3.21.2015

Food Issues Book Club: Appetite for Profit, Chapter 10

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 10: Battling Big Food in Schools

Summary:

The food industry has successfully blocked every effort to regulate its sale of foods to children in schools.*  Maintaining sales in schools serves a number of purposes beyond keeping the revenue:
  1. building brand loyalty starting at a young age;
  2. improving image by "promoting the myth of corporate philanthropy"; and
  3. avoiding the potential harm to reputation that may occur if their products were to be banned from schools.
Junk food is pervasive in schools at all levels, and is essentially unfettered.  These foods, sold in vending machines and at other easy access points, compete with the federally regulated school lunch program.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has determined that approximately 75% of such "competitive" offerings are of poor nutritional value.

Public schools in need of funds often enter "pouring rights" contracts with major beverage makers such as Coke and Pepsi.  These contracts give companies a monopoly on the products sold in a school, and also create opportunities for advertisement within the school and at extracurricular activities such as sporting events.  What's worse, the amount of money a school receives for the deal is often dependent on how much soda it sells - schools are thus incentiveized to sell more soda to students.  Despite popular support, state bills to limit such access usually fail due to heavy industry interference.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is notorious for fighting bills that limit junk food in schools.  Coca-Cola, though, takes the cake.  While other companies prefer to use front groups as its spokespeople, Coke has no qualms with standing front and center against any regulation that could reduce its sales, even to children.  For example, in Louisiana in 2005 Coke's lobbyist managed to change a bill aimed at completely removing sodas from schools, to one that required only 50% of Coke's in-school offerings to be "healthy."

Coke and other such corporations trumpet the ethic of "choice" - but whose choice is being respected in schools with exclusive pouring rights?  These contracts by their very nature exclude choice.  The industry claims that such contracts are a great source of funding for struggling school districts, yet fail to mention that the vendors will see far more money from them than the schools will.  The money gained by either party also comes at the expense of children's health.

"Whenever you hear a multinational corporation stand up for the little guy, this should instantly make you suspicious... Instead of asking what products Coca-Cola can sell that would pass nutrition muster, we should ask how we can properly fund public education so that we don't need Coca-Cola."

*Federal regulations have since been enacted, but are ineffective.

Discussion:

When I was in school, there were no advertisements that I can recall.   What I do remember is that I could get the "normal" (aka gross) school lunch for a dollar and some change, OR I could get the good stuff (pizza, nachos, and so on) for twice or more money.  Despite the fact that I was raised by a New Orleanian mother who put a hot meal on the dinner table every single night and refused to buy sweetened cereals or sodas, and the fact that I did not set foot into a fast food restaurant until I was in middle school, I fell into some very bad eating habits in high school.  We did have vending machines, but the idea of eating food out of a vending machine was so foreign to me that I never approached them.  Nevertheless, for the better part of 11th and 12th grades, my breakfast was a Coke and a cigarette and lunch was two chocolate milks and a honey bun.  My point here is that parents can do their damnedest to set a good example at home, but kids are affected by the world around them in ways that parents can't control.

This is part of why I find the various farm-to-school programs popping up around New Orleans so exciting.  Despite what parents are (or are not) able to provide at home, students at all five FirstLine Schools (Arthur Ashe, John Dibert, Samuel J. Green, Langston Hughes, and Joseph S. Clark), for instance, are exposed to the Edible Schoolyard program.  It allows kids to grow and eat their own food - an experience that many kids who grow up in cities know nothing about.  There are approximately one million terrible things about New Orleans' new all-charter-school landscape, but at least some of the schools are working toward getting food right.

Other farm-to-school programs around town include Sankofa NOLA's HEAL program working with students at Arise Academy, and the Cooking Up Healthy Options and Portions (CHOP) program run by Ochsner Health Services.  There are still many, many kids in New Orleans who have no access to fresh food at home or at school.  And yes, schools in Nola (and everywhere else) are basically busting at the seams with junk food and soft drinks (we call them cold drinks though).  We MUST work harder to feed our children well.  As we discussed last month, a hungry child cannot learn.

