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    Copyright 2008-2018Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    DISCLAIMER

    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Thanks

I want to give a quick thanks to Dr. Marion Nestle, who took the time to let her readers and colleagues know about Sunday’s Dietary Guidelines post in her Twitter feed and on her blog, foodpolitics.com, which I’ve read with interest ever since starting this blog. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I appreciate it very much.

Fifty, or “Sugar Shock, Part II”

I’m back, though a little bummed out. I didn’t post anything at all in September. There’s a reason for that. No, it’s not because I turned 50 last month (which I did). No, it’s not because I rebelled and declared against cooking anything ever again (which I almost wish I had, even though most of what I cooked was pretty good).

It’s because my routine physical showed up with a higher-than-normal-for-nondiabetics A1c even though my fasting blood glucose was under 100. The A1c measures the fraction of hemoglobins (the red blood cell proteins that include iron atoms and transport oxygen) with glucose molecules stuck to them. There’s always some level of glycosylated protein in the bloodstream, but above a certain threshold it means your average blood glucose for the previous 3 months or so has been over 100.  Not a good thing at 50. And when I borrowed my daughter’s old glucose meter and tested myself before breakfast a couple of days in a row, I saw why my A1c had been up–my fasting glucose was now hovering about 105, 110, even though it didn’t happen to be up on the day I tested at the lab.

Don’t that just figure, I thought. Happy birthday to me.

So I’ve been pretty PO’d and somewhat panicked. I do NOT want to become a full-blown diabetic. One in the family is more than plenty, thanks. Even though all the finest news outlets announced today that Tom Hanks is now diabetic. Not a huge comfort.

I think of myself as eating a generally healthy diet. I know full well how to count carbs, having had to for the past 4 years. My blood pressure’s good. I walk nearly every day. I know how to balance a meal.

But the Type II diabetes prevention and management advice I can find in the popular diabetes magazines and cookbooks (and online sites), even the ones endorsed by the American Diabetes Association, always seems to be ludicrously lax and useless compared with what we already have to do at home.

I’ve spent the past month reading up and seeing why the popular diabetes cookbooks and magazine recipe sections seem so useless–or even deceptive. Next post, coming up this week. You won’t believe what I found in most of them (other than all the pharmaceutical and sweetener ads, of course).

But for now, back to basics. Can I do the simple common-sense stuff they tell you (without actual instructions) at the doctor’s office to back away from diabetes risk?

Marion Nestle has pointed out that in large studies, the factors with the highest Continue reading

The new MyPlate icon–fantastic or plastic?

Everyone in the food press seems to be weighing in on the new replacement for the much-cursed USDA Food Pyramid in all (both?) its glorious confusion and obfuscation of real nutritional goals that might have (and should have) undermined the beef, corn, pork, corn, sugar, corn, and soy industries if they’d ever been presented honestly.

So where does that leave us? With ears of fresh corn that are more than 50 cents apiece in Los Angeles supermarkets, and the new…

USDA MyPlate logo

Already, the USDA’s MyPlate web site is in a certain amount of branding trouble (and of course, that’s what counts most in America): the Texas DMV had already bagged “MyPlates.com” for its vanity license plate division (highly unappetizing), and Livestrong.com already has its own well-established “MyPlate” food calculator and fan base. And those items come up first on Google searches. As in, the whole first page or more. The government site ranks way down the list and had to water down the impact of its original name choice with “choose” just to get a URL. Can it elbow out the competition just by bolding the “MyPlate” part?

What really counts are the food and nutrition opinion maker comments, though. And a lot of those are detracting in a nitpicking way that I think kind of misses the point.

The first thing they all have to say is that the plate looks dumbed down. Forgive me, but wasn’t the Food Pyramid’s unreadable and unusable design a large part of the problem? The MyPlate icon is simpler and more direct, and it names real food groups, not “Big Mac” or, on the haute side of things, any of Ferran Adrià’s foams. No wonder foodies and populists alike are wondering what it has to do with them.

A small sampling of the main arguments:

MyPlate: The Food Pyramid for dummies? (LA Times): Dr. Andrew Weil and others discuss what’s still wrong with the new icon. Weil says “fruits” could still include fruit juice, which is usually a useless sugar bomb in comparison with whole fruit, and he worries that the protein section, which comes with a guideline to eat 8 oz. of fish per week, might encourage unthinking people to increase their mercury intake since swordfish is on the guideline menu, as are some of the generally overfished popular species of fish. Weil’s not wrong about the fruit juice vs. actual fruit, but his hand-wringing about fish is really geared for well-off readers who can afford to eat much of it. All the fishes he names are Continue reading

The Meaning of “Tasty”

One very strange description crops up in nearly every expert’s take on processed food and the way it’s overtaken fresh and whole foods in the American diet. Everyone from food industry veteran Hank Cardello (see the Stuffed book review) to NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle in What to Eat talks about fast food and junk food as “tasty”. David Kessler goes even further: in The End of Overeating, he adds “irresistible,” which he says is the problem he faced most of his life.

Moreover, “tasty” has become the important word in processed food advertising. Driving home from the post office today I even saw it on a billboard for Vitaminwater10, with the tagline:  “10 CALORIES. 4 NEW FLAVORS. TASTIER THAN EVER.”

