I no longer much care about food labels

News today about a proposal to change food labeling rules reminds me of a long-ago peeve of mine.

More than 20 years ago, I got word from my doctor that my cholesterol was elevated. I responded by changing my diet to reduce my fat consumption. That led to reading a lot of food labels, which led to observing that a lot of manufacturers were gaming the system by manipulating portion sizes.

The specific example that served as patient-zero for my peeve was a brand of sliced cold cuts that advertised itself as “fat-free.” Their justification for that was slicing their smoked chicken and turkey into slices so small they had less than half a gram of fat, which they could then round to zero—and then calling one paper-thin slice a serving. With “zero” grams of fat per “serving,” they were “fat-free.”

Now, I was a bit torn. I mean, portion control is a legitimate part of eating a good diet, and I was willing to accept the idea that one thin slice—perhaps torn up on top of a chef’s salad—might be a serving. I was totally down with supporting, even encouraging, people to make that choice.

On the other hand, when I used that lunch meat to make a sandwich, I used 8 or 10 slices—and had no idea how much fat I was eating. I could assume it was pretty close to 5 grams, but I would have really liked to have a more accurate figure.

My own preferred solution would have been to put the total fat content of the whole package on the label. Then if I used half or a third of the package to make a sandwich, I’d just have to divide by two or three to get a reasonably accurate figure.

That idea never seemed to get much consideration. Finally now the new rules move us some ways toward that, at least in categories where everybody knows that people consume a whole package. For example, soda companies will no longer be able to pretend that a 20-ounce bottle of soda contains two and a half 8-ounce servings.

What surprised me about the whole thing is that, although I remember caring deeply about this 20 years ago, I’m over it. I scarcely even look at food labels any more.

Part of the reason is that I’ve outsourced the label-checking to Jackie, but probably the bigger part is that a whole lot less of what I eat even has a label any more, because I eat a lot less in the way of manufactured edible products. (Strangely, food often doesn’t come with a food label. It’s the food-like products that get the food labels.)

Still, it’s good that people are paying attention to this. My label-based efforts to reduce fat consumption were effective: I brought my cholesterol down, and have kept it down for 20 years. It would have been a lot harder without the labels. Better labels would have helped more.

Even now I make use of the labels, although not so much the content of the label. Now that I’ve observed that food tends not to have labels, the presence of a label is a good, quick way to spot that I’m dealing with a manufactured food-like substance. (And I do eat them, I just try to make them a small part of my diet.)

Made candy

easy karo candyToday would have been a good day to stay in, but I was obliged to teach my taiji class (and four or five students actually braved the weather to show up, so I was glad I’d made it in).

The weather that needed braving was an hour or two of pretty heavy snow, followed by freezing rain.

On paths that had been cleared, the result was about an eighth of an inch of ice. But since the freezing rain followed hard on the snow, most paths had not been cleared. The result was a thick layer of crunchy crystalline mush—not runny like slush, but otherwise kind of similar.

The weird consistency of the stuff reminded me of a failed effort at fudge or frosting—like a thick paste full of huge crystals, instead of tiny ones.

By the time I’d finished driving home in the stuff, I had an irresistible urge to make candy.

I’d have made fudge, but Jackie was doubtful about us having chocolate on hand, but we did have karo syrup and confectioner’s sugar—which, together with butter and vanilla, is all it takes to make Easy Karo Candy.

So, that’s what I made.

My mom used to make me Easy Karo Candy when I was a kid, so it brought back memories. (Even though it was pretty different, because we had dark Karo syrup instead of the light stuff, so it was kind of like Easy Karo Caramel Candy.)

I felt moved to post this because long ago I learned something from making Easy Karo Candy: I learned what candy is. This stuff is basically platonic candy. It contains fat, sugar, and a little flavoring. What makes it candy is the process—cooking it and then stirring in a bunch of confectioner’s sugar—which prompts the formation of the tiny sugar crystals that give things like fudge their distinctive texture. Basically any (non-hard) candy is the same stuff, just with a different flavoring. (A realization that prepared me for the realization that salad dressing is very similar: fat, vinegar, and a little flavoring.)

