Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, June 30, 2008

Healthier Than Thou

I love food. I could be considered a "foodie" if I thought the term had much merit. It's rather like calling someone a "music fan" or an "artie." It is so generic a term that it betrays how little the user of the term appreciates or understands the arts of growing, producing, and cooking food. Since it's vaguely related to All Things Green, I thought I would blog about "healthy foods" (sometimes more gramatically correctly called "healthful foods.")

There's no such thing. For reasons probably related to our puritan ancestors, we in the English-speaking world (probably starting in the USA, but I don't know) have a habit of dividing foods into two groups: foods that are "good" for you or "healthy" and foods that are "bad" for you. The easy way to tell which is which is whether or not it is really delicious. If the latter, it must be "bad" for you. I got all riled up about this (and remain riled, I guess) a few summers ago when an intern told me that she put extra sliced garlic in her soups and things because garlic was good for you. I challenged her on what that meant. Others in the office joined to her defense.

They said: Garlic is good for you! So says Larry King. The Food Network is full of people ready to tell you what foods are healthier. Yes, there are studies that very vaguely correlate garlic intake to better heart health (these same studies, of course, relate a northern European diet of butter to poor heart health, which suggests causation issues all over the place). But let's think rationally for one moment, rather than in feel-good mode. What is garlic supposed to do for you? Fill in an allium deficiency? Do we require something found in garlic that can be found nowhere else? Obviously not. If some chemical in garlic has some positive effect on coronary disease, what is it? And why is garlic the necessary vehicle? And how much makes a difference? My intern just assumed -as do so many- that some is good, more is better. Some people take garlic tablets. The dosage is basically random.

I hear this all the time. Eggplant is good for you. Really? Not the way most people cook it. Red meat is bad for you. No, it's not poison. Vegetarianism has many justifications, but nutrition is not one of them: without the protein and other minerals from meat, vegetarians have to work hard to create a satisfactory diet. Man cannot live on salad alone. Excessive amounts of red meat are bad. Well, excess is always bad. What is excess in this context? The response of so many people that I see - to eschew red meat and eat chicken breasts instead - is absurd. Also, pork is ipso facto bad. Imagine if we divided the pharmacy into good drugs and bad drugs, then removed all quantity and scientific information and let Daytime TV tell us what to ingest. Oh wait, we do - it's called the herbal supplement market.

What I see is deliberate ignorance and food propaganda. In the 1980s, everything had to be low fat. Now it's low carb. I'm waiting for low-protein to set in. Or it's "good carbs" and "bad carbs." The moral judgment reserved for those who eat wrongly is symptomatic of real problems in our culture. Always, it is excess rather than moderation that is the result of such puritanical zeal. It's not "avoid Maggiano's troughs of pasta in bland sauce" but "no pasta at all." And it is always the newly-converted who are the most zealous apostles of the latest gastro-craze. Raw food is my favorite. Seriously, homo erectus got it wrong with fire?

Now everybody is hung up on childhood obesity. The causes are obvious: cheap fast food with large portions and a lack of physical activity. And the not-so-obvious: American demographics, particularly as it concerns live births, are weighted heavily towards new immigrant groups from ethnic stocks that store more fat. And the most troublesome: large amounts of greasy food (e.g., "comfort food") has become for many young people an affordable luxury that treats psychological ailments. The cartoon of the teenage girl who breaks up with her boyfriend, then binges on ice cream to reward herself, is an example of how this works. Then food gets locked up with guilt and cycles of self-loathing.

