Friday, April 22, 2011

Weekend Reading: The Food Edition

I came across two rather sobering articles about food this week. The first was a post from Marion Nestle at Food Politics about factory farming, and how it isn't likely to go away, so perhaps we should think about how it could be done better. It is a very reasonable post, I think. I wish someone would put her in charge of food policy in this country- I think we'd get some good policy. I don't always agree with her 100%, but I never think she is a raving lunatic- which is more than I can say for a lot of the people involved in the food debate (on all sides- something about food brings out the loonies).

The second was an article in the New York Times Magazine about sugar. I came across the article on slashdot, of all places, and I clicked over with a fair amount of  skepticism. I've had the Robert Lestig lecture that sparks the article suggested to me many times by people who think that high fructose corn syrup is much worse for us than sucrose (a.k.a table sugar or cane sugar). Each time, I try to explain that the person is misunderstanding the lecture- Dr. Lestig is concerned about BOTH sucrose and high fructose corn syrup. Basically, he's concerned about the amount of fructose (a component of both sucrose and HFCS) in our diets. It never works. I am either ignored or told that I don't understand biochemistry (which is sort of a funny charge for someone to level at me, since I have a PhD in biochemistry). I have concluded that some people see "fructose" in the name of HFCS and not in the name "sucrose" and just can't get past that. I was afraid that the same misunderstanding was going to propagated by the NY Times. But it wasn't.

The article is actually well-written and a fairly even-handed discussion of what the science suggests (but does not yet prove, as the article is careful to state)- namely, that the large amount of refined sugar in our diets may be worse for us than just empty calories. It also touches on the concern I have with the whole HFCS hoopla- that consumers will start demanding HFCS-free foods (they have), and food companies will respond, but by simply switching to sucrose rather than by reducing the amount of sugar in the foods (they have), which will leave us as fat and unhealthy as we were when we started (if anything, we're getting worse).

I have written before about my views on HFCS and refined sugar, so I won't belabor them here. I don't think of myself as an alarmist on this issue. I still eat cakes, cookies, and ice cream (three of my favorite foods!) but I do so in moderation, and I try to limit their intake by my kids, as well. This is dead simple for Petunia- she has yet to find a sweet she's much interested in eating. But Pumpkin loves candy, and she seems to always be getting some in birthday party treat bags or what not. So we ration it, and yes, some of it just disappears. So far, she hasn't caught on. I'm hoping that by the time she does, she'll be old enough to understand my reasons for limiting it. We'll see.

I also think there is a genetic component to this story, and I actually suspect that my girls are in pretty good shape in that regard, given what I know about the medical histories of my family and my husband's family. In another context (about which I cannot blog) I've been hearing (and thinking) a lot about the idea that some substances are only toxic in combination with a certain genetic background. This makes a lot of sense, given the fact that what makes substances toxic is often how they interact with specific proteins in our bodies, and there is genetic variation in most proteins (there are actually some proteins that are so essential that no variation is tolerated- basically, if you have a fetus with that variation, it does not survive... but I digress). I suspect sugar is a substance like this. Some people can eat a lot and have no problem. Other people will end up with metabolic syndrome, and eventually diabetes. The problem is that right now, we have no way to know which group any one person is in, so I think we should all try to limit our intake.

This sounds so reasonable, but it is hard- and not just because we're programmed to like sweets (throughout most of history calories were scarce, so our bodies are built to reward us when we eat something with lots of energy, like sugar). I can limit cookies and candy. But I also have to watch out for the sugar that is added to so many of our foods. There is more sugar in most breads than is necessary. My yogurt is waaaay sweeter than it needs to be, but I don't like plain yogurt. I am seriously considering making my own lightly sweetened, flavored yogurt, starting from the plain stuff. I have to check the label of everything I buy to make sure that there isn't more sugar than I think is necessary- which adds time I'd rather be spending in some other way to my shopping trips. Given this, I think there is a role for some policy changes in solving this problem. I'm not sure what those changes should be, though, and musing on that is more than I want to do right now.

So I'll move on to two non-food related posts that I think you should read. I've come across two more posts about being a working mother that made me nod in recognition and agreement. First, my blog friend Melba has a post up about why she works, prompted by a clueless/insensitive comment on some other post she read. She makes the excellent point, often lost in these sorts of posts, that we are all different, so different things will bring fulfillment and happiness to different women. I think that 90% of the "mommy wars" nonsense would go away if we could all really remember that. (I think the remaining 10% is generated by various interest groups to further their own interests, and will not go away until "family values" means something about supporting families, and not about opposing gay marriage. But I digress.)

