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food: “innovating products” makes me nervous…

Posted by on May 16, 2011 in Blog Posts | 16 comments

This quote is from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (it was awhile back, but I jotted it down in “drafts”…)

“Although cheese contributes less than 8% of the sodium to the American diet, cheese manufacturers and brands have been proactively innovating products to meet consumer’s health and wellness needs.”

This does not reassure me. This scares me. Our health and wellness needs, as it relates to food, are not going to be found in the laboratory. This seems to all be part of the “healthy school lunch” initiative which has a new, very aggressive stance on reducing sodium, in spite of poor evidence that reducing sodium will help.  (One recent study even  showed that those who ate the most sodium had the lowest incidence of cardiovascular disease and death…)

Some “cheese food product” added to a processed packet of calorie, fat and sugar (and now salt)- controlled meal will not help our children become competent eaters.

Kids deserve better food, fresh food, with variety and flavor and the time to eat it as well. This is another case of reaching for the low-hanging, and in my opinion rotten, fruit.

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16 Comments

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  1. Jess

    You know, Michael Pollan generally annoys me for his preachiness, but he hits the head on the nail when he talks about “nutritionism”, i.e. the focus in this country on nutrients (calories, fats, proteins, vitamins, anti-oxidents, what have you) rather than food. I love science, the scientific method and empirical research, but nutrition is one area where I feel that science fails miserably in answering even the most fundamental of questions. No will ever convince me that some a low-carb protein bar with anti-oxidents, fiber, fish oil and acai berries is actually healthier for me than, say, a plain old baked potato (potatoes being much vilified and out of fashion these days).

    I also love salt and butter. Hello, salt and butter make stuff taste good: my kid eats vegetables because I serve broccoli sauteed in olive oil with garlic and parmesan cheese, I butter and salt the corn, I put salt in our (homemade) salad dressing, etc., etc. We eat *a lot* of veg around here, some of it raw with nothing on it, but a lot of it with salt, butter or olive oil and/or a sprinkling of grated cheese on it…again, no one will ever convince me that is less healthy than a “Broccoli and Cheese Lean Pocket”, I don’t care what the calorie counts are…it certainly is no less healthy than the plain steamed broccoli that goes uneaten.

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to prove that kind of stuff; nutrition science says nutrients are nutrients, whether they are denatured and wrapped in cellophane or whether they just came off a tree. So frustrating.

    • katja

      wonderfully put… I totally agree. For example, my in-laws just came and I made home-made garlic, ginger, sesame, EVOO… salad dressing that is to die for. Apparently they thought it would kill them as they showed up the next day with a bottle of fat-free Italian. Yick.

      • Jess

        Seriously! That is the problem with the food culture in America– that someone would think that a quarter cup of fat-free bottled dressing is healthier for them than a small amount of good quality oil and vinegar!

  2. Bobbini

    One of my favorite TV cooks, Alton Brown, once said at a speaking engagement: “It’s not McDonald’s job to nourish your family.”

    He wasn’t speaking to the quality of their food, but to the nature of the relationship. These companies selling food–even the high-end, virtuous “Whole Paycheck” variety–are, first and foremost, money-making enterprises. It’s not their job to nourish my family. That’s my job. Sometimes I do it with wholesome, home-cooked things and sometimes (much to my kids’ delight), I do it with McDonalds. But whether I’m buying organic local produce or chicken mcnuggets, it’s a transaction, first and foremost. In that transaction, I’m the only one who cares about–or even really thinks about–my kids.

    If we can make those transactions that benefit kids (broadly, through things like the school lunch program) more profitable for the food sellers, it will work. They will respond to market demand, so long as they can make money on it. That’s what the food product manufacturers above are doing. They’re responding to a demand.

    So what does the ideal hot lunch program look like in public schools? So many children rely on these meals for their core nutrition. How do we realistically make them better?

    • katja

      Yup. Not sure how to make it more profitable for food sellers. Don’t know how to make profit off good old-fashioned cooking, peeling, chopping, boiling, baking…
      that’s the million dollar question, how do we realistically make the food better? If you’ve seen my recent posts about France and how they do it, maybe we could start by having a bit of humility and recognizing that we’re not always #1, being open to learning from others who seem to do a better job of it. Hmm, maybe we can do a feasibility study in paris for a few months :) I’ll volunteer.

