Healthy Foods: Media vs. Reality #1

Ok, so perhaps I was a bit blogged-out. But, I’m back and ready to document last night’s meeting. Twelve women came to my home bearing fruit, veggies, hummus, a baby and three toddlers. We were definitely a high-spirited, chatty bunch because most of us were already friends.

Being the nerd that I am, I prepared an outline for the meeting, and also typed up additional notes and references. 🙂


The Problem: There is a LOT of money poured into marketing food. The Dairy Council, Cattleman’s Beef Association, Kraft Foods, etc. put hundreds of millions of dollars a year into convincing us that eating their products will make us feel and look better. Three main foci are: weight loss, avoiding chronic disease, and appealing to our emotions. A big trend in the last two decades especially is to identify specific nutrients as being “healthy”. These nutrients are added to energy bars, breakfast cereals, mac & cheese, and bottled as “supplements”.

The Solution: Realize that diseases are complex and one food will not stop cancer in its tracks. Realize that “studies show” lots of things that often conflict and change with time and methodology. Trust your gut. Things that grow from the ground are healthy. Check out ingredients labels and make sure you know what’s in the food you’re eating. Buy more foods that don’t NEED ingredients labels, like yams and kale.

Because I know at least one of my meager few blog readers is interested in following along, and because I had 90% of this typed up already on my computer… read on for the full outline and explanation of the games, references, and visual aides I used for the meeting.


  1. Brief overview of the group
  2. a. Introductions

  3. Group discussion on health in the media
  4. a. What types of media discuss health? (news, commercials)
    i. What are the messages sent?
    b. How else are we influenced in decisions as to what is “healthy” and what is not?

  5. Identifying our “health” knowledge
  6. a. Which of the following has the most calcium per calorie
    i. Green onions
    ii. Whole milk
    iii. Celery
    iv. Broccoli
    b. Which of the following has the most Vitamin C per calorie
    i. Broccoli
    ii. Green bell peppers
    iii. Orange juice
    iv. Cauliflower
    v. Strawberries

  7. Grocery store ads
  8. Three things to know about health in the media
  9. Name that food
  10. a. 4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene,
    caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol,
    eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid,
    isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl
    acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic
    acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic
    acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.
    b. Ingredients: Enriched Flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine
    mononitrate {vitamin B1}, riboflavin {vitamin B2}, folic acid), Soybean Oil,
    Defatted Wheat Germ, Sugar, Cornstarch, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Salt,
    Corn Syrup, Monoglycerides, Barley Malt Syrup, Leavening (calcium
    phosphate, baking soda), Vegetable Color (annatto extract, turmeric

  11. Future meetings!


I had printed off the outlines and handed to the ladies as we wound down the munching and chatting.

We pretty much followed the outline and on number three we talked about how the “likely suspects”: whole milk and orange juice, were actually the losers in each category. We discussed the “per calorie” way of looking at things is kind of like learning what packs a nutritional punch. I contrasted a cup of sugar versus a cup of spinach to show the wonderful way that veggies can give you more bang for your nutritional buck. 🙂 For the curious, celery was the answer to “a”, and green bell peppers have 5 times as much vitamin C per calorie than o.j in part “b”. (Make the peppers yellow or red and that number skyrockets.) Of course, you shouldn’t try to eat enough celery to get the calcium present in one glass of milk. That is a whole lot of celery. Instead, it’s good to be aware that in natural, whole foods… a variety of nutrients is the norm. Eat a variety of whole, fresh foods and you won’t have to add a glass of milk just to “get your calcium”. You’ll already have it!

I showed the front page of our local grocery store’s ads. I pointed out how the vast majority of the items were heavily processed and very far from the produce aisle. The heavy hitters with the most marketing dollars were featured very prominently. I then flipped to the “healthy” section of the ads, where the strange products are usually relegated. Everything from brown gravy mix (what?!), pink and blue “vitamin glaceau water” (double what?!), triple chocolate chaos Balance bars (I kid you not), Kettle potato chips (how are they different from regular potato chips?), sweetened chocolate soy milk, “Geni-soy” cheesy soy crisps (could your brand name sound any more intimidating?), to cheeseburger-flavored meatless burgers (barf). No wonder people are so confused!

Number 5 on the agenda was essentially Anne rambling. Here’s a taste:

“In 2003, the dairy board had a budget of 165 million, the national watermelon council had 1.6 million dollars. Where does the money go? For the dairy board, it goes to promoting milk to school-age kids, promoting research favorable to the industry, and partnerships with other heavy-hitters like McDonalds and Kraft Foods.”