Of course, we're not alone.  Hopefully you know what ConAgra is (hint: their products are found in a supposed 99% of American households)... but perhaps it will be a big surprise to you, as it was to me, that it hosts branded events at schools.  The only word I can think of for this is shameless.  But then, there's nothing new about shameless behavior when it comes to food companies and kids.  If this is a topic of particular interest to you, make sure to check out the next blog post: kids junk food marketing!


3.19.2015

Food Issues Book Club: Appetite for Profit, Chapter 9

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 9:
Eating in the Dark - Nutrition Labeling in Restaurants

Summary:

At both the state and federal levels, food industry lobbyists have kept the conversation about restaurant nutrition labeling off the table.*  It's no wonder, given that such labeling could interfere with the hundreds of billions of dollars Americans spend in restaurants each year.  It could also let consumers know, though, that they're consuming two to three times the calories in their one restaurant meal than they would in a similar meal at home.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) and related industry front groups like to preach about "personal responsibility" when it comes to food and health.  It is ironic, then, that it fights tooth and nail to prevent consumers from getting information about food in restaurants.  "How can consumers become more educated or act more responsibly without access to the information they need to make more informed choices?"

Those restaurants that do provide nutrition information, but in ways that are difficult to access, are similar to the fast food restaurants that serve salads: the promise gets customers in the door, but when it comes time to order their choices don't change.  This is at least partly because of the way the information is being offered: currently if the information in plain sight, it's on a poster with a tiny font and often outdated information.  For those using a drive-thru, it is entirely inaccessible.  Information printed on menus and menu boards is far more effective in changing behaviors, which is precisely why it threatens the food industry.

Industry pundits have claimed that the loss of sales due to menu labeling would lead to layoffs, closures, and other hardships - and also that people wouldn't pay attention to such labeling anyway.  Both of these things cannot be true.  "In the end, their decision [not to label menus] reflects that they don't want to do it, not that they can't."

*as of 2006

Discussion:

Menu labeling is an issue on which Simon and I seem to see eye to eye.  At least for large chain restaurants, each argument against it is nothing short of ludicrous.
  • It's too expensive?  You've already calculated the information and put it online, and you redesign your menu / menu boards each time you roll out a new product.
  • People don't care?  Then you have nothing to lose as far as sales, and are merely missing a great PR stunt.
The only plausible reason for the pushback is that providing nutrition information where it can't be avoided will cause fewer sales.  Not all consumers will change their habits when faced with the information, for instance, that 6 chicken nuggets (all by themselves, no sauce, drink, or fries) contain 18g of fat and 540mg of sodium - but some will.  You needn't lose any sleep over poor McD's losing money.  Given that it made a net profit of close to $5 billion in 2014 (with a gross income of $16.5 billion), I think it can weather a few lost sales.  (Not to mention that it could afford to pay a living wage... but that's a different discussion.  All of a piece though, innit?)

Lucky for Simon and I (and, you know, everybody), the FDA finalized a new rule in November 2014 mandating nutrition labeling on menus and menu boards at all restaurants with 20 or more locations.  HUZZAH!  This, obviously, covers every fast food chain - where there is arguably the most dire need for such information.  One downside is that the rule doesn't have to be implemented until November 2015; that's actually not far away though.  The other, possibly more pertinent, downside is that the rule stems from the one and only Affordable Care Act... also known as OBAMACARE.

This has got my conspiracy theory wheels turning like mad.  If conservatives manage to repeal the ACA, menu labeling will be over before it's begun.  Isn't it convenient that a new president will be elected just three weeks before the rule must be implemented?  That's probably coincidence.  But I do wonder, now, how vocal the food lobbyists have been regarding the potential repeal.  After all, when FDA announced the rule, the Grocery Manufacturers Association had this to say: "We are disappointed that the F.D.A.'s final rules will capture grocery stores, and impose such a large and costly regulatory burden on our members.”  Poooor little grocery stores with more than 20 locations.  How ever will they get by?

The only legit argument against menu labeling comes from small, locally owned restaurants - those owned by human beings rather than corporations.  Last year I drafted an op ed on the subject of menu labeling, but opted not to submit it for publication specifically because menu labeling really could be a significant hardship for small local businesses.  I submit it to you here and now merely for the sake of discussion; enjoy.


