The Frankfurter Diaries

I ate two hot dogs the other day. And now I’m going to talk about my feelings about junk food.

The circumstances were these: an early meeting at The Times, “breakfast” of a banana (and lucky to have that), and a morning of activities controlled by others.

Then there was a drive to the Jersey Shore. Just shy of noon, we stopped at a Garden State [1] Parkway rest area of the new style: a “choice” of bad fast food joints rather than just one. I begged my colleagues for some time to have a bite to eat. (It was a day that would include no lunch break.)

The choices were: prewrapped sandwiches, like smoked turkey with provolone on “whole grain” bread (it wasn’t); Burger King; Sbarro; TCBY; Quizno’s; Starbucks; Nathan’s. I was on the phone with a friend who largely shares my weaknesses and prejudices. I did not want a prewrapped sandwich, especially one that looked so dry and unappetizing. My first inclination was Burger King; he pronounced it “poison.”

O.K., but what wasn’t? Where was the real food? It didn’t exist. I gravitated toward Nathan’s. After all, I grew up going to Coney Island; my mother is from there. Nathan’s may not ever have been the best hot dog in New York, but it was iconic. Probably most important, the hot dog is to me comfort food. And it had been a long time.

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Posted in Food Politics

Healthy, Meet Delicious

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There was a time when few of us thought about what we ate, but that’s been turned upside down since the reigning wisdom first decried salt, then cholesterol, then saturated fat, then almost all fat, then red meat, then carbohydrates and so on. Recent culprits include so many foods and foodlike substances that at least twice a week someone asks me: “What’s left to eat? I feel like nothing is safe.”

Before the end of innocence, when hyperprocessed food dominated the diet, we might eat a breakfast of Pop-Tarts or another sugary pastry, followed by a lunch of burgers, fries and a shake, and a dinner of meat-laden pizza, and feel not even a twinge of guilt. Now, almost nothing can be eaten without thinking twice.

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Posted in Food Politics, Vegan

Lost in the Supermarket

Last year, it seemed, every book about food that crossed my desk — other than those about cooking, of course — seemed to have one of two titles: “How I Moved to Brooklyn and Became a Roof-Gardening Butcher” or “The Gluten-Free Diet Saved My Life, and It Can Save Yours.”

This year is different; the books are variations on the title “How Big Food Is Trying to Kill You.” We have “Salt Sugar Fat,” my Times colleague Michael Moss’s epic description of the manipulation of processed food to make it even more palatable and addictive tomorrow than it was yesterday, and how the industry is well aware of how destructive of public health this manipulation truly is. We have the excellent “Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America” by Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, which details the takeover of our food system by that same crew of corporate cynics.

And we have the cleverly titled “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” by Melanie Warner, a freelance (and former Times) reporter, which is so much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is. This is in part thanks to Warner’s measured, almost dry but deceptively alluring reportorial style, but it’s also because the extent to which food is  manipulated – and therefore, consumers as well — is downright absurd . There are more Holy Cow! moments here than even someone who thinks he or she knows what’s going on in food production could predict.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

The Cosmetics Wars

If all goes according to schedule, next month the European Union will become “cruelty-free,” banning without exception the sale of cosmetics ingredients that were tested on animals.

Don’t celebrate yet.

Because although there may be less animal testing of personal care products than there once was — even here in the United States — and many manufacturers have found new ways of determining that products are “safe,” there are still plenty of questionable ingredients in your bubble bath, many of which haven’t been tested by any means at all.

And animal testing is far from over. In fact, China officially mandates animal testing of cosmetics, which puts manufacturers in something of a bind: they won’t be able to engage in animal testing and sell in the European Union, whereas their products must be tested on animals to be sold in China. Quantum theory aside, they cannot occupy both of those spaces simultaneously.

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Posted in Food Politics

Coke Blinks

Once again, Coke has blinked. It famously did so in 1985, when it introduced “new” Coke, replacing its original formula with one it thought would have greater appeal with its audience. It was wrong then.

This time it might be right, but it isn’t going to do the world’s best-known brand any good. It’s hurting from decreased domestic sales and smarting from the piles of evidence that soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are not only our biggest source of calories, but also among our most harmful. So it has struck back with a two-minute video whose ostensible message is that too many calories will make you fat (true), that those in Coke are no worse than any others (false), and that we’re all in this together (ridiculous).

The video is brilliantly executed. Its honeyed, heart-rending voice-over and stirring images — as American as a Chevy commercial — nearly caused me to go out and buy a case myself, as I recalled those innocent days of the ’50s and ’60s when Coke and cigarettes and Our Country and I were all (it seemed) young together, happy and happening and eating burgers and fries like there was no tomorrow. It took me back to when Coke was the real thing, it was “it,” we were teaching the world to sing together, and even Mean Joe Greene was just a cutie. There’s always been Coca-Cola.

