“Contains NO HFCS!”

September 19, 2011 by

Have you noticed that some grocery items are adding to their labels the words “Contains NO High Fructose Corn Syrup”? Big, bold lettering, splashed right across the front of the package. Lots of ALL CAPS, too! The manufacturers are proud of this, and they want you to notice.


Well, as someone who has spent many years in the world of food industry marketing, I can tell you this for certain: food companies conduct a lot of consumer research. This label addition is a response to what shoppers like you are telling them. We can assume the words “high fructose corn syrup” are a negative now to many people.

HFCS, as it’s popularly known, is a chemical sweetener that is found in many, many packaged products… everything from breakfast cereals to salad dressings, ice cream, many yogurts and canned goods. Because it’s made from corn – a “natural food” — its chief proponents (companies like Cargill that manufacture the stuff) will tell you that it is 100% safe to eat, unlike some other sweeteners. And that may well be true. The unknown, however, is the effect of consuming the amount of HFCS that most of us do – 42 pounds per person per year, according to Atlantic magazine. HFCS is an ingredient in just about every processed food product you can purchase.

Considering that HFCS has only been used in food production since the 1970’s, there are no long-term studies that verify that it is safe to consume, let alone in this quantity. It was when beverage manufacturers started using it in soda in 1984 that its popularity really took off. A look at the parallel rise in obesity rates in this country during the same time period that HFCS became so entrenched in our diets should give us all pause. Coincidence?

The corn lobby is fighting hard to maintain the use of HFCS. Recognizing that they have a public relations image problem on their hands, corn refiners are even petitioning the FDA to change the name of the product to “corn sugar.” That sounds so much more palatable than high fructose corn syrup, doesn’t it?

But even if HFCS is not really a bad thing to eat, it’s definitely not a good thing. In researching my 2009 book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, I learned that, if nothing else, HFCS is sweet and makes products that it is added to taste unnaturally so. Looks like consumers are beginning to realize that, and are asking for options in some packaged products. And the food industry’s receptivity to this consumer concern is very good news.

“It’s Time to Eat the Peas…” Oh, Please

July 15, 2011 by

I normally try not to get involved in political discussions, especially anything involving kids and healthier eating, which I hope is a goal that we all share. But one statement made by President Obama this week – in the heat of the Congressional budget battle – made me see red. Or maybe I should say green.

“It’s not going to get easier, so we might as well do it now. Pull off the Band-Aid; eat our peas,” the President pronounced, meaning that we have to swallow some things that may be unpalatable in order to reach compromise. My first thought: How could the leader of an administration that is boldly striving to eliminate childhood obesity say something like that? Michelle, will you please get your husband under control?

Now, this may seem silly and really petty, but any parent who struggles at the dining room table with a young child who refuses to eat green vegetables will understand what I mean. As I discuss extensively in my book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything (Bull Publishing), one of the most important tactics that parents have in enticing their kids to eat a broad and healthful diet is the power of persuasion. As in, the words and descriptions that we use about different foods.

How often do you hear adults talking about their own dietary limitations, foods they don’t like or even “hate,” and their disdain for cooking? “My husband is a meat and potatoes guy; he would never eat that,” is a phrase I hear often from women. “If the Smiths are coming over, we’d better just order pizza; there are too many things they won’t eat.” Or, “I’m on a diet and I can’t be bad again today and have a dessert.” If young children are in the house, you can bet that they pick up on these statements and incorporate them into their own thinking.

Even worse is when adults make definitive comments about not liking entire categories of food. Personal preferences and negative generalizations become the subject of too much conversation, as in: “I don’t eat spicy foods,” “He doesn’t eat seafood,” “So and so doesn’t like vegetables,” “I tried that once and didn’t like it.” And on and on. As President Obama, the father of two young children should know, all of this chatter is heard and absorbed by little ears, and just gives kids an as-of-yet undeserved license to judge foods.

What’s wrong with the taste of peas, anyway? Fresh from the garden and properly prepared, peas are one of the best tasting vegetables around. Right, kids?

But when the country’s First Father is publically equating the eating of peas with the most dreaded steps imaginable, we have a long way to go in changing a nation’s mindset towards healthful eating.

When “Healthy Eating” is the Wrong Message

July 5, 2011 by

Yesterday, as I was putting the finishing touches on the Chocolate Raspberry Brownies and the Curried Couscous with Roasted Vegetables, Peach Chutney and Cilantro Yogurt that I took to our neighborhood Fourth of July party, I caught the tail end of a TV segment on “Healthy Eating.” It was a dietitian, chirping away about how to “Slim Down Your Holiday Picnic.” Get nutritious by “Incorporating the new My Plate” recommendations into your Independence Day meal!


