Tag Archives: nutrition

Let’s move! toward awareness of food, fitness, food allergies, and the gluten-free diet (plus a contest for precocious sous-chefs)

I have a big celebrity crush on Michelle Obama. It’s not just her arms (though of course that’s part of it). I also admire the work she’s done to promote childhood healthy eating and exercise habits with Let’s Move! In a (relatively) noncondescending, nonextreme way, the organization has been pushing back against childhood obesity—arguably one of the biggest health issues the United States, among other countries, faces today.

Some don’t believe politicians should get involved with food. But like it or not, by way of crop subsidies, government oversight organizations, and more, they’re involved already. Plus, say what you will about MyPlate (and, as a vegetarian with vegan leanings, I’ve said plenty about that cup of dairy), when it comes to the “food” kids are served and the health education they receive at public schools, we could use a little help.

In a conversation about the initiative, my sister commented that it was annoying how issues of “home and hearth” still seem to fall to the First Lady, in a time when such issues should be equally relevant to men and women. Maybe that’s true. But gendered undertones aside, what Let’s Move! is attempting is important. A campaign to change the food and fitness culture of an entire generation calls for a prominent champion, and Michelle is using her pull to spread awareness about the issue in a way that most people can’t.

Whether or not it’s working is hard to say. I get their newsletter, which means I’m in the bubble, but skimming the initiative’s anniversary highlights is encouraging. In part, I think, due to Obama’s work, policy changes are being made, and large audiences reached. Even the nutrition facts label might get a makeover, and according to the CDC, childhood obesity fell by 43% over the last decade—though tough to tell how much of that can be credited to Obama’s efforts, given that Let’s Move! was only founded in 2010.

Lest you scold me for babbling about my socially liberal heroine on a blog focused on gluten, not politics, I’d argue that a generation of kids learning that what they put in their mouths has a direct impact on their health can only be good for the gluten-free. Children educated about nutrition will be better prepared to care for themselves if food allergies or a gluten-related disorder come their way. Moreover, they just might grow up into a nation of adults who know how to cook, care about food, and value wellness. Again, all good things for them and us.

The reason I’m writing about this now is that (as I mentioned) I receive the Let’s Move! newsletter, and the latest issue put out a call for “all young chefs” to enter the 2014 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.

It’s a pretty cool contest. Kids ages 8 to 12 work with their parents to create and submit a delicious, healthy, original, affordable, and meaningful recipe. A winning child/parent team from each US state will get to head to DC for lunch with the First Lady.

MyPlateThe recipe does have to be inspired by MyPlate (but the protein and dairy can be vegetarian or vegan, if that’s your thing), but it also has to have a unique story—that’s where “meaningful” comes in. When I read that, I immediately thought, wouldn’t it be cool if one of the winning stories was about learning to cook with a gluten-related disorder or food allergies—facing these obstacles together, as a family, and coming through it stronger? 

Right now, the closest I come to parenting is cooing at babies at the farmers’ market and nagging teenagers to study SAT vocab (which, by the way, is due for a change in 2016). So I thought I’d throw out the challenge to those of you who do have a budding foodie in the family.

If you and your child want to enter, you have until April 5th, and I’ll be rooting for you all the way. A healthy diet is good for us all—and a matter of life and death for some. The food allergic and gluten-free community knows that better than anyone, and our food is darn good, too.

What do you think of the Let’s Move! campaign, MyPlate, the government’s focus on obesity, and the possibly changing nutrition facts label? Will your family be entering the contest?

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What Does the Box Say? – Comparing Gluten-Free and Non-Gluten-Free marketing claims

We’ve all heard statements like these about gluten-free food: “The gluten-free products market is experiencing a double-digit growth” and “They are considered healthier than conventional products (source: PRWeb.com).

It’s become a truism that manufacturers make gluten-free products to cater to the “fad,” rather than to help those of us with gluten-related disorders (GRDs). According to this perspective, gluten-free, like organicall natural, and wholesome, is just another buzzword. 

Marketers seek to draw in people without GRDs who are health-conscious enough to buy a product they think is better for them, but not enough to realize it isn’t, really. (The same thing might be coming for “kosher.”) Marketing research, as presented in this report—the complete version of which sells for an astonishing $3,995.00—backs up this idea that “health perceptions fuel [the gluten-free] category growth.”

Is it true? Just who do marketers think gluten-free consumers are, and what do they think we want? Are GF labels crammed full of more health claims than other products? Are they feeding us all the nonsensical health claims they think we’ll swallow?

