Category Archives: consumer advocacy

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Love the Message – Conflicted About the Messenger

Recently I stumbled upon an ad that Nestle’s Lean Cuisine brand aired earlier this year for it’s “Weigh This” campaign. The two-minute ad features women who are asked about their greatest accomplishments in life and their answers range from family and other important relationships in their lives to school, career and travel. The catch phrase is “if you’re going to weigh, weigh something that matters.” They also have a “diet filter” where you can sign up to have the word “diet” blocked from your media.

I love this ad and this message (haven’t tried the diet filter yet but like the concept). What’s not to love? I believe we (especially women) spend a ridiculous amount of time worrying about our weight. And because our culture has so completely fused the ideas of weight and health, if someone makes positive lifestyle changes that could improve their overall health and wellbeing, but they don’t lose weight doing it, they often give up on those changes. What’s the point if it doesn’t lead to weight loss, right? Ugh.

My dilemma about this ad is that it comes from a food company that specializes in frozen meals and has been solidly part of our “diet culture” for decades. Sure, this campaign is to re-spin the company toward health and wellness vs. dieting, but let’s be clear, pre-packaged frozen meals deliberately low in calories are still supporting a diet mentality and approach.

It is great that Lean Cuisine has reformulated their recipes and taken out some of the nasty or at least questionable additives that do a lot more for food manufacturers (via longer shelf life) than for eaters. It is also great that they are supporting a Girls Leadership organization. But I’d be a lot more excited about this ad campaign if it was put forth by a farm that produced high quality fresh food or a local farmer’s market. Sigh. (My farmer friends are now laughing hysterically at the idea they would have that kind of cash for advertising!) I prefer the trend towards eating more whole, fresh foods and preparing more of our own meals to buying packaged frozen meals. I realize however, that convenience is still in the top 3 reasons why people eat what they eat.

With a mix of optimism and trepidation I share this ad campaign. I do appreciate the small steps toward change. As I tell my clients “aim for progress not perfection.” I celebrate that at least someone (with a big advertising budget) is supportive of non-diet messages. The Lean Cuisine website states a goal to “ignite a relevant and authentic social conversation about weight and value perception among women” and that is a conversation I want to have more often!

 

Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us

I am no stranger to the genre of Food Industry Horror Stories, both in book and film forms. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation was my first plunge into the seamy underside of our industrialized food system and its myriad cultural implications. Sadly many others have expanded on Schlosser’s work, including the latest contribution from investigative journalist Michael Moss called Salt, Sugar, Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

Moss shares what he learned from food industry researchers and executives themselves about how foods are specifically designed to entice people to eat past the point of normal fullness; calculated “bliss points” are used for added sugars, just the right texture and amount of salt for a “flavor burst” to maximize the rush to the brain’s pleasure centers upon hitting the tongue, and fats that add both flavor and a quality called “mouthfeel” – a powerful combination that does not seem to trigger messages to stop eating.

For those of us who encourage our clients to work towards normal or “intuitive eating” rather than restrained eating, Moss’ reminder about the many foods engineered to derail this internal system is both frustrating and important. People who struggle with compulsive overeating, binge eating, or restricted eating that stems from fear they will not be able to stop eating once they begin, at some point need to know that their behaviors are not entirely emotionally based or a sign they are somehow bereft of willpower. This is exactly what food manufacturers want all of us to do – eat what they produce, in excessive amounts, and often. These so-called Food Giants also spend billions of dollars to market highly processed, ultra-palatable foods, and to make sure they are available nearly everywhere we go.

My hope is that the information in Moss’ book will help us be more aware when we eat processed foods, knowing they are deliberately hard to resist overeating. If this deeper understanding about how processed foods are made and marketed so we will eat more helps us let go of the guilt that often comes with eating these foods, particularly if we eat more than we planned to, then I am all for this type of consumer education.

I am concerned however, that yet another of these dire warnings about our food system will reinforce rigid all-or-nothing thinking about what we eat (or don’t eat) based on fear. It is one thing to strive for more whole or minimally processed foods that support good health and another to be so fearful of processed foods that when our options are limited and that is the only food available, we either don’t eat at all, or we are overly anxious while eating (not good for digestion or absorption of nutrients not to mention the increased release of damaging stress hormones).

