Busy news week….

First, just for fun, “Cakes Gone Wrong,” which has a fun link to CakeWrecks.

Now on to the more serious links.

Let’s take a close look at the new “Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation.” The objective:

The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) is a unique partnership between retailers, non-profit organizations, food and beverage manufacturers and trade associations aimed at helping to reduce obesity. The HWCF will promote ways to help people achieve a healthy weight through energy balance – balancing calories consumed as part of a healthy diet with calories expended by physical activity – in the places where they spend much of their time: in the marketplace, in the workplace and in schools.

Sounds like a great plan, in theory. Here is what participating companies have agreed to do:

Participating companies are committing to build on existing efforts and will be making changes to their products, packaging and labeling to make it easier for consumers to manage their calorie intake while preserving or enhancing overall nutrition quality. Specific options companies may undertake include product reformulation and innovation; providing smaller portions; redesigning packaging and labeling; placing calorie information on the front of products; providing consumers with information and educational materials; and in-store promotion of the initiative.

However, if you look at the members’ list, it is composed mainly of huge agribusiness-type producers of processed foods. I will be watching closely to see how many of them actually “reformulate” their food products into real food rather than simply taking the easier route and repackaging, relabeling, reportioning. One of the first examples is Coca-Cola planning to put their calorie count on the front of the bottle. Hm. I don’t know a single Coke drinker that will be deterred by this. It makes me wonder how the calories in Coke can be counted as “calories consumed as part of a healthy diet.”

It will be interesting to track, but I fear that this foundation is mostly about fooling the public into believing that these companies care about their health while still convincing them that they need these food products – it is, after all, all about these companies losing money if people realize that their products are NOT part of a healthy diet, right?

Want a surer source of the basics of a healthful diet? Try the USDAs Farmers’ Market Search or go to LocalHarvest.

Some interesting and disturbing stats at the CDC’s Fruits & Veggies Matter site.

And finally, a controversial study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health mentioned in several places in the UK: “Are working mums’ children fatter?” both at NHS and NetDoctor. I’m not sure the study really reached any conclusions, and I’d have to say that working mothers have enough trouble without being blamed for their children’s obesity problems…. Or maybe I’m just sensitive, being on the verge of returning to PT work myself?

And finally, the White House Chef is revealed…

The DC restaurant scene is buzzing, trying to figure out which restaurants will rise and fall with the arrival of the Obama administration next week – apparently the President-Elect loves to eat out, according to “Rearranging the Tables in Washington”. But what interests me far more, as a foodlover and a mother of young children, is what will happen on the Obama’s home front, if one can call the White House that.

After much speculation among foodies who would take the helm in the Obama White House kitchen, the transition team announced last week that Cristeta Comerford, who currently holds the position and came on under the Bush administration in 2005, would be staying on. From Mary MacVean in the LATimes:

“Cristeta Comerford brings such incredible talent to the White House operation and came very highly regarded from the Bush family,” [Michelle] Obama said in a statement released last week by the president-elect’s transition team. “Also the mom of a young daughter, I appreciate our shared perspective on the importance of healthy eating and healthy families.”
The Grand Dame of the American foodie world, Alice Waters, has also come out to support the continuation of Comerford, saying,
I’m very pleased that it’s not a celebrity, in the sense of someone who gave the impression that food was about going to fancy restaurants…. The idea is that good food is a right for all Americans and not just for the privileged people who can afford it.
It is indeed wonderful that Mrs. Obama understands the connection between healthy eating and healthy families, and that Comerford is in a sense a behind-the-scenes celebrity. But it’s my hope that they combine forces to take this opportunity to make the commitment to healthy eating and healthy families very public: food – real food, not processed food products – should NOT be a privilege at a time when in many ways, it is. Now is the time for them to plant that White House (Lawn) garden and get involved in promoting programs such as Will Allen’s Growing Power that try to ensure that that sort of fresh, local, real food is available in every neighborhood of America.
Let the restaurants ride on the coattails of the President – I want to see underprivileged Americans lifted up on the skirttails of the First Lady (or the coattails of the chef whites on the White House Chef)!

In the food news: rising prices and expanding waistlines

Most of what appears in the food section these days seems to be gloom and doom about the rising prices of food, both at the store and in restaurants – one example is “Food Prices Expected to Keep Going Up” in last week’s New York Times. I’m often taken aback by such articles, not because I haven’t noticed my own grocery bill increasing, but because of the angle from which the articles are written.