"Organic" food is another food gimmick that people use to act and feel virtuous. I hear people say "I only feed my child organic food." This is meant to be praiseworthy, and carry a hint of condemnation for those who might buy their vegetables from the "conventional" rack. Of course, this is snobbery: organic food is more expensive. Organic food is meant to avoid a set of chemical and biological agents - hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides - that are supposedly ruinous to your health. These claims for organic food are made totally without reference to: (a) what goes into 'conventional' food, (b) what, if any, of the chemicals are residual in the food, (c) whether any of these are actually harmful in such quantities, and (d) what is done instead to make organic food commercially profitable. Organic food is not about hardworking hippies lovingly plucking off caterpillars from the tomatoes, spraying paprika and lemon juice, and being in harmony with nature. Have you ever TRIED growing food without chemicals? I tell people that an organic farmer is only one infestation away from embracing science. The only way farming ever worked in the past was sheer volume - if you plant acres of veggies, you have some hope in heck of containing a hornworm outbreak (though picking the damned things off) before they destroy everything. In a smaller home garden, infestation = no harvest at all. Organic farming allows a set of approved chemicals derived from "natural" sources. Salmonella in tomatoes and spinach has come from organic farming, of late. Some foods absorb lots of chemicals like sponges and organic farming will, at least, reduce chemical intakes as advertised (whether or not that matters). Some really don't.

The problem with 'organic' is not that it's a sham. It's that we basically don't know whether it improves health outcomes AND people treat the word "organic" like a talisman. Then this new virtue of eating "only organic" can be lorded over those who (can't afford or won't pay for) organic food. Someone in my office suggested that if I fed my (non-organic) squash to my baby, that would be bad because it's not organic. I tartly informed him that: (1) the amount of chemicals I use is so much less than conventional farming it's silly, (2) the chemicals I can purchase are so much less potent than what farmers can use, and (3) the package itself says you can eat the vegetables three days after spraying, which they wouldn't dare say if there were any evidence at all that the chemicals remained. It's probably safe within hours (I usually wait at least 2 weeks, then wash the plants carefully not so much to avoid the chemicals as to avoid any bird shit or diseased insects that graced the veggies).

I grew up on non-organic foods post-green revolution. Didn't have an organic thing in my mouth until I was in my twenties. Both of my heads are fine. The point is, nobody bothers to figure out if organic food is worth the price - it is purchased reflexively. I go to Trader Joe's and figure out how much cruelty I want with my eggs (free range, veg-a-feed, etc.) and ponder whether "omega 3" eggs are either better for me or less cruel. Don't get me started on Omega 3. It's another anti-intellectual food fad.

We have a big problem as a nation with food and food production. Meat production is cruel and vegetables are produced for color and shelf-life rather than flavor. Both of these are the result of large industrial food production and a free market that has been conditioned to value low price above all other virtues. This is where our efforts should be as a society. Allow food in the market to be differentiated and sold based on locality and flavor rather than just price. Start regulating better food practices. Stop fixating on whether a child is chubby or not, and stop trying to make him or her feel worse than he or she already does in our body-conscious society. A child is fat because eats bad food. He's bad because he eats bad food. And mommy and daddy are bad for letting them. It's terrible. It drives them to eat.


Raised By Republicans said...

I was with you all the way until you decided to blame capitalism for bad food. If people valued flavorful food they'd pay a premium for it. And they do. That's what part of the "organic" lable is all about. It's about people looking for a signal in the market that this tomato will taste better than that tomato.

Bert Q. Slushbrow, Sr. said...

" is excess rather than moderation that is the result..."

Agree with much of what you say but this quoted bit is the crux of the matter in my view. Heck, excess is the core issue with so much of what ails us.

Of course, because of my contrary nature, I have to point out the famous quote by Petronius, "Moderation in all things, including moderation." Heh.

Anonymous said...

Another point that the holier-than-thou organic food mommies tend to forget is the carbon footprint of food. It takes a lot more energy to fly organic strawberries halfway around the world than to truck in nonorganic (inorganic?) strawberries from Oxnard. That's a consideration people ought to think about, especially those obsessed with being "green."

As for obesity, American attitudes about weight are so screwed up that people seem hesitant to praise a baby for being chubby or give whole milk to a toddler (even though fat is integral to infant development). It just gets me to thinking about how much good food I ate in France, and how few morbidly obese people I saw.

-Seventh Sister

Spotted Handfish said...

Pombat will love this thread. One of her favourite things to do is to say to food nuts, after they've complained about genetically modified foods, "do you know there are genes in that?" If they double take you know the level of understanding they have.

