Monday, April 26, 2010

A Chicken Tax?

Time to pick on the poor chicken, and it’s really not the chicken’s fault. If you eat chicken, do you know what you’re eating? Do you know what you’re paying for? And do you know what you get as sort of an added bonus?

Get ready . . .

Unless you’re a really careful shopper and are willing to pay more for free-range, all-natural, organic, absolutely nothing added chicken, here’s what you get: chicken, water and salt—lots of salt. In fact, you may well be getting up to 15 percent added salt water that’s injected into the chicken. Sometimes you get added broth, marinade and oil as well. And, it’s approved by the USDA. And with that injected salt water—you get up to 550mg of sodium per 4 oz serving. To put this in perspective, most adults over age 45 should consume only 1,500 mgs of sodium per day, or less, yet the average adult consumes almost 4,000 mgs of sodium per day. Sodium is a major contributor to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. (Reducing sodium to the recommended levels could save an estimated 100,000 lives a year.)

Now, if you’re like most of us, you want the best value for your money at the supermarket. And, when you see the label that says, “100 percent natural ingredients,” you may think that’s exactly what you get. It’s true that sodium and water are natural ingredients, but look at that label a little closer to be sure they aren’t “added” ingredients. If so, you’re chicken is no longer “all natural,” and you’re paying more for it.

Here’s where you get to pay the chicken tax.

You’re buying a 6 pound chicken. But, if 15 percent is added water weight (with added sodium), you’re really only getting about a 5 pound chicken. Add it all up and that extra 15 percent, or pound of chicken, costs American consumers about $2 billion each year. And, can you guess where that $2 billion “profit” goes?

So, how do you feel about paying more, getting less—and at the same time, paying for something (an unhealthy dose of sodium) that has no place in a chicken in the first place?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thinking About Our Commonhealth

It’s April 15. But, today’s not just “tax day.” For better or worse, today (or today 56 years ago) represents a milestone in history. Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald's franchise, in Des Plains, IA, on this day in 1954. McDonald’s, which officially opened its doors in 1940, was the first “fast food” restaurant to use an assembly-line system, even though the White Castle restaurant in Wichita Kansas is credited with being the first fast food restaurant (although the term “fast food” wasn’t even used yet when the restaurant opened in 1921).

And where are we today?

Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music - combined. And, if you look at all the components in a fast food meal, you’ll find that much of it is actually “processed” food.

Today, the U.S. leads in processed food consumption. As Americans we eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, and we consume more packaged, processed food per person than our counterparts in nearly all other countries. All of these processed foods contain large amounts of fat, salt and sugar—it’s why they taste good.

In fact, on average we buy 787 pounds of processed food a year compared to only 602 lbs. of fresh food (produce, meat cuts, eggs, dairy, and nuts). Yet, by now we should all be aware of the connection between processed foods high in sugar, fat, and sodium and our increasing size, clogged arteries, heart attacks and the spike in new cases of type 2 diabetes.

Well, today is tax day, and taxes are due—even the ones we self-impose. And, we are "taxing" ourselves. If you think about it, “the alleged convenience, time-saving and cost-saving benefits” of fast, processed foods is in reality a myth. What it will cost in terms of our future health—and our children’s future health, is anything but affordable or convenient.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? What are you having for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sleight of Hand

We call it “portion distortion.” And, while a portion is technically the amount of a specific food you decide to eat, you may not have all the information you need to know exactly how large or small that “portion” should be—or how that “portion” is maybe sabotaging your best intentions. While the terms serving and portion often are used interchangeably, they actually mean different things. Keep in mind, serving size is not portion size.

Put another way, serving size is a standard unit of measuring foods (a cup, an ounce, 2 cookies, 10 goldfish crackers). Portion size is the amount offered in the packaging of prepared foods (like the Triple Whopper from Burger King), the amount served by a restaurant, or the amount a person chooses to put on his or her plate. Sometimes the packaging itself contains more than a single serving.

And that’s where the sleight of hand comes in to play.

Before you reach for your next handful of chips, look at the back of the bag. It probably says something like, “serving size, 1 oz; servings per container, 14,” and then goes on to list calories, fat, carbs and sodium—per serving size. But, how do you know how many chips that really is? The question is important because the standard serving size shown on a package determines all the other nutritional values on the label, including calorie counts. If the listed serving size is smaller than what you really eat, (and for most of us, it usually is) you are probably getting more calories, sodium and fat than you think. The outcome—rather than helping fight obesity, the confusion over labeling terminology may simply add to the perplexity over what makes a healthful diet.

But, what about portion size? Don’t we already know what our portions should be? Do we?

According to a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, portion sizes offered by fast food chains are two to five times larger than when first introduced. When McDonald’s first opened in 1955, its only hamburger weighed about 1.6 ounces. Today, the largest hamburger patty weighs 8 ounces, an increase of 400 percent. And while a Big Mac used to be considered big, it’s actually smaller than many burger options. At Burger King, you can get the Triple Whopper; at Ruby Tuesday’s there’s the Colossal Burger; and Carl’s Junior has the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger. These are “portions,” not “servings.”

But we eat them anyway.

And more . . . Between 1977 and 1996, a small snack-size bag of chips and a Coke increased by 142 calories. Sure, it's the same snack as 30 years ago, just a bigger portion. Eat it just two or three times a week and you'll gain up to 6 pounds more this year than you would have back then.

And, still more . . . consider the single serving products that end up actually containing more than a single serving. One of the most obvious—the 20 oz soft drinks meant for a single person yet they contain two and a half servings! Obviously it’s not enough to just check the calorie count per serving, you also need to make sure the serving size suggested by the manufacturer is what you really intend to consume.

Get ready for a jolt of reality. Labels are going to change. We’ll probably see bigger labels, and we’ll see more of them on the front of packaging. We may see changes in recommended serving sizes. But, you still need to know the difference between serving size and portion size, and you need to know what the size of each should be.

Be on the look for labeling “sleight of hand” tricks—after all, shouldn’t you decide what your portion sizes should be rather than what the food industry thinks you’ll consume if you don’t know any better?