movie review: fed up

fed up resizeFed Up came out in May of this year, and at the time, I kept meaning to see it in theaters, but I missed it. It came out on video in September (I still say video, like I could go rent a VHS at Hollywood Video or something), and I have been on the waiting list for it at the library for weeks. Finally, I was able to watch it this weekend with my mom.

Going into it, my expectation was that it would be well done, but that I wouldn’t hear much that was new to me. I was pleasantly surprised – not just at what I learned, but also the fact that I’ve been mulling it over since I saw it several days ago.

The basic premise is that what we’ve been taught for decades about the keys to a healthy lifestyle – eat less and move more – isn’t exactly right. And that the obesity epidemic is less “our fault” than we think it is. The film details the history of this epidemic and what factors have led to it, and how science no longer backs up the “all calories are created equal” mantra that Big Food likes to spew when the safety of their products is questioned.

Type 2 diabetes cases are skyrocketing, particularly in children and adolescents, to the point where Type 2 is no longer called “adult onset diabetes.” We spend the GDP of a small nation on weight loss drugs and gym memberships, and every container of food in the supermarket has some health claim on it. Yet if America had a blood work panel done, it would show that by and large, as a nation we are pretty sick.

Setting aside the idea of the “obesity epidemic” for a moment, let’s talk about what got us to this place.

The filmmakers (as well as the World Health Organization and other esteemed health science groups) believe the primary culprit is sugar. When your body digests sugar, it needs fiber to slow down the absorption of the food. When something is high in sugar, but lacking in fiber, the body digests it quickly, overloading the liver and creating both fat and insulin. And that fast sugar digestion is what creates “sugar highs” and the related “crashes” once your body comes down off of the sugar. (They often liken sugar consumption to heroin or cocaine consumption, because it lights up the same parts of your brain.) It’s because of the way your body processes sugars that not all calories are created equal. 160 calories of almonds has a different effect on the body than 160 calories of soda.

Beginning in the 1980s, America became obsessed with eliminating fat from our diets, and “low fat” became synonymous with health. But when an essential part of the processed foods trifecta (sugar, salt and fat) is removed, the others have to go up to make the food palatable. So those low fat products that we all were convinced by the food industry were healthy? FULL of added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends that adults only consume 6-9 grams of added sugar per day. Every teaspoon is 4 grams, so you really should be consuming only about 2 teaspoons per day of added sugar. The average American daily intake? 41 grams. And that’s AVERAGE.

Sugar comes in many forms on nutrition labels – and it’s not just high fructose corn syrup that is the problem. The backlash against HFCS has actually become a good thing for the food industry – they take it out of their food, add back in a ton of sugar, and then sell it as a health food because it doesn’t contain HFCS. Now I’m no fan of HFCS, but your body reacts the same way to that as a million other sugars, even natural sugars. But the difference between naturally occurring sugar in fruit and sugar in a soda is that the fruit has the digestive benefit of natural fiber. Most people don’t get a sugar rush from eating apples, and they get full on apples before they could eat enough to produce that effect. Getting a sugar rush from something like soda also means that your pancreas produces insulin to deal with it, which blocks the receptors that tell your brain you are full. Which is why you can often mindlessly eat junk food way past the point of excess without ever thinking you are full.

All of the metabolic diseases that Americans are sick with – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, strokes – have links to excess sugar consumption. And the average American has no idea how much they are consuming, because sugar doesn’t just appear in things like cookies and soda that we know are “sweet.” Virtually every processed food has added sugars – even ones that we would traditionally associate with health, like yogurt.

The film also touches a lot on the impact of this sugar intake on children, and how it’s particularly harmful to them because it sets them up for a lifetime of trouble. And we don’t do them any favors by marketing the food specifically to them (which the industry actually claims they don’t do). Yet somehow, 50% of schools in the U.S. serve fast food directly from restaurants. There are actually Pizza Huts in schools.

Speaking of industry, when the World Health Organization released a report that sugar was the primary culprit for the “obesity epidemic” and recommended that no more than 10% of daily calories come from sugar, the U.S. Health and Human Services lobbied the WHO to take that information out of the report, and threatened to withhold the U.S. contribution to the WHO. The WHO caved, took it out of the report, and the U.S. extorted the WHO out of making a recommendation in the interest of public health. Government for the people, indeed.

Fed Up has much more information on all of these areas I’ve touched on, and the cinematography is really engaging and well done. Many different types of experts are interviewed, and virtually every possible industry company was asked to participate and declined. I’d definitely recommend that people give it 90 minutes of their time – particularly if you struggle with sugar (or if you have kids that eat a lot of processed foods).