I think LTG has a huge issue here: he understands food. It is not just a convenience but a passion. For most people it is a chore.

Our food attitude is simple. Buy fresh, buy local, and where possible buy free range meats. I'm not going to stop eating it, but I'll try and buy animals that at least have had the chance to move.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Hear, hear, LTG! Brilliantly said. Couldn't have said it better myself--and believe me, I've tried. I especially appreciated the little zinger at the "herbal supplements" market.

I don't think LTG was blaming capitalism for bad food--on the contrary, he was showing how market mechanisms could improve the situation. By providing the consumer with more information--locality, flavor, nutrition--the consumer can make more informed choices. A modicum of regulation is required to ensure this information is provided and is accurate, but that is all. "Organic" is too crude and too unregulated a signal to provide much assistance.

I have had the "garlic" type discussion with people on many occasions. Their reasoning goes like this:

GIVEN that the medical and regulatory establishments are demonstrably corrupted by money and politics,
and GIVEN real people have testified that wonder food/dietary supplement XYZ is good for you,
THEREFORE there obviously is a conspiracy afoot to deny the miraculous benefits of wonder food/dietary supplement XYZ.

In the end, someone always brings up thalidomide or Vioxx to "prove" why garlic is good for you. It would be hilarious if it were not so maddening. If anything, these errors and scams should make them more skeptical about claims from anyone. And of course the last resort is they say, "Well, it can't hurt!" Right. Tell that to the thousands who die because they pass up real medical care in favor of a pipe dream. Tell that to the people who died from ephedra and overdoses of every conceivable herbal supplement.

It all comes down to the desperate need most of us feel to try to get back in control of our lives in this messed up, mixed up world. We watch people get ailments and illnesses--or just plain get old-- and we desperately want to do something to stop that from happening to us. It's about fear. Oldtime religion isn't doing it for most folks--and science sure the hell isn't--so they turn to New Age crapola.

Doctors have long ignored this fear, but over the past decade or so things have started to improve. Doctors are starting to treat the patient, not the illness. They are starting to focus on improving people's lives and happiness, not making them feel like trash for falling short of an ideal. It takes time, and for many questions we have no answers. And some doctors make mistakes too, and some are just bad people. But it's the only way out.

Pombat said...

Yep, the "there's genes in that" can be a lot of fun... ;-p
(the organic equivalent if you want to shut up a holier-than-thou is along the lines of "oh, you mean it's grown in s---?")

Hear hear LTG - rare occurrence I know, but I find myself whole heartedly agreeing (as does Spotted H, clearly). Joking aside, I do agree with you, particularly on your point about how the cheapness of food seems to be the target, not the flavour, the freshness, the actual nutritional value.

In Italy, we ate very well, because the Italians value food very highly, and are prepared to pay for high quality. Most of them seem disturbingly well informed about food too - this is sadly lacking in large portions of our societies (Melbourne is lucky in that we have a fantastic range of places to eat, as well as great food markets. Somehow McDonalds & their ilk still survive though). And from going to many many Italian food markets, I can say that their food doesn't look as perfect as our supermarket offerings - they're happy to sell, and buy, items that aren't 'perfect' in looks, and oh god they taste good.

A favourite recipe of Spotted H's springs to mind here, because it requires good quality ingredients due to it's simplicity - cook pasta (fresh if poss), squeeze over some lemon juice, stir in chopped garlic and grated parmigiano, and liberally crunch fresh black pepper over it. If you're worried about your heart, add more garlic - it's good for you you know :-)

Oh, and I can't remember where I saw them, but two studies that I've read about recently:

First: looking at when people stop eating, and examining the cues they use - a very brief summary is that a stereotypical American in the study would stop eating once their plate was clear, whereas the equivalent stereotypical Frenchman in the study would stop once their brain received the stomach's "I'm full" signals, regardless of if there was still food on the plate. It talked about the fact that kids are generally very well tuned in to the 'French' way of eating, and if given an empty plate and serving platters in the middle to help themselves from, will only eat what they actually need. Sadly, they tend to lose this knack as they age, and become accustomed to being given a plate, and finishing it.