My response was a big eye roll and a “can’t they let up, just for one day?!”

How many people do you know who set a primary goal of eating “healthy” on the 4th of July? At the party my family attended, there was a lot of talk about food. But – people who want to help us control weight gain — if you had listened in, you would have been surprised at what you heard.

No one was dissecting the number of calories or nutrients in the various dishes. I didn’t hear one mother there admonish a child to “make the watermelon and green beans half of the size of the plate!” Instead, the talk was about food. Which area farms still have blueberries for picking? How is the drought in the South affecting the peach crop this year? Look how perfectly flakey the crust for this blueberry pie turned out! Will the neighbor who made this fabulous fennel, avocado and quinoa salad please please please e-mail us the recipe?

To me, this represents an ongoing disconnect between the nutrition/ health world, and the people that they are trying to serve by providing information. You can come up with all of the rules, recommendations and “eat more of this” chart diagrams that you’d like; in the long run, these are not effective because they don’t address the way people really eat or think about food. We don’t compartmentalize our eating in the way that My Plate suggests. If I’m at a 4th of July celebration and grilled sausages and baked beans are on the menu, am I supposed to question the host to find out how much bacon and sugar she used in the recipe? Even worse, am I supposed to not eat the grilled sausages and baked beans, my holiday favorites, and opt instead for the veggie burger and salad that I can have anytime?

As I discuss in my book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, I’m all for healthy eating, and teaching kids to do the same. But I think that promoting this is best accomplished by focusing on the food, rather than the nutrient components, that people eat. If the 4th of July is the day for eating delicious, traditional dishes that may not be the most healthful, then make the fifth of July a day for more exercise, fruits and vegetables and fewer calories. But please don’t ask me to “slim down” or eliminate my favorite recipes!

Are There “Bad” Foods?

June 3, 2011 by

Grocery shopping with my three-year-old, we walked down the cereal aisle and alongside the colorful display of boxes. Daniel pointed to the Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops and stated rather gravely, “Those are bad cereals.” (And since he’s never actually tried them, he can’t be referring to their taste!)

Rather, it seems as though he has internalized a message that I often present to my kids when it comes to food choices: In most food categories, like cereals, there are choices between good foods and bad foods. And it’s up to us to learn to tell the difference between the two. But is it as easy as saying that high calorie/ high fat/ low nutrient foods are “bad,” and nutrient-dense, healthy foods are “good?” I don’t think so.

To judge foods by this one standard alone is too simplistic, and ignores an important criteria in the way that most people pick the foods they eat: the way they taste. Unfortunately, however, the more black and white version is the way that most of us are conditioned to think.

Consider this: A little cupcake or dessert, made by someone who really knows how to bake. Or a single piece of top quality chocolate. A favorite wine. A spread of a rich Brie cheese on a piece of baguette. Yum. Now those are good foods – not by the standards of nutrition, perhaps, but because they are top quality, full of real flavor, and bring us so much pleasure when we eat them.

But you can also easily find the flip side – the bad food version of these same items. This is the one that offers nothing in the way of interesting flavor, let alone nutrition. A pre-packaged, store bought cupcake or dessert – stale, flavorless, dry. Cheap candy, made of nothing but sugar and artificial color. Soda or other beverages on sweetness overload, due to high fructose corn syrup or artificial chemical sweeteners. Bland, plastic wrapped cheese sticks.

Which version do you eat? Which do you feed your kids?

My mother has an expression about food choice, particularly when it comes to desserts. She will take a bite of something, think about it for a moment, and announce that it is “not worth the calories.” In other words, not all brownies are created equally. There are fabulous, homemade brownies, prepared with fresh ingredients. They are meant to be savored and enjoyed and, because every bite is so delicious, a small quantity can suffice. And then there are the off-the-shelf, packaged, chemical-laden store-bought varieties that are neither truly enjoyable nor satisfying.

I believe that a major problem with modern Americans’ eating style is that we are too afraid to make judgment calls about foods. We’re simply not discerning enough when it comes to the quality of the food we eat, especially what we give our kids. And unfortunately, we have not been well-served on this issue by government, health professional and some food industry groups that like to claim that “there are no bad foods, only bad diets.”

That simply is not true. There are plenty of “bad” foods, and until we start – here’s that word – judging them as such, we are going to continue to have serious problems with our nation’s health.

On Toucans and Tigers

May 25, 2011 by

Oh, to be a parent of young children in 2011, when we have to cope with toucans and tigers on cereal boxes, and the threat they pose to kids’ health.