I guess I’m a bit of an idealist in that I prefer to inspire change rather than jam it down people’s throats with a heavy dose of fear. But I have to admit, I like the idea that when we eat more whole foods and prepare more of our meals at home rather than outsourcing this important work to big food companies (restaurants, ready-prepared or frozen meals in grocery stores, etc.) we are effectively rebelling against a modern food system in dire need of repair.

“Baby Carrots – Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”

“Life expectancy would increase by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.”

–      Gary Larson, The Far Side cartoonist

Despite the huge growth of farmer’s markets and apparent interest in better quality food over the past few years, we aren’t eating any more veggies now than we were a decade ago. Let’s face it, vegetables have an image problem. I’ve heard all the reasons so many times – not tasty enough, convenient enough, too expensive, too much work to prepare, take too much time to eat, etc.

Oh sure the farmer’s market crowd oohs and aahs over bundles of rainbow-colored Swiss Chard or fresh, crisp asparagus, but in general people aren’t sneaking out at night to the produce department to satisfy snack cravings. In fact last time I checked French fries were still the most commonly consumed vegetable in the U.S. (unless they are omitted from a particular survey in which case iceberg lettuce claims top spot).

So, this week I stumbled onto something potentially exciting in the vegetable world (at least for nutrition geeks like me) as I prepared to show my Food & Society class (the class I described in my last blog entry) an example of a sign of positive change.

There is a new PR campaign by “a bunch of carrot farmers” to promote baby carrots “like junk food.” (www.babycarrots.com) The $25 million dollar effort started last fall with vending machines in a few east coast high schools that dispense brightly colored packages of baby carrots available for just .50 cents.

Okay, even though $25 mill sounds impressive I realize it’s a mere pittance compared to the billions spent to promote fast and other junk food annually. It’s unlikely the fake orange cheese snack makers are trembling right now at the new orange crunchy snack kid in town. And yes, promoting more excessively (non-recyclable) packaged foods isn’t helping our landfills, nor are these conventionally grown veggies helping the causes of sustainable agriculture or a re-regionalized food system.

But, to reiterate one of my main themes these days, I am looking for signs of progress – not perfection (see previous rant related to Lunchables). As we simultaneously struggle to help people eat better for their health and to re-tool our food and agricultural systems for a more sustainable future, there is much work to do.

As we work to get junk food out of schools we need to replace it with something. Maybe baby carrots can blaze the vending machine trail for fresh snap peas, grape tomatoes, and colored bell pepper strips. Maybe for another quarter you can get a side of hummus or Ranch dressing to dip them in (increasing palatability for picky eaters).

We need to eat more vegetables. Kids need to eat more vegetables. We whine incessantly about the cost and inconvenience of vegetables and lament veggies’ lack of cachet in our modern food culture. (Though last fall in Manhattan an auction featuring heirloom vegetables was part of an event that raised over $250,000 for various charities!) Now enter “a bunch of carrot farmers” and some creative, savvy ad people and voila, baby carrots are getting a makeover.

The part I love about the ad campaign (aside from the prospect of getting more people to eat more carrots) is that it’s creative and fun. The campaign makes fun of commonly used advertising strategies – sexual innuendo, heavy metal music, violence, and politically incorrect (or at least suspect) language. There is a fun website (with LOUD and to my tastes obnoxious music), free iPhone app, Facebook and Twitter links, and downloadable labels you can attach to your own baby carrot bags (providing a more eco-friendly packaging option for those who wish to print on recycled paper and re-use their own baggies or containers).

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm for what seem like baby steps toward positive change. I hope however, that you appreciate there is no single answer to the many nutrition, food and health challenges we face. If baby carrots are suddenly in the hands of even a few hundred school kids in place of high fat, sugar and salt-laden snack foods, even if it isn’t everyday it’s a good thing.

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
P. J. O’Rourke

Translating Frustration Into Action

I just began teaching “Food & Society” for the second time at Bastyr University (just north of Seattle in Kenmore, WA). This course is inspired by similar courses introduced at Stanford by Christopher Gardner and at Yale by Kelly Brownell – both of whom generously shared their respective course materials to help me get started last year.

