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The Food Industry

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Five Lunchbox Favorites Masquerading as Nutritious Food

Today's guest post comes from Heather Martin, N.D. -- a naturopath, mother, and wellness blogger from Eastern Canada. Heather is a curator of all things awesome on her excellent blog, The Acorn -- Wellness, Inspiration, Beauty.

 

 

It may come as some surprise that many of the biggest lunchbox villains are marketed as healthy choices for kids. These companies, after all, want to make money, not feed your kids nutritious food. Labels like ‘low fat’, ‘sugar free’, or ‘all natural’ are purposely deceptive. A quick perusal of a food’s ‘Nutrition Facts’ often bears out a far different story than the one being trumpeted in splashy print across the front of the box.

The following childhood standards are widely viewed by parents as nutritious options. And who could blame them; the marketing budgets behind these products could fund some small countries. Remember, packaged food is BIG business - whereas an apple is just an apple.

 

1. Granola Bars

With names like ‘Nutri-Grain’, ‘Oats n’ Honey’, and ‘Fibre One’, you would expect granola bars to be packed with good stuff for your kids. The reality is that they contain anywhere from 9 to 20 grams of sugar. To put that in perspective, 5 grams equals roughly 1 teaspoon of sugar. At the top end of the spectrum, that little bar contains a whopping 4 teaspoons of sugar. Let’s call a spade a spade: at this point, it’s a chocolate bar.

Swap for a homemade version or high-energy snacks, like nuts or a banana.

 

2. Luncheon Meats

This sandwich staple should be avoided at all costs. Freshly sliced cold cuts from the deli counter are fine if they are nitrate-free. But pre-packaged meats, unless you can find an organic brand, are usually loaded with preservatives, sodium, and most problematically, nitrates, a known carcinogen.

Swap for canned salmon, hard boiled eggs, leftovers, or fresh, nitrate-free cold cuts.

 

3. Yogurt Cups

Yogurt cups are, quite simply, dessert masquerading as a healthy lunch staple. Even when they’re devoid of questionable preservatives, the sugar content is sky high. At 19 to 29 grams per cup, flavored yogurt manages to make even granola bars look good. That’s more sugar than a Twinkie!

Swap for plain kefir or plain, whole fat yogurt.

 

4. 'Low Fat’ and ‘Fat Free’ Foods

First, if it advertises this on the label, you’re automatically buying a processed food. Second, fat is often replaced with sugar, which your body ingests and then turns into fat. Third, there are many, many, healthy fats, and your brain (amongst other organs!) needs these healthy fats to function. Last but not least, naturally occurring fats help us digest our food; once removed they can cause all sorts of digestive issues. Do not, I repeat, do not fall prey to this marketing gimmick. It’s making us all sick.

Swap for real food from your kitchen. Do your best to avoid packaged and processed.

 

5. Juice Boxes

Back to those pesky added sugars again. Any label that reads ‘fruit punch’, ‘fruit blend’, or ‘all natural flavour’; beware. This is Kool-aid in disguise, my friends. Even 100% juice contains all the sugar and none of the fibre or vitamins of a piece of fruit (that part has been processed out).

Swap for fruit and a reusable bottle of water.

 

Knowledge is power: learning to steer clear of these ‘healthy’ imposters in your grocery aisles gives you the power to opt out of a system that enriches itself at the cost of our well being. Far from making your kids healthy and happy, these products are high in preservatives, sugar, sodium, trans fats, and ingredients no normal person can pronounce. In other words, the very things that are making our kids sick.

Author and naturopath Heather Martin blogs at  The Acorn Wellness .

Author and naturopath Heather Martin blogs at The Acorn Wellness.

When packing their lunchbox, keeping it real is your best bet. If you stick with whole foods, you’re already way ahead of the curve. Think hummus and raw vegetables, a homemade bean salad, or almond butter and an apple. With a little advance planning, it’s easy to get into the habit of swapping lunchbox villains for real food favorites. A very little extra effort will pay off in a delicious, nutritious meal to help your family feel their best, both in and out of school. 


 

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Let's All Have Dessert For Breakfast!!

yogurt humor.jpg

Does the world need 369 kinds of yogurt? Let me narrow that question a bit. Do the grocery shoppers in my neighborhood need 369 kinds of yogurt? The dairy case at my supermarket suggests that we do. Yes, I counted. 369 distinct varieties. Capitalism run amuck?

