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Note to self: never cook while listening to the News


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Warning...this is kind of an editorial. Biases and general grumpiness are about to me revealed.

I won't lie...I was a bit dispirited yesterday...for a while. I'm an avid NPR listener and was happily prepping dinner when the afternoon business show Marketplace came on. The topic turned to food, specifically processed food. I perked up in anticipation of a story that might finally shed some light on the Standard American Diet and how Big Food is complicit in if not responsible for the sad state of it, or maybe the latest studies about wheat and gluten, or maybe what Robert Lustig is stirring up about sugar, or Michael Pollan's latest book, or some good old Marion Nestle, some relevant, professional reporting from NPR, my go-to source for news, my island of sanity in the sea of advocacy journalism. Not even close.

Instead the story opened with more of a lament on first, how hard it is for major food manufacturers to make a profit without adding sugar, fat and salt to most “center-aisle†processed foods so that they “taste goodâ€. Because otherwise people “just won't buy itâ€. In other words...how crappy food is our fault. And then, as an “oh by the wayâ€, the factoid that 70% of the food in a typical grocery store is “processedâ€. Not sure who's definition they were using but based on my own recent Whole30 food-buying experience, I'd guess more like 90%, depending on the store. Really, have you tried to find real food in a Safeway lately? Let alone Trader Joe's? Tragic.

Then the subject turned to palm oil. Since Big Food was forced in 2006 to start labeling their use of trans fats made from hydrogenated vegetable oil, (in some places it's downright illegal...thanks New York City), they've upped their use of palm oil, a seed oil that pretty much does the same thing as PHVO in terms of its solid fat function, but according to most studies including the WHO, and not insignificantly our own Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, is equally as harmful as any vegetable- based trans fat.

Add to that, 90% of palm oil is imported from areas that are environmentally sensitive such as Malaysia and Indonesia and if you thought the cattle industry wreaks havoc on the rainforest, imagine a 12-30 fold increase in deforestation in those countries since 1970 mainly due to the overseas export demand for this stuff that keeps helps your breakfast bar hold its shape. So now bring on Marion Nestle for a sound bite; the esteemed nutrition guru, author, food fighter and professo from New York University to put all this into proper context...and sadly, she recites the Wikipedia definition of palm oil and nothing much more. And I was SO ready for some science!! Aaarghh...I almost lopped off a thumb in mid onion dice.

Through all this the business reporter was appropriately neutral, to her credit, but largely mute about the politics, so that the tone of the story placed it on the Important News Scale somewhere around Taylor Swift's unopened fan mail and the golfer falling into a sinkhole.

The host and reporter joked, they laughed, they traded barbs and basically tossed aside the alarming fact that the FDA doesn't even know for sure what the complete list of potential food additives even consists of. And, to date that list may contain as many as 80,000 compounds and ingredients, most of which have never been tested by any regulating agency. And, that food testing is primarily done on a volunteer basis by food manufacturers themselves, so in other words, hardly ever and then unscientifically.

But here's what really braised my spleen....after this 2-3 minute apology for the food industry and downplay of the sorry state of the Standard American Diet, they tagged on a series of sound bites from Marketplace staff who all shared their favorite “junk foodâ€. Everything from Cheetos, Bagels, Corn Chips (everything mentioned contained either gluten or sugar of course), were unapologetically touted by disembodied voices who, if I had to guess, were all folks in their 20‘s and 30‘s, in an “oh isn't that cute...can't we all relate?†kind of tone. Having struggled with sugar, alcohol, salt and wheat addiction for years...NOW I WAS PISSED.

I spent a career in journalism, was raised by a journalist, and what really makes me grind my teeth about these supposedly toss-off, redacted press release stories like this are when reporters fail to mention or even comprehend the implications of what they're reporting. Especially in the business section. It's as if the burden of responsibility on the part of business reporters and editors extends only as far as the how their reporting effects the Dow, or the next quarterly earnings report or the stock price of any companies involved, even if those companies might be behaving badly.

Add to that the need to “cute†up every story with a gimmick, in this case, what toxic garbage the Marketplace staff shoves into their mouths, as if it's a benign choice, it becomes more nauseating than the list of “phood†to which they're likely addicted, or will be. Ironically, it kinda mirrors what food manufacturers do to make food more palatable. Hmmm...

NPR, APR, Marketplace you can do better. Food is a real story, deserving of your best efforts, and yet it goes largely uncovered. Public radio is often accused of being rather stodgy and out of touch with current cultural trends....I'd say...yeah.

Food is huge:

  • The Dairy industry is petitioning the FDA to sneak aspartame into milk products without labeling it basically because more and more people are giving up dairy.

  • The meat industry will still sue you for billions for doing negative stories about the industry. As Jamie Oliver and ABC now know.

  • The Farm bill...enabling a dysfunctional corn, wheat, soy obsessed agricultural model.

  • It's thought that 40% of the American food supply is wasted every day, and even after that, 30 million of us are undernourished. And even after THAT, 2500 calories/day is available to every man woman and child in America, most of that crap, and more calories than most of us need to thrive.

  • People are getting sicker, fatter (with all the consequences of obesity) and less productive. Presenteeism, or the productivity loss that occurs with employees at work with medical conditions, whether physical or mental, costs American businesses $150 billion in decreased productivity annually. Behavioral health conditions directly affect an employee's productivity and are major causes of presenteeism. Depression is estimated to cost $83 billion annually and in terms of presenteeism, the disorder is the highest-cost health condition nationwide. And this doesn't even address absenteeism.

I'd say “don't get me started†but I guess that cow has left the barn.

So... Marketplace ended. Blood pressure elevated, but coming down, I sat down down to my dinner of foil-grilled cod with homemade mango salsa, roasted butternut squash and organic string beans and felt decidedly grateful that as of 61 days ago, I've officially opted out of a system where one needs even worry too much about what untested Frankenfood additive/thickener colorant/emulsifier one is ingesting, at least personally.

Politically, I feel like every trip to the grocery store is now a trip to the voting booth. Maybe it's that I'm just feeling better, more awake, and more aware of the food universe, but seriously...isn't it time for a serious discussion about food? I love a joke as much as the next guy but junk food just isn't funny.

Note to self however...don't cook or eat while listening to the news. Too much cortisol.

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