But.

I had one significant issue with this documentary, and that’s the constant focus on weight as an indicator of health. The documentary frames itself around the “obesity epidemic,” but I keep referring to it in quotes because I think it’s a misnomer. We don’t have an epidemic of obesity – we have an epidemic of metabolic disease. The film itself points out the staggering statistic that 40% of people who are in the normal BMI category actually have the exact same underlying metabolic conditions as people who are overweight or obese. It isn’t what you weigh. It’s what you EAT. You can be fat and healthy. (I know this because my scale and bloodwork say I am both overweight and super-humanely healthy.)

So then why are all the kids interviewed in the film severely overweight? Why not interview a “skinny fat” person – a kid who lives on nothing but sugar and is on their way to diabetes, but they’re skinny? Because it’s a lot easier to stigmatize and shame fat people than it is to convince the public that skinny people are just as unhealthy. One poor 12 year old girl who was interviewed just kept crying. They used her shame to make a point. Why not interview a 12 year old girl who has significant behavioral issues that result from being hyped on sugar constantly? Because we don’t really care how healthy our kids are as long as they are not fat. No individual parent would say that, but collectively, it’s true. So while the film seeks to tell people that fat people aren’t responsible for their own “condition” because they have no idea what their diet products are doing to their bodies, I feel like it’s a hollow message, since it’s directed at only a portion of the people who need to hear it – the ones we don’t like to see because their bodies bother our sensibilities.

As a nation, we want the government to protect our public health. Look at the outcry over Ebola and the CDC handling of it. But diabetes is going to kill many more people, including children, than Ebola ever will in the United States. But we don’t mind that our government panders to industry and its wealth instead of keeping us safe. If kids went to school and drank water that was contaminated, there would be a public outcry. But they go and eat Pizza Hut – being told by industry that it’s a vegetable – and we do nothing.

So am I fed up? Yes. Have been for a long time. And I’m inclined to write another letter to legislators the next time health standards are up for debate.

See the documentary no matter what you weigh and you will learn something. But especially consider it if you are a “normal” weight and think you’re immune to health problems from your diet. Because you aren’t. None of us are.

 

news from the world of big ag

Because of garden season and marathon training, there hasn’t been too much on the blog in the last few months about agriculture or what’s going on in the world of food. But much has happened recently that’s worth mentioning.

Perdue removes antibiotics from chicken hatcheries
Perhaps the most positive Big Ag/Big Food news in awhile, Perdue Foods announced this month that they have removed antibiotics from their chicken hatcheries.

They haven’t used antibiotics as a growth promoter since 2007, but this move now makes it so that 95% of their animals will not receive antibiotics in their lifetimes. The ones that do receive them to treat illness, etc. This move is important, because it addresses a large public health problem – the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. While Big Ag has a long way to go until they can manage humane animal husbandry, we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. I applaud any move toward more sustainable, healthy agricultural practices.

Tyson and Hillshire merge

Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the U.S., has won anti-trust clearance from the Justice Department to purchase Hillshire (makers of Jimmy Dean sausage, Hillshire Farms and Ball Park hot dogs) for $7.7 billion. Yes, Tyson had to divest of its small hog division, making it an independent company until a buyer comes along, in order for the merger to gain approval. It boggles my mind that the Justice Department just opens the gates wide for these kind of mergers, with no concern whatsoever for independent meat producers, which are now few and far between.

This merger now makes a mega company even bigger, which means even less chance that the company will consider more humane practices in raising their animals. (Though Tyson is notorious for subcontracting the actual raising of the animals and then purchasing them through the farmers. It’s just that they don’t do anything to make it viable for those farmers to raise the animals humanely if they want to make a living at all.)

Civil Eats says it best in this short piece. More reason for me to continue avoiding meat of unknown origin as much as possible and to be more careful about it when I’m out.

General Mills buys Annie’s

Ever eat Annie’s cheddar bunnies or mac and cheese? Well, General Mills just did, eating up Annie’s for $820 million. While not nearly as big as the Tyson/Hillshire merger, this deal represents Big Food’s insatiable appetite for organic and natural foods. Many independent companies over the years have been bought out by Big Food – General Mills already owns Kashi and Muir Glen. What it means for the quality of the products sold under that name or its sourcing of ingredients remains to be seen, but it’s still hard to not hum “Another One Bites the Dust” under my breath.