“I can’t imagine any mom in America who thinks stripping tigers and toucans off cereal boxes will do anything to reduce obesity,” Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers and retailers, said about new proposed federal regulations to restrict the marketing and advertising of food products directly to young children.

Yes, if this were 1960, and cereal boxes and cartoon figures created for a box front were all we had to contend with, I might agree with you, Mr. Faber. But you know as well as I do that Toucan Sam and Tony the Tiger, and their presence on the cereal shelf alone, is barely the tip of the iceberg. (And of course, we didn’t have the levels of childhood obesity in 1960 that we do now – not even close.)

As I detail extensively in my book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything (Bull Publishing), the creation of (high-sugar/ low-nutrient/ bland and flavor-void) food products for children as young as two years old – and the incessant and direct advertising/ marketing/ promotion associated with them – has increased exponentially since most current-day parents were kids themselves. Cap’n Crunch, Ronald McDonald, Chef Boyardee and others have made friends with some of your kids’ favorite book and cartoon characters, giving us a world where SpongeBob SquarePants sells Popsicles and mac and cheese, Spider-Man eats Pop-Tarts and Barbie stumps for frozen waffles.

The sheer volume of all of this “outreach” to children — through television shows, internet games, toys, movies, clothing lines, books, movies and on and on – is astounding. It’s to the point that even many parents like me, who do recognize the role of personal responsibility and know that we are responsible for our kids’ food choices, have to recognize how outgunned we are. $2 billion dollars spent each year in advertising food products alone to children, against…. what…me, saying “No, Sweetie, you can’t have that today?” Standing firm for your kids against this onslaught is akin to battling an avalanche, armed only with a small snow shovel.

Yes, you read that right: $2 billion dollars spent each year on marketing just to children, and that’s just food products. What further proof is needed that this advertising works, and that more and more of these less-than-stellar foods are being bought and consumed? Companies don’t invest that kind of money without results.

Are federal guidelines to limit the advertising reach, and to restrict what types of products can be marketed directly to kids, the answer? I’d love to hear what you think.

MMMMMM! Acetylated Monoglycerides!

May 16, 2011 by

I just signed my kids up for a summer activity in which all of the parents were asked to pick a day to bring a snack for the group. 

If you’ve read my book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything (Bull Publishing), you know how detrimental to good health and good eating I think it is that Every Single Kids’ Event seems to revolve around a snack time.  But there’s more.  Now, it seems, we’re being encouraged to bring in store-bought, packaged goods to serve as these “treats,” rather than anything that is homemade, because “we can read the list of ingredients.”  Huh?  And that doesn’t frighten you more than the fact that someone you don’t know may be making the cookies?

I think this line of reasoning started with food allergy awareness, which of course is a serious medical issue that many families must vigilantly take into account at all times.  When you have a group of kids who are eating together, it’s easier if they are all served a brand of crackers or cookies that the allergy child can safely eat.  I get that.  But as with many things that start out as a good idea, this is one policy that has gone overboard and now negatively impacts many more children, whether there is a food allergy in the group or not. 

Take something like Lemon Crème cookies, for example.  With a little time and effort, I can make these at home by combining fresh lemon juice and lemon peel with things like butter, powdered sugar, baking soda and eggs.  Rather tasty, I have to say, with a distinct lemon- and-butter flavor that is especially nice on a hot summer day.  Or, I can go to the store and buy a box of Snackwell’s Lemon Crème Cookies, slice open the cardboard and plastic wrapping, and serve a cookie that is made of all kinds of things I’ve never heard of — things like maltitol, polydextrose, potassium sorbate and turmeric oleorosin, to name a few of the chemical ingredients listed on the box.  (This is along with other chemical ingredients that I have heard of and know we shouldn’t be eating… things like high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils.)

This is supposed to make us feel better about the foods we serve our kids?

Whatever good intent behind a snacking policy like this, in the end, it does more harm than help.  Encouraging adults to spend some time in the kitchen, preparing homemade recipes for kids?  Forget it.  Teaching children the taste and health difference between fresh foods prepared with seasonal, local ingredients, and pre-packaged, boxed knock-offs that have been sitting on the store shelf for who knows how long?  Not important. 

No, all that seems to matter now when it comes to kids and snacking is the fact that they do it.  And as with too many issues involving children, quality takes a back seat to process.

The Politics of Breastfeeding

February 21, 2011 by

SHAME ON YOU, Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin for your lame attempts to score political points by criticizing First Lady Michelle Obama’s pro-breastfeeding position.  We finally have a public figure who has the gumption to state the obvious: Breastfeeding is beneficial to public health.  It should be promoted and encouraged.