“Marketing often plays on our emotions. As mothers and wives and women in general, we are shown pictures of well-behaved kids gathered around the dinner table as we pull a stouffers lasagne out of the oven. Or, a hungry impish grin on a four year old after softball practice prompts us to pull a gogurt out of our purse and save the day. Maybe family “game night” is the perfect time to order a pizza, or as a busy mom, we need the convenience of hamburger helper. Choosy moms choose Jif, beef is what’s for dinner, and lunchables and handisnacks make for adorable children who are the envy of their friends at the lunch table. However, despite all the convenient food on the market now, divorce rates are skyrocketing, people are having fewer kids, and kids and adults are becoming obese at evermore alarming rates. Clearly, there is a problem.”


“The headlines we see in the news often say ‘eat more oat branl, it could save your heart’ or ‘studies say eating fish seven times a day could decrease your risk of heart attack’ or ‘soybeans are declared super food and proved to fight cancer before it starts’.

Pretty soon, we see heart stamps on boxes of frosted cinnamon raisin swirl instant oatmeal, companies putting fish oil extract in ‘nutrition bars’ and cereals with added soy protein isolate touting health claims. Unfortunately, conflicting studies are being published every time you turn around. Cancer, alzheimers, heart disease, etc. are very complex diseases. To tell people that a particular food will prevent them is misleading.

We find ourselves eating food to stave off some disease or another, taking supplements, or eating breakfast cereal FULL of supplements, and we still get sick. In fact, despite the increase of oat bran and omega 3s and fiber and all the other things added to foods in the last 20 years, the incidence of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes among Americans is still going nowhere but up. And in the process, we’ve made obesity an epidemic. ”


“Part of my job is marketing. It’s making people take notice of an idea or concept and persuading them to take action. I can tell you from experience that ‘Eat fruit and veggies’ is not marketable. It’s too predictable and too easy. We let it go in one ear and out the other.

So instead we see lists like this: (show print-out from a random website)… where carrots are a superfood because ‘men who already have symptoms disease can eat two medium carrots every other day can cut their risk of stroke in half’. And we should eat more chili peppers because they contain a chemical called capsaicin, which ‘contains blood thinning properties to prevent strokes, lowers cholesterol, and protects DNA against carcinogens.’ (‘Mushrooms contain beta-glucan, which stimulates the immune system. Strawberries contain ellagic acide which exhibits anti-cancer properties. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an anti-oxidant more potent than vitamin C that has shown potential to slow progression of degenerative diseases.’)

It’s enough to make your head spin! Scientists isolate nutrients and they take their turn in the limelight, dutifully being added to cereals and pills and margarine spreads, etc. The result is, we look for the ‘good source of whole grain’ and ‘100% Vitamin C’ on our box of hamburger helper and count ourselves fortunate that we are making a healthy choice. ”

Next, I had the ladies guess which food 6a was. I mentioned that it was only a partial list of the make-up of that food. People were pretty stumped, but guessed some sort of freaky sports drink… and everyone was surprised when I pulled out a bottle of thyme (dried herb) from my brown paper bag. I made the point that foods are incredibly complex when they are picked straight from where they grow in the ground. God made them that way, and for us to muck around with one particular chemical component or another and bottle it is taking things out of context. The list, by the way, is a list of just the antioxidants present in thyme.

“Clearly there is a lot going on here that we don’t hear from the media. When things grow out of the earth, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds… they are incredibly complex. They are colorful, crisp, vibrant, wholesome, delicious, aromatic, packed full of all kinds of things good for our bodies and good for our senses. However, the eggplant producers don’t have fancy marketing campaigns, and no t.v. commercials tell us how rewarding it is to grow our own tomatoes. We aren’t told how fun it is to squeeze orange juice with kids or let them see where carrots really come from. ”

“And so, we continue to stress about food. About whether it’s making us fat or thin, sick or well. Rather than focus on the enjoyment of sitting down to a crisp green salad or biting into a juicy apple that you picked yourself, advertisements focus on individually packaged string cheeses, fruit by the foot, soda, hot dogs. All these things have had a lot of their natural goodness removed (if they had any to begin with), and then modified further to add calcium, vitamin C, or what have you. ”

“An average American eats more than 100 lbs of white sugar a year. Wow. It’s in the obvious things like candy and soda and pastries, but it’s also added to bread, crackers, breakfast cereal, fruits, vegetables, beans, sauces… you name it and it has sugar added to it.”