Good Information is Good Business for New Orleans Restaurants

In New Orleans we live to eat, and it’s killing us.  But it doesn’t have to!  All we need is more information about what we’re eating.  Let’s ask restaurants to give it to us.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is a leading killer in the South. It causes a quarter of all deaths in Louisiana, meaning that thousands of people die from it every year here.  It’s what my grandma died of; I’d bet that we all have a family member who’s had a heart attack (or two), or has passed from cardiovascular disease.  Doctors agree that we should limit our fat and calories to manage our weight and to avoid heart attacks and strokes.  But we can’t follow that advice unless we know what’s in our food.

We’ve got a pretty good idea that we should eat around 2000 calories a day, give or take. AHA suggests that we eat less than 16 grams of saturated fat a day.  Great!  We know what to do!  Now what?

In general we know that meat, fried foods, and seafood (usually fried and drenched in heavy sauces and gravies) can be high in calories and fat, ­ but how many?  How much?  Without a restaurant’s recipes, we can’t calculate these numbers for ourselves. And something tells me that Commander’s Palace isn’t giving up the real recipe to their turtle soup anytime soon.
If restaurants want to keep their proprietary recipes a secret, that’s fine.  They should!  All we need from them is some basic nutritional information, like the amounts of calories and fat in their dishes.  Then we’ll be better able to make our own responsible choices based on how a dish fits in with our normal diets.  Without this info, though, we can’t dine out and also take “personal responsibility” for our health.  I don’t know about y’all, but I for one have no intention to stop eating out!

Restaurants may say that providing nutrition information is too difficult or time-consuming. They may worry that customers won’t want to order dishes that are too high in fat or calories. To them I’d say that it’s we, the customers, who make their businesses work.  If they don’t want to give us what we ask for, we can go elsewhere.  And as people who really, truly love food, there’s no number that will keep us away from our favorite dishes.  After all, we can just eat smaller portions.  However, refusing to give us the info we need could easily turn us away to competitors.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has wondered about the calorie or fat count of a po­boy at Parkway.  But without nutritional information from the folks who know what’s really in the food, we’re just making wild guesses.  Let’s ask our local restaurants to provide basic nutrition information, so that we can take charge of our own health and also keep enjoying our favorite dishes for years to come.  After all, where would our favorite restaurants be if we wouldn’t eat at them anymore?

3.17.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Appetite for Profit, Chapter 8

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 7: Co-opting the Science

Summary:

"The corporate takeover of academic research is a growing problem that threatens to undermine the entire scientific process."  Food companies - or more often their attorneys and consultants - employ scientists to conduct research and opine in such a way as to cast a positive light on their products' healthfulness.  These third-party experts are used to create an illusion of impartiality.  Scientific studies funded by the industry often reach surprisingly industry-friendly results.

Well-respected health organizations are not immune from the taint of corporate influence.  The American Diabetes Association (ADA), for example, has accepted millions of dollars in contributions from Cadbury Schweppes.  After the "alliance" was announced, the ADA's chief scientific and medical officer stated in an interview that "[t]here is not a shred of evidence that sugar per se has anything to do with getting diabetes."  Of course, the ADA was already receiving donations from the likes of Kraft and General Mills.

The American Council on Science and Health (ASCH) is, similar to CCF, a food industry front group that aims to create a sense of third-party expertise in nutrition.  It espouses viewpoints of "no bad foods" and "calories in, calories out" to argue against any inference that, for instance, sodas shouldn't be sold in schools.  Such messages are of great benefit to beverage manufacturers, and of potentially great detriment to schoolchildren.

In addition to groups that are merely funded by industry, there are groups that have been assembled by and are employed by them.  One such body is the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition.  This research group, which is owned and operated by cereal giant General Mills, regularly conducts studies finding enormous health benefits associated with whole grains.  The Bell Institute has also been a driving force behind claims that dairy products contribute to weight loss.  Incidentally, General Mills also owns Yoplait brand yogurts.  Similarly, Coca-Cola's Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness has insisted that soda consumption has no connection to obesity.

"As more and more health experts and organizations slide down the slippery slope of accepting corporate funding, we will ultimately lose a critical tool for effective policymaking."  Translation: trust no one.