My Bastyr version of “Food & Society” is a nutrition course designed to give students a broader perspective of nutrition, exploring how what we eat is influenced by biological, psychological, sociocultural, political, economic, ethical, and environmental factors.  We read books and view films by contemporary activists from what is commonly called the grassroots social food movement.  Books like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating and films like Super Size Me and Food, Inc. We attempt to understand the complex interactions between food, nutrition, health, and the larger world in which we live and eat.

The fun part of the course is discussing what we read and view. I believe strongly that if we are to change the current food and nutrition paradigm we must learn to communicate with those who don’t share our worldviews. So I like to play Devil’s Advocate during discussions and encourage students to read Op-Ed articles that don’t agree with the assigned reading and viewing.  I’ve done a fair bit of “preaching to the choir” and while this is a way to garner support and the strength to pursue often difficult changes, it isn’t the best way to expand a movement. (Plus, I’m not naive enough to think I have all the answers to the very complex problems we face related to nutrition and food!)

So, after many years of learning about these problems and trying to find ways to foster solutions on a local level back in Jackson, Wyoming, I am in a place with new opportunities to turn my frustrations into action. My students at Bastyr are not happy with the status quo related to food and nutrition either. More importantly, they are sharp, motivated and will ultimately end up practicing in nutrition and other health fields (the course is open to all students not just nutrition majors) all over the country. My hope is that this class will encourage my students to ask the hard questions, consider a variety of perspectives related to these complex issues, and (best case scenario) take action toward changes.

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

–        Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948)

New Lunchables… Progress Not Perfection

As a subscriber to Today’s Dietitian I received a press release recently from Kraft Foods announcing the expansion of their “Wholesome Product Line” of Oscar Mayer Lunchables. According to the article the new varieties include:

Chicken Strips made with 100% white meat chicken and Chicken + American Sub Sandwich which features rotisserie seasoned chicken and bread made with 8g of whole grain. Both products are good sources of protein and calcium and join the Lunchables with water roster introduced last year that offers quality meats, cheeses and spring water. (Lunchables Fact Sheet)

I’d read about this far when I rolled my eyes, annoyed that my subscription to a trade magazine makes me a target for this kind of propaganda. Then I thought I ought to take a closer look at the products before dismissing them completely. Generally speaking, I try to steer clients away from highly processed, packaged foods when possible and stick with a more whole foods approach. However, I also like the mantra “progress not perfection” so I need to know what to tell the client who is very clearly going to buy her kids Lunchables and merely wants to know if these new ones are better than their forebears. So, I read on.

The short answer to this imaginary client question is: yes. However, I discovered the press release doesn’t include the remainder of items in these conveniently packaged meals such as the crispy rice treat or Nilla Wafers and Kool-Aid Fun Fizz Tropical Punch Drink Drop (not sure what those are but without the addition of vitamin C to make parents think it’s a good thing I suspect no one would place them in the “health food” category). But I guess we shouldn’t be so picky, after all we are now getting a water beverage option, 8 grams of whole grain (though this is a tricky spin since we are really concerned about the amount of FIBER not the amount of whole grain…this label claim is typically a marker for a food being hawked as “healthy” that really isn’t), a full serving of fruit, and supposedly better quality chicken in at least two of these offerings – all for $3.49. What’s wrong with that?

(Sigh.) The dilemma I face is that as much as I want to be pragmatic and to work with clients “where they are,” (and I actually do this quite well) it is really difficult for me to embrace foods like Lunchables, even if they have evolved as a slightly better product from a pure nutrient content perspective. It gets back to my own broader nutritional view. The reality is that Lunchables aren’t likely to ever fit a predominantly “whole foods approach” to eating (and I don’t mean the famous upscale grocery chain – just food in its simplest form without a bunch of additives to prolong the time it spends on a shelf) even with the bottle of water and Mandarin oranges.