Second: locusts. Ok, so they're locusts, they're meant to eat, but this was a protein experiment. The researchers fed locusts with a high protein food, and with a low protein food. Regardless of which food they were fed, the locusts stopped eating once they'd consumed a certain amount of protein, meaning that they ate a lot more of the low protein food. The further hypothesis is that maybe humans have an enough-protein signal, meaning that over-processed fast food, low in protein (and most other nutrition), but high in fat, is consumed in large quantities in order to satisfy. Side effect - obesity (and scurvy apparently, especially if you pick the gherkins out).

I also heard in the UK that a supermarket did a survey on who was buying their organic range and why. Turns out a sizeable number of the organic foods purchasers at the time were elderly, looking for a smaller range from which to choose, because the standard selections were too large and confusing.

So, overall view on food? We try to be healthy, in that we try and eat a fairly balanced diet - plenty of fruits and veg, and salads in the summer, wholemeal bread (generally prefer it, except for bacon sandwiches) and so on, but also plenty of butter (ghee for curries, mmmm!), cream, full fat milk, red meats and other terribly 'bad' things like homemade chicken liver pate (livers + butter basically!), as and when we want it - I'm a big believer in trusting my body when it demands certain foods of me. Eggs I buy free range, because they don't cost that much more, and I just don't like the idea of the hens being caged - seems cruel, the eggs aren't really any different though; other meats we get free range because (a) better life for the beasties (compromise position - I'm not going veggie!), (b) they actually taste better, as free range animals tend to be grown slower, and to larger sizes (important for roasting chickens), and being able to exercise results in nicer, more tender, meat.

History Buff said...

I also think that cooking your own food is important. Here in San Antonio we have a ton of cheap restaurants. My friend from Seattle remarked the last time she was here about it. San Antonio rancks as the 14th fattest city in the US. Partly this is because our per capita income is fairly low, but also because a lot of people don't eat home cooked meals. Most people I know don't own one cookbook.

I also love to eat and when I read a study that says that a food has extra benefits, if I like the food I make sure I buy it. But what I really believe in is a colorful plate. I don't really take supplements eventhough my doctor keeps telling me I should take a multi-vitamin, I think I get most of it fromt he food I eat.

I also love dessert and when I make it it is full fat, full sugar, etc. I just make sure that when I make a cake or pie I have lots of people around to help me eat it and then I savor every single bite.

I think that is the biggest key, savor the flavor and eat slowly. That way your internal food meter can register that you are full.

Also as far as genetically modified food goes, all our food is genetically modified. One of my hobbies is learning about wild food, and believe me wild carrots, onions etc, barely resemble the stuff we buy in the market.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Yes History Buff, all of our food is genetically modified and we have been doing it for millenia--from the Incas, who brilliantly transformed the poisonous potato into one of the world's greatest (and tastiest!) staple crops, to the Dutch who invented half the vegetables on the market through generations of careful selection and clever cross-fertilization. The same techniques have been applied to produce the cows and pigs we now consume, although "seleciton" and "cross-fertilization" does not seem quite so nice when applied to the animal kingdom. Similarly, the real history of dogs turns the stomach, with lots of dead puppies and parents force-mated to their own offspring to create new "breeds."

But never mind that, History Buff! Just look into my eyes and repeat after me, "Farmers are Good... Scientists are Evil..."

Dr. Strangelove said...

By the way, one of my favorite science heroes is Dr. Norman Borlaug. He created the strains of wheat and corn that are credited with multiplying production fivefold and saving a billion (with a "B") people from starvation in the late sixties in the developing world--he is the father of the Green Revolution. For this he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the U.S. Presidential Medal of freedom, The Congressional Gold Medal, India's second-highest civilian honor, not to mention 50 honorary doctorates...

