This week humorist Andy Borowitz sent out a Tweet on Twitter (I still feel like an idiot when I say Tweet with a straight face) which said, “Waiters say “Are you still working on that?” because Americans treat eating like a career.” As with all things Andy Borowitz, it was meant to be be funny but with the hard ring of truth. By the way, if you want to laugh until you snort your Starbucks order out through your nose, follow Borowitz’ coverage of the US Presidential campaign, which you can get HERE. You’re welcome.
But back to the point at hand. Americans spend more time thinking and talking about their next meal than do the Ethiopians, and that’s saying something. God knows what percent of TV commercials are for junk food, but it’s a healthy number (or unhealthy one as the case may be). I haven’t seen the 2012 Super Bowl yet, but I’m going to wager that at least 1/3 of the high priced ads are going to be for things that you really want to eat or drink but really but shouldn’t. The other 2/3 of the ads are going to be for erectile dysfunction drugs, making each of us squirm in our seats as our children, seated next to us on the couch, say, “mom, dad, what is erectile dysfunction?” Or they’ll snicker loudly if they already know.
Interestingly, some significant portion of the publicly-conducted food discourse has recently turned to what not to eat. While Wendy’s is using the old drug dealer trick of getting you hooked on the Baconator Double while dangling the Baconator Triple in front of you as the next logical step in your descent into Hell, there is a rising cacophony of voices talking to us about healthy eating. Not just dieting, which is really not the point, but eating well and healthfully to lose weight and, more importantly, maximize health. It is a brave new world when celebrity chef Paula Deen, queen of butter, announces she is a Type II diabetic (really? I’m shocked-just shocked) and then her son comes out not five minutes later to announce he will be offering the world healthier versions of her famous dishes on his new show, Not My Mama’s Meals. If you think Julia Child’s kid could have gotten away with that kind of public insubordination, you have another thing coming. Back in Julia’s day it was a badge of honor to butter up. Today people are beginning to open their eyes to the wonderful world of vegetables and small portion sizes. I’m not saying that every American has gotten on the lima bean bandwagon, but a few cases in point:
A few weeks ago Hostess, the makers of Wonder Bread, Twinkies and my personal favorite, Snowballs (sporting a color pink that even Barbie could not aspire to achieve with such consistency), announced that it was filing for bankruptcy protection for a second time. They cited two reasons for this act: 1) labor costs that are making them uncompetitive; and 2) the trend towards healthier eating. Here are some excerpts from the article that ran in the Wall Street Journal on this story.
Hostess has enough cash to keep stores stocked with its Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and other snacks for now as it battles rising labor costs and increased competition. But longer term, the 87-year-old company has a bigger problem: health-conscious Americans favor yogurt and energy bars over the dessert cakes and white bread they devoured 30 years ago.
Last year, 36 percent of Americans ate white bread in their homes, down from 54 percent in 2000, according to NPD Group. Meanwhile, about 54 percent ate wheat bread, up from 43 percent in 2000.*
Consumption of healthy snacks is growing, too. About 32 percent of Americans ate yogurt at least once in two weeks in 2011, for instance, up from 18 percent in 2000.
“We’re less likely to be snacking on items that we shouldn’t be snacking on,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm.
Actually, the best quote in the article is this explanation of Twinkies, “It’s this cake filled with an unidentifiable sugary cream filling that never goes bad.” Yikes. In a world where people are starting to read nutrition labels more regularly, things that are unidentifiable and have a shelf life of infinity are not going to fare well.
Case in point number two: the iPhone, magical mystery product and answer to all of the worlds problems according to many, has something like 3000 apps in it’s store related in some way shape or form to healthy eating and fitness. There may be apps that help you find the most revolting, fattening substances out there too (maybe Denny’s has one?) but they are not getting a lot of publicity. Some of these healthy lifestyle apps are getting substantial download action. Okay, I know, it’s not Temple Run, but there is a legitimate purchasing constituency here.
