Waiting for the surgeon general’s stance on the American diet

I came across a particularly well-written article this morning, and had to break my cross-country-move-hiatus to share.  Andy Bellati, thank you for saying what apparently is the unspeakable in this arena.  Or should I say, thank you for ignoring the food industry’s well-integrated messaging to instead pose a serious line of thought.

On one hand, yes, the surgeon general should absolutely be held accountable to discuss American health issues in a comprehensive manner.  By targeting obesity, diabetes, and heart disease via a walking campaign, the Vivek Murthy is absolutely ignoring the larger-than-life role that the American diet plays in these issues.

At the same time, Andy Bellati is 100% correct that by taking on the National Rifle Association, we should allow the surgeon general perhaps a little more leeway to pick his battles.  I personally can’t imagine how much fun it would be to have the NRA and the big food industry biting my heels.  So while it is of the utmost importance that he call attention to the American diet, the surgeon general is not beating around the bush with his walking campaign and his inclusion of the NRA in the discussion of national health.  It does seem, however, that Andy Bellati and I will both be waiting with bated breath for the day Murthy takes on the big food industry.

NYT on Blaming Parents and the Effectiveness of Taxing Soda, What About Big Food in the Discussion of Childhood Obesity?

Image via Thought Catalog

There have been two relatively popular articles written by the New York Times recently, which discuss childhood obesity.  The most recent discusses a research project focusing on uncovering most cost-effective ways to reduce childhood obesity: taxing sugary beverages, ending the tax write-off for advertising in children’s television programming, increasing physical activity in schools, and fostering healthier habits in preschool settings.  The second article published a few days earlier discusses parental denial of weight issues in their children and how this denial is fueling the childhood obesity epidemic.

I would consider both of these articles informative and well-written, but severely lacking in a crucial topic central to childhood obesity discussions: the role of the big food industry.  Understandably, news articles are not the forum for extensive scientific and theoretical discussions on the problem of childhood obesity.  However, when discussing parental roles in childhood obesity and evaluating cost-effective measures to target obesity the failure to mention the food industry as a significant factor is misguided.

How is it possible that childhood obesity can be discussed without including even a brief introduction of the influence the food industry (not just the fast food industry).  From advertising, market domination, political influences, and poor food quality, the food industry is just as much to blame as parents in denial.  While it is all well and good to discuss these multi-faceted issues, I can’t help but point out the glaring hole that the New York Times left in these articles by not discussing big food.  Frankly, it speaks volumes about the influence and stretch of the food industry.

Related to this post, the documentary Fed Up is a great resource on the food industry as it relates to children and obesity.  I highly suggest giving it a gander.

Food Stamp Restrictions, A Follow-up

Yesterday, lawmakers in Wisconsin approved a trio of bills that will restrict and regulate public-benefit recipients.  In a previous post I discussed the misguided approach to limiting the use of food stamps, and briefly mentioned the proposals taking place in Wisconsin.  As a follow up to that article (which can be found here), a little information about recent events in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Democrats are optimistic that these measures will not gain federal approval, but that does not mean that the misguided mentality surrounding food stamps and low-income diets will change.

Chipotle Goes GMO “Free” and Chooses the Path Less Traveled (By Fast Food Restaurants)…Again

Image from Chipotle

On Monday, Chipotle announced that it would no longer be serving GMO ingredients in its restaurants.  With that statement, Chipotle became the first fast food restaurant to make such an effort, surpassing its monumental achievement two years ago of being the first fast food restaurant to voluntarily disclose the presence of GMO-ingredients in its food.  The announcement has garnered much press as I am sure everyone was expecting (see the New York Times, Food Politics, Huffington Post, the Washington Post, you get the idea).  Both sides of the GMO-debate have come out to similarly laud and criticize the effort.

I have to say, after allowing a bit of time for the dust to settle, I am entirely supportive of Chipotle’s decision to the point where I actually went there to buy lunch today.  Perhaps the best way to articulate my support is to put it in relationship to some of the criticisms.

The Washington Post chastises Chipotle for buying into the fear-mongering cash-cow that the anti-GMO movement has created:

In nevertheless validating the panic that has led to limits or bans on GMOs in developing nations, Chipotle says “we decided to remove the few GMOs in our food so that our customers who choose to avoid them can enjoy eating at Chipotle.” In other words, the anti-GMO lobby has scared people, and burritos can be sold by pandering to these fears.

The article continues, saying that studies conducted related to the effects of GMO-consumption demonstrate that there is in fact, no evidence to suggest that the consumption of GMOs relates to human health concerns.  By avoiding these facts, this article argues in summation that:

…no one should confuse any of these companies’ behavior with real corporate responsibility. That would require companies to push back against the orchestrated fear of GMOs instead of validating it.

What this article fails to take into consideration in its criticism of Chipotle’s GMO-free path, is in fact two of the big reasons as to why Chipotle pursued this path in the first place: consumer demand and environmental concerns.  As Marion Nestle of Food Politics so accurately states, this is not about Chipotle’s GMO-products making people sick.

