Friday, December 25, 2015

Food, Glorious Food

If you're anything like me and my family, chances are you're going to be slumped in front of the TV at some point during this holiday season, watching some version or other of Charles Dickens' classic, "A Christmas Carol." Whether it's the 1970 musical "Scrooge" starring Albert Finney, or the creepy black and white one with Alastair Sim, or any of the dozens that have been made through the years, they all tell the same story: one miser, three ghosts, 'nuff said.

First published in 1843, it, like most of Dickens' work, paints a picture of, we've come to assume, the typical mid-Victorian life, filled with squalor, disease, hunger, and untimely death. Indeed, one of the most recognizable features of the Victorian period (named for Britain's Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until 1901) was the incredible pomp of their burial rites, and seemingly endless appetite for the trappings of grief.

Going in style, courtesy The Victorian Mourning Blog.
So it came as a surprise to me when I read this articleIts authors claim that, based on a study they conducted in 2008 for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, there was a period in Britain from 1850 and 1872 where even the poor lived as long as we do, and were, overall, healthier than we are, because of their diet.

Really? Oliver and I would like some more information on this, please.

From the article:
Our study … shows that the majority of the Victorian urban poor consumed diets which were limited, but contained extremely high nutrient density. Bread could be expensive but onions, watercress, cabbage, and fruit like apples and cherries were all cheap and did not need to be carefully budgeted for. Beetroot was eaten all year round; Jerusalem artichokes were often home-grown. Fish such as herrings and meat in some form (scraps, chops and even joints) were common too. All in all, a reversion to mid-Victorian nutritional values would significantly improve health expectancy today.
They go on to say that:
Charting public health from the mid-Victorian era, our worldview changes dramatically. Mid-Victorians lived without modern diagnostics, drugs, surgery or contraception. Despite that, and because of the high nutrient density of their diet, their life spans were as good as ours and their health spans significantly longer. The dietary advantages of the mid-Victorian period have been lost to us because of our more sedentary lifestyles and over-consumption of processed and nutrient-depleted foods and beverages.
Earlier in the article, a word is used that I had never read or heard before: dysnutrition. I suspect it won't be the last.
It becomes clear that, with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of post-1948 healthcare has not so much enabled us to live longer but has merely supplied methods of controlling the symptoms of non-communicable degenerative diseases, which have become prevalent due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards. Dysnutrition is arguably the largest cause of ill-health today.
I had to do a little bit of Googling, but I was able to find out what "dysnutrition" means: 
For years, we have used "malnutrition" to describe a situation where someone does not receive sufficient vitamins and nutrients. In the past, however, that lack came from a lack of something else: sufficient calories. While a lack of calories still creates malnutrition in many Third World countries, the Western hemisphere and most definitely the United States face another problem.
 Many people now eat foods so devoid of nutritional value and loaded with sugar and processed flour that they can lack sufficient vitamins and minerals despite ingesting enough calories to become overweight. Hence, the need for a new term, dysnutrition.
The prefix "dys-" means bad, impaired, or abnormal, so you can see the logic behind the new word. Dysnutrition occurs because people make poor food choices and because food manufacturers make a conscious decision to "devolve" foods, [a] term for when food manufacturers make foods nutritionally worse to make them look more appealing, last longer, or taste better simply to increase profit margin.
"Increase profit margin"--at the expense of people's health? Big mistake!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Top Five Books for Eaters of Food

'Tis the season for list making. The "best" of this, the "worst" of that. Usually about events, products, and personages pertaining to the year that's on its way out; in this case, 2015.

This is not one of those.

My list is for all of you who are in the midst of holiday shopping, and maybe you've got someone in your life that has an interest in health and nutrition, weight loss, or just weight management. Now buying diet books as gifts is tricky; you don't want to be like, "Here, I thought you could use this to HELP YOU LOOSE WEIGHT!" That would go over like a lead reindeer, wouldn't it? The cool thing about my list is that these books are tools for learning about more than just dieting. For instance, you won't find a single "21-Day Diet!" type thing here--and there's just one cook book (sorry!). Instead, your friend or relative or co-worker (or, let's be honest, you--you're going to get at least one Barnes and Noble gift card, you know you will) will get a lot more than that.