The citation for the Congressional Gold Medal read that, "Dr. Borlaug has saved more lives than any person who has ever lived." Oh yes, those evil, evil food scientists, always trying to end famine and disease...

USWest said...

When in france the last time, I about lost it when a woman at a dinner party looked at me and said, "Why aren't Americans up in arms over GM goods? YOu guys should stop this!" It has been a long time since I have been as demeaning to someone as I was to this woman. "Madame," I started in, "don't you think that Americans have more important concerns right now than the issue of GM food? Besides, the market will stop it if people quit buying the products." To me, it seemed very elitist and luxurous of her to even see it as a big topic considering that she spent her life working as a hostesses on Air France. Let's talk about bad for your health! I am reminded of a scene from HBO's John Adams drama where the French ask him about studying literature and art and he says, "I must study politics and government so that my children may study science so that their children can have the joy of studying art and literature."

My doctor did convince me to take supplements because she pointed out that industrialized food production has leached a lot of the vitamins and minerals out of food. And I am sorry, nothing tastes as good to me as a home grown tomato even if it is ugly.

Most people have never tried to grow their own food, and so do not understand the perials of such things.

And as a woman, I do get concerned about the use of hormones in meat and milk. And I find I digest free-range or non-treated dairy and meat products.

What would be of great help in all of this is if we could build up some respect and trust into the FDA.

Raised By Republicans said...


I'm totally gonna use that "Hey, you know there's genes in that!" Hilarious!

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR, a lot of time can be spent showing why the economics-textbook truism you quote (if people valued tasty food the market would provide it and they would pay for it) doesn't seem to function in real life.

For example, the USDA actually forbids farmers from testing their own cattle for mad cow disease beyond the government inspections. They don't want labels to start appearing that would differentiate beef in this way. Their goal is to have all food of the same product type be fungible. Consumers are affirmatively inhibited from getting information they could use to make product selections.

Other sorts of regulations (requiring certain kinds of machinery in slaughterhouses) dramatically limits the ability of farmers to slaughter and prepare their own meat. Direct farmer-eater relationships are inhibited by middlemen.

Government supported programs emphasize food pyramids and such, but not food quality. Trade groups controlled by megaproducers like the egg council and so forth also propagandize consumers to believe that all eggs are the same.

And, of course, the ag subsidies that RBR rails about support big farms disproportionately to small farms, when they already have the advantage of scale.

And most people have only a couple places they can shop. So the bottom line is that consumers who don't want industrial megameat or megavege find alternatives very expensive and difficult to acquire. So a sham like the "organic" label develops as a substitute, pretending to provide better quality for a higher price that is within reason. The costs of bad food (on health, the environment, workers, etc.) are not paid by the consumer at the checkoutstand; the costs of better food to avoid these things are paid by the consumer at the checkout stand.

Indeed, were it not for special regulatory exemptions accorded to Farmer's markets (for direct sales etc.) in the 1970s (by those who figured they would be anegligible effect on the market) there might be no alternatives at all.

In conjunction with these regulations, market forces drive food producers to compete primarily on price. Thus, bad food drives out good food.

Ask your friends in the ag department why good tasting corn has gone away in favor of tasteless "super-sweet" varieties. They may say that consumers won't pay the higher price of better tasting corn. But the truth is that consumers aren't offered the option of competing corn products side by side. One day the supermarket brings in a new corn variety and sells it more cheaply, without telling anyone. The old producers, with no outlets, change over or go out of business. The same thing has happened a thousand times with other vegetables and fruits. It's the same reason good movies are only in arthouse theaters and absent from big swathes of the country. The difference is that food matters a whole lot more.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I should add that Pombat is right about clean plates. I grew up being told to finish my plate. I think most Americans were told that you should finish what's on your plate. That is probably a source of untold terrible habits. The proper instruction to the child is to take only what you will eat, but one should not enforce that instruction by requiring the child to eat whatever he has taken.

We also tend to serve food in "portions" in America. The quantum of burger is one burger. Next up for the hungrier child is two burgers. Pizza comes in (big) slices. The quantum of chinese food, by contrast, is usually the spoonful.