Take “Food Prices Expected to Keep Going Up” for example. It begins with the following paragraphs:

For more than a year, food manufacturers have been shaving package sizes and raising prices, declaring that they had little choice because of unprecedented increases in the cost of raw ingredients like corn, soybeans and wheat.

Now, with the price of grains and other commodities plunging, it may seem logical that grocery prices will follow. But while prices for some items like milk and fresh produce are dropping, those of most packaged items and meat are holding firm or even increasing. Experts warn that consumers should not expect lower prices anytime soon on most items at the grocery store or in restaurants.

It’s very telling that the focus of the article is not on “real” food (by which I mean whole, close to the source food) but on manufactured food, the price of which is closely tied to that of “raw ingredients like corn, soybeans and wheat” and “commodities.”

I don’t buy much processed, manufactured, prepackaged food – 80%-90% of what we eat comes from the farmer’s market and is cooked at home. I know exactly what goes into each meal, and very little of what goes in comes from corn, soybeans, and wheat. The package sizes haven’t changed because almost nothing comes packaged, and the prices have increased only slightly over the past year. Interestingly enough, it seems that the prices of organically raised produce, wild-caught fish, and sustainably raised meat have remained stable, while vendors of conventionally grown produce are increasing their prices.

If you reread the NYT article’s opening paragraphs more closely you will see that there is actually reason to celebrate for those of us who don’t believe in “food products” as opposed to food and who choose to cook and eat more than 95% of our meals at home: “prices for some items like milk and fresh produce are dropping.” But look at the way that clause is inserted: “But while prices for some items like milk and fresh produce are dropping…” [emphasis is mine].

Wouldn’t it be more positive to say “While prices on most packaged items and meat are holding firm or increasing, the price for items like milk and fresh produce are dropping”? Then the writer could find someone with clout to say what a great thing this is because these are the real foods that we should be eating for optimal health to begin with.

The other article that grabbed my attention was also in the NYT: “Health Halo Can Hide the Calories.” The author relates a somewhat unscientific experiment conducted on New Yorkers concerning calorie estimation. It’s worth a read – although I would have found it more entertaining (as it was apparently meant to be) if it weren’t so distressing! Apparently, given a picture of an Applebee’s salad and a 20-oz Pepsi, most New Yorkers questioned made fairly reasonable guesses as to the calorie content of the meal. Add some crackers labeled “trans-fat free” and poof! Their ability to reason disappeared, and they underestimated the calorie content of the meal to the point that it had fewer calories than the crackerless one. But here’s the most interesting part for me, “the kicker”:

Just as Dr. Chandon had predicted, the trans-fat-free label on the crackers seemed to imbue them with a health halo that magically subtracted calories from the rest of the meal. And we got an idea of the source of this halo after I tried the same experiment with tourists in Times Square.

These tourists, many of them foreigners (they kept apologizing for not knowing what Applebee’s was), correctly estimated that the meal with crackers had more calories than the meal without crackers.

I take offense at the somewhat light-hearted way in which the article comments

“People who eat at McDonald’s know their sins,” Dr. Chandon said, “but people at Subway think that a 1,000-calorie sandwich has only 500 calories.”

because I think that it takes away from the very important conclusion (again the quotes are from Dr. Chandon:

“If no [calorie] information is available, people should say to themselves: ‘This restaurant or this brand claims to be healthy in general. Let’s see if I can come up with two reasons why this claim would not apply to this particular food.’

“Europeans obsess less about nutrition but know what a reasonable portion size is and when they have had too much food, so they’re not as biased by food and diet fads and are healthier. Too many Americans believe that to lose weight, what you eat matters more than how much you eat. It’s the country where people are the best informed about food and enjoy it the least.”

I completely agree with parts of the conclusion, but I do think that the idea that Americans are “the best informed about food” is problematic, mostly because the media approaches “food” from the perspective of food product manufacturers.

How about testing the average American’s ability to estimate the calorie count in a meal made from scratch from whole, close to the source ingredients? Or to estimate how much the same meal costs (both in terms of dollars and in cost to the environment) compared to one made of processed food from a restaurant?

With prices rising on packaged foods and American waistlines bulging, has there ever been a better time to shift the paradigm of how Americans read and write about food?

A new study and a new label

In the New York Times this morning, results of a scary new study about childhood obesity:

the thickness of artery walls of children and teenagers who are obese or have high cholesterol resembled the thickness of artery walls of an average 45-year-old.