From each of these five books, you'll learn something new about food, its history, its incredible diversity, and its ever-changing role in culture and health.  And a thing or two about how to eat the right stuff, for you, your family, and your budget.

I didn't pick these books because they are the very best books of their type on the market (though I think they'd easily make that list). I picked them because they are the best books I've read on the subject of food (so far). They influenced me to start this blog, and to be "tuned in" about what I think is the main problem with food today--that it has become "product", and whatever gets that "product" to market looking the best, at the lowest cost, with the highest rate of return, regardless of whether it is even "food" anymore.  I have listed them in the order that I read them, so it's not a case of one being necessarily better than the other in ranking. 

Sick of the preamble? Let's get to the list!

by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding
Why I like it: This is part of a very popular series that I'm sure everyone is familiar with, being, as they are, so ubiquitous that they are for sale in my local Kinkos (??). I like this one in particular because of the simple, easy-to-follow recipes that break down not just the calories, but compare the home made version to what you'd be consuming by having the same meal in a restaurant.

Who it would make a good gift for: A young person, maybe just starting college, or moving out on their own, or anyone who needs a little jump start to stop eating out and learn the benefits of kicking' it in the kitchen. It can guide a beginner through the process of cooking, give tips on how to prepare all the meals of the day including snacks, as well as the aforementioned calorie comparison--a kind of "scared-straight" of calorie counting!
Click here for details.

by Michael Pollan
Why I like it: This book can fit in your pocket, for one thing. It's a handy-dandy little guide, a "commonplace book," if you will, for the eaters among us. Author Michael Pollan is much more famous for writing probably the seminal work in the world of food and health, "An Omnivore's Dilemma," but I haven't read that yet, so I can't recommend it personally. I can recommend this, though, as a great introduction to healthy eating habits, broken down into quick, bite-sized morsels (natch!). 

Who it would make a good gift for: Someone who is just getting interested in how diet affects health, and wants tips to eating (and feeling!) better.
Click here for more details.

by Robert H. Lustig, M.D.
Why I like it: I first learned Dr. Lustig's name watching the documentary "Fed Up!". He impressed me as the person talking who was making the most sense, and who seemed the most knowledgeable about the topic of obesity, its causes, and its dangers. This book follows his experiences as a pediatric endocrinologist and how that led him to, unexpectedly, to become a healthy diet champion. It is a very readable book, written in a warm, self-deprecating yet serious tone. I highly recommend it.

Who it would make a good gift for: If there is someone in your life who has an interest in learning about how food affects health and chronic diseases, this would be a great choice for its in-depth, and possibly life-changing, information.
Click here for more details.

by Jo Robinson
Why I like it: This book has it all. Explanations of the origins of the plants we eat, why some plants are better for us than others, and, most helpfully, how to select the best quality fruits and vegetables in the market and how to store them for maximum freshness at home. And, for you gardeners out there, Ms. Robinson supplies lots of info on what seeds to buy and how to cultivate them. This is probably my favorite book on this list.

Who it would make a good gift for: Someone who is ready to dive into the deep end of food, serious about wanting to shop smarter and eat healthier. Also, as mentioned, a good choice for the gardeners in your life.
Click here for more details.

by Mark Schatzker
Why I like it: This book is like a culmination of all the others on this list and then some, though it has most in common with "Fat Chance," in that it is focused on the science behind food today (and why that can be a bad thing). It is a great, easy to read examination of that stuff on our grocery shelves, how it got that way, and why we as consumers should be running in the opposite direction.

Who it would make a good gift for: The person who has had enough of commercialized food "product", who no longer accepts that a calorie is a calorie, or who thinks that meals should never come in through the window of a car. With this book, this person is about to achieve a black belt in consumer wisdom.
Click here for more details

That list again:

Cook This, Not That!
by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding

Food Rules, An Eater's Manual
by Michael Pollan

Fat Chance
by Robert H. Lustig, M.D.