As I approach the solid-food aspect of parenting, I've begun to think about how to approach feeding the child. I think good eating habits can be encouraged by, for example, cooking food with variable portion sizes (for example, cutting steaks into smaller pieces before serving, or slicing). Vegetables should be made tasty. This requires fat and salt. Better to have steamed broccoli with olive oil, salt, and pepper (which is so good) than have the child hate vegetables because they're cooked abstemiously, like "health food" is meant to be. Let the child know that it's okay to stop eating when he is full, even if it means wasting food. I hope not to use dessert as a reward. I hope not to treat dessert as something super-special, which will only encourage the worst sweet tooth. I hope to avoid fast foods without turning them into forbidden fruit, or a reward. I also want to cook with my kids. I think you learn a lot about food by cooking.

Dr. Strangelove said...

"The quantum of burger is one burger." At last, someone who understands the quantum! Although, if you are eating Chinese food, you really should be using chopsticks, not spoons. I am told it tastes much better that way. The purists would avoid the serving spoons too :-)

The clean plates thing is very true. I might point out that a few of the Canadians I know do not appear to be afflicted by this problem, which suggests (from tiny sample size) that this might be very American. Which goes back to the culture discussion...

Then again, when one eats out of boredom or depression, as was discussed in the original post, one just keeps eating until it is all gone--there is no thought involved. Speaking in great generalities here, Americans work the longest hours of any industrialized nation in the world--and this is not because they love their jobs. When mealtime offers perhaps the only reliable source of leisure, social interaction, and simple joy--is it any wonder that food is so precious?

USWest said...

Interesting point Dr. S. Russian's drink vodka. We eat. BTW: go to you tube and look up George Carlin's bit on obesity. He kills me. "Americans will eat anything! YOU put shit on a stick and deep fry it, they'd eat it!". It killed me.

It is getting to the point that I avoid restaurants that pile the food on. I do taste the difference when I go to a French restaurant on get smaller portions. Then I can really enjoy a 4 course meal. I find that large portions destroy the variety of food that I like. You come away from the table more satisfied if you have eaten little bits of several things than a lot of one thing. This is good for your body as well.

USwest said...

LTG: I didn't realize the USDA hampered farmer's so. Do you think they also do this to control quality? are they concerned that having too many producers doing too many things will make it harder to monitor food safety?

Raised By Republicans said...


How is invasive government intervention by the USDA the fault of market forces? You seem to have correctly identified the problem but incorrectly identified who is to blame.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR, the pervasive government intervention is not the fault of market forces. But it is intended to, and does, cause the market to behave in a particular way. That happens because market forces are predictable and vicious. Remove quality distinctions from the market, and the tyranny of price will drive quality away.

USWest, I do believe it is intentional. Big Agriculture wants their industrial and cheaper food product to displace local, better food. They can only do this successfully if they create in the consumers' minds the idea that food products are relatively fungible. Whole Foods has done a bangup job of exploiting minor differences in food quality to charge a lot to consumers who (to quote a dear friend of mine) "want good things, but don't know what good things are."

FYI, never, ever spend your hard earned euros for "Dry aged" beef in Whole Foods. First of all, it's probably not really dry aged - it's just sort of old and refrigerated. But more to the point, it doesn't really taste better - not without the 2000 degree oven sear they can get at Steakhouse Extraordinaire (and I mean like Morton's, not the kind of place with raw broccoli in the salad bar).

Grass-fed beef is another story. Problem is, people don't like the taste much because wer'e conditioned to grain-fed (or grain-finished) beef. Grass fed beef tastes, well, grassy and sort of dirty to a lot of people. I ordered a buffalo sirloin roast for Christmas (yum, yum!) and they apologized to me saying that they didn't have the normal one in stock - would I mind the grass-fed one that people don't like (and is cheaper) because the fat is yellowish in color and off-putting. I was so into that. And it was awesome.

But I digress.

The Law Talking Guy said...