***

On a different note, episodes of a new series on PBS called Food Forward are available to stream. The pilot episode won a James Beard award, and I’m going to be watching them over the next few weeks and hopefully writing about them. Check it out!

farmed-and-dagerous

thoughts on chipotle’s ‘farmed & dangerous’

Chipotle has been on the forefront of national restaurant chains in the movement toward more sustainable and humane agriculture practices. Their first foray into viral marketing was “Back to the Start,” a video with Willie Nelson singing that emphasizes the importance of not continuing on the path of industrial animal production. 

Next was “The Scarecrow,” which I talked about here. This one pushes its indictment of Big Ag even further (and also suggests that burritos are a good choice). And now they’ve gone even further, with a four-part TV series available on Hulu Plus called Farmed & Dangerous. I waited until all four episodes were available to do my week free trial of Hulu Plus and watch.

The series is centered around a PR firm called the Industrial Food Image Bureau (IFIB, hee hee) which has as its primary client a Big Ag company called Animoil (a stand-in for Monsanto, obviously) which wants to market a new product called Petro Pellet, which is pure petroleum. In the first episode, they realize that Petro Pellet makes cows explode. A group called the Sustainable Family Farming Association gets a copy of the video of this happening and it goes viral.

The episodes that follow are about the relationship between the daughter of the head of IFIB, who also works there, Sophia, and the head of SFFA, Chip. Over time, Sophia comes to be sympathetic to Chip’s cause, but not before a lot of chaos ensues. It hits on all the big issues – sustainability, pesticide and herbicide resistance, GMOs, government subsidies, lobbying and government corruption, Ag-Gag laws, CAFOs (which they call MegaFarm, the Death Star for Cows).

First, the good. I will always applaud Chipotle for trying as a large national chain to bring these issues into the forefront of the public’s awareness and concern. They have at the very least opened up a lot of conversation. And Farmed & Dangerous in some spots is genuinely funny (particularly due to Buck, the head of IFIB). 

While critics have suggested that the series really takes aim at farmers with a broad brush and paints them in a bad light, I actually didn’t think the series was much about farmers at all. I think who it really skewered was PR firms and industry front-groups that blindly promote Big Ag to the point of absurdity. 

In one particularly interesting segment, Chip is on a morning show and points out how alternate realities exist for Big Ag depending on what they want at a given moment. Sometimes Big Ag wants GMOs to be seen as unique, which is why they voraciously protect their patents. But they argue that when it comes to public health, GMOs aren’t unique – they aren’t any different than the regular corn. Which is why they oppose labeling on consumer products. In the case of the viral video (a stand-in for the types of CAFO whistleblower videos that Ag-Gag laws aim to curtail), they claim that the videos are fabricated or exaggerated, but then claim that they own the video because it was shot on their property. If it’s false, why are you claiming it as your own? 

So I think that exposing the crap that comes out of the PR firms and departments protecting industrial agriculture is something that’s sorely needed. Front groups often have deceptively friendly names, which make consumers think they are advocating on behalf of us, when they are really advocating and lobbying for their big clients.

But. Here’s my issue with Farmed & Dangerous. With this series, I feel like Chipotle is really starting to mislead by obscuring facts and using hyperbole and satire in a subject that already has a lot of misinformation and passion floating around. When Jon Stewart uses satire to bring communicate news, he typically brings it with a lot of video clips and facts that support his points. He may go over the top, but the message is there as well as the proof. This series doesn’t do that. 

For example, Chipotle wants to position itself as a sustainability advocate, and this film makes it seem like all farms that it sources its meat and other ingredients from are like Chip’s farm – idyllic and full of pasture and sunlight. In reality, that’s not the case. Chipotle sources a lot of meat and often substitutes conventional products when they run out of the “better” choices. If you were really committed to better practices, you’d just not sell the option that you couldn’t properly source. But that would eat into their profits and would be unpredictable, and the customers want their chicken when they want it. I would be more compelled to believe they care about humane animal treatment if they stopped selling conventional products at all. There are animals who are not given hormones or antibiotics that are still raised in confinement operations and are not out frolicking in fields for most of their lives like Chip’s cow friend. 

I can see farmers’ points of criticism that the series seems to pit big farms against small farms, making it seem like all big farms are evil and all small farms are virtuous. In reality, it’s not really the size that determines the quality of practices. You can’t lump in broad categories like that when it’s really the underlying system of agriculture in this country that is flawed. It’s not as easy as good guys and bad guys when you dig below the surface. What we need is less control over the food system by a select few corporations, not to be lecturing farmers on what they need to do.