  3. Jenny Islander

    Here’s an innovation: Put an herb garden in every school. Not a modern mechanically watered garden with all the expensive bells and whistles Plow and Hearth or what have you could offer. Just a couple repurposed utility buckets with herbs in them for every 50 kids. Or old institutional-sized cans. Whatever.

    Then, at mealtime, pick the herbs and put them in the food.

  4. Lisa

    That quote creeps me out too!

    These companies are ‘innovating’ new ways to get our money into their hands. That’s it. That’s their prime directive, to create products and then create needs for those products. They want people anxious about their salt intake so they are then more susceptible to low-sodium marketing and will then purchase this new cheese product.

    And, you know, NONE of our health and wellness needs are going to be found in the laboratory – except perhaps for the most sick among us who have pharmaceutical needs. Although my favorite quote from a pharma rep is “this company is in business to make money. If we also help some sick people get better, that’s great too”.

    It’s much harder to make money off of people who like themselves and trust their bodies.

  5. Ashley

    I have made a serious, concerted effort to try to follow the new research about sodium, blood pressure, and heart health, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m extremely confused and really have no idea what I think at the moment. (I will say that I make no effort to monitor or regulate my own salt intake, so I haven’t discovered anything I find completely damning of sodium.) I have no idea how people who are only getting their news from popular media health sources are making anything resembling an informed choice, considering that I don’t even think I am.

    • katja

      I totally agree. On so many of these issues, there is directly contradictory advice and “evidence.” It’s why I think we need to really really on “intuitive” eating, eating based on appetite, internal cues and providing oneself with regular, rewarding and reliable meals…

  6. KellyK

    Lower-sodium cheese or lower-sodium anything might be good for people who already have high blood pressure or other medical reasons for watching their sodium. (Or they might rather have a smaller quantity of the real stuff, particularly if the taste difference is major.)

    But when it’s 8% of people’s sodium intake, even for people *with* those health concerns, this doesn’t sound like a problem that needs solving.

    And if we fed kids better food (better in terms of quality and taste), a lot of the fat, calorie, and sodium issues would take care of themselves. Good food doesn’t need tons of salt or a pound of cheese to make it palatable; crappy food does.

    • katja

      the whole low-sodium diet for blood pressure is not at all a given. There are many studies showing it has no effect, that there are genetic differences in terms of sensitivities etc. Far worse is when people feel deprived (if they like salt) and it messes with their eating… My MIL has made us promise to sneak salt into the old-folks home… (I like that she doesn’t make us promise not to let her live in an old folks home…) I love salt too, so I’ll help with that one… I agree on the 8%… The cheese is not the problem…And yes, yes, yes for the last part! :)

      • KellyK

        Good point about deprivation messing with people’s eating. That’s definitely true.

        And thanks for mentioning that the salt thing isn’t clear cut. Can I amend my previous comment to “people for whom cutting back on salt actually reduces their blood pressure”?

  7. Twistie

    Well I must admit it would have worked to reduce sodium in my diet, in that I would have COMPLETELY STOPPED EATING CHEESE!

    If I’m going to have cheese, I want it to bite me back. I want it stinky, gooey, and most of all flavorful.

    Even as a small child I picked extra sharp cheddar and gorgonzola over Kraft slices. To my mind, the best cheeses are pungent and salty.

    It distresses me that the only way most people seem able to imagine making school lunches better is to make them blander and even less appealing to taste buds than they already are. Ask a few kids. I know back in my school days we all complained about how the cafeteria lunches were boring, bland, flavorless, and gloppy. We all liked the idea of pizza day better than the actual pizza served.

    And here they are dumbing down kids’ culinary choices yet again. Let me guess: these are the same people who resent the fact that kids like to eat breaded chicken tenders. Well they’re never going to learn to broaden those horizons IF NOBODY EVER FEEDS THEM ANYTHING ELSE!!!!

    Humph.

    • katja

      Humph is right…

    • KellyK

      I second your “Humph.” It’s funny, I remember liking school lunches and always pretty much eating everything I was given, but when I think back to the food, especially the pizza, it seems incredibly gross. Not sure whether I’m filtering those memories through adult tastes, or I was just really hungry as a kid.