Gloria Steinem celebrated her 80th birthday this month, still fighting the good fight.
I became aware of Steinem probably in the fall of 1978. I had just started my first semester at UMass Amherst, at the ripe old age of 23. Let’s just say I took the scenic route to college. I snagged a work-study job at what was then called the Everywoman’s Center, a five-year-old haven for women of all kinds, but especially the atypical UMass student, the single moms returning to their education, people like me who took the scenic route to college, and women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
And here I am, obviously influenced by her style, around the time I was working at the women’s center. A newly awakened, if self-conscious and inarticulate, feminist, I lived in one of the women’s movement’s Ground Zeroes: Northampton, Mass.
I wasn’t the most ardent of nascent feminists, falling somewhere between poser and bra-burner, but I did embrace some of the ideas sincerely. I helped organize Take Back the Night marches, hung banners in the student union, went to plenty of meetings. I met friends I have to this day, and still embrace those ideas. The lot of women globally is still abysmal, even with the progress we’ve seen in the industrialized world. But at a time when the Boston media crackles with talk about Jared Remy, the son of a popular Red Sox commentator, who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, it’s apparent that attitudes die hard. More to come.
Just saw this opinion piece in today’s NYTimes. I am a huge Bittman fan, and I know that he will say things to provoke thought and discussion, something he is able do from his high-profile perch.
When I first heard of Beyoncé’s deal with Pepsi, I agreed with Bittman that she has a responsibility to her fans to refuse certain types of promotional involvement. But as I thought about it further, I came to think that Beyonce has no such responsibility as a celebrity.
As I put it in my comment on the article, “Why should we expect high-wattage celebrities to do what our government won’t? Pepsi has an obligation to make money for its investors, and Beyoncé has an empire to run. While I wish she had said no to this deal, she had every right to say yes. Regulation of food marketing is the only thing that will make a difference, but the political will is just not there.”
Anyone who knows me probably wouldn’t list patience as a defining quality of me. Neither would I. Patience is, for sure, something I value and marvel at. A good storyteller or joke-teller (not that different, right?) who can measure out each piece in digestible chunks; a singer who is a master of phrasing and pacing; a writer who knows what’s going to happen but is not going to let you know. A recent nonpareil example of this skill is contained in Hilary Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Mantel lets out the thread of the story so finely and with such subtlety that you can forget that the events she writes about are in the historical record. We know what will become of Thomas Cromwell, but the story we’re being told so absorbs our attention and excites our senses that the outcome is not the point.
Another use of patience is in sports. I admire baseball players who have plate discipline, who can just wait for their cookie instead of leaping for some unknown treat. It’s not easy. In rowing, my main sport, I have fought my impatient nature for as long as I’ve rowed. While things have improved somewhat, I still “rush my slide” and apply stroke power before my oars are fully immersed. I just want to get it done, dammit! Not smart. Since I’m rowing against type (not much athletic ability, not the typical rower’s body), good technique would go a long way toward the finish line. Which brings me back to baking.
Cultivating patience, then: the next apple pie will flow in the making because I will not rush to roll out the dough; the slow-rise sourdough will look halfway decent because I will pay attention to the day’s moisture; and the time to write two to three blog posts per week will materialize.
I’ve been listening to Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running. Murakami is a far more serious runner than I am, logging 30 or more miles a week, compared with my average of, say, 15. He talks about the rhythms of running and how the discipline involved in running regularly mirrors the kind of discipline you need as a writer. He loves the simplicity and freedom of running, and the fascination of watching your body change shape as your running speed and style evolve. Today, as I ran in the 36th Tufts Health Plan 10K for Women, I thought about a few things myself.
The Tufts 10K, a Boston institution, takes place every Columbus Day. The course runs through downtown, and loops over the Charles River. Thousands of women run/walk/wheel the USTAF-sanctioned course. Today, Joan Benoit Samuelson came in second in my age group, with a pace of 6:11/mile. Let’s just say I’m a tad slower.
So, what did I think about today?
Mile 1: Way too crowded. Lots of elbowing. I can’t get any speed going. Still, fun to be in the pack. Legs a bit tired. Sciatica. Quads.
Mile 2: Yep, I’m tired! Heart rate and pace decent but not up to what they were my last 10K—the Lone Gull in Gloucester. Running over the Mass Ave bridge is less intimidating than rowing under it. Sciatic pain goes away at about Mile 2.5. Yay. On to quads…
Mile 3: I’m warmed up now. Should be hitting my stride but not quite there. How can people actually be carrying on conversations at this point? About party dresses? Aieeee! The cut-through on the Mem Drive median strip looks very tempting. Did not do it! Did I have the optimal breakfast? Too long ago? Not long enough ago?
Mile 4: Am I really going to toss my cookies? Why did I have that beer last night? Will I ever write a book? A decent blog post? A good shopping list? More than one woman is wearing a tutu. Pink, as if there were another color.