Eating on the Wild Side
by Jo Robinson

The Dorito Effect
by Mark Schatzker

That's it! I hope this has been helpful--happy shopping! 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Better Luck Next Time, Coke

Earlier this year, we talked about  The Global Energy Balance Network, a group organized to praise the benefits of exercise, and to assure us that sugary drinks such as Coke have nothing to do with the world's growing obesity problems. This group denied it had any connection to Coca-Cola. 

An investigation by the Associated Press proved otherwise:

The emails obtained by the AP through a records request showed Coke executives and the group's leaders held meetings and conference calls to develop the group's mission. A proposal circulated via email at Coke laid out a vision for a group that would "quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue." It said the group would run a political-style campaign to counter the "shrill rhetoric" of "public health extremists."

"Public health extremists?" Ouch. Wonder how that worked out for them?

(Following revelations about Coke's involvement with the group), The Global Energy Balance Network said on its website Monday night that it is "discontinuing operations due to resource limitations." The decision was effective immediately.
As much as I'd like to think that this would be the end of this particular tactic, if history has taught us anything, it's that there is no bad idea that won't be used again. I'm sure it won't be long before Coke thinks they've perfected a new strategy to spread their not-calories-exercise gospel.

How's that for "shrill rhetoric", Coke?

Monday, November 23, 2015

FrankenFish and Cultured Chicken

Last week, the FDA stunned the anti-GMO movement by approving a genetically modified Atlantic salmon to be farmed for human consumption--the first such approval for an animal whose DNA has been scientifically modified. The new fish will have its genes altered to enable it to grow faster than un-altered salmon, thus increasing its profitability without, its makers say, making it unsafe for the public. The new salmon will not have to be labeled as a GMO product, either, according to the FDA. Activist groups have vowed to oppose the sale of these new fish, and some retailers, such as Kroger's, have said they will not carry it on their shelves.

Science is here to stay, it seems, in all aspects of our lives, to be sure--and that's not necessarily a bad thing. We accept CAT scans and airplanes and microwave ovens, cellphones and hairdryers--all products of Science, which we use with varying levels of unease throughout our daily lives. That Science rears its head in the production of our food? This, I think, trips our inner alarm bells in an even more visceral way, especially when choice--not labeling a GMO product as such, for instance--is taken away from us. It conflates into the ugliest notions about Science and scientists: that it is somehow a conspiracy of eggheads who, at best, are the helpless pawns of conciousless corporate overlords, or, at worst, a group of PhDed psychopaths determined to destroy all mankind for their own sick pleasure.

Stereotypes aside, what is Science up to with our food, and why? That things must be made cheaper, faster, last longer on the shelves, and cause no immediate, easily verifiable damage to our bodies seems to be the goal of modern food production in America. Whatever negative impacts are made on the environment in this quest seems to never be part of the equation, and, somewhere below that never, the well-being of the animals on whose flesh we feed.

But what if that were not the case? What if Science was as concerned with the environment and the animals we consume, while also trying to provide us with animal products? Enter "Cultured Chicken," the result of The Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF) in Ramat Gan, Israel. This all volunteer, nonprofit organization was founded in March last year, and by January launched the world’s first feasibility study to determine the cost, timetable and resources to create commercial cultured chicken breast.

What is the world is a "cultured chicken breast"? Does it enjoy Proust, ponder Hegel, weep at the climax of La Traviata? Sadly, no. Let's let MFA explain in their handy infographic, below:

Says MAF cofounder Shir Friedman:
“Today, the meat, dairy and egg industries are among the major contributors to climate change. They consume huge amounts of valuable resources such as energy and fresh water, contribute to the outbreak of pandemics such as swine flu and are the cause of deaths of billions of animals every year."
About half the earth’s land area is taken up by livestock and the crops that feed them. A third of our freshwater is used for livestock and their food, and half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from cattle headed to slaughter. Cultured meat production would require between seven and 45 percent less energy, 90% less fresh water and 99% less land, and would result in 80 to 90% less greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere.

One of the MAF’s biggest challenges, says the article, is to convince people that cultured meat is not “Frankenfood” and involves no genetic engineering. It is not a meat substitute, but 100% meat. When produced on a mass scale, cultured meat won’t be made in a lab but in a factory just like any other processed food from ketchup to cornflakes.

