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Fat, Drumsticks, and Froot Loops

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  April 24, 2012 11:20 AM

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ice cream2.jpgSince I just finished a Drumstick (Nestlé, not chicken), I’m feeling particularly well qualified to write about junk. (Though I’m also feeling a little guilty, since it’s only 10:30 in the morning, and who knows how many chocolate-topped treats lie ahead.)

Recently, of course, sugar has been the object of our national scorn. Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco, has argued passionately and publicly about the potentially poisonous properties of the sweet stuff.

Even “60 Minutes” assigned CNN’s Sanjay Gupta to look in-depth at Lustig’s claims. The resulting segment - tellingly titled “Is Sugar Toxic?” - featured Gupta asking Lustig: “What are all these various diseases that you say are linked to sugar?”

“Obesity,” Lustig said.“Type II diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease itself.”

To a dessert-o-phile like myself, this was a truly horrifying statement.

Kimber Stanhope, a researcher from the University of California Davis, has also studied sugar closely and told Gupta that the data motivated her to make lifestyle changes: “I started drinking and eating a whole lot less sugar. I would say our data surprised me.”

Ensconced on the couch, concern etched into my forehead, I immediately started wondering how many years I’d be willing to sacrifice for brownies. Two, at least. And, to be safe, I should throw in another year for coffee-oreo ice cream.

Of course, there have been many, many verboten foods over the past few decades.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Robert Atkins insisted that carbohydrates were the enemy and encouraged a diet of meat, vegetables and fat. (Atkins based the advice on an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which helped him and many of his patients lose weight.)

In the 1990s, Dr. Dean Ornish advocated a drastic reduction in meat and fat consumption, arguing that this sort of diet could substantially reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.

We’ve cycled through it all: low-carb, high-carb, low-fat, high-protein, meat-intensive, dairy-free. You name it, America’s tried it.

During the low-carb craze, I remember wondering how so many Asians could stay thin if carbs made you fat. During the low fat craze, I wondered why the French looked so good if butter made you fat. And during this anti-sugar moment, I’ve thought often about some lovely time I spent in Geneva, where croissants, mousse, and tarte tatins are on every corner. And yet, people in all those places are generally much trimmer than they are here.

I, apparently, am not the only one who has noticed this, as evidenced by the recent ascendance of European-style parenting manuals, which tout - like Karen Le Billon’s French Children Eat Everything - the importance of well-rounded meals: from organic celery salad to chocolate ice cream. Quelle diversité!

Which brings us back to sugar - and the question of just how harmful that chocolate ice cream is.

Probably not that bad, in my decidedly non-scientific view, if it’s washed down with Le Billon’s celery salad.

Our problem, though, is that we just don’t consume much wholesome food to balance out the ice cream.

As author Michael Pollan has noted, Americans don’t eat enough of the real stuff. Real chicken. Real broccoli. Real rice. Real oranges. Whatever.

Collectively, we've drifted far from the kitchen - and even from the bundt pans - into the world of Hot Pockets, GoGurt, Doritos, and Pop-Tarts. (I absolutely love S'Mores Pop-Tarts, so I’m far from guiltless here.)

As the New York Times reported this week, even Kellogg - the purveyor of super-sugary cereals like Froot Loops (would spelling “fruit” correctly give consumers the wrong impression?) - can’t keep up with on-the-go Americans, who increasingly opt for portable food.

That’s why Kellogg is working hard to develop products like waffles with flavorings baked in (who has time for syrup anymore?) - and will soon shell out $2.7 billion for Pringles.

It’s a steep price, but, as the Times points out, Kellogg has had to wrestle with a strange new truth: “The ultimate convenience food — which is how cereal was once billed — is just not convenient enough any more.”

And that, I would submit - not sugar or butter or carbs - is our core problem.


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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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