Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Healthy Junk Food, an Oxymoron?

When I was a kid, it was a big deal to go to McDonald's or the Dairy Queen in my hometown.  My parents were big believers in sit-down meals with family no matter how busy everyone was.  The only exception was breakfast because we all had different schedules.  But we always came together for dinner at 6 p.m.  During the school year, if we went out to dinner as a family, it was to a nice restaurant, and it was usually for Sunday dinner.  During the summers, however, my parents would sometimes splurge and take us to McDonald's or Burger King. 
From: Foxnews.com

As an adult, I've gone to fast food restaurants when I haven't had the time to sit down and eat, or to pick up something to bring back to the office.  Yes, I had my favorites.  I loved Thai take-out, Chinese take-out, and Italian pasta take-out.  At one time, there was a soup take-out place in the same building as my office and I went there every day for their delicious soup with French bread.  So, I didn't always head for McDonald's or Burger King or Arby's when I needed a take-out meal.  There was even a Thai restaurant in downtown that would sell take-out.  I loved especially salads, rice and vegetables, pasta with marinara sauce.


So, I read with interest David H. Freedman's article, How Junk Food Can End Obesity, in the July/August 2013 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  He reports on Michael Pollan's healthy food movement and the reasons why it will only work for those who can afford it and not the people who really need it, i.e. lower income people working more than one job with no time for sit-down family meals every day.  I thought this was an excellent, thought-provoking article but I also think it let food companies off the hook a little bit.

We eat on a yearly basis an incredible amount of processed food.  My mother would be horrified.  The closest she came to processed food was Campbell's soup and the snacks she bought for their bridge club evenings.  But even though I grew up in my mother's house, absorbing her philosophy of cooking and eating, I still eat processed food.  At one point, I began reading labels and discovered that on every single ingredients list sat high fructose corn syrup thumbing its nose at me.  This ingredient is another name for sugar.  Sometimes you can find it listed as well as "sugar."  High sodium levels is another problem with processed foods.  And then there are the chemical preservatives.  Why do I continue to eat processed foods?

As David Freedman admits, it's easy to prepare and eat.  I confess, too, that I do not enjoy cooking the way my mother did.  In fact, I really dislike it.  So, for people like me, Freedman reports that food company scientists are developing healthier processed food as well as healthier junk food.  It's like bringing the mountain to the people who refuse to go to it.  I personally think it's about time.  Why would food companies want to make products that weren't healthy?

There is a school of thought that theorizes the food companies have added specific ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup, that will addict people to their products.  In this way, they can sell more and enjoy higher profits.  I have to admit, I tend to agree with this theory.  Why not?  America is all about capitalism, and what isn't more capitalistic than selling more product for higher profits?  As long as whatever the additives are won't kill their customers so they'll come back for more, then they'll do it.  In the last five years or so, however, food companies have been reducing the amounts of these ingredients in their products, or eliminating them altogether: high fructose corn syrup, high fat, and high sodium.  They've done this in response to their customers' demands as well as people like Michael Pollan in the foodie movement.

So, why couldn't fast food companies make healthy junk food?  I personally think it's a terrific idea.  They have already introduced alternatives to their high fat foods such as salads, fruits, yogurt.  I've even seen turkey burgers advertised which are much lower in fat than beef burgers.  I'd think that food companies would want their customers to live long, healthy lives so that they can continue to buy the companies' products.  They never really advertised that high fructose corn syrup, high fat and high sodium were in their products, so I see no reason why they'd need to tout taking them out or reducing them.

Changing the food we eat is only one part of getting in shape as a nation and stopping the obesity epidemic.  Education is an important part, as well as regular physical exercise.  Why do some people overeat?  There is a psychological aspect also that tends to get lost.  We develop a relationship with food in childhood that could be to our detriment, and that needs to be addressed.  So, changing the processed food we eat to be more healthful is only one step in the right direction....

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