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Posted in Food Politics

Stop Subsidizing Obesity

Not long ago few doctors – not even pediatricians – concerned themselves much with nutrition. This has changed, and dramatically: As childhood obesity gains recognition as a true health crisis, more and more doctors are publicly expressing alarm at the impact the standard American diet is having on health.

“I never saw Type 2 diabetes during my training, 20 years ago,” David Ludwig, a pediatrician, told me the other day, referring to what was once called “adult-onset” diabetes, the form that is often caused by obesity. “Never. Now about a quarter of the new diabetes cases we’re seeing are Type 2.”

Ludwig, who is director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center in Boston, is one of three authors, all medical doctors of an essay (“Viewpoint”) in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Opportunities to Reduce Childhood Hunger and Obesity.”

That title that would once have been impossible, but now it’s merely paradoxical. Because the situation is this: 17 percent of children in the United States are obese, 16 percent are food-insecure (this means they have inconsistent access to food), and some number, which is impossible to nail down, are both. Seven times as many poor children are obese as those who are underweight, an indication that government aid in the form of food stamps, now officially called SNAP, does a good job of addressing hunger but encourages the consumption of unhealthy calories.

Read the rest of this column here.

Posted in Food Politics

Dietary Seat Belts

Here’s some good news: Seat belts save lives[1] . So do vaccinations. The world’s population is living longer. The childhood obesity rate has declined[2] in parts of the United States.

That’s miraculous, because the policies for food, energy, climate change and health care are, effectively, “let’s help big producers make as much money as they can regardless of the consequences.”

Except for just after the most visible tragedies, public health and welfare are barely part of the daily conversation. When New York is flooded, climate change dominates TV news — for a week. When innocents are slaughtered with weapons designed for combat, gun control is a critical topic — for a week. When 33 people die violent, painful deaths from eating cantaloupe, food safety is in the headlines — for a week. When nearly 70,000 people die a year, from mostly preventable diabetes, most media ignore it.

Forget the fiscal cliff: we’ve long since fallen off the public health cliff. We need consistent policies that benefit a majority of our citizens, even if it costs corporations money.

Read the rest of this column here.

Posted in Food Politics

Pesticides: Now More Than Ever

How quickly we forget.

After the publication of “Silent Spring,” 50 years ago, we (scientists, environmental and health advocates, birdwatchers, citizens) managed to curb the use of pesticides[1] and our exposure to them — only to see their application grow and grow to the point where American agriculture uses more of them than ever before.

And the threat is more acute than ever. While Rachel Carson[2] focused on their effect on “nature,” it’s become obvious that farmworkers need protection from direct exposure while applying chemicals to crops[3] . Less well known are the recent studies showing that routine, casual, continuing — what you might call chronic — exposure to pesticides is damaging not only to flora but to all creatures, including the one that habitually considers itself above it all: us.

As usual, there are catalysts for this column; in this case they number three.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Hunger in Plain Sight

There are hungry people out there, actually; they’re just largely invisible to the rest of us, or they look so much like us that it’s hard to tell. The Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, better known as SNAP and even better known as food stamps, currently has around 46 million participants, a record high. That’s one in eight Americans — 10 people in your subway car, one or two on every line at Walmart.

We wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but as it stands, the number should be higher[1]: many people are unaware that they’re eligible for SNAP, and thus the participation rate is probably around three-quarters of what it should be.

Food stamps allow you to shop more or less normally, but on an extremely tight budget, around $130 a month. It’s tough to feed a family on food stamps (and even tougher without them), and that’s where food banks — a network of nonprofit, nongovernment agencies, centrally located clearing houses for donated or purchased food that is sent to local affiliated agencies or “pantries” — come in. Food banks may cover an entire state or part of one: the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, for example, serves 53 counties and provides enough food to feed 48,000 square miles and feeds 90,000 people a week — in a state with fewer than four million people.

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Posted in Food Politics

The Food Movement Takes a Beating

AN election that saw great strides for women, gay men and lesbians and even pot smokers left the nascent food movement scratching its collective head. We’re going to see marijuana legalized before we see a simple change in food labeling that’s favored by more than 90 percent of Americans? Or a tax on soda, a likely contributor to the obesity problem?

Possibly.

Proposition 37, which would have required packagers to label foods containing genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.’s) as such, was on the ballot in California. As recently as two months ago, the vote for labeling appeared to be a shoo-in. But then the opposition spent nearly a million dollars a day — a total of $46 million, or about five times as much as the measure’s backers — not so much chipping away at the lead but demolishing it.

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Posted in Food Politics, Slow Food