Commentary

The Long Trip From Yummy To Good For You

General Mills has been trying to cut down on the amount of bad-for-you stuff in its product for six years now and has come to realize there’s only so far you can go in reducing the sugar in a spoonful of Lucky Charms before the wee ones conclude that they may as well be eating broccoli.

 

"We know that right around nine grams of sugar per serving, you're at the breaking point where the sugar level is so low that the sweetness is not enough for a kid to eat it on day two after trying it on day one," Susan Crockett, head of General Mills’ Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition tells the Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon. "We're close to the sweetness threshold in cereal."

 

Not to mention the fact that those tasty morsels with colors unknown to nature need to float for at least three minutes to satisfy our craving for visible edibiles, and sugar evidently has properties akin to life preservers. But with everyone from Wal-Mart to the corner bakery  trying to make food that’s healthier for us to eat, it’s a delicate balancing act.

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Jargon reports that General Mills and other marketers are rather stealthily reducing levels of the ingredients we’ve come to hate to love for fear that consumers need to adjust to the reductions without being conscious that they took place. At the same time, however, touting health claims does move product.

 

Cutting down on consumption of salt and sugar isn’t all that easy, of course, even when someone like your doctor tells you need to do it.

 

“It's no accident that salt and sugar permeate the nation's food supply. Both are inexpensive palate-pleasers, and food manufacturers use them liberally to satisfy our penchant for things salty and sweet,” a Consumer Reportspiece about how to “shake” salt and sugar from your diet tells us. “Today the average American consumes nearly twice the recommended maximum of sodium and nearly 460 nutritionally empty calories of added sugar every day.”

 

And even foods that look to be good for us on the surface may “pack far more of the sweet stuff than you'd expect,’ meaning that judicious label-reading is a skill we all need to hone.

 

The best way to avoid overindulging is frequent reps of one of the best exercises ever devised: the push-away. Unfortunately, for many people who have an addictive-compulsive relationship with food, this is tantamount to telling a smoker to “just use your willpower and stop.” It’s sometimes effective, but not often.

 

“Food, alcohol and tobacco have the ability to change the way we feel and to make us want to feel that way again. Their effects employ brain pathways fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution,” writes David Brown in a Washington Post piece covering a United Nations meeting about the rise of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes across the world. “The neurons that blast serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine when we consume salt, sugar, fat, nicotine and alcohol are the same ones that help us pay attention, motivate ourselves, and learn and remember.”

 

NCDs, as they are known in the public health trade, now account for 63% of deaths worldwide and are the leading cause of death everywhere but sub-Saharan Africa. That is leading governments to go beyond “messages delivered to individuals” to “population-wide interventions.” In short, regulations and taxes.

 

“In the late ’80s or ’90s we realized that people can’t make individual behavior change unless the environment supports it and makes the ideal behavior easy and convenient,” Ursula Bauer, director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tells Brown (a physician and Washington Post staff writer whose recent work on the global obesity epidemic is a must-read for anyone marketing food.)

 

“The global food police are preparing to act,” warns Rick Berman in The Daily Caller. “On Oct. 1, Denmark instituted a tax on foods containing saturated fat -- the first of its kind. This is on top of a tax the Nordic country slapped last year on ‘junk’ food, like ice cream and chocolate.”

 

There are similar developments in Hungary and France. But, Berman writes, “you can’t tax people into health.” And as proof, he tells us that the Danes are hoarding pizza, butter, meat, and milk. Which means that there’s no room in the freezer and fridge for that broccoli.

 

All that’s bad for you but tastes great is not processed, of course. The top hit on a Google search of “lower sugar salt in food” this morning inexplicably turned up an MSNBC piece about “Paula Deen’s decadent southern style cakes,” with recipes for Texas sheet cake with chocolate fudge frosting, pecan praline cheesecake and coconut cake. The sheet cake itself calls for a cup each of packed light brown sugar and granulated sugar; the frosting for two tablespoons light corn syrup and four cups confectioners’ sugar.

 

Alas, I don’t hold out too much hope that fare such as Bulgur and Kale Casserole with Yogurt Topping (with 1/2 teaspoon sugar, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon and salt to taste) is going to replace salt- and-sugar-laden fare in the hearts and hearths of most of us. But why not give it a try?

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