Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What's In Your Bowl?

This is the first in a series of articles about becoming more aware of what you are putting in your grocery cart.

When I walk through the grocery store isles, I am amazed at the plethora of “healthy foods” for sale.  Isle after isle contains products with package labels that promise to lower my cholesterol, make my heart healthier and add lots of fiber and nutrients to my daily diet while keeping my waistline small and my family happily fed. 

One would conclude that, with all of these beautifully packaged, convenient, easy to find, easy to prepare foods at our fingertips ours would be a nation of above-average-healthy, physically fit, emotionally stable individuals.  Right?

It could not be farther from the truth.  A statistic I heard recently stated that 60% of the diet of the “average American” was made up processed foods (and only about 3 ½% of that same American’s diet consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables).  Processed foods here were defined as anything created in a food processing plant:  cereals, crackers, breads, frozen pizzas, chips, candy, cookies, convenience meals, deli meat, etc.  These are foods that we purchase because we think we have to have them. 

Take breakfast cereals for example.  Cold breakfast cereals have become staples in our daily diets.  An entire isle is devoted solely to breakfast cereals, usually with some syrup at one end or the other.  For some reason, we have become convinced that breakfast cereal is the way to go, when it comes to eating our first meal of the day.  Breakfast cereal is such an important part of our day that cereals are produced to fit everyone’s tastes.  There are the pellets-and-twig-looking cereals for those of us who are “no-nonsense” cereal eaters; the pretty, feminine cereals that add bits of dehydrated fruit to the dainty flakes and oat clusters in boxes that depict serene scenes or carry curvy lettering; while the biggest segment of all is devoted to cereals for the kiddies because, since cereal is such an important part of everyone’s daily diet, we must get kids to eat it no matter what!!!  So we shape it and color it and sweeten it and refine it and fortify it and package it and advertise it and sell it to well meaning parents who simply believe what they have been taught:  Cereal is good for us.


In the early 1900’s the modern “breakfast cereal” took off.  This version was actually first made in the late 1800’s by some Seventh Day Adventists, and the basic idea of their cereal was adopted by the Kellogg brothers and William Post (who were involved with work in a sanitarium).  One of the Kellogg brothers was a big promoter of the vegetarian diet, and apparently agreed with a school of thought the vegetarian diet was the best way to dampen libido while increasing fertility (both were deemed to be a good thing), and what better way to accomplish this than by beginning with breakfast!  Their first customers were the sanitarium patients.

During the middle part of the last century, as US grain producers became more organized and more powerful, there was a big push at the federal government level to “educate” the American public about the importance of eating the “right” foods.  Apparently, they were able to wield some power when it came to positioning their crop on the newly created “USDA Food Pyramid”.   Thanks to some savvy advertising backed by big bucks, breakfast cereal soon replaced more traditional breakfast foods and an American “staple” was born.

So, is breakfast cereal really good for us?  It is hard to lump all cereals into one category of “good” or “bad”.  You cannot accept the information you get from reading the front of the box.  The “Heart Healthy” American Heart Association’s endorsement logo is placed on products for a fee.  “Made with WHOLE GRAINS” is something popping up more and more, even on boxes of Lucky Charms and Froot Loops.  Does that mean the cereal is 100% whole grain?  Does that mean that the box contains nothing but 100% whole grain?  No.  That cereal could derive a very small percentage of its contents from whole grains, but that does not make it any more of a “whole grain cereal” than having a person ride in a car suddenly renders the car human. 

Read the nutrition information label.  Understand the terms commonly used there.  A good rule of thumb:  there should be more grams of fiber in the cereal than grams of sugar.  If not, you might as well be feeding you and your kids Krispy Kreme Donuts or a bowl of imitation maple syrup for breakfast.
Other ideas:  skip the breakfast cereal isle, all together.  Eggs make a great breakfast.  Whole grains make great cereals, too (steel cut oats, bulgur wheat, brown rice, quinoa – just to name a few).  There are also “non-traditional” routes to take.  Why does there have to be a separate category of foods that we start our days with anyway?  One of my favorite breakfasts is spinach and tofu.

Read.  Experiment.  And stop believing everything you read on those packages.

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