And Chipotle needs to stop equating sustainability with small, family farms and throwing that word around. Not all small farms are “sustainable” – a word which is really hard to define. Not giving your cows hormones doesn’t mean that your operation is sustainable. And not all family farms are small. Some mid-size and large farms have been in families for generations. Chipotle isn’t knocking on the doors of tiny family farms in my area asking them to provide their tomatoes and peppers. Sustainability is a buzzword that you use to mislead unless you have facts to back up your practices. Using compostable plates isn’t enough. And I don’t even know that they do that.

In all, I didn’t really think Farmed & Dangerous was effective satire. (They need to take a lesson from Jon Stewart on that one.) If they extended the series and added to it, I would be unlikely to watch. Chipotle needs to focus its efforts on making its business live up to its marketing, instead of marketing a business that doesn’t actually exist in reality.   


fat freak out: why fat isn’t always bad and fat free usually is

One of the interesting parts of the rationale for the proposed nutrition labels is that “calories from fat” will be eliminated as a category, since the type of fat is more important than the amount. This is actually a huge departure from the mentality that our country has had for years – that fat is bad. We’ve been fat-phobic for generations, with a myriad of “fat free” and “low-fat” labels slapped on every food product for miles.

So why have we not been any healthier as a population as a result? That’s obviously a larger question than I can answer here, but there are several reasons why “fat free” and “low-fat” options are not always the way to go.

First, taste. I mean, have you ever tried to eat fat free “cheese”? I can’t even write cheese without the quotes there because it’s obviously some laboratory science experiment when cheese doesn’t melt and tastes like silly putty. Blech.

More important, though, is nutrition and health. When items need a label to tell you their healthy qualities, they usually aren’t that healthy. This is why they don’t put a “fat free” label on apples. You typically see the label on dairy products and packaged foods of one kind or another. Products that need to be “health washed,” like fat free cookies or chips are ones you should stay away from in general, so there’s no point in eating the fat free variety. A fat free Cheez-It is still a Cheez-It. There is also research that shows that a hormone produced by fat cells can help send satiety signals to your brain. So when you binge on a whole bag of fat free cookies and justify it by saying “they were fat free!” that could be part of the problem.

Your body needs fat to function. It helps to absorb vitamins – fat soluble A,D,E and K, specifically. It contains things like omega-3s and omega-6s, essential fatty acids that help with brain function and mood (and which you can only get from food). Low-fat or fat free diets also lower your HDL (referred to as “good cholesterol”), which your body needs to be high to help fight heart disease. 

There’s a gentle balance to a healthy diet between carbs, fat and protein. Usually if you drastically reduce one, you jack up another. (Hence the crazy popular diets like Atkins or South Beach.) Most fat-free snacks are insanely high in carbs, which have their share of issues as well. Sometimes when you cut out fat in dairy and meat, you are also reducing your protein, especially if you don’t make up for it in other sources.


As a side note, I find it interesting that people freak out when I say I drink whole milk. But that’s so fattening!, they say. They then go on to tell me they drink 2% milk. Well, whole milk is 3% fat. Not 100% fat. And more studies are showing a correlation between whole dairy products and reduction of body fat. Not that you should go nuts with the whole fat dairy. Or some red meats, which can be high in saturated fat.

Choosing good fats, like poly and mono unsaturated fats and limiting saturated fats (and not eating any trans fats, which you usually find in processed foods) is the key. I use real butter, not margarine. (Really the only thing margarine is good for is a lubricant to help you remove a tight ring from your finger or grease up the bottom of a sled.) I just don’t use it all the time. You don’t get high cholesterol by eating a tablespoon of butter or having a serving of whole milk or three ounces of steak. The key, like many things in life, is balance and moderation.


current-label

nutrition labels get a makeover

Recently, the FDA announced proposed changes to the nutrition labels that appear on food packaging. It was announced as part of the Let’s Move campaign and billed as a public health initiative. These changes are the first since the labels were introduced in the 1990s.


I’ve always thought the most ineffective/deceptive part of the nutrition facts label was the number of servings, and by the same token, the calorie count. Did you know in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s there are 4 servings? I mean, who measures out a half cup of ice cream? Not many people. And in a 20-ounce bottle of soda, 2 servings? Often the bags of chips you get at sandwich shops to accompany your meals are two servings. 

So the new labels aim to address this issue, among others – the primary goal being to allow consumers to more quickly choose what’s healthy. (Ironically, the nutrition facts label is a separate thing from ingredient lists, which the FDA also regulates. For someone to truly quickly choose what’s healthy, they need to know a little something about the ingredients too, but that’s a separate issue.)

