Tuesday, April 13, 2010

State of confusion

I haven't been posting much lately, mainly due to feeling like I don't have a lot to say. But Natasha's soccer season started again and the snack situation brought a lot of incidents of confusion about what constitutes a healthy snack to a head. A good bit of this confusion is caused by misleading food labeling.

Much as been written and lamented about the pathetic current state of American food labeling. The First Lady is trying to get front-of-the-box labeling, and less confusing labeling in general. There is a lot about it on Marion Nestle's foodpolitics blog, as well as the First Lady's Let's Move site.

I believe food labeling confusion takes two main forms.
1. confusion caused by deliberate obfuscation of facts on part of food manufacturers on actual food labels.
2. erroneous pre-conceived notions of what are "health" foods that block our ability to discern obviously unhealthy foods. (I believe #2 is caused by previous cases of #1 as well as public health initiatives gone awry, e.g. 'Snackwells')

Let's start with #1. The food industry does everything it can to hide the amount of sugar in products, and to promote the healthy aspects of the things it is selling. So they will use multiple sugar products so that "sugar" is not the first ingredient listed, but rather spread out throughout the ingredient list. They will say, "made with whole grains" on the front, when the product is made with mainly processed grains but a small amount of whole grains. They will say, "low-fat foods lead to a healthy heart" or something like that, even though the food is stuffed with tons of insulin-havoc-wreaking sugar. I could go on, but other people have literally written whole books about this.

There is also no standardization in how things are described. So for example, the only wheat flour you want in your food is "whole wheat flour" listed with exactly those three words.

Any of the following are processed white flour.
-enriched flour
-enriched wheat flour
-unbromated unbleached enriched wheat flour (I didn't even know what "bromated" means but now I do)
-unbromated unbleached wheat flour

The word "whole" MUST appear before the word "wheat" or else it's junk. The word "wheat" on its own does not mean "whole wheat" but rather the wheat plant - which just means white flour. Please remember this...and ignore any other words you see. It makes label-reading much easier.

The fact that this is so confusing is criminal in my opinion.

OK - on to sugar. There are tons of otherwise "healthy" foods that are so stuffed with added sugars that they can't possibly be considered good for you. The main offenders in this arena are yogurts, breakfast cereals and granola/granola bars. The problem here is that as a culture we have internalized certain foods as "healthy" including yogurt and granola. I like to look at things this way.

flavored yogurt=low-fat ice cream
granola/granola bars=candy bars with some nutrition
energy bars=candy bars with some protein
sweetened cereal=low-fat cookies
fruit juice=soda with some vitamin C

I'm not saying I never eat those foods - just that when eating them I consider them as treats. I changed my thinking to reflect the equations above and now I view them differently. I forget sometimes how entrenched those foods are in our heads as "health foods" but I've had several conversations with health-conscious people lately that made me remember.

A couple weeks ago I was thinking of making my own granola. I looked up some recipes.Basically, granola is a way of taking high-calorie but nutritionally valuable foods and coating them in added oil and sugar. This results in overeating foods that should be eaten in moderation and then adding in tons of oil and sugar to boot, and resulting in a tub of impossible to resist, massively caloric food.
Here are the two I came close to making, but couldn't bring myself to have around the house.
Ina Garten granola recipe (reviewer comments suggest reducing oil)

I do eat granola sometimes, especially on top of plain shredded mini-wheats and unsweetened cheerios, or as a dessert...it's a treat, not a health food. But I find it really hard to stick to a small serving - I just want to find one more almond or whatever - the variety makes it all the more hard to eat in moderation (ala Kessler's directive to not have too many choices)

So back to soccer. First soccer game, first snack was yesterday. The parent brought 4 things all from Trader Joe's: apple juice boxes, fruit roll-ups, brown rice crispy treats and fruit-filled granola bars. All were healthier than their uber-processed relatives, but stuffed with tons of sugar. I believe the mom felt she had made healthy decisions, and in some ways she had, but the total sugar content was through the roof-and the game was over at 11:30am so the girls were starving. (ps Here is where I would really love to see the difference between natural sugars and added sugars but manufacturers don't do that yet.)

Some facts:
(calories, sugar grams, fiber grams)

Brown rice crispy bars (130c, 11s, 0f)
100% fruit snack (50c,11s,1.5f)
box apple juice (110c, 18s, 0f)-guessing on this one based on bigger serving size
This apple walks into a bar (140c, 17s, 1f)

I'm least concerned about the 100% fruit snack as the TJs version is actually mostly real fruit - lots of natural sugars but also some fiber, generally small,  only 50 calories, and I don't think many added sugars.  The apple juice is by far the worst with tons of sugar and no actual food. The oat-apple bar is lots of calories disguised in  something with oats, which is really nothing more than a candy bar.

My point is that these foods which have the moniker of being healthy are actually so filled with sugars as to make them one step above a Snickers bar. And I believe the mom thought she was making healthy decisions. They are in fact all products I myself used to buy, and now sometimes still do, but as treats. It took me a while to internalize that Trader Joe's fruit and oat bars are actually sugar-filled candy bars. I don't buy them any more.

The video I posted previous to this post explains the biochemistry of how we deal with sugar in our bodies - but put simply too much sugar leads to weight gain, which leads to any number of health problems. Sugar, whether it be maple syrup, apple juice, brown rice syrup, glucose, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, organic apple juice - it all needs to be consumed in moderation. The one place where I still overindulge, is with fructose in the form of fresh fruit - fruit has so much water and fiber that it's hard to really overeat it.

Anyway, Natasha was so hungry that she ate a rice crispy bar, an apple juice, a fruit roll-up and then a little while later she ate two (12 pieces) salmon makis (I know, the mercury) and then grabbed my two salmon sushi off my plate and ate those too. I don't think it's a big deal that she ate all that sugar after soccer (I should probably be more concerned about the mercury, but we don't have sushi very often). She ate a lot of other food too, and did run around a lot. I am more frustrated that it's so hard to find snacks for kids, even from relatively healthy stores, and even by well-meaning parents, that aren't filled with dozens of grams of sugars. This mom was trying to be healthy and still brought a truckload of sugar.

It shouldn't be so hard...


  1. Any idea what is in a quart of chocolate sorbet? Not sure if the ingredients were organic.

  2. i actually tried to ask but they didn't have any nutritional information. a lot of sugar....

  3. Today was "Bring Your Kids to Work Day" and the most horrible selection of food was brought in for the children (processed sausage sandwiches, processed waffles, the highest sodium potato chips, sugar cereals, processed fruit in cup in syrup (how difficult would it have been to walk an aisle over and buy fresh fruit?) and more disgustingness).
    Of course, this is at a government agency and it was paid for by the agency/treasury/taxpayer. So much for the First Lady's "Let's Move" if the word can't even get down to government agencies on a day like today to set a good example. Not to add fuel to the fire, but this agency and particularly this division and these people deal with the costs and effects of unhealthy lifestyles and obesity on the work economy, the health care systems and the taxpayer on a daily basis. Amazing.