October 28th, 2011eating
Every day, in an effort to avoid cleaning my apartment or writing my novel, I read blogs like Jezebel. They’ve been one of my very favorites for years, and I usually think they get their stuff right, but I was a little confused about a little mixing of messages that happened last week regarding the subject of nutrition. That’s nothing new: the only thing more American than apple pie is figuring out whether a Hostess hand-held, artificially flavored Apple Pie counts as “healthy” because it has the word “fruit” on the wrapper.
On October 16th, Margaret Hartmann reported for Jezebel that General Mills was sued for marketing Fruit Roll-Ups as health food. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (publishers of Nutrition Action Healthletter, with whom I’ve taken issue in the past but generally like) filed a class-action suit alleging that General Mills is guilty of misleading the public about the nutritional benefits of eating Fruit Roll-Ups: the packaging features terms like “naturally flavored,” a “good source of Vitamin C,” “low calorie,” “low fat,” and “gluten free” (hey, good to know!), but the snack actually contains trans fats, added sugars, and dyes. It lacks significant amounts of real fruit or fiber. Harmann tells us that, according to the suit,
“General Mills is giving consumers the false impression that these products are somehow more wholesome, and charging more. It’s an elaborate hoax on parents who are trying to do right by their kids.”
General Mills says,
“We stand behind our products — and we stand behind the accuracy of the labeling of those products.”
Hartmann makes the excellent point,
“Half of those labels probably apply to cotton candy, it’s just more obvious that sending kids to school with a wad of spun sugar in their lunch box isn’t equivalent to packing an apple.”
On October 21, just a few days after the posting of that piece, Margaret Hartmann posted another brief Jezebel article about nutrition—but this time, she seems to have forgotten that we just learned that focusing on nutrients, not foods, can open us up to being easily duped. In “Star Ratings Could Make Nutrition Simple, But Manufacturers Are Jerks About It,” Hartmann begins by explaining,
“All food packaging is covered in figures that tell us everything from how many grams are in the suggested serving size to the percentage of our daily recommended amount of Riboflavin, but they aren’t much good if no one understands what the hell they mean. Now, at the request of Congress, the Institute of Medicine has come up with a food labeling system that’s only slightly more complicated than stamping the box with a smiley face or a frowney face. The labels could be a huge help for Americans who want to eat healthy but don’t have time to spend hours anyalyzing nutritional labels. Of course, food manufacturers aren’t going for it.”
The idea is to have some lame star system to indicate how awesome a food is based on what the government values in a food. (And we know how brightly the U.S. government’s food values shine…but more about that in in a near-future post.) The proposed system is one-size-fits-all, not taking individuals’ bodies into account. It’s based on conventional wisdom [note: this blog post I've linked to is just an example of the fact that good nutrition is far from universally agreed upon, though I do agree with it], and to me, it seems like one more system of allowing consumers to lazily avoid educating themselves, taking control of their eating habits and actually eating responsibly.
If the bag of rolls has three stars on it, does that mean I get to eat all of them in one sitting because they’re a healthy choice? I don’t think anyone would say that that’s a good idea, and that’s where the star system falls short: it’s a start, maybe, a “this is better than that,” but I don’t think the stars would really tell consumers anything they don’t know already. It wouldn’t help them with the bigger issues, things that really matter, like chronic mid-afternoon sugar cravings, an inability to cook, a tendency to fall victim to the quick latte and bagel on the way to work, emotional eating, and maybe—probably, if you ask me—all this calorie-counting, cutting down on fat, eating of whole grains and crap like that instead of the higher-fat, higher-protein foods that actually satisfy.
Spend the whole day hungry, obsessing about food, wondering about whether you’re eating the right thing, whether you’re going to come in under your calorie mark for the day, and you’re probably not going to succeed in the long run. Take the time to learn about each nutrient and what it means, and how it can work for you or against you, and then stop stressing about it and looking for a label every time you touch a piece of food and you might have a chance. We don’t eat food because it’s a bunch of nutrients. We eat it because we need those things, sure, but we also eat it because we like food. When we hate it, there’s really no point.