Kraft Foods is merely responding to a vocal part of the market clamoring for healthier, yet convenient foods to feed kids. They are in the business of selling food and we want cheap food that we don’t have to spend much time preparing. (Yes, I know that the simple, whole foods I promote can be easily and inexpensively prepared at home, but this requires time and skills, whether it’s nutritious or not, and in case you haven’t noticed, Home Economics is a dying art – if not already dead.) But here’s the thing, if we want convenient and cheap food (and it’s clear we do) then we will not shed the lengthy ingredient lists of foods like Lunchables any time soon.

Though the improvements to Lunchables don’t satisfy those of us yearning for short, easy-to-decipher ingredient lists using only stuff we’d find in a home kitchen, and there is probably still plenty of added salt, sugar and fat to entice the kiddos to chomp these down and beg for more, these latest changes do represent progress. Manufacturers like Kraft are making efforts to offer foods lower in sodium, fat and calories and ultimately this is a good thing. I view foods like microwavable meals and Lunchables as symptoms of larger cultural issues related to food – it’s production, distribution, how we view it, how we eat it, and the importance we attach to it. Ultimately what I’d like to see amounts to a cultural revolution and such a thing isn’t likely to come about from anything industry initiates…after all, the food industry is driven by us (at least in part).

So what’s a dietitian interested in a more “whole foods approach” to eating to do?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Ghandi

I cook and I teach others who want to cook. I minimize the highly processed and packaged foods I buy and eat, and I encourage others to do the same, but I’m not a zealot about it. Not everyone is ready for a major overhaul of their eating (whether they need it or not). I can help most by being knowledgeable, compassionate, and realistic – and hopefully, a good role model. I don’t think I need to embrace products like yuppified Lunchables, but I do need to recognize that the changes I want to see aren’t likely to happen quickly. I must adhere to my mantra and accept progress without perfection, at least for the moment.

Spinach, Burgers, Peanut Butter, Eggs…What Next?

I am troubled by the number of current news headlines related to not only the massive egg recall due to salmonella outbreaks but several other food recalls as well. Note I am troubled, not surprised. I recently read Paul Roberts’ disturbing book The End of Food (as uplifting as the title suggests) in which he writes about both the past and future of our industrialized food system. As you can imagine the future is a big question mark but he predicts increases in evidence that our food system is not only unsustainable but seriously broken – unsafe.

Normally I read such gloom and doom prophesies with skepticism, knowing such travesties could happen but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will happen. I try to stay positive, focusing on the evidence of change I see all over the country in terms of re-establishing local and regional food systems via the growth in farmers markets, CSAs, small farm cooperatives, and even home gardens. I find hope in the fact that people with varied political views have watched films like Food, Inc. and have made changes or are at least thinking about changes they can make in their food buying habits.

I am not convinced however, that we really grasp the trouble we are in right now in terms of our food system. The fact that eggs from one or two large farms can sicken so many people across a huge swath of the country is one thing, the fact that we don’t know how it started or what to do about it is quite another.

I’m tired of the onus of responsibility for not getting sick being on us, the eaters. If I want to eat my eggs cooked over medium or my burgers medium rare then it’s my fault if I get sick.  I’m also tired of reading that companies are so generously volunteering to recall tainted foods given they don’t have to do so according to current laws. So we should give them a badge of honor for making some effort to take back defective products? What is wrong with this picture?

So, this is a rant. I don’t have the answers – just more questions. I believe the local food movement is important but I still rely on our industrialized food system for foods I either can’t get locally or can’t afford at the “true cost” of those foods. I struggle with the fact that I need to change my personal eating habits to save the world, knowing that my habits alone won’t do the job. I already eat way less meat than the average American, lots of plant foods including organic, locally or regionally grown varieties, and aim for more whole than processed and packaged foods. Despite what the optimists advocate, all of this clearly isn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong – these practices do keep me healthy and feeling good most of the time and that is part of my reason for making these choices. But I don’t have any illusions I am saving the planet or helping to feed any of the billion or so “food insecure” people worldwide. One thing I do know is that we all need to get angry and then, more importantly, take some kind of action. As the cost of food rises, as it will most certainly continue to do with rising oil costs rippling throughout the food production and distribution chain, we must demand it be safe. How this will happen will be an ongoing source of debate I’m sure.

Meanwhile, I will continue to be optimistic and do my small part to support alternatives to the current food system and think about the famous Betty Reese quote “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”