The proposed new labels will do a few things, but the first big change is the layout. Calories are much more prominent, as are the servings per container. Companies will be required to make serving sizes more realistic instead of artificially making them smaller so that calories per serving appear smaller. Ice cream servings will be one cup, and 20-ounce sodas will be one serving. If a package is truly two servings but is assumed that it could be eaten in one serving (possibly like snack bags), it will require a dual label. Basically the labels will reflect what someone does eat instead of what he/she should eat.

The proposed labels will also require a new line under the carb category that says “Added Sugars.” This is really important, since we know for sure that Americans, and children in particular, consume way too much added sugar. (Watch Jamie Oliver’s TEDTalk where he shows you with an actual mound of sugar what kids consume in a year. Crazy.)

Potassium and Vitamin D will also be added, as public health officials find both to be deficient in the typical American diet. Potassium contributes to lowered blood pressure and Vitamin D contributes to bone health. Vitamins A and C will be voluntary listings.

Calories from fat will be removed, since science has shown that the type of fat is more important than the amount

A 90-day comment period will be held, and if no changes are made, it will take a few years to implement the changes. Industry will push back and want to make revisions – that’s almost inevitable.

But regardless of what happens, the general consumer needs to be more educated about what these items even mean, and how to combine that knowledge with facts about the ingredient list to determine what is a “healthy” product. Honestly, the more you have to do math and detective work to figure out if something is healthy, the less likely that it is. The proposed new label will not fix all of America’s dietary problems, but it’s a great start!

2 years fast food free

There was a time in my life where the song “McDonald’s Girl” could have been written about me. I worked there in high school and college, for a combined total of about 5 years, both as a regular crew member and a swing manager. I could write for days about my experiences there. It’s where I started drinking Diet Coke and eating cheese and bread. (Yeah, it’s honestly true. No wonder I was the size of a peanut in high school.) French fries were my absolute favorite food and McDonald’s had the best ones.  

That’s why it’s kind of bizarre that as of the end of January, I’ve been fast food free for 2 years and 4 months. I had my last fast food French fry when we visited Chicago for our first Star Trek convention in September 2011. I’m defining fast food as any of the following, and restaurants like them: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Long Johns, Subway and Arby’s. You get the drift. (I am going to use McDonald’s as my example in this post, since I have a great deal of knowledge about it, having worked there.)

A lot of people understand that in giving up junk food, you’d cut down on the amount of times you hit the drive thru. So that’s not surprising. But people are often surprised to know that I won’t eat fast food at all – salads and fruit, and even bottled water included. 

I’m not going to lie. I still smell McDonald’s when I go to a turnpike rest stop or some other food court and I am tempted to lean my head back and dump a large fry down my throat. The smell of the restaurant brings back a lot of memories for me. But I am able to resist the temptation because my reasons for NOT eating fast food are varied and truly important to me.

1. Health
It’s no secret that the majority of the food served at McDonald’s isn’t good for you. And while it’s possible to lose weight or not gain weight while eating a lot of McDonald’s (I ate A LOT of McDonald’s when I worked there.), weight isn’t the only indicator of health. Nutritionally, fast food has a lot of empty calories, and its menus contain huge amounts of additives and chemicals. It’s ironic that I started to like cheese and bread while working there, since the cheese is barely cheese and the bread is barely bread. Practically everything is processed in one way or another and it’s about the farthest away from “clean food” that you can get.

2. Sourcing of food
It’s not just what’s in fast food that I have an issue with. It’s where it comes from. The meats are all sourced from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as well as the eggs. Dairy is likely from cows that have been given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) and antibiotics are probably everywhere. I don’t eat meat in general that has been raised like that, and I don’t want the dairy or the eggs either.

It’s worth noting that just recently McDonald’s announced that it would “commit to sourcing sustainable beef” in 2016. But considering its track record and the fact that no real definition exists of “sustainable beef,” it feels like more of a marketing/PR stunt than anything.

3. Environment
McDonald’s generates a lot of waste. It also contributes to monocultures that harm farmland because it insists on vegetables that will taste exactly the same across its global empire. (The russett burbank potato for its fries is a big issue.) Their produce is not farmed sustainably or organically, and so you’ve got the issue of pesticides as well. Mass meat production is not good for the environment either – CAFOs and meat processing plants are huge polluters.