PS, I didn't let people see the yellow fat, because it was odd.

The Law Talking Guy said...

USWest - the USDA certainly proclaims is is protecting quality. The problem is that it is really protecting uniformity of quality, which is not the same. Uniformity is easier to measure, but tends to the lowest common denominator.

Raised By Republicans said...


You are right to point out that some market forces - like prices - have their effect regardless of what the state does to the market overall. That's why monkeying around with the market should not be done lightly.

Forgive me if I use a flood analogy: Market forces are like water flowing in a river. You can build levees and dams to control the flow but you should be aware that doing so can often lead to worse problems than the ones you were trying to fix.

The USDA would seem to be a situation where the "fix" is worse than the "problem." If I had to guess, I'd say that the USDA was making protecting particular corporate interests their top priority rather than consumer interests. Consumers would be better served by the USDA forcing maximum information on the lables. This is an approach the Europeans are moving slowly towards. Right now, they're all obsessed about food with genes in them but they're working on putting more useful information on the labels as well.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I disagree that maximum info on labels would be helpful. While information does help the market function, corporations have endorsed a strategy of over-informing consumers. For one thing detailed labeling requires a significant investment in scientific analysis of food, making it harder for smaller farmers or small food producers to compete.

I think the solution is (1) to make "organic" certification mean something; and (2) to have other new broader certification labels, like "local" or whatever be established so that consumers can get shorthand information in buying. What is a bad idea is the new proposal for food to be labeled as good, bad, etc. by some color coding.

History Buff said...

Good and bad food labels?? Which ones will sell better??

Oh, if only I could grow my own food, but I have a BLACK THUMB!!!

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, you couldn't sell broccoli to kids if you taped a $1 bill to each floret. And you couldn't dissuade them from eating gummy bears if you put a biohazard sticker on the package. Seriously, though, the FDA is planning some "traffic light" system of food labeling with levels of fat (or whatever) triggering a different color. Sort of like the orange terrorist alert. Mmmm.. Orange alert. Is that a soft drink?

Dr. Strangelove said...

Orange Alert would make a good soft drink. Or, come to think of it, a band name. That's just silly. I would rather they present the information (% transfats, etc.) without adding the judgment of a color. Because who knows what medical science will say next year...

The Law Talking Guy said...

Actually, I think the color is fine in one sense - it just summarizes the information in the manner the nutrition professionals intend that you understand it. Transfats bad. Fat bad. Sugar bad. Iron good. Etc.

Dr. Strangelove said...

While I agree that the color scheme is intended for the purpose you describe, LTG, I disagree with the purpose. Tell me what's in the food, but let me decide what is healthful for me. Color-coding based on the current medical wisdom for the average person does not take into account changes in wisdom over time or variations across the population.

History Buff said...

They color code the cafeteria menu in our school district. I don't know if it does any good though. But maybe this is where the idea came from.

Pombat said...

Colour coding could be useful, if it was applied in a non-judgemental way: have a colour for each item that can be easily flagged (as mentioned previously, transfats, fat, sugar, iron or other nutrients such as calcium etc), then do something like making the colour very pale if there's not much of it, and dark if there's lots of it in this food item. Or just display the percentage of that item in a box of that colour, so that people can see at a glance if those things are in there based on whether the coloured boxes are there, and then make their own choice. Gets really complicated with the choice of which things to give boxes to, space on packaging, potentially running out of colours, and making sure it works for colour blind people though...

So, I'm going to go for food education being a much better idea - teach kids to cook so they're not reliant on processed food, have an understanding of where their food actually comes from, what a decent nutritional balance involves diet-wise (and understand that this varies massively from person to person - one of the fittest most health conscious people I know has sky high cholesterol for example), and value flavour, texture, quality rather than just cheapness.

Oh, and off the topic, but USWest - please stop taunting the pedant in me with those apostrophes - as basic plurals with no possession indicated, neither Russians nor farmers needed apostrophizing (after seven Bush-years, that *must* be a word now ;-p)

The Law Talking Guy said...