I love yogurt. But I hate yogurt. What do I love? I love creamy, full-fat Greek yogurt, unsweetened, or perhaps sweetened with a little stevia. This is yogurt as nature intended – a balanced healthy meal that has been around for centuries. What do I hate? I hate sugary, low-fat yogurt that is passed off as a ‘health food’ when it really resembles dessert more than breakfast.

Let me elaborate. When you buy anything but plain yogurt, you are buying a lot of sugar (or chemical sweetners, which I would caution against). Allowing the food industry to decide how much sugar to put in anything, even yogurt, is a bad idea. (If you have not yet seen That Sugar Film, it is smart, funny, and worth renting. The film illustrates that much of the sugar we eat is found in food that is perceived as healthy, like yogurt.) A 6oz container of yogurt often contains about 20 grams of added sugar. That’s five teaspoons. Would you let your kid put five teaspoons of sugar on his cereal? I hope not. Yogurt has a natural tang to it, and this takes some getting used to – but if you pour a bunch of sugar in it, the tang is masked by the super-sweet flavor. This is what we have become accustomed to – heavily sweetened yogurt. Yogurt begins to look, nutritionally, pretty much like dessert.

Here’s low-fat strawberry yogurt, contrasted with low-fat ice cream and cookies. Note that although the yogurt offers a few extra grams of protein, it comes along with more grams of sugar, too:

Stonyfield Low-fat Organic Strawberry Yogurt    

1 cup (200 calories)

Fat – 2g • Carbs – 36g (sugars 35g) • Protein – 9g

 

Breyers All Natural Light Vanilla/Chocolate/Strawberry Ice Cream

1 cup (218 calories)

Fat – 6g • Carbs – 35g (sugars 30g) • Protein – 6g

 

Mother’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

6 Cookies (220 calories)

Fat – 10g • Carbs – 30g (sugars 15g) • Protein – 5g

 

The question, ‘Is this dessert?” is sometimes even provoked by the names of the flavors offered: Chobani’s Chocolate Haze Craze; Dannon Oikos’ Vanilla Sundae or Chocolate Covered Stawberry; Dannon Danimals’ Cotton Candy Thrill; and Yoplait’s Boston Cream Pie.

To make matters worse, America’s misguided fear of saturated fat has led to mostly reduced fat offerings. In my supermarket, the low-fat and fat-free varieties dominate, with 94% of the shelf space. (Only 23 full-fat offerings – yes, I counted.) This is a problem for two reasons. First of all, low-fat engineering takes a balanced, natural food and removes a key nutrient, leaving behind mostly carbohydrates. Secondly, it makes the yogurt more sour and less palatable, so more sugar is required to make it taste good. Stripping fat out of yogurt makes breakfast (or your snack) a carbohydrate heavy meal that lacks staying power. Let’s look at the macros of the two extremes for a moment:

 

Full-fat Greek Yogurt – Plain                       

1 cup (220 calories)                                     

Fat – 11g • Carbs – 9g (sugars are 16% of calories) • Protein – 20g                                                    


Fat Free Fruit Yogurt

1 cup (230 calories)

 Fat – 0g • Carbs – 46g (sugars are 80% of calories) • Protein – 11g


Which one looks more like a meal and less like dessert?

Yogurt-- Maximized

How can you get the most from your yogurt? Here are three things you can do to skip the hype and go straight to the good stuff:

  1. Go Greek (usually roughly double the protein);
  2. Buy plain (unsweetened, so you control how much sugar or stevia goes in);
  3. Buy full-fat (better taste, and more satisfying, balanced nutrition).

In my grocery store, with 369 choices, these three criteria rule out all but one option. At specialty markets, you'll find a few more.

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Thirst Quenching 101

Soda. Juice. Snapple. Gatorade. Energy Drinks. Lemonade. Diet versions of all of these...  what is a mother to serve?

Here is a basic way to think about hydration. Every mammal on earth drinks water. Carnivores, like wolves, drink water. Herbivores, like deer, drink water. Primates, like gorillas drink water. Humans are primates and mammals. So, if you or someone in your family is thirsty, water is your go-to drink. If family members are drinking something to accompany a meal, think of this as hydration, and go with water.

What if my child is playing soccer? Should he drink a sports drink like Gatorade or Propel? Probably not. Water is the best drink to replenish fluids during and after athletics. Water does not contain extra and unnecessary sugar and salt. Are there exceptions? Yes. Is your child playing soccer for more than three hours straight? Or, is your child playing soccer in extreme heat? Unless your child is engaging in endurance athletics or you are concerned about hot weather to which your child is not accustomed, water is best.

