Sweet Replies

You may have seen the Sweet Surprise ads. A woman pours a purple fruit-like drink at a kid’s party. Her (rude) guest makes the statement, “Wow…you don’t care what the kids eat, huh?” In the second ad, a woman offers her man a popsicle, and he replies “I thought you loved me…its got high fructose corn syrup in it…” Both the savvy hostess and girlfriend probe their skeptics for a rationale why high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad. Both look uneasy, so dumfounded you can almost see the drool trickle from the corners of their mouths. The women reply, “What? That it’s made of corn, has no artificial ingredients in it, and can be enjoyed in moderation…” Glug, glug, glug goes the jug, into the cups for babes. Whew, thank God, I thought you were poisoning the children.

Is HFCS getting a bad rap? Some of you may recall when the poor egg, once considered a nutritious, perfectly contained little meal, came under scrutiny for its cholesterol. The egg industry barely rebounded. I remember the confusion of a visiting Spanaird, wondering what the hell “Twice a Week is Okay” meant? It was a hard sell convincing one who originates from a land where they deep fry fried eggs that he should limit his intake of huevos. Ultimately, no convincing evidence found a link between eating eggs and an increase in blood cholesterol or coronary heart disease.

Maybe HFCS isn’t the devil’s spawn. After all, it mixes easily. Extends shelf-life. Prevents freezer burn. Helps breads brown and keeps them soft. And it’s cheap, cheap, cheap. As much as 20%-70% cheaper than other sources of sugar. When Coke switched from cane sugar to HFCS, it gained a $70 million/year cost advantage over Pepsi.

The ad campaign raises a good point. We are quick to jump on wagons, often wobbly wagons that drive you to damaged health and intellectual integrity. Remember when we thought diet pills were good for us, because the weight loss was healthy, right? No matter what the cold sweats and rapidly beating heart said. In our search for The Nutritional Answer, we make rash decisions after hearing only tidbits of information. People isolate and demonize single ingredients, vow to eliminate the food forever, and preach to everyone within earshot to do the same. We’ve all met these people. Hell, we’ve been these people. No fun at a party, I tell ya. But yes, solid research is a good thing before taking a strong stand, lest you get caught feeling naked at school.  

But ah, research. Good luck with that. The blessing and curse of research is that you’ll find what you’re looking for. There are hundreds of studies to either support or negate what you believe. We have a tendency to cite that which supports our beliefs. Keep in mind that every study has to be funded. Scientists are under economic and political pressure. Scientific discovery is competitive. Research methods are rushed, findings often premature. And if a special interest group, drug company, or big business industry in question funds the study, you can almost guarantee the results will fall in their favor.

For example, two studies on HFCS suggested there was little to no evidence that it differed from sucrose in its effects on appetite, on metabolic processes involved in fat storage, or caused obesity. Those were funded by the American Beverage Institute and the Corn Refiners Association On the other hand, diet researchers who find links between HFCS and bad juju force fed rodents with massive amounts of one substance in a short period of time, and project those results onto human use. Who do you believe?

Statistically sound results take time. Life-threatening products (Vioxx, for one) have been marketed after initial results, or “seed studies” with little to no follow up. Drug companies claim they help the sick, but you can’t ignore that they do make a little change off the sales. Reliable long term studies can take decades. We are not patient.

So what’s a sheep to do? Well, I’ve muddled through some research and am still dizzy. But I COULD hold my own in that commercial. Picture me at that party. Rather than twitch uncomfortably, I would take a deep breath and say:

“Well, my friend, it’s nice that you can accept the good word of the Corn Refiner’s Association with blind faith. Unfortunately, I can’t do the same. Although I do not question that HFCS comes from corn, I do question the quality of that corn.  

First, we’re not talking about pristine cobs plucked from Farmer Joe’s personal garden. Perhaps you are not aware that “field” or “dent” corn used to make HFCS, in its raw form, is inedible to humans. (Apparently it’s terrible on cow tummies too, who are normally grass grazers). HFCS doesn’t naturally occur in corn, unlike the sugars found in sugar cane, beehives, stevia, agave plants, or fruit. The process to create HFCS involves some crazy shit, including adding genetically modified enzymes that stimulate chemical reactions to change the molecular structure of the corn. There are claims that HFCS meets the FDA’s requirements for use of the term “natural”, despite the fact the FDA has no requirements or definition for “natural”.