Talk about "cruelty-free!"

Now look here, you say. That's all well and good, but darn it, can't I just have a piece of chicken without Science all up in it? The kind of chicken Grandma had--is it really too much to ask?? 

It turns out, it is. Even Grandma stopped having chicken like she grew up with, if Grandma grew up in the pre-World War ll era. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the fact that Science has, for a long time now, been up in your chicken.

Let's go all the way back, about 2,000 years ago, when chickens were first domesticated. From the very start of the human-chicken relationship, we have used what we would call Science to change them for our purposes. Strange as it may seem, chickens weren't initially bred to be meals back then, but for their fighting abilities--that's right, cock fighting. 

a mosaic uncovered in Pompeii, probably from the first century AD.
Over time, however, the primary value in poultry keeping was eggs, and meat was considered a byproduct of egg production. Its supply was less than the demand, and poultry was expensive. Except in hot weather, eggs can be shipped and stored without refrigeration for some time before going bad; this was important in the days before widespread refrigeration. There was a reason Herbert Hoover's Presidential campaign slogan in 1928 was "A Chicken in Every Pot." Chicken was expensive, and a rarity, and being able to have it was indeed a sign of prosperity.

By the late 1950s, poultry production had changed dramatically. Refrigeration, the development of Vitamin D (which made it possible to keep chickens in confinement year-round), new breeding and in-cage- egg-laying techniques all helped to industrialize something that once was a niche product of small family farms. 

All this helped to make chicken the item that we perhaps most take for granted on any given menu. 

But back to your Grandma's chicken.

The other way that chicken has changed, besides becoming cheaper and more easily available to us than previous generations, is the sheer size of the things. Check it out:

Cross breeding chickens in the late '40's created the monsters we find wrapped in cellophane in our markets today: plumper thighs, meatier drumsticks, and breasts that would make Mae West blush. And, though products of breeding rather than genetic manipulation (or growth hormones, still illegal in the U.S.) they share the fast growth rate of their salmon cousins, going from chick to a five-pound bird in just six weeks. 

The downside?
These ideal chickens don’t have ideal health. The bigger, fatter chickens get sicker than the birds of yesterday. Confinement and excess weight lead to stress, reproductive issues, cardiovascular disease, and skeletal problems. Heavy antibiotics use — needed to combat disease — has led to disease-resistant bacteria, which are present in about half of all chicken in US stores.
As if that weren't bad enough, these mutant birds don't taste very good either. In my experience buying the big breasts or thighs, usually because of some irresistible sale, I'm lead to regret my thrift because the meat is tough and tasteless. Something the industry could care less about, having already got my money, I'm sure. 

For all these reasons--environmental, animal welfare, the health of us humans, and the taste of our dinners, I'm fairly interested in this cultured chicken business (and also beef).

Hebrew University Prof. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says that if the process becomes economically feasible, “the ecological and ethical considerations would make cultured meat irresistible. Cultured meat is one of the most important revolutions in the history of food and in the history of humankind itself.”

What do you think, Calvin?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Paleo ... Cheerios?

We've talked before on this blog about the problems with the USDA's food labeling system. How proposed changes don't go far enough, and how misleading though completely legal some aspects of labeling can be. Usually, one is merely annoyed by such tactics; however, annoyance can sometimes become elevated to outright disgust. It's not a nice feeling to be lied to, especially by your food.

Not everyone is taking it lying down. As reported in Mother Jones, a group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest has had enough with the labeling shenanigans already, and has filed a class-action lawsuit against General Mills over their product Cheerios Protein. In a California federal court, CSPI alleges that "General Mills falsely and misleadingly markets Cheerios Protein to children and adults as a high protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios," when, in fact, it is anything but. I won't spoil it for you, by all means click over to the article for full details, but I will say that it seems you are getting something extra when you buy Cheerios Protein, but it's more than just protein.

Not pictured: the "S" word.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Baby Steps: The Childhood Obesity Smackdown

It doesn't take a scientist to tell you that there are a lot of over-weight kids out there. Nor do you need a laundry list of the less-than-desirable outcomes for these kids, both physical and mental, awaiting them in the future, or that they are experiencing right now, if something isn't done. 