Actually, Pombat, we will have colors, not colours. Very important distinction. =)

I think you are correct that colo(u)rs can be put on labels to aid in telling us what is in the product without judging those contents. But that's not how it will be done. It will be done with a traffic light thing so that parents can say snottily to the parents of other children at birthday parties and such, "I only allow my child to have foods with green stickers."

And, insidiously, this behavior from people who (obviously) don't cook degrades the value of home-cooked food that does not come with stickers. Nevermind that (I believe) home-cooked food teaches important values all by itself. Seriously, as an avid home cook, I do not look forward to the day when the parent of one of my child's friends presents me with the laundry list of do's and don'ts for feeding the kid. My gut level response will be to say, "how rude to suggest that my hospitality is not good enough for your child!" But then most parents today seem oblivious to how rude it is to tell other parents such things. In fact, some parents who spend little time with their kids (so busy are they overscheduling the tikes with activities that do not require the parent's involvement, participation, or supervision) that they take the opportunity to act like "good parents" by giving a list of foods.

Pombat said...

Ah yes, I keep forgetting you people and your young little country can't spell... ;-p

Sadly you're right about the snotty parents I think. The flip side being kids who'll only accept red foods as treats / rebellion.

And yes, none of this would be needed if people actually cooked their own food, rather than eating processed preservative-packed rubbish. I don't care if it's green-sticker food, if it's being sold prepared, then it's not as good for you as what I can put together from fresh ingredients (I do still eat some prepared foods - mostly chocolate biscuits and breakfast muesli bars to be honest, also tinned beans, tomatoes, and some jams/spreads, dried pasta, that kind of thing. And meals out count too I s'pose, since you don't know exactly what's in them. Never 'tv meals' though, can't stand them).

If I ever get given a list of foods like that, I shall tell the parent just how rude they are being, and tell them that I intend to completely ignore that list and feed the child decent home cooked food, that the child will probably be involved in cooking (the exception being a list of allergies of course). Perhaps though, the way to deal with them would be to give them your own list, specifying only home cooked foods, possibly even with a distance restriction, like these guys managed to live with: impressive self-inflicted eating habits

Pombat said...

Disclaimer I feel I should add in light of tonight's lazy 'dinner': I have also been known to make food every bit as bad as the over-processed ready meals. I mean, what would you do if faced with a loaf of good white bread (unsliced), plenty of bacon, cheese, eggs, tomato ketchup and a frying pan?

Anonymous said...

Not to make an already longish list of comments even longer, but I have to admit I'm pretty darn incensed about the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children be given statins for reasons as spurious as a family history of obesity.

If this was *ever* suggested for Law Talking Baby, I would switch pediatricians faster than you can say "second opinion."

And I don't buy the assertion that statins are only recommended for a small group of children. There's plenty enough overprescription, especially when you consider the runaway success of Lipitor and the like.

As a followup to what I'd like to call "food stupidity," there was a raging debate on a local parents newsgroup over the amazing discovery that fruit juice contains sugar. Not sucrose, mind you, but non-corn-syrup fructose. The horror! Of course, it was dominated by the same group of uberparents who are "experts" on why all vaccines are harmful.

And Pombat, not to depress you too much about American culture, but there are many, many Americans who seem to define allergy as "I ate something I didn't like anyway and got a rash on my foot so I obviously have an allergy to sugar, salt or sunlight."

-Seventh Sister

Pombat said...

Statins? Should I know what they are, or just be glad that I don't?...

Don't even get me started on the anti-vaccine ubertwits - had the misfortune of car sharing with one for several months, who didn't believe in her child having vaccinations for measles etc, but was going to get him the meningitis one, because that's dangerous and can kill.
-rolls eyes-

As far as the allergy thing goes, we got them too (both Aus & UK), I think the difference is that we just have less because we've got less people - percentages are probably roughly similar.

Am rather amused about the sugar one, I must admit. Were you tempted to throw in a comment about how even potatoes can be converted by the body into the same kind of energy as that gained from sugary fruit juice? :-)