Discussion:

In this chapter we see the real problem with the fact that Simon is an attorney, not a scientist or even a public health expert.  She is not familiar with the process by which peer-reviewed articles are submitted, reviewed, accepted, and published by journals.  But of course, neither are most of the people who see headlines about such articles.  Also, that's not to say that influential conflicts don't exist - certainly they do.  Nutritionist Marion Nestle has published a number of blog posts that thoroughly discuss conflicts of interest in food research.

Simon also spends numerous pages of this chapter somewhat childishly complaining once again about the Center for Consumer Freedom.  Like, for real Michele, we get it.  You don't like them.  They're industry shills.  They've attacked you personally.  They spread misinformation.  We got it when you devoted ALL OF CHAPTER THREE to the group.

I'd like to note here that, despite my deep and abiding reverence for scientific knowledge, I am skeptical of nutrition science - and I think you should be too.  Here's why: the Western world is decades further behind in its understanding of nutrition than in other medical topics, because medical research has ignored nutrition in a really profound way pretty much forever.  (I'll spare you my personal anecdotal evidence on this, but hit me up in the comments if you want to hear about it.)

Each time any researcher comes to some sort of conclusion it's hailed as gospel... until it's proven false a few years later that is.  (Remember when transfatty margarine was sooooo much healthier for you than butter?)  As a result, each time I hear some news source proclaim that this food is magic or that food is poison, I think of when medical science was convinced that small demons caused all ailments and exorcism / leaches were the best cures.

Add to that the fact that much of the nutrition research happening today is funded by the industry - which no doubt seeks specific results - and it's wise to take any "revolutionary" new piece of nutrition information with more than a grain of salt.

3.15.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Appetite For Profit, Chapter 7

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 7: Exposing Government Complicity

Summary:

Government is more likely to support food industry profit than the promotion of public health.  This has been regularly reflected in USDA dietary guidelines, over which the food industry tends to exert undue influence.

2005's revamped "MyPyramid" guidelines both place responsibility for health solely on the consumer and emphasizes exercise - rather than nutrition - as the key to health.  It is ironic to say the least that nutrition guidelines do not emphasize nutrition's role in health.  The redesigned pyramid is also significantly more difficult to understand.  The food industry's support of the new guidelines indicates that they are quite friendly to industry interests.

In 2004, the FDA released a report called Calories Count emphasizing personal responsibility once again.  At a "summit on obesity" the same year, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services encouraged the same, stating outright that "[w]e have to do it ourselves."  He even praised McDonald's for its healthier options.  At the same event, the US Surgeon General provided major food industry players a platform to voice their viewpoints, shutting out all other ideas under a guise of time constraint.  Such focused, industry-friendly messaging is surprisingly common at events purportedly promoting public health initiatives.

"When the federal government is complicit with corporations, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between public and private interests."

Discussion:

Who else grew up with this guy,
and the "four food groups?"
I frequently find myself reminding people that the evening news is not a public service: it is a moneymaking business.  The information presented, and the way in which it is framed, is orchestrated intentionally to boost potential profit.

I think most people realize that nutrition information that comes from food companies is the same.  They're not telling you to eat more protein or increase your whole grain intake for your own good; they're trying to sell you their products that provide "plenty of protein and a full serving of whole grains!"  What many may not realize, though, is that government is also hocking for the food industry.  Even public service announcements are often actually just industry advertisements.

After MyPyramid in 2005 came MyPlate in 2011 (and it has its own Facebook page, bee tee dubs).  The guidelines and icon recommend "protein" and do not specify "meat," but the meat industry didn't quibble with this as it's spent decades making sure that we believe only meats contain protein.  Also, note that it very clearly recommends dairy - and recommends three cups per day at that.  Given that 2/3 of the adult population of the world is lactose intolerant, and that just 1 cup of whole milk contains 8 to 9 grams of fat (5 of which are saturated) and 150 calories, that's just a bit insane.  The dairy industry seems pretty happy about it though.  And of course, you could choose cheese (high in both fat and salt) or yogurt (often high in sugar) instead!  Or skim milk... everyone loves skim milk, right?  But of course this is totally necessary, since there is literally no other possible source of calcium at all ever anywhere.  Just like protein is only found in meat.  EVERYONE KNOWS THAT.