Speaking of genetic modification (GM), most of the HFCS corn is grown from GM seed. Seed that has its DNA radically changed so that the plant will resist herbicide (both seed and herbicide are made by the same company, Monsanto) and produce its own pesticide. (Good for killing pests, bad for bees and butterflies who also rest on corn) This is an exciting science but it is an infant science. Because of its youth and recorded glitches in the matrix, many countries have banned the sale of GM foods. Our administration currently allows our population and its kids to be part of the GM experiment. Can you say “lobbyist”?. I do think there will be future benefits of GM food sources, but I agree with those who argue GM food should be contained in covered greenhouses until we know more. Until a few days ago, I knew very little about genetic modification. After reading both sides, I strongly suggest that if you choose to consume HFCS and other products made with corn, soy, canola, or industrial-raised meat (fed with GM food), educate yourself. You are an unknowing yet active participant in a long-term experiment with GM food. For an anti-GM view, check out this interview with Jeffery Smith, or read his book, Seeds of Deception. For pro-GM information, go to Monsanto’s website. For a particularly scathing, but eye-opening history of Monsanto, read this Vanity Fair article.

And oh, my confident hostess, I care about how that corn is grown. Corn is cheaper to grow and process, so we have overconsumed it. In 2007, 93.6 million acres of U.S. acreage were devoted to corn, a new record up 20 percent from the year before. Farmers are unwilling to stop growing the corn because they receive subsidies for it. They don’t get a subsidy for “marginal”, diverse crops, such as cassava, sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnut, which are found to be more nutritionally balanced than corn or soybeans and are far better suited to local soils and tough climates. Furthermore, growing large crops of corn the way we do robs the soil of nitrogen, degrading it faster than can be replenished though crop rotation. (Which rarely occurs because there is no financial incentive to do so). Lower quality soil requires more use of fertilizer that is derived from ammonia through a process requiring fossil fuel. Growing one bushel of corn takes takes approximately ½ gallon of gas. Our habitual use of plow-based agriculture rapidly changes the erosion rate of the land, leaving the soil bare and exposed. Rain or wind storms have a bigger impact on the land. We are losing topsoil fast. That is why I have a tendency to consume products grown through methods that replenish, not deplete, the soil. To learn more about the demise and future of our topsoil, read the September ’08 issue of National Geographic.  

I do acknowledge that HFCS cannot be soley responsible for obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. I agree that we overreact to studies and cling on to weak links for answers. But HFCS rarely travels alone. I’m pretty sure that “fruit beverage” you’re pouring also contains Red #40 and Blue #1 to give it that lovely purple color. And I’ll bet there is artificial “punch” flavoring in the drink. What does the combination of all those ingredients do? And what are you serving with that punch? Cake. Chips and dip. Hot dogs with ketchup. That’s a lot of HFCS on the menu, my friend. Is that moderation?

HFCS is also cheaper, which encourages us to buy, say a gallon jug of “fruit beverage’ instead of organic juices or natural sodas. It allows us to buy the Big Gulp for the same price of a 4 oz. sip of pure, unadulterated juice. I don’t blame you for looking for the bargain. I do too. That’s why I give my son lots of water, and organic juice “in moderation” because he gets more vitamins and nutritional value for the money. And on occasion, he will consume HFCS because I don’t want him to feel stupid in social situations. Like at this party. My choices to avoid certain foods, oddly enough, still make me the pariah.  

So because I mistrust the research on both sides and don’t have time for long term studies, because I know our topsoil is being depleted by our overconsumption of corn, because I am leary of big business genetic modification and its effects on both the environment and our diets, and because I can’t control the amount of HFCS in combination with other craziness found in processesed foods, I choose to stick with foods that come as close to their purest form as possible. Research aside, that just feels “right” to me. And that, my friend, is why I significantly limit our intake of HFCS.

Yep, those kids are playing pretty hard. They’re so thirsty that I bet if we served up some nice cold water in some crazy cups with silly straws, they wouldn’t care what quenches their thirst. They really do care about silly straws though.

Oh, and here’s a napkin. You appear to be drooling.”

Culinary Feminism (or) Brown Baggin’ It

A couple of my friends raised a collective eyebrow when they learned that I packed my husband’s lunch. To their credit, they were also old college friends who had seen me through women’s studies classes and unshaved armpits. They seemed surprised I had caved to The Man. If their husbands wanted a lunch, they would have to pack it themselves. One of their men ate out for lunch. Every day. No, my friends did not eagerly jump onto my lunchbox wagon.

My husband could make his own lunch. But in my house, it’s not a matter of caving in to the “white male patriarchal society” and becoming a slave to traditional gender roles. In my house, the kitchen is my domain. Not because that is expected of me, but because I have wholeheartedly claimed it as mine. I am this family’s Iron Chef. I am faster. Stronger. The food quality is (significantly) better. I know exactly what’s in the fridge and where. I do not suffer from the refrigerator blindness that claims thousands of male victims each day. Cooking is my passion, my therapy, and a great source of pride.

And let’s face it, if I watched my husband pack his own lunch, the control freak within would pummel on my insides with a potato masher until I let it out to finish the job. Ask anyone who’s tried to cook in my kitchen.