Then, via Anne Peattie's #scimom post, I came across a post from Nicole and Maggie (whose blog I think will now be a regular stop for me) entitled "Why I'm not a guilt-stricken mother and why I have it all and why the patriarchy sucks". It is as awesome as the title, and makes the point that we are certainly not the first generation of mothers to work. As I like to point out, anyone who thinks that mothers whose work involves more than raising their children are a new thing brought about by feminism should go look up the instructions for how to make soap, being sure to find a recipe that starts at the very beginning, with "render animal fat...."

Now, I know that Dr. Isis didn't much like this post. From her response, I think she was a bit offended by the suggestion that she is somehow partially responsible for the guilt she feels on the housecleaning/home-cooking front, and I can understand that. I suspect that I have some readers who feel the same way.  I've written about my thoughts on guilt before, but I want to elaborate a little more here and explain my thoughts on this: I think the guilt issue is one of the few issues facing working mothers where we can essentially fix it ourselves. Think about it- it might be hard, particularly for women who come from cultural backgrounds that place a great deal of emphasis on a mother staying home with her kids, but we can decide to stop feeling guilty about things that don't really matter. We can't just decide to start getting equal pay for equal work, or stop hearing the nonsense about women being biologically inferior at math and science, but we can decide to stop feeling guilty. I'm not letting the rest of society of the hook, and I'm not pretending that the cultural messages we get don't make letting go of the guilt harder than it needs to be. But ultimately, this little bit of liberation is in our own hands.


  1. ITA agree on the genetic component. I have insulin resistance and cutting out/down refined carbs and sugars truly changed my life physically and emotionally. The same would not as be true for someone who doesn't have problems with sugars. I just wish I'd figured that out the first quarter+ century of my life.

    I also 100% agree with your assessment on guilt and so on. Having a growth mindset and changing what you can change is incredibly important. And it is easier for me because I come from a long generation of working women (which was the point of me adding that portion to the original post.)

    But I would add one more thing. That general acceptance of guilt and helplessness in books like the one Dr. Isis was reviewing, related articles in the NYTimes, and discussions in mother blogs, these perpetuate the general miasma of guilt in our culture. I roll my eyes at the message because eye-rolling is a shield against the suggestion that I too should be feeling guilty and I am only deluding myself that I'm happy and have everything I truly care about. After all, my house is messy and I don't care. Perhaps there's something wrong with me for not caring. I'm somehow not a real woman because I live in squalor and don't mind it. Maybe I need to find something to complain about so I won't seem so weird, different, superior etc. It's the gifted thing all over again.

    To sum: I think the ubiquitous complainings are themselves pernicious and add to a cultural message that makes it even more difficult for others to be liberated from guilt. And I reject that. Fight the patriarchy.

  2. Anonymous7:15 AM

    p.s. I recently read Mindsets by Carol Dweck (after the whole "Why I have it all" thing blew up), and I definitely think that anybody who does feel guilty and trapped about things would do very well to give it a read. I can see how it would be life-changing if you feel like your life can't change.

    In any case, it gave me a better understanding of Dr. Isis's reaction to our post.

  3. I've both written about this, as a reporter, and worked for people who study the impact of different diets on our metabolism. And when anyone who does not study the interaction of diet/metabolism for a living tries to tell me what to eat, I roll my eyes. (FYI, I don't mean Taubes here, I mean people like an oral surgeon I consulted for wisdom teeth removal. He was one of those study of the week types who tried to tell me to eat more fish and chia seeds to reduce inflammation in my gums.)

    Personally, I think our ability, as scientists, to understand the complex interactions between food and body biochemistry is way behind that of other areas of biochemistry, for examples, drug biochemistry. In some cases, the technology doesn't even exist yet to do the proper analyses. But I don't doubt it will come, and will reveal very interesting discoveries along the lines of what you discuss, Cloud. Especially when paired with genetics and proteomics.

    I would also like to offer my unsolicited advice on making your own yogurt. It is so not worth your time! I am a stay-at-home mom, and it is still not worth the time. Even with a yogurt maker, you still have to heat up a vat of milk on the stove and have a packet of starter on hand, or use your favorite yogurt to get it going.

    To reduce the amount of sugar in my yogurt, I buy fruit on the bottom ones and don't stir before eating. It's still about the same volume of yogurt, there is also some sweetener in the unstirred part, but much less. And per Taubes' last big food bugbear, it is full fat.

  4. @nicoleandmaggie- it is certainly true that the anxiety is contagious- i.e., if I am around someone who is complaining/feeling guilty, I will find the guilt starting to rise in me. I find it hard to figure out how to fight that effectively, though, because generally when I tell people in real life that I don't feel guilty about sending my children to day care, or not doing all the housework, etc, I get a puzzled or (worse) horrified look.

    @Becky- I wasn't planning to make yogurt from scratch! No, I'm talking about buying plain yogurt and mixing in my own sugar and vanilla extract. That seems like a small time investment that I can handle!

  5. Anonymous3:24 PM

    I know that look! Also shocked horror when I mention that I'm fine with my house being a mess. I fight it with laughter. :) Though to be honest, I try to avoid people IRL who give me those looks if I can. If I can't, I let DH do the talking/playdates.