Mile 5: OK. How is this woman, looking about my age, just sailing on past me like I’m standing still? Did she start at Mile 4? Trying to sprint a bit as I notice the heart rate going down. Little kids extending hands for high fives. Too zoned out to play.
Mile 6: Almost there! I am not going to break 1 hour. Recording of a girl-group singing “We Are the Champions”! Whoa…
Post race: Lost my bearings looking for the Park St. station. Why not walk around an extra half hour?
I guess what I have in common with Murakami is a real appreciation of running, and how it can build a structure, a foundation. When I run on my everyday solo runs, I solve problems without meaning to, remember things I said I’d do but haven’t, think of people I need to see or talk to, imagine what I’d like to do when I have time/money/opportunity. As Murakami said in his memoir, he doesn’t really think about anything in particular when he runs, but somehow the rhythm, the habit, and the love of it gives him something to put in his pocket for later. You don’t remember it, but you remember it.
Mark Bittman’s topic in today’s New York Times Magazine, “Short and Sweet,” presented a basic recipe for shortbread cookies, with a bunch of variations, from sweet to savory and in between. This is one thing I appreciate about Bittman’s approach: he gives you a base and several ideas on how to make it to suit your mood, your preferences, and your pantry contents. It’s learning to cook instead of just following a recipe.
I love shortbread–who doesn’t?–and this column reminded me of the pepper-cumin cookies I have been making since I first saw the recipe in the TimesMagazine in 1996. I’ve been a recipe clipper for many years, and here’s what this one looks like now. These cookies really are fantastic, by the way. Easy to make, they have been a surprise hit at parties.
Consumers, manufacturers grapple with food packaging claims
Like most parents, Denise Devine, 49, a busy mother of two teenagers, cares about the food she feeds her family. Her main concern is to avoid foods, particularly cereals, that contain a lot of sugar. “I try to buy cereal that has fruit in it or isn’t too sugary,” she said. “Serving cereal has been a way I could get my daughter to drink milk, especially when she was younger. But too much sugar can make her agitated so I try to be careful.”
Even though Devine is motivated to buy healthy cereal, she always doesn’t read the Nutrition Facts Panel or the list of ingredients because she just sees a string of long words that don’t mean anything. Instead, she makes buying decisions using the information on the front of the package or a recommendation from a friend. As Devine said, “Sometimes you just don’t want to see the list. You think, ‘What is that’?”
Health claims up front
Research suggests that Devine is not alone in how she reacts to front-of-package labels. Short health claims on packaged foods tend to lead time-pressed shoppers to disregard the longer and more complete information on the back. The average consumer may believe the front-of-package claims are sanctioned by the government and are somehow “true.” While health claims on food packages are officially regulated by the FDA, they are not consistently enforced. Messages on the fronts of packages tend to be eye-catching and positive, while those on the back look less inviting and may include some negatives about the food.
The question is what can be done to help consumers make better food choices. Writing in the February 24, 2010, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, and David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Boston summarized the problem: “Front-of-package labels may so thoroughly mislead the public that another option deserves consideration—eliminate all nutrition and health claims from the front of processed food packages while strengthening the Nutrition Facts Panel.”
Keep it simple
In early May 2012, the FDA released its Foods and Veterinary Medicines Strategic Plan for 2012-2016. Included in this plan is a goal to “provide accurate and useful information so consumers can choose a healthier diet and reduce the risk of chronic disease and obesity.” Part of this goal is to update the nutrition facts label so that serving sizes, daily values and important nutrients are easier to grasp. In addition, one key initiative of this plan is to “explore front-of-pack nutrition labeling opportunities.” These goals and initiatives have been met with guarded enthusiasm by some nutrition experts. As Nestle wrote on her Food Politics blog, “The FDA has already sponsored two Institute of Medicine reports on front-of-pack labeling. Does this mean the agency is ignoring them and intends further research?”
On October 20, 2011, a committee of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a set of recommendations to create a single, standardized front-of-package labeling system that will make “healthier options unmistakable.” The key feature of this proposed system is a system similar to the Energy Star ratings, using a standard symbol placed in a consistent location on all products to represent calories “in common household measure serving sizes.” Also displayed on this symbol is a simple point system to rank foods, requiring no calculations or nutritional knowledge, based on amounts of three nutrients per serving: saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. In addition, the recommendations include incorporating this system across all food products to allow comparisons across products.
The labeling jungle
All of this is a far cry from the current labeling landscape. Allowable health claims for immune system support, cardiovascular health and cancer prevention commonly appear on the fronts of food packages, the first point of engagement for consumers. Also on October 20, 2011, two food industry trade groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, issued a joint statement launching Facts Up Front, a voluntary nutrition labeling system “to help busy consumers—especially parents—make informed decisions when they shop.”
The statement goes on to say that Facts Up Front was created in response to consumer preference “to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat. This is the guiding principle of Facts Up Front, and why we have concerns about the untested, interpretive approach suggested by the IOM committee.” Facts Up Front displays nutritional information on four required elements per serving: calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Individual products may include additional nutrients. Outside the food industry this system has been criticized as a cynical end run around the IOM recommendations.