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver discusses her coming from an era of feminists who “recoiled from the proposition that keeping a husband presentable and fed should be our highest intellectual aspiration” We fought so very hard to get into a work force that would prevent us from slaving in the kitchen. But in doing so, we fell into the hands of a toxic convenience food industry that promised to take care of our meals for us. As she puts it, “We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising,…the creative task of molding our families tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange…the Lunchable.”

If selecting and cooking food is an area where I have decided to take charge, I am responsible for doing quality work. I trust my husband to do the same at his job. I’m not going to cheat him out of some decent nutrition in the middle of the day while he works hard for us. I pick fresh fruit, a homemade sandwich, and to his dismay, the dreaded carrot sticks. If he wants to go out or get a li’l sumthin’ at the vending machine, that’s his deal. I do what I can to ensure he eats well. It’s my job. And he deserves it.

And yes, it’s about love. He is not The Establishment, he is my family. And nothing says “I love you” like a warm buttered bagel sitting in the passenger seat next to you on your way to work because you didn’t have time to eat at home. My grateful man has called me from the road to tell me just that.

Financially speaking, it’s the smarter choice. Based on receipts collected when I didn’t pack a lunch, I see that he spends about $5 on breakfast (of the gas station variety) and $8-12 on lunch. That’s $13-17 a day. If he does that, say, three days a week, it would cost us almost $40- 50/week, or $160-200/month. And that’s a conservative estimate. What if I never packed his lunch, ever? It could add up to $240-250/month. Just for lunch. If I cook at home, I can make him a breakfast for about $2.00 or less. For lunch, I’d spend maybe $2 (or less) to $5, tops. That $5 lunch includes a pretty extravagant treat. You do the rest of the math. And I’m sure, you get the picture.

Admittedly, it CAN be a pain. Rapidly foraging in the fridge as he’s running out the door really sucks. You have to plan for lunches. They require some time. There are crabby, rushed mornings when I send him out to face the grind empty-handed. There are moments when I remove my territorial flag from the kitchen just praying for a mutiny. But realistically, making a lunch takes minutes, not hours. So I march forth. He maintains a consistent work ethic at his job, I try to do the same at mine. No matter how busy we are, as Kingsolver suggests, we can make that mental shift, “Approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option”

This fall, I will begin to pack lunches for my new kindergartener. I am not sure what the food quality is at our public school, but I am suspicious. School lunches have a very bad reputation, but that is another essay for another day. I’m darn glad I have the option to decide (for the most part) what goes into his body when he’s away from home, banking on those creative opportunities to keep him nutritionally sound.

Yes, I am a culinary feminist. I exercise my right to provide an alternative to fast food conglomerates. I am not losing my identity in homemaking, I am reclaiming it with every carrot stick, with every passionate pinch of spices. I bring meaning and value and love into my families’ bellies. With a few minutes to a half an hour of preparation, I make sure our food dollar goes into wholesome nutrition and doesn’t sink into a toxic wasteland of crap and empty calories. And making my personal brown bag theories part of a larger social awareness is an intellectual aspiration of mine. It is my right, and in my best interest, to do so.

And that, my friends, is how I stick it to The Man. Join me now in my brown bag crusade.

Taking Candy From Babies

The woman at the drive-thru bank window smiles and winks when she pushes back my deposit receipt accompanied by a Dum Dum sucker. I thank her, sigh heavily and toss it into the passenger seat, bracing myself for the round of justifications from Quinn as to why he SHOULD have that sucker at 8:30 a.m.

Oh come on, you think, poor kid, just one little treat’s not going to hurt…

Um, yes it will. Refined sugar is one of the most harmful foods consumed today. It has no nutritional value. My son’s little body will borrow nutrients like calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, from healthier parts to metabolize the sugar. It will rot his teeth and gums. It can make him prone to diabetes and hypoglycemia. His brain could be robbed of B vitamins that are linked to mood stability. And although it may not be the primary cause of ADHD or childhood obesity, sugar doesn’t help. It does hurt.  

And its never one little treat. It’s an inundation of sugar that floods us every time we go to the bank, the grocery store, gymnastics class, preschool, and other people’s homes. Those nice folk plead with soft eyes, “Do you mind…?” Yeah, I mind. If I allowed my son to eat all the candy offered to him, he wouldn’t have a tooth left to gum the next gummy bear. 

Before I rant further, I will share a little family history. I come from a long line of overeaters. Binge eaters who sneak-eat junk food so their loved ones don’t know how much junk goes in. Right now, someone we love dearly has been literally eating herself to death. She is not the only one; she is just the one with frequent visitor miles at the local hospital. We have a plethora of food issues on our family menu, with all the side dishes of depression and guilt that accompany the meal deal. Diabetes, heart disease, addictive personalities, and obesity run strong and hard on both sides of the family. And they are now finding that nature, not nurture, is the strongest indicator for childhood obesity. The genetic odds are stacked against my child. Thus, my anger and motivation for change.