But for no other reason that Obama is a Democrat, and therefore your political “enemy,” you slam her, saying that she is promoting a “nanny state.”  Never mind the science, the facts, and the soaring rates of obesity and health care costs in this country, both of which could be reduced if more babies were breastfed for a longer period of time. 

This issue has long been an elephant that no one will speak about in the midst of public health care debates.  The formula industry in this country is a massive one, and it’s done a real snow job on generations of parents and even doctors, convincing too many that formula feeding is “just as good” as breast milk. After all, it’s so much easier and more convenient, blah blah blah.

And so formula-making has grown to a 5+ billion dollar business in the U.S. alone. As I detail in my book “My Two Year Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” (Bull Publishing), it is a marketing machine that has skillfully insinuated itself into the medical profession and the hearts and minds of too many new mothers, with well-time giveaways, products samples and coupons. 

All while the evidence continues to mount that breastfeeding helps to protect babies from a host of maladies, as infants, throughout childhood and perhaps beyond.  (And, to my particular focus about kids and flavors/ tastes, it is a terrific way to start down the path of feeding them “real” foods.)

Representative Bachman said that she has five children and that she breastfed all of them.  Well, great.  If that’s the case, then she as well as anyone should know how important it is to the health of those kids. And as one who has gone through the trenches, she should be aware of the mounds of misinformation floating around about breastfeeding, and how critical early support, education and encouragement is to many new mothers. 

“To think that the government should go out and buy my breast pump… that’s the new definition of Nanny State,” Bachman self-righteously fumes.  Oh, really?  Does she turn down the mortgage credit the federal government gives to her for buying a house?  The government’s role is to encourage its citizens – usually through monetary incentives — to do what is best for themselves and society.  That includes home-ownership, and it also includes breastfeeding kids.

As a female voter who has pulled both the R and the D levers at various times, a position like this from Michele Bachmann is a big red flag to me.  If she will stoop to politicizing something as uncontroversial as breastfeeding, then I will forever see “political opportunism” in everything else she says.

A New Sense of Taste, Part 1

February 2, 2011 by

So tonight our family had our first “real” meal in a month – at least that’s how my husband Paul described it.  We had a favorite chicken thigh and red sauce dish, complete with a glass of Pinot Noir and a small chocolate custard for dessert.  We all raved on about it like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. 

As noted in a past blog entry, the Pihos took a month off from alcohol, sweets and meats (except seafood), as a test to see if refraining from eating our favorite foods would make us appreciate them more.  Can the sense of taste be heightened and refined?

Well, it was a long month and one that I am glad is over!  But I did learn some surprising things about food and eating, and feeding my family.

For one thing, I confirmed my long-held belief that it is virtually impossible for one to be both a “foodie” and a “vegetarian.”  The two are mutually exclusive.  Eating meat is central our existence as humans; even Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma agrees with me on that one!  If you’re so focused on what you’re NOT eating or drinking (meat, alcohol, fats, carbs, whatever your personal swear-off may be), you miss the point of what food is supposed to be: a joyous and pleasurable part of our lives.

What else did I find?

*  Being a “vegetarian,” even in this limited sense, is hard.  It’s difficult to think up things that are tasty and varied to eat everyday; the pasta-beans-rice repertoire gets really old, really fast.  I realized how much I rely on my wonderful stand-by chicken recipes. All of a sudden, they didn’t seem so “routine.”

* If you’re going the vegetarian route, you have to work at the nutrition angle a lot harder than I am willing to.  You have to make an effort to get things like tofu and cheeses into your diet, more of those non-meat proteins than I typically eat.  I felt run down more often than usual this month; could a lack of protein or iron had something to do with that?

*Even though we weren’t doing this for health purposes, my husband did lose about 5 pounds. Not so with me, and I’m not sure why!

* With respect to Andrew Knowlton, the restaurant editor at Bon Appetit magazine who inspired this experiment, January is a lousy time to drop meats from the menu.  If we ever do this again, it will be in August, when vegetables are at their freshest and best.  On many cold nights this month, a piece of meat would have been perfect.

*Oddly – or maybe not so – I’ve slept better this month, every night, than I have in a long time.  I do know that alcohol consumption is supposed to impede a good night’s sleep.  I’m afraid now that there may be some truth to that!

* After about a week, my kids almost completely stopped asking for sweets.  Their new post-dinner refrain: “Can I have a piece of fruit?”  Goes to show that the best way to get your child to stop eating junky kiddie foods is to simply stop giving it to her. 