I really like Michael Pollan’s slim book Food Rules, an easy-to-read guide to food wisdom. Of course, I can’t agree with all of it, because that’s just not in my nature, but what could be easier than:
- Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
- Avoid food products with the wordoid “lite” or the terms “low-fat” or “nonfat” in their names.
- Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
Pollan’s longer book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, focuses quite a bit on our national obsession with nutrients rather than foods, and the book’s description on Pollan’s website includes the remark, “In the so-called Western diet, food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion.”
Yes, it takes a little time to learn about nutrition. It’s not too complicated, though—food manufacturers that make health claims just want us to think nutrition is beyond our comprehension so that we’ll think we need their help. But we don’t! If you can figure out how to save money with coupons, figure out whether the bigger beers or the smaller beers are a better deal, trick your children into behaving in the store for an entire shopping trip, or convert the measurements from one system to another when you’re cooking, you totally have the smarts to learn everything you need to know so you can disregard the manufacturers’ messages. Or, if you choose to do things Pollan’s way, perhaps you’ll start picking out a lot of foods that don’t have labels at all.
I eat an apple every day. Sometimes, I do eat candy like Peachie-O’s. But I don’t choose them because they’re fat free, or because I think there might be a trace of fruit juice in there somewhere. I choose them because I want that shock of sugar, even though I know exactly how bad it is. I think that knowledge is the reason the last package of Peachie-O’s I bought stayed open next to my computer for a week while I slowly finished it off. Knowing enough about food to avoid being in denial is one of my best diet tools.Tags: groceries, healthy eating
No fancy Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha for me today: Just a simple coffee on the $11,000 machine, please4October 19th, 2011food
I am turning into that Starbucks customer I used to make fun of when I was a barista. I go in knowing that I want my coffee made on the Clover machine—it’s a fancy machine that will brew, at a little extra cost, an individual cup of coffee for me that tastes extra-special. And I know exactly which beans I want and am convinced that they taste completely different than all the other beans. I have a Starbucks Gold Card with my name and membership start date on it. When I go into the Starbucks on Olive Way in Seattle, one of the renovated locations that show a shift in the company’s branding, I have my own mug and my memorized script.
Seattle is home to so many coffee roasters: Caffé D’Arte, Caffé Umbria, Fonté, Lighthouse, Seattle Coffee Works, Stella Caffé, Victrola, Caffé Vita, Zoka—I’m sure there are more. I only knew three of these off the top of my head—I used Google to make the list. I know it’s wrong to be so Starbucks-dependent. I am a hip Seattle woman of the millennium who tries to support local bookstores and local businesses and all that stuff. But man—have you ever tried coffee made on the Clover? Each machine costs $11,000 for good reason. The Starbucks website explains how the Clover works—all that I know is that it looks neat as the grounds rise up out of and sink back down into the machine. I prefer to save money and make my coffee at home, but if I’m out and about and want some coffee, I seek out a Starbucks with a Clover machine.
The Clover makes a great cup of coffee, and it also supposedly reduces its acidity. I couldn’t find anything online to support this claim, so the baristas could be b.s.’ing me, but I need to believe it: I’m not supposed to be drinking a substance as acidic as coffee at all anymore. Apparently I was the only person on earth who didn’t know that ibuprofen is never to be taken on an empty stomach, especially for a two-week period, so now it’s all gut pains and Prilosec for me. This has nothing to do with my gluten issues and everything to do with being an idiot. I’ve been willing to give up pain relief and alcohol, but not coffee, in order to fix the problem. I switched to tea for three days before buckling and making coffee on my trusty AeroPress. My food predilections come and go, but since I started college, I’ve consistently loved the taste of coffee, and I don’t foresee that changing. The Clover and the AeroPress seem to help.