I can’t just slip on a pair of skinny genes, so I control my environment. I try to make conscious, healthy food choices every day, every meal. Although I come across as “holier-than-thou” these days when I talk kids and nutrition, I will always struggle with food. I love it. I love treats. This Valentine’s Day saw a gross amount of junk in the Johnson household. I was snowbound and hormonally imbalanced so I sucked in chocolates and frosted cookies like a black hole. When I allow myself to indulge, I am way more likely to allow Quinn to do the same. Part of me still believes that makes me a Fun Mom.

Despite the casualties of the Valentine’s Day Battle, I am winning the war. I have maintained a healthy weight and diet for years. I weigh less than I did on my wedding day. I brag, because I am proud that I have broken a dangerous cycle. Being pregnant turned my yo-yo resolve to eat right into a nine-month habit. The habit turned into a lifestyle. I don’t want to see Quinn struggle with food like my family has. I am teaching him that we moderate indulgences, we enjoy healthy selections, and that rewards aren’t always edible. My shining moments come when he throws uneaten Halloween candy into the garbage, or bites into a store-bought cookie and says “Yuck, it tastes like chemicals”.

But in our society, “treat” means “sweet”. We reward with sugar. Good job buddy! Let’s go out for a hot fudge sundae. Ooh, good girl went poopy in the toilet! Have a piece of candy! Oh, look how nice you sit strapped in your car seat at the bank drive-thru! Here’s a Dum Dum. Our kids learn to expect candy for good grades, taking a shit, even sitting quietly. If it’s constantly available, is it still a “treat”? No, it’s a given. Sugar carries emotional value. Sugar IS love. Our Grammy is famous for “givin’ sugar” to her grandbabies in more ways than one. That is how many in her generation demonstrate love. I have learned not to confront this strong Southern matriarch because, well, I’m a little scared of Grammy. I quiet my crusade to keep the peace with friends or out of respect for my elders. Especially when they are bigger than me, and from Texas.

But in this societal context, I am the villain. And it pisses me off that strangers AND loved ones continue to put me in the role of the bitch who says, “No” all the time. There is social pressure to not snub the generous offer. I am the butt of jokes and sarcastic jabs among my relatives due to my “alternative” choices. I am the ogre who won’t let her deprived child have just one more, teeny treat. Those who sneak high fructose corn syrup laced with mysterious chemicals into my son’s mouth behind my back are his unsung heroes. They have relieved his abysmal withdrawals caused by his evil mother with a little bump of the good stuff in the dark corners of their kitchens. This cookie is our little secret. What’s next, a puff off your cigarette?

Hey, thanks. Thanks for the setback in my uphill battle against genetics, marketing strategies and candy-infested holidays. Thanks for teaching my son to eat treats in secret. Did I mention this is a popular technique utilized by most of my overweight family members? And I really appreciate your letting me know through that disappointed look you shoot at my son that by controlling his sugar intake, I am depriving my son of love.

Let me tell you how I love my son. I keep crap out of the house. We WILL eat it, so I minimize temptation. I bake homemade cookies and granola bars for him so I can use less sugar, add whole wheat flour and cut back on the butter. I know most, if not all, of the ingredients that go into my treats. I take the time to read labels, even on “all natural” and organic products. I give him water and a snack, not a sports drink, when he’s sweating. I say “No” and stand firm when he throws a fit about treats. He eats fruit, sugar that comes with fiber and vitamins. He gets chocolate, but not an entire candy bar in one sitting.

Don’t you worry about my son. I am a firm believer that models based on moderation are more effective than those based on abstinence. He gets his sugar. But the best sugar comes from the snuggles he gets every morning, or from hearing, “Good job, I’m proud of you!” followed by a big hug, or a “let’s do something together”.

I don’t understand why I am the “alternative” and not the norm.

I challenge parents to take some time to bake, to read labels, to research, and to moderate. I challenge them to spend less money on crap and splurge on a quality piece of organic chocolate that is offered sparingly. I challenge caregivers to analyze how much sugar they serve up while they CAN still control what goes into children’s mouths. Like the child riding in a car with a smoker, your child is a captive audience. What damage to them can you prevent?    

And I beg of you; given his genetic history, let Quinn’s parents decide what’s best for Quinn without giving us shit for our decisions. You are not doing my son any favors by offering him treats, and you ARE hurting him. It is not cute. I AM defensive and angry because this is MY son. So stop creating situations where I have to be a bitch to him and I offend you. 

I don’t doubt that parents who feed their kids junk love their kids. I know wonderful parents with smart, happy kids who eat poorly. I do wonder how much smarter they would be on a healthier diet. I challenge these parents to love their kids just a little bit more by cutting the crap.

It’s easy, really, to make changes. It’s easy as, well…taking candy from a baby.