As for the causes, there are almost too many boogie men to point the finger at: a prevalence of cheap but unhealthy foods and sugary drinks that all too often target children, lack of access to exercise, and lack of knowledge about health and diet from the adults in their lives, to name a few.

Still part of the problem, McDonalds

But the good news is, there is actually some good news. Although overall obesity rates remain high, and prevalence among 2-19 year olds and adults in the United States has not changed significantly between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012, for very young children, however, data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) do show a decline in obesity prevalence in the 2 to 5 year old age group from nearly 14 percent in 2003-2004, to just over 12 percent in 2009-2010, to just over 8 percent in 2011-2012.

Below, childhood obesity by state.

Good on ya, Oregon, New Mexico, Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana,
New York and New Jersey! Not so good on ya, a lot of other states.

Clearly, though there is still much work to do, these states that have seen their childhood obesity rates among their 2 to 5 year olds fall may have something to offer in terms of how they got those numbers down.

On the national level, a way to help kids have more and better options to healthy food has come through the new mandates set for the National School Lunch Program. It requires every school student to have at least one choice of fruit and one vegetable per school-supplied meal. So, that's a "top down" approach, and laudable as far as it goes. But, much like how leading a horse to water doesn't necessarily mean it will drink, just giving kids access to fruits and veggies doesn't mean they will eat them, as any parent knows. And as frustrating as it can sometimes be trying to get your own kids to eat right, imagine that same difficulty on a national scale! 

This article, however, describes a study conducted in 2011 that lead to a solution to the problem that borders on the zen-like in its simplicity. Want kids to stop throwing away their fruits and veggies and eat them? Reschedule recess.

Emphasis mine.
“Recess is often held after lunch so children hurry to “finish” so that they can go play—this results in wasted fruits and vegetables,” explains co-author David Just, PhD of Cornell University, “However, we found that if recess is held before lunch, students come to lunch with healthy appetites and less urgency and are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables.” 
... After analyzing a total of 22,939 observations, the researchers concluded that in the schools that switched recess to before lunch children ate 54% more fruits and vegetables. There was also a 45% increase in those eating at least one serving of fruits and vegetables. During the same time period consumption of fruits and vegetables actually decreased in the schools that didn’t switch.

Not only did this switch help the kids, but it saved the school districts money by decreasing food waste, offsetting the higher cost of offering healthier food choices. 

And that helps everybody.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Meatless Monday, Hot Dog Edition

Hot dogs, though quintessentially American, are like most things regarded as such--the result of the influence of immigrants. In this case, Germans, who brought their sausages on a bun to our shores in the post-Civil War era. No one is really sure how these frankfurters and wieners became "hot dogs"; some claim the term was coined by cartoonist "Tad" Dorgan in 1900. However, "dog" has been used as a synonym for sausage since 1884 and accusations that sausage makers used actual dog meat date to at least 1845. In the early 20th century, consumption of dog meat in Germany was common, as it has been all over the world throughout human history.

Lately, though, eating man's best friend, at least literally, is falling out of fashion, even in Asia, where it is still, horribly, part of their traditional cuisine.

Here in the US, we long ago accepted that while we may not know exactly what hot dogs are made of, they at least weren't made from Fido. A new study by Clear Food, a consumer guide to food based on DNA analysis, confirms this, and that may be considered as the "glass half full" part of their report.
Of the 345 hot dogs and sausages Clear Food analyzed for this report, 14.4% were problematic in some way. Problems included substitutions and hygienic issues. Substitution occurs when ingredients are added that do not show up on the label. Hygienic issues occur when some sort of non-harmful contaminant is introduced to the hot dog, in most cases, human DNA. Here's what we found: 
•Substitution: We encountered a surprising number of substitutions or unexpected ingredients. We found evidence of meats not found on labels, an absence of ingredients advertised on labels, and meat in some vegetarian products.
•Hygienic issues: Clear Food found human DNA in 2% of the samples, and in 2/3rds of the vegetarian samples.
Yes, human DNA, even in the veggie dogs. Now I read through the rest of this article and it's never speculated upon what precisely the source of that human DNA could be. Are we talking fingers and toes here? Spit? Something worse?  Even though it's only present in 2% of the samples, my curiousity is piqued.