…this is a matter of trust.  Chipotle customers are offended that GMO foods are not labeled and that they have no choice about whether to eat them.

Assuming that consumers are inherently “afraid” of GMO products cheapens and demeans the complexity of the GMO debate, and the ability of consumers to think critically about the products they choose to consume.  As someone who avoids GMO products, my main reason for doing so does not stem solely from a fear that these products will inherently hurt me.  It has to do with the environmental damage related to GMO production, the treatment of animals who are fed GMO-based feed, and the notion that as a consumer, I have the right to know what I am consuming.  Ironically, most important to me are the environmental and animal treatment concerns, both of which do not immediately affect my health.

Image from Chipotle

So I have to say, the Washington Post gets it wrong.  The GMO-debate is complicated and replete with sub-issues that are being debated in and of themselves.  So to criticize Chipotle for trying to make a buck off of the anti-GMO brigade is off base and criminalizes a business for trying to make a profit by catering to its customers.  Instead I think we should show support for this effort while continuing to demand change of the fast food industry.  Chipotle has taken the initiative to make the first step, but we should be asking for more accountability, more transparence, and more change from the industry as a whole.

For a more honest criticism of Chipotle’s announcement, head to NPR’s blog “The Salt.”  Which raises concerns about some of the remaining GMO concerns that make Chipotle seem hypocritical.  From soda, to meat, to sunflower oil, there are still huge issues with the Chipotle empire that need to be ironed out.

The New York Times amongst other sources painted a more comprehensive picture of what it was actually like for Chipotle to make the shift towards non-GMO ingredients.  Taking into consideration the state of the food industry as it is now, Chipotle undeniably had a hard time not only finding sources for their non-GMO ingredients, but also sufficient quantities of the ingredients that they need.  By choosing the road less traveled, companies committed to using non-GMO ingredients face shortages which could threaten to eliminate products completely from a menu.  Chipotle’s commitment to the cause can be found in their unrelenting search for adequate suppliers, and the time they invested in achieving their goal of a menu free of GMOs.

Unfortunately, nobody is perfect.  Chipotle unabashedly states along with its announcement, that beverages, dairy and meat still contain GMO products.  Moving away from soybean based oils and corn tortillas and chips was a big enough feat, but the battle for organic, non-GMO, and humanely treated meat is another story.  Finding producers that humanely treat their animals has already been problematic for the company, much less finding enough organic meat to meet demand:

Organic meat would be a much tougher problem. Catherine Greene, an economist with the United States Department of Agriculture, calls the supply of organic beef “extremely limited.”  As in, last time USDA ran the numbers, in 2011, it was 0.3 percent.  Even when demand goes up and price follows, supply doesn’t immediately follow that. Farmers have to use organic practices for three years before they can sell the product as organic.  “That’s a pretty long time to commit to using organic production systems without tapping into the organic premium,” Green says.  That’s a big disincentive, and when farmers do switch, there’s a long lag: the three-year transition period, plus the two years or more it takes to actually raise a cow for slaughter.

So while Chipotle’s efforts are not without its flaws, at the end of the day, I give it all my whole-hearted thumbs up.  I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from all that I dug up on Chipotle’s new development, which comes from Chipotle CEO Steve Ells:

We want to make the old fast food model irrelevant.  We want to make great ingredients and classic cooking techniques accessible to everybody.

High five, Chipotle.

No Steak, Seafood, or Dignity for You: The Cloud of Misunderstanding Around Food Stamps

As of late there have been a flurry of proposed laws related to food stamps and limitations related to food stamp use.  To be frank, these laws are shrouded in misunderstanding, and as the Washington Post puts it, is a giant double-standard.  Here at home in Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are putting in motion a bill that would require food stamp users to use photo IDs for their purchases.  Their reasoning is to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, but in actuality has very little discernible benefit.

Overall, a majority of these laws and policies stem from assumptions about food stamp recipients and their lifestyle choices.  In Wisconsin, the lawmakers supporting the new bill cite investigative journalism pieces citing food stamps being sold online.  Similar states have proposed incorporating restrictions or policies surrounding food stamps.  Notably, Missouri has proposed a ban on using food stamps to buy steak or seafood.  Not only does this demonstrate the stereotypes surrounding low-income lifestyles, but also a illustrates a lack of understanding and logic regarding the food stamp system.

Emily Badger at the Washington Post beautifully articulates three particular flaws inherent within these proposals.  Quite an interesting read.

But the logic behind the proposals is problematic in at least three, really big ways.  The first is economic: There’s virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way.

Most poignant in my opinion is the double-standard that requires food stamp recipients to prove their worth and to succumb to restrictions on what they are allowed to consume while other populations that receive government benefits (student loans, mortgage tax breaks, subsidies, etc.) are not.