More interesting to me is the fact that insurance companies have begun seriously incorporating access to healthy eating games and applications for their members in an attempt to take a serious whack at improving the health of their covered populations. The move towards wellness/prevention is pretty new really: historically insurance programs have been designed primarily to take care of the sick, not reward the healthy. But the world is changing. In a world where it is far too expensive to stop the runaway train of costs for those with chronic illness, Plan B has become the attempt to stop the Diabetes/Hypertension Express before it goes off the tracks. Humana, United Healthcare, Cigna, Wellpoint, Aetna and Psilos’ very own SeeChange Health are fully on this bandwagon, as are many others. This kind of stuff used to be considered a cute little frill in the insurance old days, back before the Internet bubble when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and I worked in the insurance field. Today it is considered an essential product component in a world where insurers are being forced to better manage care and also migrate themselves into sophisticated consumer brand marketing organizations.
Another case in point: in the old days, say 5 years ago, if you went to a professional sporting arena in the US, your culinary options were hot-dogs, hamburgers, pizza, chicken fingers (from chickens specially grown with hands I guess), soda and candy. You got to sit on your butt in the stands watching other people exercise while you ate your way into cardiac arrest. Today that crap is still available at all major sporting arenas, but you can also find healthy options at most major league ball parks. I know everyone expects San Francisco to have a bunch of tree-hugging, sprout-eating dorks ordering veggie sandwiches from the actual real live AAA Club Farmers Market in the SF Giants’ AT&T Park; however, even the despicable New York Giants now offer salads and bottled water alongside the Nathans Franks at MetLife Stadium. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.
Here’s how I know for sure that the mainstream energy around healthy eating is real and here to stay: we are starting to see research studies funded that “prove” that bad eating really isn’t so bad after all. Call it the desperate act of an industry in retreat, but when you see studies that go to great lengths to prove that smoking doesn’t necessarily cause cancer, don’t you wonder whose idea the study was (can anyone spell Tobacco companies)? This is happening in the healthy eating space now too.
My recent favorite was a study allegedly proving that junk food-laden school lunches don’t cause obesity in middle school students. Um, exsqueeze me? (I know that you fellow Wayne’s World fans just said, “baking powder?”). Now this study may well be unbiased with no industry backing or leaning, but what in God’s name is the legitimate purpose of a study that in effect says that unhealthy eating at home is the villain but crap eating at school is just not really adding to the problem? It reminds me of that old Steve Martin comedy routine in which he says, he would never smoke pot, well never in the late early morning or the mid late early evening, er, I mean never at dusk…or something like that. In other words, he would engage in bad behavior all the time except for that little moment when the green flash goes over the horizon. And this school lunch study reminds me of that because of it’s conclusions, which are that kids at middle schools that sell lots of junk food don’t gain more weight than those at schools with less junk food. According to the researcher, “kids don’t actually have that much time to eat at school, so their out-of-school eating habits are a more important factor in determining their weight. Children’s environments at home and in their communities may provide so many opportunities to eat unhealthy foods that competitive food sales in schools have little influence on children’s weight.”
Read for yourself, but it boggles my mind that the conclusion here is that junk food isn’t a problem. It is probably better to characterize the problem as one of middle school students having overall bad eating habits considering the number of obese kids out there. Again, I don’t know these researchers or their funding sources or their personal motivations so maybe their efforts are entirely pure. I do find it worrisome that this study comes at the same time as a serious food industry attempt to get tomato sauce labeled as a legitimate school lunch vegetable. But either way, it is when the world doth protest too much that you know you are onto something, and that something is that healthy eating has entered the mainstream national dialogue for real. Let’s hope that it snowballs, and I don’t mean that in a pink snack cake sort of way. The future of our children’s health is on the line.**
*Whenever I read anything about Wonder Bread it reminds me of one of the few jokes I can ever remember and that, as a reformed marketing person, I think is really funny: Starbucks’ VP of marketing takes a day trip to Rome to tell the Pope that Starbucks will donate $1 million to the church if agrees to change the Lord’s prayer from ” give us this day, our daily bread”, to “give us this day, our daily coffee.” Pope says, “no way.” Starbucks guys says, “what about if we donate $100 million?”. Pope says, “no way, it’s the Lord’s prayer for goodness sake.” Starbucks guy says, “look, you guys are having some financial challenges so get real – my final offer is $1 billion.” To which the Pope says, “well okay fine, it’s a deal, but the Wonder Bread guys are going to be really pissed off.”
**for some really good healthy recipes see this blog, Wellness Made Natural, written by a friend, Danielle Krupa, who is entirely unrelated to Paula Deen.