Beyond scary when you consider:

Childhood obesity is considered an epidemic in the United States, with about 16 percent of children ages 2 to 19 considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the number of new cases of childhood obesity appears to be leveling off, some experts say they are now seeing an increase in Type 2 diabetes in children, which they believe is a consequence of increased obesity.

What is a parent to do? DON’T wait for the new “Smart Choices Program” labels due out in 2009 – meant to simplify nutrition information, it not only dumbs it down, but it contains many loopholes. (An excellent summary can be found on the Daily Spark.) The biggest clue to why it’s not reliable may be found by reading the list of participating companies – they’re known for their marketing savvy, NOT their care for the American public’s health.

If you’re savvy about nutrition, read the nutrition data table on the package. Better yet, check out the ingredient list with your child and ask the following questions (Thanks to GrowingGreat for this simple strategy – full disclosure: I now volunteer for this excellent organization!):

  1. Can you pronounce all the ingredients? No? Then stop here – you and your children don’t need to eat it. Yes? Then continue.
  2. Is it long (over 5 ingredients)?
  3. Are there artificial colors or flavors?
  4. Are there added sugars (particularly more than 1) – good clues to look for are juices, malt, syrups, anything that ends in -ose?
  5. Is there hydrogenated oil of any kind?

If you answered “yes” to any of questions 2-5, you’re better off leaving it on the shelf. Better yet, if you really need the item in question, make it from scratch so you KNOW what goes in it!

Election’s over…

…but your next chance to vote may be sooner (and more often) than you think! Check out this excellent article on how to “Vote with Your Fork” on SparkPeople. Liza Barnes and Nicole Nichols write:

The decisions we make every day—what to eat, where to shop, how to commute—may seem small, but they send a clear message about what is important to us. If you think that change only comes from the top, and voting only happens at the polls, think again. Every time you buy food, clothing, fuel, or entertainment, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it. Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the inverse is also true.

There follow 11 simple suggestions among which each and every one of us can certainly find at least some some ways to “vote with our forks” three times a day, whether it’s taking our own bags to the store, taking our own containers to restaurants for takeout and leftovers, shopping at the local farmers’ market, or cooking and eating at home more often.

Not for Parents Only!

I just got this link to a TED talk by Ann Cooper, the Director of Nutrition for the Berkeley Unified School District from Peggy Curry at Growing Great, and the video deeply impressed me. Don’t read the summary article – it doesn’t anywhere near do it justice, so I highly recommend you make the time (20 m) watch the entire video. It’s also available on YouTube,

as is this video of Ann promoting her book Lunch Lessons.

If any progress is going to be made in improving our school lunch programs and our citizens’ health around the nation, I agree – we need to start looking at this as not only as a nutrition issue, not only an education issue, but also and perhaps above all as a social justice issue.

What can be done on an individual level? We can get involved in politics, we can donate money, we can volunteer our time, but first and foremost, we can bring real food back into our homes by learning how to buy it and prepare it and by teaching our children about it.

I read the message boards at SparkPeople (a fantastic, award-winning health and nutrition website that I think is in most ways excellent) and I often wonder at the recipes that people post as “healthy”: they are full of processed, packaged foods like Cool Whip, cake and pudding mixes and canned soups. It’s time to take back the kitchen from the agribusinesses who taught us that these are foods and reintroduce food that looks like it did when it was grown and harvested, and I hope in some small way my blog can contribute to this effort….

Mediterranean Diet, RIP?

There was a disturbing article in the New York Times yesterday concerning the demise of the Mediterranean diet in its native Greece, as well as in southwestern Europe in general. Elisabeth Rosenthal reports that obesity and high cholesterol are on the rise among the children and youth of the area, resulting in a situation similar to that of America’s – the younger generation will be the first to have a lower life expectancy than that of their parents.

And it’s precisely on the parents that my attention, as well as many of the commenters’, was focused. Apparently, parents on Crete have started to cave on the question of what’s for dinner:

Outside one of Kasteli’s several ice cream parlors, Argyro Koromylla said, “You don’t want your child complaining or feeling left out, so you give him what he wants.”

Sadly, this article could well be written about any region of the world which in addition to increasing wealth has adopted America’s love of fast food, inactivity, and indulgence of children – if you read the comments, they say as much about places from Katmandhu to Spain.

None of this is terribly new news, but it is an urgent reminder that traditional diets, whether Mediterranean or Asian, are something that should not only be treasured by their originators but also explored and celebrated by the “outsiders”: learn to cook something “exotic” today – it may save your life down the road!