Food Revolution Fridays: Apocalypse Now

Oh dear.  I thought after yesterday’s post about the oven with the chicken nugget setting, I’d be done with talking about food and apocalypse for the time being.  But as usual, something caught my attention and I just can’t bear to pass up the opportunity to mention it here. 

I was intrigued by a Facebook post today from “Real Simple” Magazine, entitled “Should Your Family Eat This or That?”  The post mentioned something about finding out what the healthiest choices were for kids, when pitting one popular food item against another.  Obviously I had to click over.  And when I did, I found the following “nutritional smackdown” match-ups:

PB&J vs. Ham and Swiss
Puffed Rice cereal vs. Raisin Bran
Apple Juice vs. OJ
Burger vs. Hot dog
Pretzels vs. Cheerios
Yogurt vs. Applesauce
Carrots vs. Peas
Pizza vs. Grilled Cheese
Chocolate ice cream vs. Vanilla ice cream (What the hell kind of “nutritional smackdown” choice is that?)
Spaghetti vs. Mac and cheese
Chicken nuggets vs. Fish sticks
Spaghettios vs. Canned Chicken Noodle Soup
Fruit leather vs. granola bar

Sigh.  I was so with them, until I wasn’t.  And then I was just disturbed.

The choices themselves are sort of shrug-worthy, for the most part.  I mean, there are certainly things on this list that I do not choose to feed my kids; but there are many others I do give them, and regularly — like yogurt, carrots, Cheerios, and peanut butter.  And L.’s favorite sandwich happens to be a ham and cheese, though Swiss isn’t usually his cup of tea.  Clearly things like the Spaghettios and chicken nuggets aren’t even part of our food vocabulary.  But what really bothered me, I think, was the explanations that were given for the choices the magazine recommended.

The winners were the PB&J, raisin bran, OJ, hamburger (big shock there), Cheerios, yogurt, carrots, grilled cheese, vanilla ice cream, spaghetti, fish sticks, Spaghettios, and fruit leather.  Why?  Some of their verdicts are below, along with my take.  I should say that they consulted with a dietician; I’m no such thing, so certainly you can feel free to take me to task for my opinions.  Just keep in mind that they are only that: opinions.