The food plans outlined on the MyPyramid website are vague at best, and because they give amounts of each food type to be eaten in a week, rather than per day or per meal, would require an extraordinary amount of planning to follow.  5 1/2 cups of red and orange vegetables per week?  How do you even work that out?  How much is a cup of oranges anyway?  Last I checked, tomatoes and carrots don't come in cup measurements.  No wonder, as explained in the book chapter, that only 2 to 4 percent of the US population actually tries to follow these recommendations.

When looking at federal nutrition guidelines, it's important to realize that the USDA has conflicting missions: it is meant both to guide the dietary health of the nation, and to support its food manufacturers.  When it's more profitable for the food industry to sell junk food than healthful food (due in large part to government policy...), this conflict becomes deeply problematic.  It seems likely that until a different agency is in charge of providing governmental dietary guidelines, we will continue to receive industry-friendly advice.  I wait with baited breath to see the extent to which the upcoming guidelines are able to buck this trend.

Locally, we have a public health initiative called Fit NOLA begun by the New Orleans Health Department in 2012.  Fit NOLA is, in turn, part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! national initiative.  Fit NOLA's aim is to become one of the top ten fittest cities in the country by 2018; how it plans to achieve this is not clear, but it does unsurprisingly place responsibility squarely on us: "every New Orleanian will need to commit to being more nutritionally and physically fit."  Sure, we all need to take responsibility for our own health to the extent possible.  For many New Orleanians, though, that extent is small to nonexistent.

Yep, this logo.
While I'm glad that Nola is interested in improving the health of its residents, this program has a major visibility problem.  I literally didn't know it existed, for instance, until writing this blog post, despite the fact that I've been deeply invested in its food and restaurant scene for the past four years.  It also fails Branding 101: it doesn't even have a logo.

Its most visible effort by far is the Eat Fit NOLA program, sponsored by a non-public entity - Ochsner Health System - which owns and operates many of the area's hospitals.  Eat Fit NOLA labels menu items (with a logo!) at participating area restaurants to indicate choices that meet certain parameters.  I am skeptical of this program - in no small way because of the food options I've found in its facilities - but need to look into it further.  Have you tried Eat Fit NOLA choices at any area restaurants?  If so, please tell us about the experience in the comments.

3.13.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Appetite For Profit, Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 6:"Responsible Marketing" to Kids

Summary:

Children are regularly exploited by the food industry.  It of course strenuously denies this, though it is incontrovertible.  Examples of marketing foods of poor nutritional quality directly to children abound:
  • General Mills calls its "Choose Breakfast" campaign unbranded, though its ten second TV spots feature its cereals' iconic cartoon characters and are broadcast paired with 20 second advertisements for presweetened breakfast cereals.

  • Coca-Cola claims it does not advertise to children under 12, while using product placement in television shows known to be popular with young children and selling logo-emblazoned toys that are age-appropriate only to those still in single digits.  It also aggressively pursues pouring rights contracts in elementary schools.

  • Kraft advertises only its "sensible Solutions" foods to kids ages six to 12 - but of course, it is Kraft that determines which products receive the moniker.  It also frequently uses well-known characters such as Batman and SpongeBob SquarePants on its food packages.
"We should not rely on the food industry to set public health policy, and especially not when it comes to marketing to children.  The corporate imperative to maximize profits will always ultimately run roughshod over the ethical obligation to safeguard children's health and well-being."  Simply put, self-regulation does not work when it comes to marketing foods to kids.  The industry either can't or won't control itself on this front.

Discussion:
An important topic with regard to food marketing to kids not mentioned in this chapter is the placement of so-called "kids' foods" on supermarket shelves.  (The development of foods specifically for kids is a whole other can of worms.)  Fortunately it's been covered elsewhere - check out Marion Nestle's What to Eat for a thorough discussion.  It's also not hard to notice once it's been pointed out: so-called presweetened cereals and other sugary packaged foods are often placed on the bottom or next-to-bottom shelves, giving easy access to little hands that are drawn to the colorful cartoon characters inevitably found on package fronts.  And what parent (or nanny or babysitter or human) hasn't witnessed a child completely melt down when faced with candy stacked from the floor to above their heads on the racks in the check-out aisle?  This problem has become so intense for shopping adults that some grocery stores have instituted candy-free checkout aisles.  In the effort to detoxify our food environment, changing rules about supermarket shelving could be key.