I had the ladies guess the identity of food 6b. Some guessed candy bars, others those buttery vegetable-flavored crackers. I revealed that the answer was “Wheat Thins”. I also mentioned that the tasty crackers everyone had been munching on during the meeting had exactly three ingredients: whole wheat, safflower oil, and salt. These crackers are available at a local grocery store for a comparable price. I definitely got a lot of “wows” from this example!

“I have discovered since I stopped buying those things that my taste buds have woken up. I eat add colorful peppers to dishes not because they contain a chemical that thins my blood thus reducing my risk of stroke, but because they are fresh and delicious and aromatic.

In conclusion, I’ve found it really eye-opening to check out the ingredients list when I go to the store. I try to ignore the nutritional claims on the boxes, and focus on what’s inside. Better yet, buy more things that don’t NEED ingredient lists. Hit up the produce aisle more often. Buy processed in-box dinners and snacks less often. ”

I then read excerpts from a great New York Times article by the author of the #1 best seller “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (excerpt and link to the full article at the end of this post).

We closed with a discussion led by the other women there. Topics that came up included, “Why is America like this”, and what to do when you take “cost” and “convenience” into consideration. We talked about our experiences in other countries and our experiences trying to prepare from scratch, fresh meals for our families. Interesting points included how to get your kids to participate in cooking and how to take advantage of modern day conveniences like food processors and slow-cookers.

We tossed around ideas for future meetings and decided to discuss “Creating and Loving a Vegetable Garden” for next time, a healthy meal/snack/method idea exchange for the following month, and a field trip to Trader Joe’s for the month after that!


Here’s the points I quoted from the NYT article, Unhappy Meals by Michael Pollan:

“1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

2. Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They’re apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best. Don’t forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim that it was more healthful than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks. When Kellogg’s can boast about its Healthy Heart Strawberry Vanilla cereal bars, health claims have become hopelessly compromised. (The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.) Don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.

3. Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.None of these characteristics are necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed.

4. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer’s market; you also won’t find food harvested long ago and far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of nutritional quality. Precisely the kind of food your great-great-grandmother would have recognized as food.

5. Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care.

To make the “eat less” message a bit more palatable, consider that quality may have a bearing on quantity: I don’t know about you, but the better the quality of the food I eat, the less of it I need to feel satisfied. All tomatoes are not created equal.

6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

7. Eat more like the French: small portions, no seconds or snacking, communal meals — and the serious pleasure taken in eating. (Worrying about diet can’t possibly be good for you.)

8. Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for our sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be cheap and easy; that food is fuel and not communion.”

And, a link to the full article, though you need to sign up for a (free!) NYT account to read it: Unhappy Meals.


About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
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6 Responses to Healthy Foods: Media vs. Reality #1

  1. Liz says:

    Nice post, Bobe! Very thorough and educational. I’m so glad you’re smart nutritional choices are rubbing off on others… Now, you should consider writing a book. 😀


  2. lisa h. says:

    i love it! i’m glad you recapped it all on your blog – uhh, i hope you enjoyed the ‘healthy’ truffle cake…


  3. beanland says:

    @Liz: Thanks! I’m too busy reading books on nutrition to write one… right now I’m reading Fast Food Nation, and Omnivore’s Dilemma is next!

    @Lisa: We enjoyed the truffle cake immensely. It was good for us to indulge a little and to really enjoy the dark chocolate/toffee flavors. Mmm… thanks!


  4. Great post!
    I love the idea of nutrition per calorie.

    Here is a link ot a good article on the fattening of america called: The Fattening Of America: How The Richest Country In The World Has Become Malnourished And Overweight.

    It talks about the changes in diet, food ditribution and how that impacts our idea of what is healthy.
    great post
    I wish I had a truffle cake right now!


  5. Patricia Hull says:

    What is partially defatted wheat germ? I have been looking all over on the web to find out. Part of an item on a label of Cream of Wheat. I have become label conscious ever since I’ve been in the hospital. Really changing the way I eat and looking at all labels. Have thrown out most of what I had in my house already!


  6. Kathryn says:

    This is the best thing I’ve read in a looong time! Thank you, also when reading labels: when you look at the sugar list divide it by 4 and that will tell you the tsp amount. Example a cereal says 12 grams of sugar per serving. divide by 4 and you know you are getting 3 tsps of sugar. The average American consumes 25-30 tsps of added sugar per day. The goal is from 6-10 grams of added sugar. (notice the word added). So no need to worry about eating an apple but looking at packaged products like cereal it’s good to note especially since that sugar is all added.


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