Their take: the ham and cheese has more sodium than peanut butter.  And although peanut butter was the winner because of its good fats, there’s no mention of choosing NATURAL peanut butter to avoid hydrogenated oils or corn syrup.  But thank goodness they remembered to recommend low-sugar jelly — not because it’s lower in sugar, exactly, but because you’re probably worried about the calories in your kid’s PB&J.
My take: Yes, we should be careful about sodium in our kids’ food.  And I like a good PB&J and serve them up regularly — they’re P.’s favorite, especially if you replace the jelly with sliced bananas.  But we buy natural peanut butter and read labels carefully.  We also buy lower-sodium, nitrate-free ham, which eliminates the guilt factor.  So I say, if you’re making informed decisions, this is a false choice as far as I’m concerned.
Their take: Grilled cheese is better than pizza because you can make grilled cheese at home, and because it’s portion-controlled (one sandwich vs. a WHOLE LARGE PIZZA).
My take: Their recommendations to use an olive-oil based spread rather than a little bit of actual butter, and to use only low-fat cheese, strike me as off-base for kids.  I tend to believe that the more natural something is, the better.  I checked on the spread they recommend, and here are the ingredients: Vegetable oil blend, (liquid canola oil, palm fruit oil, extra light olive oil), water, whey (milk), salt, vegetable mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, potassium sorbate (used to protect quality), citric acid, natural and artificial flavor, vitamin A (palmitate), beta carotene (for color). 
Hm.  Good eating?  I don’t know.  I also wonder why portion control is deemed an issue — can’t we, as parents, serve up one or two modest slices of pizza and then tell our kids they’re done?  Why is it a single sandwich or a WHOLE PIE?  And lastly, the assumption that pizza only comes from a take-out joint is just silly to me.  If you make it yourself, then actually, the tomato sauce on a cheese pizza can really be a boost to the nutritional value of the slice, taking it above grilled cheese in my book.  And if you add veggies, so much the better.
Their take: Feed kids vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate, because chocolate ice cream will have small amounts of caffeine.
My take: I’ll tell you when I stop laughing.  Really.  If you’re treating your kids to ice cream, treat them to a small serving of whatever the heck flavor they want, and live a little.  Oh yeah…and if you’re giving it to them right before bed, you’ve got bigger problems than the caffeine.
Their take: Fish sticks have Omega 3’s (potentially) and are therefore superior to chicken nuggets.  Oh yeah…and little kids probably won’t eat salmon, so you’ll have to settle for fish sticks.
My take: Snort.  Give them fish.  Real fish.  You can even get frozen packaged filets without nasty stuff added to them, if you like the convenience; but fish is usually quick and easy to cook.  Chicken nuggets vs. Fish sticks?  Are we really having this conversation?
Their take: Spaghettios are better than canned chicken noodle soup, but only because they have less sodium and are FORTIFIED WITH 9 VITAMINS AND MINERALS.  (But read the fine print: they do admit that Spaghettios have a lot of added sugar, and they recommend that actually, you should really just make chicken soup from scratch.)
My take: If we’re giving real nutrition advice, shouldn’t we be past the false nutritional fortification claims already?  Even a high-quality jarred sauce over a fun-shaped pasta is way, way better than Spaghettios.  I’m starting to foam at the mouth a little bit.
Their take: Fruit leather is an “obvious choice” because it’s lower in fat and calories than granola bars.  EVEN IF IT’S FULL OF CORN SYRUP.
My take: That’s it.  I’ve had it.  I’ve got nothing against all-natural fruit leather (the kind without corn syrup), but to say it’s better than a granola bar (again, I’m thinking of a high-quality, all-natural one — or even better, homemade) because it’s lower in calories and fat?  Why not just have the kids eat gummy bears all day?  They’re fat-free!
Granola bars, at least the good ones, can often have lots of fiber, protein from nuts and seeds, good vitamins and minerals, and even contain dried fruits.  There’s nothing wrong with a properly made granola bar.  And if you’ve got a real one, without corn syrup and artificial junk — well, I’ll take that over the “still-superior” corn-syrup variety of fruit leather any day. 

What’s wrong with us when even a dietitian in a widely read magazine starts equating “low-fat” to “healthier” and recommends one highly processed food over another?  When we make silly distinctions like the vanilla vs. chocolate ice cream debate, yet green-light Spaghettios as a reasonable choice because of their supposed added vitamins, we’re doing nothing more than adding to the general confusion of the American public when it comes to food. 

If you’re going to feed your kid a fish stick OCCASIONALLY, in a pinch, then fine — but nobody should be sugar-coating that choice for you and telling you it’s a good one because of some small measure of Omega-3 that might be in the fish.  The real verdict is that any convenience food is probably not a great choice.  As long as you recognize that, then you don’t have to beat yourself up for occasionally falling back on one of these items; you can just use that knowledge to severely limit the number of times you DO feed your kids something processed.  But if we continue to have “experts” weighing in on the subject with false petting and praise of Spaghettios, processed butter substitutes, and “low-fat” corn syrup candy masquerading as fruit, too many people will continue to think that they’re making good (or at least, “good enough”) choices for their families, whether there’s any real food in sight or not.

We’re in the middle of a nutritional apocalypse, and we’re talking about all the wrong things — fat content instead of ingredient lists, “vitamins” instead of chemicals.  The first question we should be asking ourselves is “is it real food?”  And if the answer is no, our “experts” should be hurrying us along and sending us straight to the perimeter of the grocery store, where they tell us we should shop…unless, apparently, we’re going to feed our kids.  Then we’re relegated to so-so choices and quasi-food.  Because after all, our kids deserve the very best science can formulate for them.