If you follow the above link, it will show a nicely laid-out article with easy to follow graphics (so awesome!), and it doesn't just damn your darkness, either, but lights a candle in that it lists the brands of hot dogs that did the best in their tests.

However, their assessments only determined the DNA content of hot dogs, not the wisdom of eating them or any other processed meat in the first place. Unfortunately, eating hot dogs, ham and other processed meat can raise one's risk of colorectal cancer, according to a recent study by the International Agency for Cancer Research, a division of the World Health Organization.
“Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard,'" institute spokeswoman Betsy Booren said. "Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer."
Moral: eating hot dogs and processed meats is more dangerous than eating … yoga pants?!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Meatless Wednesday!!

What happens when you don't have a chance to blog about Meatless Monday ON Monday? You just do it on ... Wednesday! After all, it doesn't matter what day of the week you pick to go meatless, except that "Meatless Wednesday" doesn't have quite the same ring.

Now here at Ruth Notes, we advocate for steering clear of processed foods and doing as much of our own cooking as humanly possible. But every once in a while, we get caught needing a meal and not having time to cook. So this post is a tip on how to do not just a cooking work-around, but a meatless cooking work-around.

Spaghetti is an obvious go-to meatless option. Easy to make and lots for left-overs, and especially if you use whole wheat pasta, and a big green salad as a side, a not terrible meal in the health department. But, it does take a while to make, and a certain amount of preplanning, as is true for any kind of cooking. 

I have discovered a nice little secret on the shelf from Barilla called Italian-Style Entrées. They come in many flavors, but I stick to this one, because it is both whole wheat and you guessed it, meatless.

If your goal is to have not just a filling, tasty, meatless meal, but one that manages to be both convenient and not a complete wrong turn for your diet/health, this one's for you. Let's compare its ingredients with the closest thing to it, SpaghetttiOs, that it often is shelved beside. Click on the images to enlarge.



Yeah, see, this really illustrates the difficulty with the labeling system, I know. SpaghettiOs SEEMS to tell us it has only 170 calories, except that is the number for only one serving. There's two servings in that can, according to someone who has never opened a can of SpaghettiOs. So really there's a total of 340 calories. Pretty sneaky, SpaghettiOs.

Barilla uses no such obfuscation, stating plainly that it has 310 calories in the container. Now, if you compare all the other numbers, Barilla doesn't really measure up that well against its canned cousin. SpahettiOs has less fat, less sodium, and less carbs than Barilla. Hm! Well, my Grandma had a saying about that: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." SpaghettiOs has already tried to pull the wool over our eyes once with its serving size business. Let's look at the top of the nutrients list. 

See that heading, "Amount/Serving"? A slash separating two words is used to indicate the word "per," which is a Latin preposition meaning "for each", as in per capita, for each person, or per diem, for each day. In the case of this label, it means amount per serving. As the FDA explains it (emphasis theirs):
The size of the serving on the food package influences the number of calories and all the nutrient amounts listed on the top part of the label. Pay attention to the serving size, especially how many servings there are in the food package. Then ask yourself, "How many servings am I consuming"? (e.g., 1/2 serving, 1 serving, or more) In the sample label, one serving of macaroni and cheese equals one cup. If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the %Daily Values as shown in the sample label.
It's worth repeating:  If you ate the whole package, you would eat two cups. That doubles the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the %Daily Values as shown in the sample label.

So this can we had thought contained 600 mg of sodium? has 1,200. Total carbs? 70. Total grams of sugar? 22. Two sticks of a Kit Kat candy bar have 21, fyi. The amount of added sugars doctors say children should not exceed in a day? 24.

To be fair, Barilla does have more fat, 4.5 grams to SpaghettiOs 2 grams/can. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Barilla's fat mostly comes from the "good" fat found in olive oil and also healthy sunflower oil. 

