  This will be going on the “highly recommended” list.


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Human hormones + chemicals = bad

Part of me is saying “duh.”  But part of me is glad that we have mounting scientific evidence that I can cite when people accuse me of being paranoid.

According to an article in today’s Strib, chemicals in literally every single product most of us eat or put on or near our body are endocrine disruptors — they mess with our hormones.   Quote:

“Endocrine disruptors have been blamed for playing a role in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, cancer, diabetes, earlier puberty, immune problems, obesity and infertility.”

Once again, the FDA and the EPA in the last 30 years have served only to protect industry, not consumers.  So once again it’s on our backs to figure out what’s safe and what’s not.  This has the potential to turn on my “anti-tax” gene: why am I funding agencies that are protecting corporations at the expense of my health?  It’s completely ridiculous.  Now that Obama’s in office I have more hope than I had before, but we’re talking about 30 years.  That includes a couple of Democrats who did nothing to change or stop it.

Japan banned BPA 10 years ago.  TEN years.  America still hasn’t banned it outright, although several states have now stepped up (including Minnesota).

Here’s a link to the article.


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A no-brainer

My hometown newspaper (and my employer, I work in their advertising dept.), the Star Tribune, had an article this morning about misleading nutritional claims on processed foods. If you weren’t born yesterday, there will be no shockers here. Really, do people not know this stuff? Am I overestimating the intelligence of the general public?

Then again, it’s all relative. We all know an apple is better for us than a candy bar. But if I’m dying for something sweet, and I have to choose between licorice and a Snickers, isn’t the licorice the relatively-less-bad choice?

Your everyday choices are more important than what you might do occasionally, for example, on a road trip.  We always indulge in a little bit of junk food when we’re driving through places like North Dakota. I don’t think the occasional naughtiness is going to kill any of us.

The one part of the article that hit especially close to home was the part about Vitamin Water. The New Home Economics approach to bottled water is very simple: carry a bottle with you and refill it at a tap. A filtered tap if you can find it. This method hits three sweet spots: my wallet, my health, and the environment.

Anyway, here is the article if you wish to learn about how cocoa puffs are not actually a health food.  It is a good reminder of how misleading labels can be.


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Another post about the Splendid Table?!

Good grief, this is two posts in a row now where I reference something I heard on the Splendid Table. I was just listening to some old podcasts that I hadn’t gotten to yet when I came across her 1/17/09 show about NPR’s Locavore Nation project. This episode features an interview with Barbara Kingsolver, author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book that definitely helped inspire me on my urban farming craze.

But then she also interviewed documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf about his vision of an “ideal” US food system. It was a shame to me that the interview was so short because I really liked what he had to say… I just put his movie into my Netflix queue and will review it here as soon as I see it.

Anyway, listen for yourself to this excellent podcast here.