February 28, 2011

America’s Snack Attack

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Remember your favorite childhood snack?

Mine was Cheez Doodles. As a second-grader, I would be thrilled when another student brought a bag of those puffy curls to class. I’d savor each one collapsing between my teeth, layers of air dissolving in a delicate crunch of mild cheddar. I even wrote a 42-page book about junk food, mostly pictures, in which Cheez Doodles were the main character.

Why did Cheez Doodles hold such appeal for me? Looking at them today, I find it hard to evoke the faintest tingle of craving. Dredged in a Halloween pumpkin-colored powder, the chunky puffs are soggy and tasteless. But back then, they had a powerful appeal — they were fun to eat.

Today, I’d much rather munch on a cube of real cheese. But I don’t attribute this change in tastes to physical or intellectual maturation. Rather, I give my family the credit for teaching me that food that isn’t marketed to children can still be fun to eat.

Thousands of American children aren’t so lucky. Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years. In 1980, 6.5 percent of children were obese; in 2008, that number tripled to 19.6 percent, according to the CDC. Obesity isn’t just a problem for personal vanity. It’s a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and for types of diabetes, among other potentially life-threatening disorders.

And it’s spreading to other countries that adopt the American way of life. The Chinese diet — traditionally based on relatively unprocessed foods such as rice, proteins and vegetables — now includes Western-style processed snack foods high in calories, fats and sugars. Between 1986 and 2006, China’s childhood obesity rate has doubled, according to National Geographic. In 2006, the Shanghai Physical Education Institute, a four-week weight-loss camp, opened its doors.

No wonder that out of all the issues affecting America, Michelle Obama has targeted the obesity epidemic. Her “Let’s Move” initiative aims to “solve the problem of obesity within a generation,” according to the website. Yet, this ambitious goal is hindered by a dearth of actual advice. Visit the “Eat Healthy” section of the website, and you’ll be confronted with a bewildering list of guidelines: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Next Generation Food Pyramid. The site does not tell us, as Michael Pollan crisply does, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In fact, even though the section is called “Eat Healthy,” Obama’s page barely gives any recommendations on how to do so.

There’s a reason the government’s advice is limited to “reduce the number of snacks served each day,” rather than spelling out what’s so wrong with snack food that we should reduce our consumption of it. Food manufacturers are constantly lobbying the government, and both the President’s wife and the USDA are probably reluctant to giving consumers any advice that might disappoint their deep-pocketed friends at Nabisco.

The link between politicians and snack food manufacturers isn’t just a conspiracy theory. Visit the Snack Food Association website, and you’ll see a prominent announcement that ex-governor of Florida Jeb Bush is giving the keynote speech at SNAXPO 2011, the industry’s largest trade show. In his speech, Bush “will analyze how the Obama administration is working with a divided Congress and what it means as both political parties seek to increase their influence as the 2012 elections draw ever closer.” But wait. Isn’t this a snack food trade show?

There’s a common argument that people should be able to make their own nutritional choices. But while it’s true that healthy eating shouldn’t be shoved down peoples’ throats, there’s a huge difference between giving consumers the freedom to eat what they want and misleading them at every turn.

“People just don’t know what to eat,” one Cornell junior said.

Go to any supermarket and stand in the snack aisle, and this point will be brought uncomfortably home. Food manufacturers sensing profit in the uncertainties of American parents have turned every food that was once “real” — dangling from a tree branch, buried in the earth — into a cheap, convenient snack that seems to maintain all the virtues of the original.

Parents want to provide their kids with healthy food, but manufacturers have made it difficult for them to recognize it. “As a good source of fiber and 10 grams of whole grain, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes Gold (TM) is not only a nutritious choice, but it also gives kids energy at breakfast and snack time,” wrote Jennifer Garrett, director of nutrition marketing, Kellogg Company, in a press release. She doesn’t mention that the cereal is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup — a leading contributor to obesity — and that each ¾ cup (probably half a typical serving) contains 10 grams of sugar. But if you wanted some orange juice with that bowl of fiber, she might suggest reaching for Sunny D, a Vitamin-C enriched orange beverage made with a whopping 2-percent fruit juice.

Manufacturers know that to appeal to busy consumers, foods have to be presented as convenient. Why would you slice a fresh apple when you can buy dried apple slices? Or bake your own cookies when you can buy a package of Oreos? To compete with these convenience foods, a snack doesn’t only have to be affordable, it has to be FUN. How can we really expect kids raised on Fruit-by-the Foot to understand the delight of a fresh peach?

We need to confront a world where the favorite snacks of childhood are the profit makers for Coca-Cola and Nabisco. Think back and ask yourself: What was your favorite snack? Unless you, like one of my friends, were lucky enough to have a family that raised you to snack on fresh mangoes, chances are your favorite snack food was produced by one of these large corporations.

And it makes a difference. Today, I can’t stand junk food. The reason I loved Cheez Doodles so much was probably because they were so exotic to me. When I came home from school hungry, I’d make a peanut butter sandwich. My family doesn’t buy Wonder Bread or Skippy. The first time I tasted sliced supermarket bread, I nearly gagged at the spongy softness. Instead I’d indulge in a toasted onion bagel with freshly ground peanut butter, spread liberally with strawberry jam. As much as I craved the fun adventure of Cheez Doodles, I knew they weren’t real food.

But for my friends who grew up microwaving Bagel Bites and Easy Mac, who never watched their parents tear up fresh lettuce or cut eggplant into thick steaks for grilling, it’s exotic and even weird to see a food in its raw form. Without the familiar black-and-white nutrition panel, they don’t know how to interpret it. And chances are good that they’ll buy their children Cheez Doodles — or whatever new product manufacturers come out with — without thinking twice about what they’re really buying.

Elisabeth Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at erosen@cornellsun.com. The Critic’s Corner appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Elisabeth Rosen