To answer these questions for myself, I did some amateur market research, looking at what marketers are putting in their gluten-free (GF) product descriptions and their non-gluten-free (NGF) product descriptions. Then, I created tag clouds showing the most common words and phrases for each:

Looking these over, I’m come up with some conclusions of my own. I’d love to hear what stands out to you, too!

The method to my madness:

  • I researched descriptions of both gluten-free (GF) and non-gluten-free (NGF) products. Note that the sample size is small—just under 60 products in each category—and that I used copy from manufacturers’ websites, rather than package labels themselves, because I’m lazy. Pay me $3,995 and I will redo it. For a full list of the products I included, click here.
  • I looked only at brands with exact gluten-free and non-gluten-free equivalents. (Thanks to Sprue Jr. for this smart idea.) I left out things like Goldfish Puffs (which are yummy, but more like Cheetos than Goldfish), Nabisco Rice Thins (which I really hope aren’t meant to imitate Wheat Thins), and Chex (even though it’s the classic mainstream-product-gone-GF; wheat, rice, and corn Chex are just too different).
  • I created the word clouds using tagcrowd.com. A word or phrase had to appear 4 times across all descriptions in a category to make the cut. The NGF cloud is smaller than the GF cloud because fewer words were repeated often enough.
  • At 33 mentions each, the outliers “gluten free” and “gluten-free” (who knew the food industry was so divided on the hyphenation question?) were taking over the whole GF picture, so I removed them.

A few general observations:

As a vegetarian, I had no idea till doing this just how many brands of GF breaded chicken products exist. Mind. Blown. You’d think someone could take a break from dinosaur-shaped extruded meat to manufacture some GF phyllo dough.

Some classic, mass-market products reproduced in gluten-free versions are presented with almost identical product descriptions, distinguished only by the addition of “Now available gluten-free!” In other cases, the gluten-free product information is considerably longer, taking great pains to explain a) why a gluten-free version was created, b) what steps have been taken to ensure the product is gluten-free, or c) both. The NGF versions were very rarely longer, probably because we already know those foods rock.

Many food manufacturers making GF products were already focused on whole grains, organics, etc., which in my opinion partially contradicts the claim that everyone’s getting into the GF game to make money. These are companies that already cared about health and want to include former customers, now gone GF. Whether their products really are good for us is another question.

Poptarts aisle

Poptarts: not yet gluten-free, or healthy.
Photo © MTSOfan | Flickr

Now, on to specific claims:

GF food tastes good, kinda.

To give the GF labelers credit, many of them call their products “treats.” They promise that “everyone” will “enjoy” or even “love” their foods’ “delicious” “flavor,” “taste,” and “texture” (on the last point, they may protest too much—the word doesn’t appear in the NGF cloud, because it doesn’t have to).

“Best” and “favorite” make the cut for GF (but not NGF) foods, though they’re slightly more wary about claiming to be “classic” or “traditional” (several GF products went for “unique,” instead, which could mean anything). NGF foods are apparently “easier” and more “fun” than GF ones, but then, we already knew that.

GF foods are good for you, kinda.

First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how silly it is that health claims like “all natural” are so prominent in both sets of product descriptions, considering that every one of them comes in a package, box, or bag. A recent comment by a reader, John, sums up my feelings on this topic better than I could myself, so check it out.

So, GF and NGF foods are about equally likely to call themselves “healthy,” though the GF foods throw in a few “health”s for good measure. GF products are way less likely to be “organic,” and also less likely to claim to be “all natural” (or even partly “natural”) or to avoid “fillers” and “preservatives.”

On the subject of “fats” and “trans fats,” as well as specific “grams” per serving of the good stuff, the GF products are silent compared with their NGF counterparts, though not necessarily because they’re worse. (This has been discussed here and here.)

With nearly as much frequency as NGF products, GF products reference “whole grains,” but the oversized “brown rice” tag signals that’s the primary whole grain being used; too bad, because it’s lower in several nutrients than the whole wheat that dominates in NGF foods.

Neither set of products makes many caloric claims, probably because these terms are closely regulated so pizzas, cookies, and pretzels can’t get away with claiming to be low-cal. Only the GF products admit to being “sweetened” (though the NGF ones are, too!).

GF foods are gluten-free, kinda.

A fair number of the GF products point out their “certified” status and make explicit claims about the safety of their “ingredients” and “dedicated” “facility” where “products” were “produced.” A handful even reference “celiac disease”—yay!

Others, though, are mentioning their facilities and so on to warn us that they aren’t dedicated. So take this one with a grain of salt, produced in a gluten-free facility.