Tasty. It’s the word of champions, the key, the adword to beat.

And for the life of me, I’m not sure why. Because the words I would have chosen for most of it include stodgy, greasy, cardboardy, screamingly salty, day-glo ™ orange, and “a lot like airplane food, only on the ground.” Am I the only one?

But “tasty”–specifically that word–is clearly the accepted description, even among these food experts, and that points to a host of disturbing assumptions. Either they mean they find processed food tasty or they mean they think everyone else finds it tasty and irresistible–even if there’s something better to eat. That’s kind of defeatist, isn’t it? If everyone “knows” fast food is tastier than fresh produce, what hope is there for mainstream Americans to eat healthier than they do today?

What do they actually mean by “tasty” in the case of processed food? They don’t mean fresh, as in fresh produce. They don’t mean tangy, as in yogurt or a tangerine, or sharp as in horseradish or cheddar. Certainly not aromatic, like dill or fennel or rosemary or sage. Or rich and funky and thought-provoking, like aged camembert or shiitakes or asparagus or toasted sesame oil. And they don’t mean complex and savory and surprising, as in a palak paneer punctuated by smoky black cardamom pods, Armenian string cheese with nigella seed, or a long-cooked carbonnade or daube of beef with some cloves thrown in on a whim.

They can’t possibly, honestly, mean “these fresh hazelnuts are so sweet you’ll plotz” or “one bite and you’d better take this nectarine somewhere private.”

Most of the food experts who’ve posited that processed food is “tasty” in their books and articles are older than I am by about 10 years, old enough to remember eating late-July nectarines that devastatingly fragrant, backyard tomatoes earthily ripe and pungent, foods utterly unlike what’s available even in the produce section of most chain supermarkets today.

So I can’t help thinking that their casual use of the word “tasty” reflects and even perpetuates the hopelessly tattered, stunted and inexperienced taste imagination of the masses of people who don’t cook for themselves anymore and have given over completely to packaged food, with its excesses of salt and its bland, stale cardboardy background flavor. The ugly assumption they’ve bought into is that people who eat mostly processed food can’t change, won’t change, and most importantly, wouldn’t like fresh food if they tasted it.

Can the surge of food blogs with their encouragement to try something new, visit local farmers’ markets, maybe even take a share in a community garden plot, change this trend? I hope so, even though I know the open air markets are not often very available in poor neighborhoods and they tend to be as expensive as supermarkets. But when they are made available in urban areas, all kinds of people from the neighborhood suddenly come flocking to them, Continue reading

Smart Choices Checkmarks–Corrupt Before They Ever Hit the Cereal Box?

William Neumann of the New York Times takes a hard look at “Smart Choices”, the new food industry-sponsored common nutrition labeling program, which makes its debut in supermarket packaged food aisles. The coveted green checkmark comes with a hefty license fee–toward the $100,000 mark per item–for food companies that want to qualify, but apparently qualifying is a little easier than you might expect. The new program, headed by a nutritionist with impressive enough credentials,  has awarded healthy choice status to heavily sugared cereals like Froot Loops because, as she explains, they’re a better breakfast choice than, say, doughnuts. For sure.

How could any reputable nutritionist blurt something like that out to a New York Times reporter? Does she really use doughnuts as a benchmark for comparison when the question is “what should I feed my kid for breakfast?”

More to the point, how could items like Froot Loops end up qualifying as a smart choice? Apparently, the FDA is wondering the same thing.

Take a look at the Smart Choices program nutrition criteria. Under the program, a given processed food product qualifies as a “smart choice” if:

1. Its nutrition stats fall within consensus-defined limits for carbs, added sugars, fats, cholesterol, and sodium. But the criteria are not particularly consistent about whether these nutrition stats count for a single serving or a meal, or perhaps multiple servings throughout the day, and the upper limits shift between categories of foods. And some of the criteria have been muted, dropped, or subordinated according to the preferences of food industry members over the protests of the nutrition scientists.

2. It contains at least one positive nutrient from an industry-accepted list of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. The positive nutrient can be an additive, and it can be added to an otherwise nutritionally useless food product.

3. Alternatively to the positive nutrient criterion, the product can contain or represent some aspect of the category “food groups to encourage”: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat or non-fat milk. How much of any of these ingredients must be present, what their original source is, and whether the final food product retains any reasonable or comparable amount of the nutrition found in an unprocessed fruit, vegetable, grain, or dairy item which it claims to include are all a bit vague. Processed cheese is technically considered dairy, for example, even though it may contain mostly vegetable oils, starches, and emulsifiers, not milk.

Not all food categories seem to require both nutrient-of-concern limits and positive characteristics.

Finally, the instructions to companies wishing to qualify a given food product state: “Qualifying your products for the Smart Choices Program is quick and simple. Product review is typically completed in 24 – 48 hours.”

Pretty much says it all. And doesn’t really support the “science-based, consistent, reliable” claims the program presents to consumers and the media.

For further mirth and bemusement, check out Marion Nestle’s account of her discussions with Neumann and with the Kellogg’s VP for global nutrition on her blog.

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