Monday, October 24, 2011

A food day throw-down.

Today is Food Day – an event put together by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to the website, Food Day is about six principles:

1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods
2. Support sustainable farms and limit subsidies to big agribusiness
3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger
4. Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms
5. Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids
6. Support fair conditions for food and farm workers.

This is a great list that encompasses all my reasons for changing my eating habits and fighting for food system reform. You can follow the links on the site to get more information about the problems and proposed solutions in each area. While you can get a good overview of the food system from this site, I found that a lot of the material glossed over the details and made assertions that I’m not sure would hold up to scrutiny.

My biggest disagreements with the Food Day message are in regards to what they consider safe, healthy food – especially their promotion of whole grains. I’ve talked about these issues in detail in a previous post, so I won’t belabor the points. Promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, supporting sustainable farming practices, and reforming the food system are all extremely important, so I’m glad the Food Day folks are working to get the message out. Instead of arguing over the details, I’d like to issue a Food Day challenge that I think really will promote better health and environmental sustainability.

Life, unsweetened.

My challenge is to go unsweetened – period. For the next 30 days, I will not eat anything with added sweetener of any kind. That includes sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, fruit juice, etc. It also includes non-caloric/artificial sweeteners like Stevia. Luckily, fruit contains no added sweetener, so I can have as much as I want!

Why go unsweetened?

We consume more sugar than we ever have in all of human history. As I reported in a previous post about sugar, the average American consumes 440 calories each day in the form of caloric sweeteners. The average teen in America consumes 72 grams of sugar a day. Overconsumption of sugar, especially in the form of fructose, can reduce the body’s sensitivity to insulin leading to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even liver failure.

Another benefit of avoiding added sweetener is that it forces you to read labels and know what is in your food. You may be surprised by how many foods contain sweeteners, including things like bread and tomato sauce. Fat free products are notoriously bad about substituting sugar for fat. Avoiding added sweetener will likely mean buying more whole foods, like fresh produce and meat, and staying away from processed food. It will also mean a little more preparation and time in the kitchen. But trust me, cooking is fun!

The reason sweeteners are in so many things is twofold. First, we are hard-wired to crave sweets because they exist so rarely in nature. Making food sweeter will generally keep people coming back for more. The other reason for all the added sweetness is that corn sweeteners are really, really cheap. Farm subsidies promote resource-intensive monoculture cropping systems that damage the environment but are very good at producing vast quantities of industrial-grade grains. Corn produced in this manner is processed into many kinds of food additives including sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup. By eliminating added sugars and sweeteners from your diet, you are saying no to these damaging farming practices.

But I just can’t live without my…

Of course, we all have sweet things that we love so much, they don’t seem worth going without. It’s only for one month, though. And you may find that, after a month without added sugars dominating your palette, sweet things may lose some of their appeal. Still don’t think you could go without? Make yourself a deal. If you love ice cream, buy a pint and make it last the whole month.

Still don’t think you could take the challenge? Flip it around. Pick the one sweetened thing you consume the most - soda, diet soda, donuts, whatever - and eliminate that for one month.

Take the challenge!

Food Day is a chance for all of us to rethink our food choices. Whether you do it for your health, the environment, or just to try something new, going unsweetened is a great way to spend a month. So, leave a comment and commit to a month without sweets!


  1. I like the six principles above, but CSPI is trouble. They're the guys who told McDonald's to switch from beef tallow to healthy hydrogenated unsaturated fats for their fries. Doh!

    Then they said ok no more trans fats, go to unsaturated non-hydrogenated fats. Oh great, now the fried taste boiled, but they oxidize in your blood system.

    They took a reasonable food and in two steps converted them into poison. Tom Naughton talks about it in Fathead.

  2. I agree, Tony; there was a lot about the CSPI message that I disagreed with. I didn't know about the french fries, but it's not too surprising. I do think Food Day is a good idea though. I also think we will have better success if we help get our message out alongside people who are already being heard rather than simply trying to undermine or fight against them. That's why I proposed a different Food Day challenge than CSPI would have rather than, say, boycotting Food Day.

    The continuation of the low-fat paradigm drives me nuts. I am convinced by the literature that eating fat will not make me fat as long as I'm eating the same kinds of fats that people have been eating for millions of years. The only fats I am afraid of are the novel ones created by the food industry to capitalize on the few monoculture crops we can grow cheaply but at such a high environmental cost. My diet has increased a lot in fat and saturated fat from pastured animal products, wild-caught fish, olive and coconut oils, and a little whole fat yogurt. I've lost weight, feel great, and have passed all my doctor's blood tests with flying colors.

    I am also especially irked by the promotion of whole grains. First, there is nothing you can get from grains that you can't get from vegetables. And veggies don't have the anti-nutrients (like gluten) that can make grains problematic for so many people. Even more than their nutrition, though, I am bothered by the whole grain idea because it keeps people in the mainstream food system. I don't think we will become a healthier nation or defeat the obesity epidemic by getting people to switch to Chocolate Cheerios with whole grains (yes, this is a real product). The key to good health is to eat minimally-processed foods that have been a part of the human diet for ages, and that is what we should be promoting.