Saturday, March 19, 2005

Consuming mass quantities - of what?

The head of Girl Scouts USA says on the radio that it’s alright that the cookies they sell contain trans fats, because normal people treat them like snacks and just eat a single cookie occasionally. Is she really so ignorant? Maybe she buys a box of cookies and it lasts four months, but then she would be the one who is completely out of the norm. Even if one does follow her pattern of consumption, why should even occasional treats contain ANY non-food ingredients like trans fats, when there are healthier alternatives readily available? As just one example, Newman’s Own has a whole line of delicious cookies that contain no trans fats at all.

“Two months ago, Kraft Foods announced that it would stop television advertising of certain products it considered unhealthy to children under 12. Kraft will not reduce its $90 million a year worth of advertising aimed at children. Rather, it will alter the product mix, increasing ads for Sugar-Free Kool-Aid and 100-calorie packs of thin crisp Oreos.” (1)

The implicit message here is that Kraft believes that Sugar-Free Kool-Aid and small packages of Oreos are actually healthy foods for children. Why would they think that? Are those the healthiest alternatives in their product line?

“Companies are taking a pot of white flour and a pot of refined sugar and adding maybe some fat and food coloring and flavoring and calling it food, but it’s basically junk,” said Mr. Jacobson [of Center for Science in the Public Interest], also quoted in (1).

Calling something “food” does not make it so. It is amazing that the most technologically-advanced species on earth has so much trouble distinguishing food from non-food. Americans in particular treat food as if it is completely divorced from its role in their continued health and life, as if food’s only value resides in its entertainment potential. Overstimulated palates require for their satiation intensely sweetened and salted foods, while fried foods have reached the status of “staples,” and no meal is complete without an encore of a sweet and rich dessert. We want to eat like it’s (the Swanson Hungry Man version of) Thanksgiving, every day of the year.

In a culture that treats treats as its daily due, we need to get away from the idea that when it comes to treats, anything goes: chemical-laden, nutrient-free carbon compounds are simply not food; they are mouth-and-tongue-drugs. Their only (debatable) value is the enjoyment one gets from chewing and swallowing them, with apparently no thought at all given to what happens next. Yes, these “foods” do supply energy (read: calories) but that’s hardly a burning need in our generally obese society.

Candy and most child-directed breakfast cereals are not food; soda pop is not food; modern French fries are not food. Products containing trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar substitutes and any of a multitude of lab-created compounds, are not food because they are not life-enhancing, but only produce superficial pleasure. To consume them anyway is to behave like a drug addict, interested only in the high of the moment rather than in the long-term consequences of a self-destructive behavior.

Companies making processed foods keep seeking new lows, and find them in blue-filled Oreos, purple ketchup, marshmallows for breakfast, fluorescently-colored soda pop. One of the basic tasks of childhood is to learn to distinguish food from non-food, and at one time, such products as Windex and antifreeze were deliberately produced in “non-food” colors so as to prevent accidental poisonings, but now they look just like Gatorade.

“Food” concerns such as Kraft blame childhood obesity on the lack of Physical Education classes in the schools, but it seems obvious that the more culpable villain is the lack of Nutrition classes. As a culture, we seem to have unlearned (a more active process than simply forgetting) the knowledge of the ages, of being able to identify FOOD.

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(1) “Guidelines are urged in food ads for children,” by Melanie Warner, NY Times, March 19, 2005.

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