4. Workers
There have been a lot of protests across the country about raising the wage of fast food workers and lobbying for better employee benefits and treatment. I was drastically underpaid for the work I was responsible for when I worked at McDonald’s and I often worked in very unsafe conditions. No one at our store, even the store manager, was eligible for benefits of any kind, not even paid vacation. I was given two dirty shirts and a name tag when I started, and we didn’t get even one free meal during our shifts, just a small discount. (We were a franchise, so the owner wasn’t required to provide any of that for us, like they might to a degree at a corporate store.) Without wading into the debate about what actually constitutes a living wage, fast food workers deserve more than they get, especially when the C-suite leaders at the top are swimming on gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, on the backs of the people making minimum wage.

It’s also worth noting that industrial farmworkers are also abused and suffer from pesticide exposure and wage fraud on a huge scale – and these are the companies where fast food companies source their food.     

5. Advertising to kids
It’s true that most 6 year olds don’t get to McDonald’s on their own. They are presumably taken by adults, who are the ones making the choices about what their kids eat. But the insidious marketing by McDonald’s to very young children – ones unable to discern what advertising actually is – is unacceptable. I personally would see the same kids every single day for multiple meals at McDonald’s, with parents who didn’t just use it as an occasional treat, but as routine meals for their kids. The kids were hyped up on it and wanted the toys that came with their meals. And it made me sad that these kids were being set up to crave this food, even though anyone knows that double cheeseburgers aren’t the greatest nourishment for growing bodies. And chicken nuggets that are barely chicken aren’t either.

6. Shady charity activities
McDonald’s is known for its signature charity, the Ronald McDonald House. Which, let’s state for the record, is an awesome charity, providing housing and support for families with sick children across the country. There’s no denying that. But there is a lot of evidence that McDonald’s uses the Ronald McDonald House as a marketing/PR tool, without giving a lot of financial support (sometimes only about 10% of a local chapter’s necessary support). For more about this, read Michele Simon’s report here, on Eat Drink Politics

Some of these issues are specific to McDonald’s, but most of them apply to all fast food. And that’s why I turned my back on fast food more than two years ago. Even though it’s cheap and convenient, I choose to go without. 



  

book review: Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner

I do a lot of reading about food production, so you’d think there wouldn’t be much left to shock me about processed food. You’d be wrong.

Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is full of information about the origins and development of some of the most recognizable processed foods in the average American diet. I didn’t realize that the average American’s consumption of processed foods totals 70% of total food intake.

That’s pretty amazing. And kind of really gross at the same time.

I listened to this on audiobook, so it was hard to keep notes. But if I did, I would have been scribbling down information constantly. This book is engaging and packed with information, without reading like a textbook. By presenting the information without editorializing, it also leaves the judgment passing to the reader. 

The author takes a practical approach, suggesting that if we can’t get rid of processed foods altogether, even reducing our intake is important. Small changes add up over time, and if the consumption of processed foods in this country was even reduced to 30% of our diet, it would make a very significant change in our overall health as a nation.

If you’re looking for information to make an informed decision about your diet, Pandora’s Lunchbox is a great, accessible place to start.

movie review: Vegucated

If the point of a documentary is to get people to critically think about an issue, Vegucated certainly met its goal for me, though it caused me to scribble furious notes and get riled up more than any other documentary I’ve watched so far.

Vegucated follows three people who agreed to go vegan for a period of 6 weeks, undergo a health screening before and after, and be educated about why someone should choose to be a vegan. Childish cinematography aside, I didn’t want to hate this film. I felt like it meant well, but veered off into a lot of what I felt was misleading information.

First, my disclaimers. I think anyone should be able to pursue the diet of their choice. I respect vegetarians and vegans for their diet choices and see the myriad of benefits diets such as these provide, not only for animals and the environment, but for individual health. However, if the choice to live by those diets involves twisted logic (which is then used to attack what I’d call an ethical omnivore diet), that’s where I have an issue.

When the three participants decided to go vegan for the purposes of the film and were beginning the transition, the filmmaker/narrator emphasized that they should look for vegan versions of their favorite products to ease the transition. This film was so full of processed foods, it made me ill. I’m not sure why someone would choose to give up dairy or eggs, only to constantly eat heavily processed foods with artificial additives and GMO soy. Processed foods have a huge impact on the environment and vegan versions of regular processed junk are not at all more healthy. To wave GMO soy milk and veggie/soy burgers packed with a list of 30 ingredients and claim that it’s the epitome of health is misleading. If I saw one more person waving a container of Earth Balance around acting like it was health food, I was going to scream.