As luck (?) would have it, the food world is exploding with news today that a new "Kids Eat Right" campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has given the nod to the first food approved to sport the campaign logo: Kraft American Singles.  Yes, Singles will be emblazoned with the words "kids eat right!"  Because clearly what kids need more of in their diets is more pasteurized processed cheese product.  The logo merely states that Kraft is a "proud supporter" of the program, but there is an implicit message of endorsement by the AND.  Granted, this marketing is aimed more at adult shoppers than at kids.  But with its clear kid appeal - its colorful bubbly letters, for example - any kid old enough to read will surely point to the logo to convince a shopping parent that the "cheese" is a good choice.  Terrifying.

Of course, marking cheese to kids as the ultimate after-school snack is nothing new.

3.11.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Appetite For Profit, Chapter 5

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 5: Nutriwashing Processed Foods

Summary:

Health claims on processed food packages have proliferated in recent years.  A prime example is the claim of "whole grans" in hundreds of products that in fact contain large amounts of heavily processed grains, and offer few whole grain benefits.  The federal recommendation to "eat more whole grains" refers to foods such as steamed brown rice - not Froot Loops and and chocolate chip cookies made with "whole wheat flour."  Nevertheless, a logo on a package gives these sugary, nutritionally void foods a halo of healthfulness, allowing consumers an easy justification to continue buying junk.  Many people may truly believe these are healthful choices for themselves and their families.

Given that consumers are likely to seek nutritional information from food packages, slogans such as "Smart Choices Made Easy" (PepsiCo brands) and "Sensible Solutions" (Kraft brands) are particularly concerning.  Touted as "a big help for moms," these efforts at nutriwashing encourage families continue purchasing the processed foods that are so profitable to the industry.  In reality, foods that claim to be "healthy" are often just nominally healthier that a specific company's least healthful products.  Yes, Cheese-its may be healthier than Cheetos... but that doesn't make them healthy.

"The argument that people aren't going to eat whole unprocessed foods becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that is both condescending and immoral."  Processed convenience foods, by their very nature, are unhealthy.  While their healthfulness (or lack thereof) can be mitigated, these foods will never be truly healthy.  Nutriwashed packaging claims present barriers to, not opportunities for, more healthful eating.

Discussion:

Nearly a decade has gone by since Simon's writing, and all that seems to have changed is that PepsiCo has moved on to the "Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation" and Kraft has crated its "Healthy Living" program.  Even at the Broad Street Whole Foods, that supposed bastion of healthfulness, guess what I found?  Health claims aplenty on processed foods that are far from optimal:

Annie's Homegrown Bernie's Farm Cheddar Crackers are "made with goodness!"  Not to mention organic wheat!  And there's an even an offer for a free "be green" sticker.  This is clearly a health food.

These here "presweetened" cereals - conveniently located on the bottom shelf where small hands can easily reach them - are obviously eons better than that normal grocery store stuff - the brand is Nature's Path!  The animals are exotic and lifelike!  And look, they've obtained nutrition's current holy grail: they're GLUTEN FREE!  Healthy healthy healthy, no doubt about it.

...and my personal favorite, turkey jerky.  Jerky isn't "healthy" - everyone knows that.  But look, no nitrates or nitrites!  Lots of protein!  I stand corrected - it MUST be healthy!
When not even a grocery store that has built its entire reputation on healthfulness can be depended on for truth in advertising, where can consumers turn? The waters of our food environment are not only shark-infested; they're infested with sharks in minnows' clothing.

(Note: sharks are not actually dangerous.  Shark attack numbers pale in comparison to how often humans kill sharks.  I just like to use figures of speech sometimes, and a bizarre number of them refer to animals.)

