Archive for the ‘Snacks’ Category

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

November 15, 2013

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.

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“Baby Carrots – Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”

March 24, 2011

“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

Baby Carrots – “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”

January 14, 2011

“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 fries 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 re-regionalized food systems.

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 be done.

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 pages, 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 these baby (carrot!) 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

Successful Snacking

May 18, 2010

The headline “7 Habits of Highly Successful Snackers” from RealSimple.com caught my attention today. I chuckled at the reference to self-help guru Franklin Covey’s famous work (though “7 habits of highly annoying people” makes me laugh harder) then decided to share my take on tips for successful snacking.

I often lament the way our culture intertwines junk food and snacks as well as how the phrase “healthy snacks” conjures images of a plain apple or celery sticks dipped in low fat dressing or some other “diet food.” Now don’t get me wrong, a crisp juicy apple plucked from a tree or a bin at an autumn farmer’s market is something to be savored. Conversely, a wax-coated mealy apple in the spring or summer taken along because it’s “healthy” fits into my doomed-to-fail-diet category.  The truth is, good snacking habits can really help you manage your weight (and health) and improve your overall diet.

  1. Ditch the idea that snacking is just for kids. The word ‘snack’ sounds like the word ‘sneak’ and too often adults are embarrassed to admit they need one. While the strategy of eating several mini meals throughout the day rather than three squares appeals to some busy people, it’s not always practical. A well-timed, quick and nutritious (but tasty) snack can help you eat less at mealtime and feel more energetic throughout the day.
  2. Save the bars for times you can’t get real food. The idea of jamming nutrients into a bar that you can stick in your pocket, purse, car or desk drawer is great. Bars beat the heck out of going too long without eating and getting crabby, distracted or arriving ravenous at your next meal. But bars aren’t magic – no matter how many vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids, or other alluring ingredients they contain. Also, we get used to a certain volume of food each day so a bar may pack as many (or more) calories as a banana spread with peanut butter but not be as satisfying or keep you sated for as long.
  3. Mix your macronutrients. A combo of carbohydrates (preferably high fiber choices like veggies, fruit, whole grain crackers or bread), protein, and “good fats” (nuts, seeds or butters made from them, avocados) makes snacks taste good and keeps you satisfied longer. Some foods like nuts, beans (hummus, edamame, bean salsa) and yogurt already combine protein, carbs and fat so these can be good, easy snacks all by themselves or good companions for veggies and fruit.
  4. Use snacks to eat more veggies and fruit – an make them delicious. You know there are many benefits to eating more plant foods. You also know that knowledge alone doesn’t change your habits. Piling on veggies (or fruit) at meals is great but isn’t always an option. Plus, snacks are a more realistic way to reach the ideal 9-11 servings (a serving is 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked) each day. Turns out there are many delicious snack ideas for fruits and veggies – just Google “fun” or “delicious” fruit and vegetables and you’ll find pages of ideas.
  5. Don’t just drink your snacks. Your brain doesn’t recognize calories you drink the way it registers calories you chew. Even if a liquid snack is filling when you drink it, it may not stave off hunger pangs later the way an equal number of calories from food does. If drinking your snacks fits your schedule, lifestyle, budget, and taste buds but doesn’t stick with you long enough try drinking half your usual amount and supplement your beverage with a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit or something you need to chew.
  6. Timing is everything. Sometimes concerns about weight and health make us lose sight of the bigger picture – food is fuel. If you are busy and/or active throughout the day, that is when you need food most. People who eat more of their calories earlier in the day have an easier time managing their weight. Also, if you eat before your blood sugar dips you may prevent mood swings and improve concentration.
  7. Manage your expectations. Our quest for perfection can lead to all-or-nothing thinking…especially when it comes to changing dietary habits for health. One of my favorite mantras is “progress not perfection.” Sometimes hunger strikes when you’re not prepared, your next meal is hours away and your snack choices are less than ideal. Make the best choice you can – sometimes this means eating less than usual amounts of a suboptimal food and that is okay. As you learn and practice new skills related to better snacking you may make choices that don’t work or don’t taste good to you. Relax – that is part of learning something new. The more you practice the better you’ll get and the easier healthy, satisfying snacking will be!