Reading through the ingredient lists of each of these choices is quite a study in contrasts. Ingredients are listed in order of quantity. So, this Barilla meal is mostly made up of cooked whole grain penne pasta. SpaghettiOs first ingredient is water. Water is also listed again, after a long list of chemicals, additives, preservatives, and, of course, high fructose corn syrup. Barilla's list contains only items I recognize as food. Refreshing.

Another aspect of Barilla's that I really like is the fact that it is microwaved in one minute. ONE MINUTE. No nuking it for a few minutes, stirring, and putting it back for more. Just pull back the corner, set timer for one minute. For those times when I need to food up and don't want to spend any time or make any mess to do it, this meal really fills the bill. 

The only down-side to these meals, it seems, is the plastic packaging. It's recyclable, at least, and I absolutely admire it's NASA-like engineering. 

These are pricier than a can of SpaghettiOs, around $2.49 in my market vs. a dollar and change for the can. Making your own spaghetti and freezing the left overs is still the best way to go, budget-wise. Barilla would be among the second best choices. But you, SpaghettiOs, are nowhere on my list at. all.

Did I mention that they are really good, too? I stick by my favorite, Tomato & Basil Whole Grain Penne, and Mr. Notes prefers Spicy Marinara Penne, but there are a many flavors to choose from. 

And some of them even have meat, but that's for another day.

Visit the Barilla website for a gander at the choices, and a rather amusing video demonstration of how to cook the meal. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Meatless Monday, Long Road to China Edition

China. A nation famous for its ancient culture and traditions, as well as for being that place where all our stuff is made these days, from underwear to beach chairs to iPhones. It's no secret, as well, that it's also where a lot of bad things can happen to food.

So it was pretty surprising when, in 2014, the USDA (The United States Department of Agriculture) approved a deal that would allow chicken produced in the US to be sent to China for processing, before being shipped back for human consumption. To put it another way, the U.S. would allow frozen American chicken to be shipped to China, to have a Chinese company thaw the chicken, cook the chicken, refreeze it, and send it back to the States. I get paranoid just doing that with left-overs
and I'm not even sending it on a 14,000 mile round trip!

Which even National Chicken Council spokesman Tom Super says is a long way to go to process a chicken, and “doesn’t make much sense economically." 

So what's the deal, USDA?

Munchies, a website and digital video channel dedicated to the modern food scene, speculates that: 
“The USDA’s move to bring Chinese plants into the American fold is just the first step in a politically motivated process to get the country to give the U.S. something in return. In 2003, when mad cow disease was discovered in cattle in Washington state, China enacted a ban on imported U.S. beef that continues to this day. With China’s meat consumption on the rise, it makes sense that U.S. beef producers would want to recapture that lucrative market. By starting to accept China’s processed chicken, the U.S. is apparently warming to the idea of soon accepting the country’s raw, unprocessed poultry—a move that might convince China to lift its beef ban.”
Oh, okay; political two-step, a "scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours" move, if Munchies is correct. For their part, it's been reported that our four major chicken companies, Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms, have nothing to do with this deal, nor do they want to. They have yet to put any money into developing an export/import strategy; neither has the National Chicken Council or the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. And lobbyists, as well as other chicken industry proponents, emphatically argue no U.S. company will ever ship chicken to China for processing because, as quoted above, it “doesn’t make much sense economically." 

Mr. Super's comment  is, I'm sure, supposed to be a comforting one, though, of course what it means, is that if there was a way to make a buck on it, they'd do it in a heartbeat, which this USDA plan has now made possible. Writing of the situation in China, award-winning poet and critic of governmental policy Yang Lian states:
"Seduced by the high profits that can be earned from selling food, food producers have no qualms about selling fake or substandard food, or even adding poisonous chemicals to food products, as long as it makes the food look good enough to dupe the customers into buying it."
He could just as easily be talking about the US, couldn't he? After all, if profit is the primary factor, not the health and safety of the consumer, what, then, is the difference?

I rest my case!

Monday, August 24, 2015


Everybody knows by now that we should drink 8 glasses of water a day for good health. Water is super great for us, as it helps us absorb nutrients, cushion our bones, and move waste out of the body, among many other benefits. The trouble is, staying hydrated can be a pain. When I read "drink 8 glasses of water a day," all I see is those glasses of water lined up in a row and me thinking, "I can't possibly drink all that in one day."