3.09.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Appetite For Profit, Chapter 4

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 4 - Nutriwashing Fast Food

Summary:

Nutriwashing is the food industry's version of greenwashing: using claims that make consumers believe a product is superior in some quality of responsibility when it is, in reality, just as problematic as its analogues.  McDonald's, which has borne a lion's share of nutrition criticism, also leads the pack among its fast food peers in creating options that seem more healthful.  Its claims of reducing availability of its least healthy options such as "supersized" fries and soft drinks are also little more than lip service.

In 2004, McDonald's launched a "balanced lifestyles" campaign that featured a healthy-seeming adult meal complete with a pedometer.  But instead of causing consumers to make healthier food choices, the initiative just made people feel better about walking in the door.  This is referred to as the "halo effect."  After all, they have healthy options!  Why not go in?  Once at the counter, though, even those customers who come in based on the promise of salads and bottled water are likely to order a burger and fries.  This is not to mention that McDonald's salads sometimes contain more fat, salt, and calories than its classic offerings.

The bottom line is that the fast food restaurant model is not conducive to healthy options.  Produce has a short shelf life, lending itself to food waste and lost profit.  It's also just not why people go to a drive-thru.  Expecting healthy fare to be both available and popular at a fast food restaurant is simply unrealistic.

Discussion:

The information in this chapter is somewhat out of date.  However, some things don't change.  Fast food companies are up to the same old tricks, trying to get customers in the door with healthy-seeming options that are actually anything but.  The McDonald's Egg White Delight McMuffin, is currently being promoted on its web site, marketed as a "masterpiece" bursting with protein and whole grains.  This sandwich, claims McDonald's, is "wholesome made delightful" - despite this ingredient list:
Ingredients: Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, Whole Wheat Flour, Yeast, Maltodextrin, Cornmeal, Contains 2% Or Less: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Barley Malt, Wheat Gluten, Corn Flour, Rice Flour, Soybean Oil or Canola Oil, Salt, Calcium Sulfate, Calcium Propionate (Preservative), Natural Flavor (Plant Source), Dough Conditioners (DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide, Mono- and Tricalcium Phosphate, Enzymes), Fumaric Acid, Calcium Citrate, Citric Acid, Wheat Starch, Vitamin D Yeast, Caramel Color, Sodium Benzoate, Sorbitan Monostearate.
AND THAT'S JUST THE ENGLISH MUFFIN.  Here's the ingredients for the egg:
Ingredients: Egg Whites.  Prepared with Liquid Margarine: Liquid Soybean Oil and Hydrogenated Cottonseed and Soybean Oils, Water, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt, Soy Lecithin, Mono-and Diglycerides, Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Sorbate (Preservatives), Artificial Flavor, Citric Acid, Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Carotene (Color).
Don't that just scream "wholesome?"  Don't even get me started on the "cheese."

I also noticed something conspicuous in the nutritional information provided:


The bold bar across the top explains there are 8 grams of fat total in the breakfast sandwich. The details beneath note that there are 3 grams of saturated fat. But what makes up the other five grams? If you already know about such things you can infer that it's unsaturated fat... but why would McDonald's choose not to just provide that information? This is a web site with plenty of white space left on its pages, so there's no argument of design constraint.  Such obfuscation is confusing at best to consumers, and can easily be seen as downright manipulative - perhaps McDonald's would like us to concentrate on that innocuous little 3, rather than that significantly more hefty 8?

When McDonald's claims that it is "on a continuous journey to meet [its] national nutrition commitments and provide [its] guests with menu offerings and information to address their needs," what it means is that it will do whatever it takes to continue getting our money.

Let's pick on McD's for just one more minute.  I noticed this billboard for "Southern Chicken Select Tenders" in Mid-City and in Treme this week - the re-addition of which to its menu will fuel the capacity growth of chicken producers.  Assuming that "TLC" is meant in its common usage of "tender loving care," its message is completely appalling and patently untrue from every conceivable angle.  We can say with certainty that it does NOT treat its animals, its workers, the environment, or anything else it touches with anything approaching "tender loving care."  What purpose could such a blatant lie serve but to make consumers feel better about buying products that are, in reality, shameful?

Billboard at the corner of Bienville and N. Scott - which is a super weird place for a billboard btw.