What about milk? I like to think of milk as food - something to drink when you are hungry, not thirsty. So, if you are looking for a snack, whole, unsweetened milk might be a good choice, assuming you or your family member does well with dairy. But for thirst, go with water. (If you have an underweight child into whom you are always trying to sneak calories, maybe milk is a good choice anytime.)

What about alcohol? If you are thirsty, drink water. If you want to get a buzz on, drink alcohol. If you want to get a buzz on while maintaining your weight, avoid adding sugary beverages to your cocktails, and try to keep an eye on how many drinks you consume each week.

What about soda, lemonade, Snapple, Sweet Tea, fruit juice, and other sugary beverages? Again, if you are thirsty, drink water. If you are choosing a beverage to accompany a meal, drink water. If you are celebrating a special occasion, perhaps you might choose to splurge and have a soft drink. And, when you drink it, think of it as special treat, not a daily privilege. (Note to self: keep these celebrations to once or twice a month.) For day-to-day hydration, drink only water. 

May I flavor my water with citrus, berries, tea, herbs, or other unsweetened additions?  Sure. Although unnecessary, it adds variety.  Go for it.

It seems we are so sophisticated and so affluent that the obvious choice of what to have to drink - water - has been eclipsed by the multi-billion dollar beverage industry's menu of enticing, expensive, and health degrading choices. Many people think water is boring. But it is also a critical step on our collective path back to health. We are lucky enough to live in a country where clean, drinkable water flows at almost no cost from our taps. Let's start turning the faucets and filling our glasses.

 

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Fed Up With Processed Food?

What role do food giants like Kraft or Nabisco play in our current health crisis? They make a lot of the food that is bad for us, sure, but ultimately, we are the ones putting the products in our cart. Why, oh why, do we buy?

Well, food manufacturers are good at marketing, and we are often governed by our 'reptile brain'  - the part of our brain that likes the hot model in the commercial and that wants quick and easy food...  more, more, more. Our food corporations engineer attractively packaged, convenient, and even tasty or addictive food that lasts in our pantries. And they put it in front of us -- both in the grocery aisles and in the media -- with remarkable creativity. Yes indeed, they intentionally tempt us, and they are skilled temptresses.

Movies like Fed Up do a nice job of pointing this out. But what they fail to point out is that expecting much more from the food giants is a little naive. Given that their corporate charge is to maximize shareholder value, not improve our collective health, can we really expect change? After all, poisoning people really, really slowly with an addictive product is actually a reasonable business model. 

If Big Food is doing its free-market thing and isn't going to change anytime soon, is there any hope of improvement?  Why, yes. We can change the advice we give eaters and, in turn, eaters can change their behavior. Nothing will change the food industry faster than educated consumers walking away from aisles and aisles of processed crap. 

So why, oh why, do we buy? We buy the current, crappy offerings, in part, because of both the advice we have been given and the advice we have not received. "Avoid fat" comes to mind as an example of bad advice.  "Avoid refined carbohydrates" comes to mind as an example of advice that we have not received with enough consistency. So again, why do we buy that yogurt with 24 grams of sugar? Perhaps because we have been assured that yogurt is 'healthy.' And, perhaps because it is labeled 'low-fat', which, in the mixed-up construct that is the USDA's dietary advice, would make it even healthier, right? So, although we wouldn't dream of feeding our kids 'dessert' for breakfast, we hand them the brightly packaged nutritional equivalent without giving it much thought. The double whammy of the misinformation we have received about dietary fat and the missing 'avoid refined carbohydrates - yes, even in yogurt' advice leave us adrift in the sea of bad breakfast options, unable to find the shores of real food that await us a few aisles over.

Imagine a world where, in 1980, the USDA had just told everyone to eat more real food and less processed food, particularly sugar and starch.  Would you guess that the yogurt offerings would look different?  Absolutely.  Because the food corporations actually do at least try to please both the USDA and consumers by meeting the demand for 'healthy' products, whatever the current definition of 'healthy' dictates.

Let's redefine healthy.  Let's vote with our grocery carts. Remember, "If you are dumb enough to buy it, they will be smart enough to sell it." The best way to get the crap off the shelves is to, collectively, stop buying it.

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