What consumers can do
How can consumers make better food choices with the currently available labels? In a telephone interview, Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and vice-chair of the IOM committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems, said that “consumers should focus on the Nutrition Facts Panel and what’s most important to them from a health perspective, for example, calories, sugars or sodium,” and pay special attention to ingredients and nutrients that are most relevant. She added that “it’s difficult to automatically or easily compare across cereals because they have different serving sizes. Lichtenstein herself does not buy many packaged foods, but when she does, she looks at the calories per serving and the position of whole grains in the list of ingredients.
Larry Cornick, marketing manager at New England Natural Bakers, a small organic food company in Western Massachusetts, agreed that “serving sizes drive the information on the nutrition facts panel,” adding that some manufacturers practice labeling deception, using serving sizes that might be better characterized as “snack” sizes in order to keep the calories per serving down. Cornick takes pride in his company’s conscientious approach to marketing, saying that the front-of-package health claim that the company’s Organic Antioxidant Superfruit Granola “supports the immune system” wouldn’t be there if it weren’t true.
Regulation past and present
Regulation of health claims on food packages in the U.S. has its roots in legislation from a century ago, beginning with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which prohibited statements that were “false or misleading in any particular.” For many years this wording was interpreted to mean that no health claims were allowed. By the 1960s, packaged foods had become much more common, and accurate labels more necessary. In the mid 1980s, Kellogg challenged this restriction by adding a health claim to its All-Bran cereal. This action was challenged by the FDA, but Kellogg fought, and won, the challenge, ushering in the era of allowable health claims on foods, as long as they were based on scientific evidence. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Actfollowed, allowing, after food companies demanded it, foods to make the same labeling claims as dietary supplements could.
Kellogg has continued to push the health claim envelope, and was reprimanded by the FDA twice in recent years for claims on Frosted Mini-Wheats (attention improvement in children) and Rice Krispies (immunity in children). Today, three types of claims are allowed on food packages: health, nutrient content, and structure/function. As Cornick noted, “The big companies push the legislation.”
Health claims are not universally allowed on packaged foods. In the European Union, for example, health claims are not allowed on the labels until after they’ve been reviewed the European Food Safety Authority. Asked why this approach to labeling isn’t used in the U.S., Yoni Freedhof, a family physician and founder of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, said by email that “there needs to be political will to make regulatory changes to labeling, and if politicians care more about ensuring the food industry’s interests are met than they do about the health of their constituents, then we certainly won’t see any changes.”
When Freedhof buys packaged foods he reads the fine print on the back, but pays little attention to front-of-package claims. “I use the nutrition facts panels to quickly scan for calories and sodium per serving, and front-of-package messaging to assume the food contained inside is one I ought to avoid, because if something needs to convince me it’s a healthy choice, it’s probably not. I’m not sure if any claim is more or less dangerous than any other, as all claims tend to influence the increased consumption of processed foods—something I think we should as a society be doing less of.”
In the end, are the health claims true? The answer might be a resounding, “sort of.” They generally seem to adhere to the letter, not the spirit, of the law, and are, after all, allowed by the country’s federal food and drug safety agency. One axiom common among nutrition experts is, “the front of the package is marketing, the back is truth.”
Meanwhile, Devine said she intends to try reading more of the Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredients lists, but really hopes something can be done to make it easier to understand the nutritional information and health effects. Her daughter is going off to college in the fall, and will be buying her own cereal—and probably ignoring the labels.
“Keep your brain healthy for the rest of your life,” reads the book jacket. If you’ve watched a family member or friend fade into dementia, this is one promise you wish with all your heart to believe even as doubt simmers on that back burner. Dr. Gary Small is on the book tour to promote The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, and as accessible, positive, and reasonable as the program is, I still balk. Not that I think Dr. Small is selling snake oil or is otherwise untrustworthy. He’s a well-regarded neurologist who is recommending, based on evidence from research, a program of nothing more than regular exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and memory exercises to maintain brain health. Nothing harmful here, and nothing we haven’t heard before. And even if it doesn’t keep your brain sharp, his program might just help you avoid or delay heart disease or diabetes. So why not? And why don’t I feel a sense of unease when the talk is about preventing heart disease using similar methods?
Maybe my attitude is emblematic of the Baby Boomer zeitgeist–we’re living longer, we’re fighting aging, and we’re scared to death we’ll exit this vale by staring off into space uncomprehendingly or “wandering off,” as some of our parents have already. I saw my mother gradually lose her engagement with daily life, her capacity to speak, her ability to eat, and, finally, her self, as she slipped steadily away from us. It just might be her shade that pulls me up short when I’m about to fully believe in prevention. I’m sure she’d want me to believe, much as she wanted me to believe in the Holy Trinity or transubstantiation, but it’s just not in me yet. I’ll gladly eat my fruits and veg, exercise to the point of injury, and OM with the best of them to keep heart disease, cancer, or diabetes at bay, but dementia? It can’t be that easy to save a soul, can it?