GF foods are far more likely than NGF foods to mention freedom from allergens such as eggs and dairy (and wheat, mentioned more on products where it’s not than where it is). I don’t mind manufacturers killing two (or more) “allergies” with one stone; in an age of multiple allergies, it’s a smart move.

produce aisle

Where are the labels? Are these healthy? Gluten-free? Who knows?!
Photo © I-5 Design & Manufacture | Flickr

Shocker!

At least in this sample, the GF foods don’t seem to trumpet health more than their NGF counterparts, other than freedom-from claims. I was also surprised not to find the words “crave” or “craving” in the GF cloud, since that’s the essential function of these foods: to satisfy that yawning hole left in all of us by the Oreos, pizzas, birthday cakes, and chicken nuggets of yesterday.

Which similarities and differences surprised you? Are any words missing that you’d have expected to see? Do you buy gluten-free food products, and if so, what do you look for on the package labels?

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Is Kosher the Next Gluten-Free?

If your response to this post title was, “WTF, Molly? That makes no sense,” then your head is about where mine was when I read this headline on Forbes.com: “Is Kosher the Next Big Food Trend?”

Big trend? Kosher? I didn’t get it. Yes, some people of Jewish heritage and/or faith keep kosher, but by no means all (the majority of my Jewish acquaintances, for example, do not). How could something so very specific to the needs of a relatively small segment of the population become a big food trend?, I wondered.

Then the writer mentioned gluten. Oh, I thought. Right.

“Gluten-free,” arguably helpful only to the 1-ish percent of the population with celiac disease (and to others who may be gluten sensitive), has nonetheless managed to become a “big food trend” because American consumers are so dumb that you can put anything on a package label and they’ll assume it means “healthy.”

Kosher may be enjoying the same halo, bolstered by the sense that something “certified” must be more rigorously inspected and therefore purer than other products—regardless of what it’s actually being inspected for. (In the case of kosher, for pork, “unclean” animal meat, the mixture of milk and meat, etc.)

And gluten-free, too! Photo © marsmettnn tallahassee | Flickr

And gluten-free, too!
Photo © marsmettnn tallahassee | Flickr

Now, kosher and gluten-free aren’t totally dissimilar. One of my coworkers keeps kosher, and for an office potluck, she brought in a zucchini bread, with a clean kosher plastic knife that she asked everyone to use—“because otherwise I won’t be able to eat it.” I’d brought in a soup, which I dumped into a presumably gluten-contaminated pot to heat on the stove—except for the single serving I’d reserved in a clean gluten-free container to microwave for myself. Both she and I were too trendy to eat what the others had brought.

Additionally, for some people who don’t keep kosher, there are health-related advantages to choosing kosher foods. Vegetarians can be confident there’s no animal-derived rennet in kosher cheese, just as those with wheat allergies can be [fairly] confident there’s none of that in gluten-free foods. People who enjoy putting arbitrary restrictions on their food intake in hopes of losing weight are just as well off choosing kosher foods as gluten-free ones.

Plus, foods that are “Kosher for Passover” must be grain-free, and anything grain-free is automatically gluten-free (though the converse is not necessarily true). Many kosher-certified products are therefore certified GF, too—for example, such health foods as Katz cinnamon rugelach and chocolate-frosted donuts, and Glutino chocolate vanilla crème sandwich cookies.

On the subject of sandwich cookies, let’s consider the Oreo. A fine (though not gluten-free) occasional treat, at 160 calories in a serving of three (if you can stop at three), Oreos are predominantly composed of refined flour, oil, and high-fructose corn syrup, and offer little nutritional value. A health food, the Oreo is not.

But what it is, is kosher. In “probably the most expensive conversion of a company from non-kosher to kosher,” according to Prof. Joe Regenstein, Nabisco converted its cookie formula to cut out lard (derived from pork), and blowtorched all of its factory equipment to remove remaining traces on the lines (in the process destroying, and later replacing, some expensive equipment).

All that just to beat out Hydrox, a competing—kosher—brand that existed before Oreos. When Oreos cut out the lard, they gained enough new customers to cut Hydrox out of the sandwich cookie market. Today, many of us have never heard of Hydrox, and for good reason: it no longer exists.

The triumphant victor Photo © Stoffel Van Eeckhoudt | Flickr

The triumphant victor
Photo © Stoffel Van Eeckhoudt | Flickr

However, the fact that at least three brands of chocolate-and-crème sandwich cookies—not to mention marshmallows, hot dogs, soft drinks, and more—have been able to claim kosher certification exists as powerful evidence that “kosher” doesn’t mean “healthy.”