And as for the results: did this experiment lead to more highly tuned taste buds, more of a sense of appreciation for favorite flavors?  I’ll answer that question here next week.

The Two-Bite Rule

January 24, 2011 by

You may remember this one from your own childhood:  The Two-Bite Rule –or the One- Bite Rule, or the Tasting Rule, or whatever it was called at your house.  The point is, you had to try at least some small portion of everything on your plate. 

It sure worked for me when I was a kid, and it is most effective with my two young boys now.  In fact, I’m a big advocate of this policy and frequently talk about it in speaking engagements when parents ask me how rigidly they should force their children to try new foods.  In my book, “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” I write that I’m glad that the Two-Bite Rule seems to have replaced the Clean Plate Club, which forced another generation of children to eat everything put in front of them, “because there are children starving in Africa.”

But apparently, even the Two-Bite Rule is controversial in some circles, for reasons I don’t fully understand. 

USDA published a terrific children’s book called “The Two-Bite Club” that uses cartoon characters and the concept of “eating by color” to excite young children about trying new foods.  My boys (6 and 3) enjoyed reading it, and I like the “new food is fun” message, and the introduction to the Food Guide Pyramid that it presents.  Some school districts have refused to distribute this free piece, however, apparently because a few misguided administrators disagree with the “you must try a bite” philosophy. 

“The parent’s only job is to present the food; the child can then decide for himself whether or not to actually eat it,” the counter-theory goes. 


My kids often don’t want to take baths or go to bed at a reasonable hour, either.  Should I just “offer them options” and let them choose what works best for them?  As my husband would say, “Who’s in charge here?”

Frankly, I don’t know how any parent could get a child on the track to healthy eating without enforcing the Two-Bite Rule, at least to some degree.  Some kids are more naturally curious than others and are more apt to try things without prodding – but the vast majority will, at some point, need more than just encouragement to try a new food.  And what’s so bad about that, anyway?  Are some parents really afraid to put their foot down and say, “Yes, you will?”

I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of “The Two-Bite Club,” USDA publication, download it at http://teamnutrition.usda.gov/Resources/TwoBiteClub.pdf.   Pre-schools, daycare centers and kindergarten teachers can order the book for free, in bulk quantities, at http://teamnutrition.usda.gov/Resources/2biteclub.html

What is a “Treat?”

January 17, 2011 by

Think back to when you were a kid, and adults talked about foods that were a “special treat.”  That meant things like ice cream on a hot day, right, or maybe holiday cookies or a cake for someone’s birthday?  A box of Cracker Jacks at a baseball game, dessert a night or two a week, extra candy at a sleepover – that kind of thing. 

And now compare that to the meaning of the word “treat” as your own children may interpret it, just by counting the number of times in day or week that they are offered a supposedly “special” food.  

Case in point:  I recently helped out in my 3-year-old’s Sunday school class.  Only an hour long session,   with a good deal of that time devoted to free play.  It’s in the morning, wedged between breakfast and lunch, or maybe a midday Sunday family meal at a restaurant.  And yet, the 20 or so kids there had to be given a “special treat,” consisting of a bag of Teddy Grams (120 calories) and a box of juice (100) calories.  That “treat” also contained a total of 33 grams of sugar, mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup (ugh), and even trans fats, which even the staunchest “let them eat junk food” advocates will acknowledge is completely unhealthful.

But this was not to be the only “treat” of the day.  Walking through the after-service coffee hour, several well-meaning adults pointed out to my kids that there are “Oreo cookie treats on the table, right over there!!”  Pre-school, play dates and after-school activities for my older son are the same way.  Even our neighborhood bank teller can’t resist the opportunity to hand me lollipops with my deposit receipts, “as a treat for the boys,” when I have my kids in tow while running errands.

I write about this issue in my book “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything” (Bull Publishing).  If everything is “a treat,” then nothing is.  It’s more realistic to just recognize that most children go through the day consuming a string of unhealthful, generally bad-tasting junk foods, all given to them as though they are something special.  Homemade raisin-oatmeal cookies straight from the oven, these are not.

But again, my biggest question is WHY?  Why do we do our kids such a disservice by giving them stale, packaged “cookies” and colored sugar water, and calling it a “treat?”  Is it enough that it is just cheap to purchase a bulk package of juice boxes at Costco, because “they are just kids, anyway.”  Or is it that we have gotten we gotten so slack in our own standards of cooking and eating that we ourselves don’t appreciate the difference between homemade or professionally prepared baked goods, and processed products?  Who are we kidding?!