Seeing beyond the often absurd label claims and misleading nutritional information found on packaged foods and bottled beverages.
I asked a young activist recently what changes in the food system she wanted to see most. Instead of the earful I expected about Farm Bill subsidies or concentrated animal feeding operations, she convincingly described how getting kids to taste "real" (instead of canned) spinach has proven effective at changing their food preferences. In the urban farm community she serves, children tell her they like vegetables and prove it with their forks. Her "big change" idea? Simply to connect more people with their food. I've heard similar heartening examples elsewhere. Yet at the same time, I'm observing a disturbing opposite trend too.
Take the product intended for children that landed on my desk not long ago. "Fruit you squeeze and eat!" the flexible plasticized pouch cover commanded. (Imagine Barbie's waterbed. That's what the package looks and feels like.) The grape-flavored "mashup" with two fruits pureed with grape juice concentrate contains 110 calories. What were the makers thinking? That parents would approve because if all of the ingredients are fruit in some form, the contents are organic, and if it's fun to eat fruit out of a squeezable tube, then what's wrong with that?
From a nutritional standpoint, an apple beats tube food in every category: half the calories, more vitamins, only 20 percent of the sugars (think diabetes) ounce for ounce. But the increased sugars no doubt heighten a child's delight, and makes a real apple, pear, or a bunch of grapes less appealing by comparison. What's more, an apple doesn't come in multi-colored disposable packaging. What's happened to our eating habits when we have to manipulate children into eating fruit? I thought we rejected Space Food decades ago.
Re-packaged food isn't limited to children's treats, of course. Take the example of a product a manufacturer sent me to try, the All-Natural - 100% Vegan - Gluten-Free - Dairy-Free - Wheat-Free - Cholesterol-Free - Peanut-Free - No Preservatives - Kosher - Processed and Packaged in the USA snack item. It beckoned me with so many adjectives that I had to taste it.
After a mouthful, the most prominent adjective I could think of was "yucky." It was so overtly "natural" that it actually tasted artificial. Like the kids' product, I compared a serving size of this dried-blueberry-packed snack to the same quantity of fruit. Fruit has fewer calories, more micro-nutrients, and, yes, even less sugars. If you think about it, all fruit can claim these same attributes (except unwashed strawberries, which aren't kosher).
Beverages have trended in the same over-hyped and extra-sweetened direction. We used to brew our own iced tea and add sweetener to taste. Now it comes bottled, pre-sweetened, with a boatload of added flavor elements not grown in our hemisphere (or anywhere but a chemistry lab) and an array of health claims for mind and body. Remarkably, many bottles contain 2.5 serving sizes each. Are we supposed to buy two bottles and consume them over five meals? I chastised a chai manufacturer recently for formulating individual serving mixes that contain 10 grams of sugar and 90 calories each. Why do we need our afternoon drink loaded with the equivalent of 2.5 packets of sugar? After all, we're not using it, as many Indians do, to power us through a morning's worth of manual labor.
Our propensity for bottled beverages has ratcheted up our expectations of how sweet all drinks should be, and how enormously caloric they are. Temple University historian Bryant Simon criticizes big coffee chains for many practices, including setting an expectation -- especially among teenagers -- for developing an expensive, high-calorie "milk and sugar" habit. Coffee, he notes, is secondary at coffee chains these days.
Solid longitudinal research determined that the total caloric intake of Americans increased by an average of 300 calories per day between 1977 and 1996, and, perhaps more importantly, that approximately 50 percent of the increase comes from "liquid calories" (i.e. sugar‐sweetened beverages). Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartmann Group of Bellevue, Washington, a top food-marketing research firm, recently described us as always having access to a "feed bag" -- candy drawer at our desks, stash in the car, cans in the fridge, etc. No wonder we consume an unintended 2,000 extra calories per week.
At the same time, research shows that consumers do look at nutritional labels. But what are we really evaluating if we compare one box to another? Our manufactured snacks and beverages make such loud "natural" and "healthy" claims. But compared to what alternatives? Perhaps we should be changing our frames of reference and comparing boxes and bottles to raw fruit or prepared vegetables. Without doing so, our acceptance of "all-natural" snacks and beverages may be subtly disconnecting us and our kids from real food.
Image: Revolution Foods.