Similarly, though I love Katz and Glutino, I know that their gluten-free (and kosher) desserts are treats, not health foods. You know that, too, I’d wager. But does anyone want to place bets on how few people in the US and worldwide do?

The idea of kosher as the next health trend has been bubbling up for at least a few years. In 2010, the New York Times published “More People Choosing Kosher for Health,” and in 2012, Dr. Weil weighed in on the question “Are kosher foods better for you?” This puts the trend just a couple years behind gluten, which was getting NYT attention in 2007, and Dr. Weil’s in 2010. If the trajectory continues, then by sometime next year, one in three Americans just might be “trying to go kosher.”

Will that happen? To make a probably not kosher joke…dear G-d, I hope not.

I don't think this needs a caption, do you? Photo © ceetap | Flickr

I don’t think this needs a caption, do you?
Photo © ceetap | Flickr

What do you think? Is kosher poised to become the next big thing? Are there health benefits to it that I’m missing? What package labels make you think a food is healthier?

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Tell me a sprue story about…grocery shopping

In the wake of the FDA finally announcing gluten-free labeling rules (read about it here, here, and pretty much everywhere), I’ve been thinking about grocery shopping even more than usual, if that’s possible.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d love if you would share YOUR stories about gluten-free grocery shopping—make them sad, funny, infuriating, short, long, general, specific, anything you want…as long as they’re “sprue.”

Gluten-free aisle

Photo © Memphis CVB | Flickr

Here’s mine.

For me, shopping with celiac in tow is only slightly more stressful than it used to be (and still likely not as stressful as having, say, a toddler in tow—or with both, a plight with which some of you are familiar).

That’s because even before I went gluten-free, my grocery shopping trips were already interminable processes of pausing, considering, picking up, rejecting, and repeating. I blame this on:

a) calorie consciousness, which adds time spent reading labels and doing little calculations like, “X calories times Y servings per equals WTF HOW CAN THERE BE THAT MANY IN THIS TINY BAG?,” followed by hunting for more reasonable choices;

b) money consciousness, which adds time spent chewing over this option versus that option and more little calculations like, “X dollars divided by Y servings equals WTF HOW CAN IT COST THAT MUCH FOR THIS TINY BAG?,” followed by hunting for sale items (something that now takes less time, because it’s simple: the gluten-free items are NEVER on sale);

c) lack of spatial awareness or visual memory (I can’t see images in my mind, perhaps due to mild dyscalculia, which would also explain why the aforementioned calculations always take me so long), which adds time spent wandering slooooowly down aisles looking at each item and hoping that one of them will magically turn out to be the thing I came in for, which I sort of thought I’d seen before somewhere, but in which aisle or store I couldn’t say;

d) vegetarianism, which adds time spent scanning ingredients lists for gelatin and trying to remember which cheese brands use microbial rennet (and trying to nail down once and for all my viewpoint on animal-derived rennet—a philosophical dilemma that also, incidentally, adds time to my shopping trips);

and I could go on.

In other words, with or without gluten, I suck at shopping. With so many hem- and haw-worthy items in mind, I dawdle my way through the aisles. When I finally emerge from a Whole Foods or a Fairway or a TJ’s, I feel a bit like a mortal departing the fairy underworld, leaving behind halls bursting with enticing and enchanting food, and having no idea how much time has passed in the outside world.

I lug my bags home in a daze and often find, as I sort through the treasure, that in a sudden panic after too much time spent deliberating I managed to buy several items I do not need, will never use, or cannot use (such as, recently, those two boxes of granola bars whose first ingredient—oats, even gluten-free—is one I do not eat). Perhaps I do this unconsciously to form a link between myself and those magical realms; I must return, you see, to make the return.

Despite all this, and even though nobody likes a slow shopper during the afterwork rush hour, I always make it through with my sanity intact. And even after a rough trip when nothing is certified and everything is overpriced, I don’t feel discouraged for long.

Because…I must admit…I like grocery shopping. I like discovering interesting new ingredients, I appreciate marketing slogans and packaging strategies, I enjoy checking items off the shopping list, I indulge in people- and cart-watching, I sniff the bottoms of pineapples like a pro, I savor the sudden chill of the freezer aisle and thrill to the sight of a good bargain, and, above all, I know it’s all in service of a great cause: delicious gluten-free, vegetarian, (mostly) thrifty, nutritious, home-cooked meals.

Worth every second.

Don’t forget to share your story about gluten-free grocery shopping for you or others. Alternatively, tell me how you feel about the new labeling rules. Are they everything you hoped they’d be? (Links to your own blog posts on the subject are, of course, welcome.)

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