Our neighbor Lorraine Collins always has an interesting perspective on a wide range of topics. Here's another that should catch your interest -- and perhaps spur a comment or two. Her commentaries appear regularly in the Black Hills Pioneer, and this gives new meaning to the old term "food fight." Lorraine graciously allows us to share it with on-line readers here.
A few weeks ago when I was in a supermarket browsing through the frozen food section, I saw a box labeled "chicken fried rice" so I thought I'd try that. Usually I make fried rice myself, but I thought this would save me some trouble. I checked the sodium content and it didn't seem too bad, so I happily purchased it. After I got home I took time to read the whole label, and was chagrined to discover the small print that said, "contains shell fish." I am extremely allergic to shell fish and didn't dare eat what I'd bought, so I gave it to a neighbor.
Why would something labeled chicken fried rice contain shell fish? Maybe it was just some fragments left over from some other kind of fried rice, but no matter how miniscule the bits may be, they're poisonous to me.
I was trained some years ago to check food labels for trans fats, sodium and the like, after my husband had a heart attack and the cardiologist sent me to a nutrition class. I have been so dedicated to serving low sodium dishes for a decade that last summer the cardiologist finally got alarmed about the guy having too low a sodium count and told him to go eat a piece of watermelon and put salt on it.
In Arizona I knew a woman who was so allergic to monosodium glutamate that she became deathly ill after eating green bean casserole because it was made with soup containing MSG. I had not realized that MSG is used so ubiquitously in canned soups and other products, until I began seeing signs on some packaged and canned foods bragging that they don't have any of it in them.
Labeling the contents of frozen, packaged, canned food is very important to our health and safety, but at the same time consumers have to take the time to read labels and know whether high fructose corn syrup is really something their kids should be ingesting. When food is prepared at home, we know what's in it, but when it has been prepared in a factory, it often contains substances from fat to salt to food coloring to flavor enhancers in order to make it look good and taste appetizing, regardless of what this process does to nutritional value.
And the fact seems to be that the more our food is processed for us, the fatter and less healthy we become. In 1960, when the "TV dinner" had been marketed for just half a dozen years and fast food restaurants were not on every corner, according to a Center of Disease Control study, the average American man weighed just over 166 pounds. By 2004, he weighed 191. Women in 1960 averaged 140 pounds but by 2004 this had increased to over 164.
First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced she will be devoting time and energy trying to combat childhood obesity and this is a very timely cause to espouse. CDC statistics indicate that childhood obesity in America has tripled in the last 30 years. Just 6.5% of children were regarded as obese 30 years ago and now that number is 19%. Adolescent obesity has grown from 5% to 18%. No doubt many lifestyle changes contribute to these statistics including children being less physically active, but certainly the American diet of processed and "fast" foods must be part of the problem.
Now some frozen food purveyors are providing more healthful entrees and some alternatives are provided for children's meals picked up at the drive through window including fruit and milk instead of fries and soda. But it's hard to say how much of this is window dressing to counter negative publicity and how much is an earnest effort to improve nutrition.
There is a lot of resistance to change in this country, whether in energy policy, health care, financial reform and other issues. I can only assume that there will be forces aligned against food reform, too. But winning the food fight is important for our kids.
Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.