I’ve had the AeroPress for a while. It’s made by AEROBIE Sport Toy Products, which also makes yo-yos, flying discs (that’s the generic name for Frisbee), boomerangs, and other sport toys. I’m very glad that the company branched out into the coffee brewing business, because they’ve changed my life. Coffee has always been hard on my sensitive system, though it’s not nearly as acidic as beer or fruit juice. The AeroPress dramatically reduces the acidity in a cup of coffee, it’s easy to use, and the coffee tastes awesome. Its only drawback is that I need to use significantly more grounds to brew the same amount of coffee. I buy Starbucks Sumatra coffee in 12-oz three-packs on Amazon.com, delivered to me for free with my Prime subscription, so that I can get good coffee for a good price. Because of the Aeropress, I go through a lot of grounds. I’d like to try the small roasters’ offerings, but I just can’t go through that much pricey coffee.
There’s one other thing I like about Starbucks, though. I used to be a barista and sandwichmaker in a little Seattle shop that sold artisan coffee. When customers would come in with demands that were too many, too specific, or too yuppie in nature, they had the potential to amuse or annoy us. We couldn’t help it—we could get so testy during those shifts. Some of us were friendlier than others, especially when customers would speak in the language of Starbucks and ask us for frappuccinos that we hadn’t been trained to make, or when they wanted their drinks more quickly than we could make them, doing it all by hand. Starbucks had spoiled them and made them expect that we’d be something that we weren’t. We were there to make americanos and lattes and cappuccinos, the café basics, and we feared the requests of customers who knew how hot they wanted their mochas—we didn’t even have thermometers—or how many pumps of chocolate they wanted in there—we didn’t pump, we drizzled, and we did it by intuition. Some customers were nice about accepting the simple peppermint-syrup-spiked mochas we offered as consolation drinks. Others seemed to think we were stupid.
But now that I’m a Starbucks customer, no longer a barista, I’m really starting to appreciate the Starbucks experience the company has been working so hard to perfect. I watch the baristas happily take orders that would’ve made us tell the customers, “We don’t have thermometers, but I can make you an extra-hot latte,” or “Sorry, we can’t do blended drinks here,” or “Do you want a Starbucks macchiato, meaning like, a vanilla latte with caramel drizzled on it, or an espresso machiato, like, the kind that comes in a really little cup?” Starbucks baristas were told a year ago to slow down and make no more than two drinks at a time, but when I watch them work as I wait for my coffee, I’m still astounded by their speed and efficiency. If they can make all the crazy concoctions that people desire without slowing down the line, I’m all about it. They’re good at small talk, good at knowing when not to make small talk, and they always know exactly how much room to leave for cream. When I walk in there, I can have whatever I want. It’s like I’m not even in Seattle, birthplace of the bitter barista stereotype, and they’re so nice that I can’t even imagine that they’re baristas like I used to be, but I guess they’re not—they’re much better at it.Tags: coffee
October 2nd, 2011food
I’ve started drinking soda with bitters and lime pretty often when I’m out at bars and restaurants lately. I want to buy bitters to drink with soda water at home, but I’m not sure that I’m prepared to drop that much cash for bottles that small—this stuff is expensive. A full set of the Fee Brothers bitters in crazy flavors like peach, celery, rhubarb and plum would run me $97.95 on Amazon. I tried to read up about which bitters to buy if I were only going to buy one little bottle, but I quickly got overwhelmed. There seem to be a lot of great, pricey choices out there.
I have a bottle of “sweetish bitters,” recommended to me at some point for stomach pains. I was told that sweetish bitters are not the kind of bitters that I want to be drinking in my soda, but I went ahead and did it anyway. It was definitely not a great experience. These bitters are also extremely old and I used many more drops than are recommended for enjoyable drinks.
What can you tell me about choosing bitters? When I go out, I can have Angostura bitters anywhere, so I’m looking to try something different. These would just be to flavor soda water, not to be used in alcoholic cocktails. Let me know what you know in the comments.
Update: I got some advice from Brad Thomas Parsons, who knows lots about bitters and has a book coming out on November 1st, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas. He let me know about a lot of great varieties to choose from, and at 12th and Olive Wine Company here in Seattle, I found a cool four-pack of these tiny bottles of Scrappy’s Bitters: lavender, celery, orange and lime. I’m excited to get the book in the mail on the first and Scrappy’s cardamom bitters from 12th and Olive when they come in next week. I’m excited to return with an update about both.Tags: bitters