Ultimately, these types of proposals lack in both logic and humanity.  Restrictions on food and further barriers to access food will only continue the cyclical dilemma of food injustice.  Instead of shaming and blaming low-income food stamp recipients, a more compassionate and discerning light needs to be shed on the dominating issues surrounding food stamps and food access.  A little humanity could go a long way.

A little (painfully on point) humor on the issue.

Tis the Season, Give Healthfulness Instead of the Can in the Back of Your Cupboard

Image via NPR

When Thanksgiving rolls around, food drives and food pantry donations soar.  In the season of giving, we all begin to think about how much we have and offer the extra that we have to others.  But sometimes, those offerings do more harm than good.  So many times people reach into the cob-webbed recesses of their cupboards selecting the can of creamed corn that hasn’t seen the light of day since 2004, or the ramen noodles left behind years ago when kids went off to college.

NPR’s The Salt nails in on the head when it talks about donating nutrient dense food in place of castaway food items or expired cans of non-perishable food.  Instead, by donating kidney beans, or lentils, or canned tuna, recipients are given more healthful food options that they can actually use.  With so many people struggling with diabetes and other diet-related diseases, the push towards healthy eating is truly essential across social and economic spectrums.  Eating healthy should be accessible to everyone, especially those who are hungry.

Ruth Solari, interviewed by The Salt and hunger advocate with Super Food Drive states it perfectly.

The goal, says Solari, is to make healthful eating approachable and “really debunking the idea that it’s an elitist thing.”

It is time to let go of the pervasive notion that those in need should “take what they can get.”  We all have the right to food, and the right to access food in a dignified way.  In my opinion, dignified does not include eating the leftover unwanted goods someone else wouldn’t eat.  It is time to understand that collective health is of the utmost importance across political, social, economic, and environmental lines.  And at the very least, we need to understand that hunger is a plight that no person should have to face, no matter what circumstances brought them there.

“It’s not enough to fill empty stomachs . . . The opposite of being hungry isn’t being full – it’s being healthy.”

So as you are looking to give back this season, let the aged goods in the back of your pantry be, and give the gift of health.  For information on how to hold a healthy food drive, check out Super Food Drive, or check out their shopping list for great items to donate.  Even a donation to your local food pantry can go a long way.

Books on My Table and a Few Words of Excitement About Cooked, by Michael Pollan

Image via Epicurious

The rolling in of blustery temperatures always signifies a time for hibernation (and quite frankly survival), and with the extra time cozy under blankets, I generally dig into my stack of books piling that I had been meaning to read.  The Stop is currently my book of choice, a wonderful book by Nick Saul & Andrea Curtis.  More on that later, since I have oh so many things to say on that book.

The book I am most excited to dive into would be Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked.  Having read Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, I have a good feeling that his newest book will not disappoint.  His recent interviews about Cooked only reaffirm that inkling.  Mother Jones interview with Michael Pollan from January gives a brief glimpse into Pollan’s views about fad diets, specifically the paleo diet.

Personally, I have never really understood fad diets.  I understand their intrigue and the general principles behind them, but generally I prefer the “everything in moderation” approach opposed to the slash and cut approach to most fad diets.  So when the paleo diet became prominent and practiced amongst my friends and family, I had to wonder just exactly how the “caveman diet” was actually justified.  Now before I go about agreeing with Michael Pollan on this one, I do understand that of the majority of fad diets out there, the paleo diet seems to be the most reasonable and healthy.  Meats, vegetables, I can get on board with that.  My biggest question, however, is how in the world does a paleo diet in 2014 resemble anything like the diet of our ancestors?  I think Michael Pollan would agree with me.

First and foremost, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers.  Meat was not available in cool display cases and most certainly was not fed artificial diets.  Raw food?  Come on, sure a little bit.  Cooking is a part of our global culture and there is a reason for that, because it is part of our history.  I don’t mean to be contentious or confrontational about diets here.  Of course, if something works for you, makes you feel good, and gives you the nutrients you need, go forth and paleo away.  I just personally cannot justify embarking on a diet where we quite frankly ignore the differences between food now versus food hundreds of years ago.  For more on what Pollan specifically takes issue with in regards to the paleo diet you can read the rest of the article or listen to the interview.

Interestingly, however, Pollan mentions a sentiment I have recently articulated in a fellowship personal essay: the notion that we need to reconnect to the idea of food being social and we can do that by cooking.

Pollan says “part of the problem is that we’ve been isolated as cooks for too long. I found that to the extent you can make cooking itself a social experience, it can be a lot more fun.”

I completely agree, and authors of The Stop would as well.  We need to reestablish the understanding that food is social.  Through that framework, food becomes more equitable and accessible across socio economic classes.  If you have any doubts about this concept, The Stop perfectly demonstrates this idea as a food bank turned community food centre.

Other books on my list?  Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes; Food in Time and PlaceThe Real Food Revolution by Congressman Tim Ryan (shocking, I know); and So, Anyway… by John Cleese, because my father taught me good humor and because Monty Python will always hold a special place in my heart (“We are the knights who say NI!”)

What is on your bookshelf this chilly season?

Happy reading,

Erica