Weekend Reading – Food: A Love Story

My mom knew she was taking a risk when she bought Jim Gaffigan’s book, Food: A Love Story, for her dietitian daughter. I mean, the man’s no health nut. His career was launched on a Hot Pockets sketch, after all.

Food: A Love Story

That being said, the book had me in stitches! I have an advanced degree in food studies, so I suppose this would be logical airplane reading for people in my field. Nonetheless, Americans have a comical relationship with food, and Jim Gaffigan captures it perfectly. Below are a few funny snippets from the book:

  • And when we’re not eating, we’re chewing gum. We are literally practicing eating.
  • Tacos are one of the many beautiful gifts from Mexico, but the taco salad is filled with so much broken logic that it must be an American creation.
  • “Southern cooking” almost always seems to be code for “we are not counting calories.”
  • Chopsticks are fun, but I’d rather eat than play operation.
  • A muffin is just a bald cupcake, and we all know it.

Not often would I recommend a book by someone who writes, “I wouldn’t trust them skinnies with food advice.” Yet here I am. If you’re looking for an easy read that’s guaranteed to have you giggling, then give it try and let me know what you think!

– Kelly

4 Tools for Reading, Understanding, and Comparing Food Labels

Most of the healthiest foods available (such as fresh produce, fresh fish, or even fresh meat) don’t carry a food label. But even then, there are choices to make: organic, local, pasture raised, etc. Because most consumers find themselves purchasing foods with nutrition labels or health claims on a regular basis, here are 4 tools to help you read, understand, and compare food labels.

1. The Diagram

Below is a basic diagram on how to read a nutrition facts panel. Here are some things to remember… If there is more than 1 serving per container (such as in the example below) and you eat the whole container, you must multiply the numbers by the number of servings (so below, the total contents would have 500 calories, because of the 2 servings. The yellow nutrients are ones that we usually have too much of, so it’s best to limit those. The green nutrients are the ones that we need to work on getting enough of.

Lastly, although it is not pictured in this diagram, do not ignore the ingredient list. Items are listed in order of descending weight, so the higher up on the list something is, the more of it is present in the product. Do you want to know if the 0g trans fat label is accurate? You must look for hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list. Do you want to know if artificial sweeteners are present? You must check the ingredient list for aspartame, sucralose, and the like. Do you want to know if the sugars on the nutrition panel are naturally occurring or added? You must look on the ingredients list. Sugar can be disguised as corn syrup, cane syrup, brown rice syrup, dextrose, ribose, and about 100 other things.

Nutrition Facts Panel

2. The Book

What to Eat, by Marion Nestle, is by far the most comprehensive and informative resource on my list. PhD Nutritionist Marion Nestle takes you aisle by aisle through the grocery store and explains what to look for in each food category.If you are struggling to learn more about which qualities are important in various foods (organic vs low fat, grass fed vs free range, etc) then I highly recommend investing in a copy of this book. I refer to my copy time and time again.

3. The Video

In this TEDxTalk, Consumer Reports Environmental Health Scientist Urvashi Rangan explains which health claims on food labels are credible and which are not.This quick 15 minute video is something all consumers need to see, to avoid getting duped at the supermarket.

4. The App

Fooducate is an award winning app (created by Dietitians and Parents) for iPhone and Android that grades food choices. Unlike other calorie counting apps, this app considers other factors of food choices, beyond just the calorie count or basic nutrient profile. Based on your goals, it can be programmed to help you avoid processed foods, GMOs, or animal products, as well as programmed to help you select heart healthy foods, and to count carbohydrates.

Fooducate

Take home messages:

When reading labels, don’t fall prey to unhelpful labels. The USDA Organic seal has 600 pages of regulations behind it. On the other hand, “All Natural” simply means that there are no artificial ingredients. Lastly, don’t forget to check the ingredients list!

Fruits and vegetables (beans included) are good for you no matter what, so be the most demanding with animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, and fish). From pasture raised to 100% grass fed, look for something that indicates that the animal was raised in an open pasture (or wild caught). At a Farmers market, you will likely have the opportunity to ask the farmer how the animals were raised. At the supermarket,  I like the 5 Step rating program that Whole Foods uses to rank their meats (the higher the number, the better).

– Kelly

Janet Poppendieck on School Lunch

“We have made serving lunch to children in school really complicated and inconvenient.” – Janet Poppendieck

This week, scholar, activist, and sociology professor Janet Poppendieck visited BU for a lecture titled Universal Free School Meals: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. I am embarrassed to admit that when I first saw the advertisement for this lecture, I interpreted it to mean that Poppendieck thought that the time was up for school lunch, and that school lunch was perhaps a fruitless pursuit.

Thankfully, I read Poppendieck’s new book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, and quickly discovered that I was wrong.  Poppendieck’s central argument is that a universal free lunch would help to alleviate many of the ills associated with school food, and she gives well-researched examples of why this may be.

Admittedly, the book started off as a repetition of things that I already knew about the school lunch program. School food today is often frozen and prepackaged. Menu choices are often carnival foods such as fries and pizza. The history of the school lunch program as a commodity program has allowed it to become this way.

However, Poppendieck’s discussion of the problems with means testing and the tiered eligibility system in chapter 7 introduced a new wave of thought to me. Poppendieck argues that the 3-tiered system breeds resentment and cheating, and also creates problems that interfere with the purpose of the program. To this point, I knew that students in the reduced price category oftentimes do not have enough money to pay even the reduced price. However, I was surprised to learn that 21% of families with very low food insecurity (formerly known as food security with hunger) have incomes too high to qualify for free or reduced price lunches. This shocking statistic is surely the sign of a broken system.

fruitandveggie

Fruit & Veggie set up (typical of what I saw in Austin Independent School District)

While universal free lunch might sound fine and dandy, the biggest question I had was about how a multibillion-dollar program like that would get funded. Luckily, Poppendieck did address the financial issue. “There is no such thing as a free lunch, but how we pay for it is a social choice,” she said to the audience. While her book, written at the peak of the economic downturn, mostly focused on federal funding programs, Poppendeick’s lecture included evidence that states can also play an important role. She gave recent case studies of universal free programs in both Vermont and West Virginia, and also discussed the effects of recent legislation, such as the Community Eligibility Option under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

cfisd

Balanced salad from Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District

Poppendieck also emphasized the importance of integrating the lunch hour into the school day as a way to promote better health and a place to learn social skills and etiquette. “The cafeteria is our largest classroom,” Poppendieck said, quoting an educator from Vermont. Chapter 8 of Poppendeick’s book also gives several inspiring examples of schools that are using the lunch hour as a learning tool and a jumping off point for hands on education.

oatmealprovo

Oatmeal sundae bar in Provo

Whether or not you think that universal free is the right direction to go (I’m still on the fence about the whole funding issue), I highly recommend Janet Poppendieck’s book. It is a great summary of all of the factors affecting the school lunch program today, and gives an excellent history of how it came to be for those that are interested but don’t have much experience with the program. After being fortunate to converse with Poppendieck both before and after the lecture (and get my book signed!), I am now interested in reading her other two books: Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement and Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.

Images via UCPress, CSPI Pinterest Page

To learn more about the challenges facing the lunch program, as well as the progress that has been made, see my previous post about school lunch.

– Kelly