Along those same lines, the filmmaker points out all the wonderful restaurants where you can eat vegan – like Subway! and Johnny Rockets! My question is this – even if you eat a vegan option at Subway, you are supporting a corporation that does not support environmentally sustainable practices, and sources the meat it serves to other people from the worst of the factory farms they claim to not support. So it rings false to me when you claim veganism is good for the environment, but give your money to the exact corporations that destroy it. 

There was a great deal of footage from factory farming operations in this film, which in some ways is great. I applaud any effort to get people to stop eating factory farmed meat. I’ve written about that before, as well as made clear my support for defeating Ag-Gag laws. If the only meat available were from factory farms, I’d never eat another bite for the rest of my life. Factory farms are atrocious and disgusting in the extreme and should not even be allowed to exist. However, the filmmaker/narrator doesn’t just stop there with farms – she visits a “small, family farm” and claims it’s just as bad as factory farms. No kidding. The “small, family farm” that she showed had a CONFINEMENT SYSTEM for its chickens. 

The farms where we source our meat absolutely would never use a confinement system. I’ve been there and seen it – I don’t have to go undercover with a camera because they openly welcome people to visit. While I think people can legitimately have ethical issues with eating animals, it is unfair to paint all meat eaters as people who allow animals to suffer. Not everyone who drinks milk sources the milk from a cow who had her calf ripped away from her at birth.    

Another argument that doesn’t hold up is that all animals raised for food contribute to environmental decline. It’s true that factory farmed meat is terrible for the environment, and the majority of grain production in the country (as well as most of the antibiotics, incidentally) goes to raising these animals. Last time I checked, our farms allowed their cattle to graze on pasture, not grain shipped in from across the country. They also use their manure to fertilize fields, not trap it in a waste lagoon and then spray it everywhere, contaminating water supplies. They use rotational grazing methods that are sustainable. They don’t destroy the earth – they nurture and protect it.  

And this doesn’t even touch the health portion of this film. Yes, in 6 weeks the three people each lost a few pounds and saw benefits in their blood pressure and cholesterol. And it’s a fact that a plant-based or plant-heavy diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol is great for your health. But these people were not active and also continued to eat junk food – but it was vegan junk food, so it was “healthy” (ooh, Teddy Grahams are vegan!). These people are obviously not representative of all vegans, but to promote it as a healthy lifestyle while still encouraging people that they can eat processed cookies is wrong. “Vegan” doesn’t equal health any more than “organic” equals health.

Ultimately, to paint all farms and meat eaters with such broad strokes is irresponsible. I know many vegans and/or vegetarians that eat a whole foods diet and don’t rely on processed garbage as an “easy way out.” But this film made me feel like I was on one side of a war, good (vegans) versus evil (everyone else). In actuality, I think an ethical omnivore has a lot more in common with a vegan than most people would assume – both are conscientious eaters, aware that what we eat involves much more than just mindless bites. So why can’t we just get along?  

Chipotle’s imagination – how pure is it?

You might have seen this haunting and beautiful new viral commercial from Chipotle (complete with a Fiona Apple cover of ‘Pure Imagination’). If not, check it out below.


The first time I saw it, I thought, YES! Beautiful animation, great music, down with Big Food! Hooray! 

And then I saw this response from Funny or Die.


So which one is right? Should we see Chipotle as a corporation trying to educate the public and make a real change in how industrial food is sourced and produced? Or are they trying to manipulate us into purchasing their “better” burritos?

I’d say both. 

When it comes to sourcing ingredients, Chipotle does set itself apart from virtually all other quick-service restaurant chains (with the possible exception of Moe’s, which sources their meat with more discretion than say, McDonald’s). They use the tag “food with integrity.” Most of their meats are produced without giving the animals added hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. They claim to source their produce locally and organically “when practical” and use dairy products from cows raised without added hormones. 

The fact that this information is even available on their website sets them apart from other restaurants, who make claims about the “quality” of their food and its “freshness” but not about where it came from. No matter what, Chipotle deserves credit for even acknowledging that it matters where your food comes from and in the case of meat and dairy, how the animal was raised. I don’t see Ronald McDonald giving kids lectures on the CAFO feedlots where Mayor McCheese sources his beef.

However.

Chipotle is still a huge corporation. In 2012, they made $2.7 BILLION in sales revenue. They have corporate interests, with shareholders to please. And they spend an enormous amount of money on marketing, including this commercial and its accompanying games. This commercial was designed with the intent to (as the Funny or Die parody points out) tug at your heart strings and make you feel something. Yes, it is telling you that industrial agriculture is fundamentally not “right.” But it’s also telling you to buy Chipotle burritos. Don’t make the burrito at home with whole, clean foods. Buy Chipotle and let them do the worrying about where the food comes from. You can TRUST them.