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6 Responses to Food Revolution Fridays: Apocalypse Now

  1. Kim B. says:

    Bri, I mostly agree with you here. But I think the whole idea of a “nutritional smackdown” kind of misses the point: the scientific evidence is pretty clear now that we should eat a varied diet, with most things “in moderation” (and, granted, a few things don’t belong in any healthy diet – like trans fats). But, seriously, how do you compare the nutritional value of carrots to peas? They are _both_ healthy: the fact that one is orange and the other is green indicates that they comprise different sets of vitamins & nutrients. Similar argument for yogurt vs. applesauce (of course, apples are even better), for pizza vs. grilled cheese, and even PB&J vs. ham & cheese. You can’t rank vitamins – is vitamin B better than vitamin C? See, that’s just nonsense. You can’t even say that whole grains are better than fat (i.e., “good” fat). Healthy bodies need both (and more!).

    In full disclosure, I did not read the Real Simple article, but from what you’ve said, it sounds like they’ve done a lot of “research” on the wrong debate. They should have spent their effort on an article talking about how you can fit a variety of different types of whole grains, fruits & vegetables, & healthy fats into breakfast, lunch, and dinner, without spending a lot of time!

    Btw, I totally agree with you that healthier does not necessarily equal low-fat!

    • That’s an EXCELLENT point, Kim. You’re right — so much of the entire idea of an article like this is somewhat misleading, since ranking carrots over peas IS sort of like the reverse side of ranking vanilla ice cream over chocolate. As absurd as it is to say that one highly processed food is marginally better than another, it’s equally ridiculous to say that one healthy, unprocessed food is better than another. Different, yes, but better? Hm.
      And yes, I agree. All things in moderation (which was my biggest laugh with the ice cream — just have some ice cream, for heaven’s sake, and have it occasionally in reasonable portions without worry!).

  2. Amy says:

    I agree that making homemade pizza is pretty healthful and nutritious (with veggies as toppings). I also agree that it is not hard at all, and need not be time consuming. I usually will make a batch of pizza dough and divide into 3 balls. I can make one right then, and freeze the other two. When I have a day where I need something quick, I can just take one out of the freezer and thaw in the refrigerator while I am at work. From there, it takes no longer than cooking a frozen pizza. It really takes very little planning.

    Oh and I also make homemade pizza sauce; also stored in serving sizes in the freezer till needed. This you don’t even have to pull out in the morning – just throw it in a saucepan on med-low till melted.

    • Exactly, Amy! Thanks for chiming in. It’s so easy to throw together pizza for the family (or any number of other things — veggie quesadillas, a quick pasta supper, omelets). And if you’ve got homemade marinara on hand, as I advocate you always SHOULD, it can be used on the pizza, on pasta, as a dipper for veggies…and all for about 1/4 the price of a take-out pie.

  3. I love reading your rants. You just make so much sense.
    I make homemade pizza dough and the kids have a blast making their own pizzas using homemade sauce and fresh mozzarella. Lately they put the little pizzas into a muffin tin and fold them over and call them pizza balls. How’s that for portion control?

    • Hi Janna! I’m so glad somebody likes my rants (besides me). 🙂 Sometimes I wonder if it’s too much…but I just can’t seem to help myself!
      Our kids LOVE to make homemade pizza, and we always make the dough. I can remember the first time I made pizza dough — I thought “Is it really this easy? Why haven’t i been doing this all along?” It’s so much fun to make pizzas from scratch, and they’re so much better for you.
      I love the idea of the pizza balls! We do lots of silly pizza-inspired things like that, too — pockets, puffs, even pizza breadsticks. And yes…it seems like portion control is the LAST thing we should really be worrying about, doesn’t it? Make real food. Good food. From scratch. Give your kids the opportunity to try it. Encourage good choices. Nobody’s giving them a whole pizza, for crying out loud!

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