  6. I love these reading lists.

    One thing I've dropped the guilt about is that idea if school/daycare does something with my son that I like to do, it's a loss. For example, crafts - I always thought I would be the crafty mom. But no...he does so much of that while I work that I dialed it way back. It cuts down on mess too.

  7. On the yoghurt front - I tend to mix in a half teaspoon or so of berry jam into a plain yoghurt if I ever feel like sweet yoghurt. It works quite well because the jam I use is really runny. Generally though, I eat it plain because that is how I like it!

  8. Good post! The internet is a wonderful thing, but the capacity to spread misinformation -- even well-intentioned misinformation -- is dreadful. The problems usually seem to stem from the observation that people want a quick and easy answer ("natural" sugar = good, "processed" HFCS = bad) -- and of course it's a lot more complicated than that.

  9. "I think the guilt issue is one of the few issues facing working mothers where we can essentially fix it ourselves."

    Yes. It's called therapy and it worked for me. ;) I also stopped worrying about other people's choices and priorities (that is, besides those of my immediate family).

    I also think we (society) have a bizarre need to classify and categorize, and to overemphasize these strange types of identity politics that are so tied up to employment status and the material things we have. We need not buy in to all of that.

  10. I read that NYT article about sugar, and watched the Lustig lecture last week...and I'm definitely wanting to cut down on sugar as a result of it. I quit putting sugar into tea & coffee ages ago, and managed to convince myself that pop is evil, but I love baked goods and will never ever stop eating cookies. I really need to get with the "one treat a day" program that my husband & daughter are on...but I'm in the habit of eating sweets in the evening after she's gone to bed, as sort of a reward for all the horrid behaviour I've had to deal with in the evenings. I'm trying to drink herbal tea instead...but honestly it just isn't as good as a cupcake! And as my husband pointed out, our society likes to give gifts of sugar. It is tough. Especially when I'm thinking about how best to help my daughter develop a healthy attitude towards sweets, because she loves them. And denying things to small children usually makes them want to eat more of them as adults. I'm really working hard to explain why we eat what we do, but at 4 she's still not quite getting it.

    About the yogurt. Last week I bought 2 containers, one plain and one flavoured, and just mixed them together. That wound up being just about the right amount of sugar for me. Mixing in some honey is also amazing (and considered to be a dessert in some cultures).

    On the guilt front. I wonder if it is always about guilt, or if sometimes it is frustration about lack of time being channeled into guilt. I mean, if you happen to like cooking, love eating homemade food, but just don't have enough time in the day to do it, so instead you're eating a bunch of expensive prepared food, you're going to feel a bit guilty and a lot grumpy. Similarly if you like living in a clean house, but just can't pull it off (especially with all that extra assistance messing things up) then guilt is maybe an easier emotion to express than frustration over lack of time. Especially because you're not making any friends if you come out with "oh, I just love to cook and clean, but I simply cannot find the time for it!". Actually, in my case, I absolutely love to cook and bake - but only when I have enough time. When I'm exhausted it feels like a chore. When I've got the spare time it feels like fun.

  11. I'm a huge label reader (and take way to long at the store because of this). I think a lot of food has way too much salt and/or sugar. I really like flavored greek yogurt but it's pretty expensive. I have found that I like to mix the plain greek yogurt (Fage is super cheap at Costco) and mix it with my own berries and a little honey. I've heard of people using Agave Nectar instead of honey too.

  12. Thanks for all the yogurt tips, everyone! If I ever get off my butt and figure out the best solution for me on that front, I'll let you know.

    And @TodayWendy- you are completely right about how context changes your feelings about things. I like to cook and love to bake. But not with an 18 month old screaming at my feet and a 25 minute deadline. (Thankfully, the deadline is easing up a bit now that Petunia is getting older and a slightly late dinner no longer completely screws with our night.)

    The idea of guilt substituting for frustration is interesting. I'll have to think about that....

  13. It's amazing to me how much sugar we consume without realizing it. As I've started paying more attention to labels, I've found it astounding. I haven't brought myself to read that NYT Magazine article yet (somehow, as I'm surrounded by Easter candy, it makes me feel even more guilty), but have been slowly trying to remove or limit processed sugar of all kinds from our diets when & where I can. But it's just *everywhere*.

  14. Great articles, thanks! We survived the Easter candy onslaught with a tummy virus. Not really a fun way to avoid eating too much sugar, though.

    I don't eat meat anymore but I can't give up dairy yet. I buy organic to soothe my conscious a bit. Segue to the guilt thing, I don't feel guilty about my house cleaning or lack of cooking at all - amazing considering I am plagued by guilt in almost every other area. I do need to find a way to let it go and appreciate the choices I've made and the life I have. It is the only one I've got.


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