The last time I was in a Chipotle, there was a sign saying the beef was conventionally raised. While I respect that they bothered to even inform people of that, it’s true that they would rather purchase and serve conventional beef than say “we’re out of beef today, please choose pork, vegetables or chicken.” To me that says that profit (and the satisfaction of customers who want their beef, no matter what) comes first.

Let’s not forget that Chipotle also admits that GMOs are present in most of their menu items (save for salad fixings and the pork carnitas). While they have labeled the items and claim to be working toward eliminating them, they still are reliant on GMO soy and corn, including the soybean oil used to cook their rice (which is also why the rice is so high-cal). So while they are taking steps toward moving beyond some industrial agriculture practices, they are fully entrenched in others. 

Does this mean you should stop eating at Chipotle? Not necessarily. I don’t lump them in the same category as McDonald’s, since of quick-service restaurants they have shown the most transparency with their ingredients and a willingness to respond to increasing consumer demand for more sustainable, humanely raised food. But you should know what you’re eating – and when you see something like the Scarecrow, recognize it for what it is – beautiful, haunting marketing – and let it inspire you to make your own burrito.

natural nonsense: why ‘natural’ is meaningless marketing

When you see or hear the word “natural,” what comes to mind? Something connected to the earth, unadulterated and in its ‘default’ state of being? Images of nature? Thoughts about health and wellness? Do you get an innate sense that “natural” is a good thing, in opposition to “unnatural”?

You do? Congratulations, you’re a marketer’s dream come true.

The federal government, through the USDA, certifies the term “organic” and regulates its usage. To label something “organic,” complex standards have to be met. Primarily this includes the method of production (no GMOs, ionizing radiation or sewage sludge), the items used in production (only those on the nationally approved list, e.g. no chemical pesticides) and inspection by a USDA certifying agent. You can read more about it here.  

There currently exists no standardized, legally enforceable definition of “natural.” Several agencies have tried over the years to define it, but industry push-back has succeeded in squashing those attempts. Why? Because if consumers equate “natural” with “organic” anyway, why would Big Food go to the expense of certification and paperwork and better sourcing of ingredients? They can make a better profit margin by calling something “natural” and getting the consumer to buy it because they think it’s a superior product, when in fact, it’s not at all.

Recently lawsuits have been brought against the companies that produce Naked Juice, 7Up, Vitamin Water charging them with misleading or false advertising for claiming their products are “all-natural” when they included additives. Naked Juice just agreed to settle their large class action this month. On the surface, this is great for consumers because it’s bringing awareness to the use of the term “natural” on products. But it doesn’t stop other companies from using it or work toward a legally enforceable definition. A suit ending in settlement doesn’t create any legal precedent. This article from Salon further explains these lawsuits.

So we’ll keep seeing products like this on the market:




Yes, those are Natural Cheetos. Just think about that for a second. Natural. Cheetos.

You don’t have to turn away all products that claim to be “natural,” though. Instead of signaling you to walk away, read the label. Do the ingredients listed seem appropriate and recognizable to you? Do you see corn or soy as one of the ingredients? If so, it’s probably GMO, unless the label says it is certified non-GMO. Common sense is your ally – call it the natural Cheetos test.

Another movement is happening to bring meaning to the term “natural” outside of government regulating – called Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). Primarily for the produce and livestock industries, it’s a grassroots effort designed to help small farms and producers who sell their products locally get credit for the ways they produce without having to go to the expense of the national organic program. 

According to their website, to be Certified Naturally Grown, “farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG farms are inspected by other farmers and all records are available for public viewing.

I’ve started to see CNG products more and more in this area. In particular, Marty’s Market in the Strip District carries produce from local farms that are CNG. (And they have a rockin’ brunch too. Check them out.)

All consumer products, particularly those purchased from a grocery stores and not directly from a producer, have a level of marketing. Big Food spends millions upon millions of dollars every year trying to manipulate your behavior through advertising and marketing – not just on the TV but in the stores and on the packages. Some of the things they tell you are true, but others are only true by the best possible legal stretch of the imagination. (For a fascinating book about this, read Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss which I reviewed here.)

By reading the labels of the foods you buy and consume, you’re taking the control back from those companies and not buying blindly. Don’t be a sucker for “health washing” – the trend of making items appear to be more healthy than they are. Remember that the healthiest foods – the clean, whole foods – don’t need marketing to convince you they are healthy. 




Or a creepy cartoon cheetah.