As a very picky eater, it was cool to figure this out. I vastly broadened the salad dressings I was willing to try, once I realized that they were really all the same. (I tend still to be pretty picky as far as candies go: Fancy candies are all sneaky, with non-candy stuff hidden in a candy layer. But that’s okay. I don’t see any great need to broaden the range of candies I eat.)

My doctor’s interesting take on losing weight

I had my physical this week. (Pending anything surprising from the blood work, I seem to be in good health.)

The doctor noted that I’d continued to lose weight, and I observed that he’d lost weight as well.

Over the course of seeing him once or twice a year for several years now, I’d noticed that my doctor struggled just a bit with his own weight. He was a runner, and kept his weight under control when he was able to run. When something (injury, weather, schedule pressures) kept him from running, he tended to gain weight. As this has been my own experience as well, I figured we understood one another a bit better than we otherwise might.

When I mentioned his own weight loss, he said that he’d thought a lot about weight problems, and had decided that the right perspective to address excess weight was that of addiction.

This makes sense to me. At least, I have no doubt that the dopamine pathways involved in other sorts of addictions are involved in people’s poor eating choices.

Continuing, my doctor went on to point out that it’s pretty well accepted that addicts can’t just choose to use whatever substance they’re addicted to moderately. Someone who’s not a smoking addict might be able to choose to smoke tobacco a few times a year, but a smoker cannot. Someone who’s not addicted to alcohol can choose to have a drink or two without going on to drink way too much, but an alcoholic cannot.

I agreed with his analysis, but pointed out that it’s very tough to address overeating with the same strategy. “You can’t go cold turkey on food—you’ll just die.”

“Ah,” my doctor said. “But you can go cold turkey on the foods that you’re addicted to.”

He went on to provide a short list of foods that, if he ate them, he’d overeat—chips, cake, burgers, etc. Instead, he said, you could choose to eat only foods that didn’t trigger those addictive behaviors, and he provided a short list. It started with vegetables and fruits. I forget the next few items—but I immediately recognized the main differentiator. The foods that were safe to eat were foods. The items that were dangerous to eat were industrially manufactured food-like edible substances.

So I told him about Michael Pollan and his book In Defense of Food, and suggested a quick rule of thumb: Things you eat shouldn’t have ingredients; they should be ingredients. Certainly, they shouldn’t have any ingredients that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

Without saying that I buy into my doctor’s take completely, I think there’s a lot there that’s of interest. The principles of addiction management had always seemed valid—but not applicable to overeating, because you have to eat. The idea that you’re only addicted to those foods that kick those dopamine reward pathways into overdrive . . . . Maybe that is an insight into how to take the things we’ve learned about managing addiction and apply it to overeating.

(Let me add a disclaimer here, that I’ve grabbed a few sentences that my doctor said and run with them—quite possibly farther and in a different direction than my doctor would have. This post is my response to things he said, not a report of what he said.)

Eating native food

This great article in Al Jazeera America hits a whole bunch of my interests: healthy eating, decolonization, sustainability, preserving culture:  Eating indigenously changes diets and lives of Native Americans. Basically, more than one group of researchers who are also Native Americans have decided to look into seeing if they could eat the way their ancestors ate.

Reinhardt, a professor in the Native American Studies program, was helping to serve up fry bread, Indian tacos and other offerings at the annual First Nations Food Taster, a fund-raising event for the Native American Student Association, when he had an epiphany: “Would my ancestors even recognize this as food?”

If you, like me, are a fan of Michael Pollan’s work, there’s a lot here to find interesting. There is considerable overlap with the “paleo” diet (although the researchers set their time threshold at 1602, rather than the dawn of agriculture) and with the locavore movement (with different locales for different Native American researchers).

The article touches on all sorts of question: Do we even know what they ate? Are the plants and animals still available? Is such a diet healthier than a modern Western diet?

Interesting as the food issues are, the issues having to do with decolonization are at least as interesting, as are the issues having to do with sustainability.