So it was quite a relief for me to read that this 8 glasses a day thing has been debunked. 

The New York Times:
"Contrary to many stories you may hear, there’s no real scientific proof that, for otherwise healthy people, drinking extra water has any health benefits. For instance, reviews have failed to find that there’s any evidence that drinking more water keeps skin hydrated and makes it look healthier or wrinkle free. It is true that some retrospective cohort studies have found increased water to be associated with better outcomes, but these are subject to the usual epidemiologic problems, such as an inability to prove causation. Moreover, they defined 'high' water consumption at far fewer than eight glasses."
Finally! One less thing to feel guilty about not doing right. What the author, Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, points out, is that most of us get plenty of hydration from the food we eat as well as from what we drink. Fruits and vegetables contain water, for instance. As does any beverage you can think of.

So, we're not stuck drinking plain old boring water anymore, right? Not to rain on that parade (har har) but this infographic I found shows how quickly calories from other choices add up: 


1,370 calories!? Should have had 0 calorie water, instead!

It's not just the calories, either. It's the caffeine, and the chemicals, and the alcohol, that we're better off without. 

Personally, I think staying on top of one's water consumption is important. It's too easy to go an entire day and at the end of it, realize, "Hey, I'm really thirsty--and I've BEEN really thirsty for A WHILE now." 

So, how DO we keep ourselves properly hydrated throughout the day? I can't vouch for the accuracy of the healthful effects stated here (they do seem a little sketchy), but I think this infographic (below) is a pretty good schedule for keeping on track, nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Best "Science" Money Can Buy

Just when you think science has made a definitive statement, it seems like they switch it up on you. First, it's low-fats, then it's no fat, then it's some fats are good, then it's fats are okay, it's sugar that's the problem. Sometimes, these switch-ups are a natural progression of scientific inquiry; as more and better data becomes available, science will, as it must, change its consensus. Confusing for the rest of us, unfortunately, but, at least, it's the result of honest science.

And then there's the other kind. The kind of switch-up that's not made by scientists, and honesty has nothing to do with it. I'm speaking now about a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, dedicated to creating "balance" in the way we think about diet, disease prevention, and exercise.

The group's vice president, Steven N. Blair, has this to say about its goals:

“Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh, they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on, and there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.” 

Uh … No compelling evidence? Doesn't he know that we know exactly how many calories are burned by exercising, and that the damage caused by bad food habits (heart disease, liver disease, etc.) can't be exercised away? Maybe not! Here's a tweet he made recently:

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for fitness, I'm all for exercise. But to claim it's more important than eating healthy is just plain mind-boggling in this day and age. Where did this Global Energy Balance Network and it's cockamamie ideas come from, anyway?

Maybe the following quotes from a piece in The New York Times can shed a little light on that:

"Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories … Coke has made a substantial investment in the new nonprofit [Global Energy Balance Network]. [Coke] had donated $1.5 million last year to start the organization … Since 2008, the company has also provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members: Dr. Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose research over the past 25 years has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity, and Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health."

So an organization supposedly dedicated to improving public health is, in fact, merely a prop, and the professors involved, merely puppets, for a soda giant.

Why the creepy clandestine approach, Coke?

"Health experts say [it is] part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume."

This sort of behavior by corporations is nothing new, of course. In marketing parlance, it's called having a "front" organization--that's right, just like the mob. Tobacco companies are probably the most notorious for the tactic, frequently using front organizations and doctors to advocate their arguments about tobacco use. One less-than-subtle example:

Click on the image to marvel at the fine print.

It'll be interesting, won't it, to see who comes out of the woodwork to parrot the Global Energy Balance Network's new fitness-over-diet mantra. When you see them, you'll know whose money is in their pocket, and whose best interest they really have at heart.

As for the rest of us, we should feel pretty proud of ourselves. We've been so good at avoiding their products that they've resorted to crazy puppet show theater to lure us back. 

Shame on you, Coca-Cola. Shame on you.

Thanks to Friend of the Blog, Michael, for sending along the NYT article.