Dovetailing with the release of the paperback version of Pandora’s Lunchbox (Feb 26!), I will be doing a talk in New York at the James Beard Enlightened Eaters series on March 5 at noon.
Then on May 31, I’ll be in Minneapolis for the Top Coast Festival, an ideas conference focused on solutions to some of the world’s vexing problems, our broken food system only being one. I’ll be talking with the excellent Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl.
(Originally published June 27, 2013 at US News Eat + Run)
The Egg McMuffin Delight I ate for breakfast this morning was fluffy on the inside and doughy and springy on the outside. It was a quick and satisfying (if temporarily) way to start the day, offering a subtle mix of savory flavors. But most importantly, it was healthy. Made with egg whites only and delivering just 250 calories and 7 grams of fat, this new addition to McDonald’s menu stands as a prime example of a cheap, hyper-available, healthy processed food.
Or so argues David Freedman in The Atlantic’s July/August cover story entitled “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.” In this 10,000-word piece, Freedman tries to make the case for why the food industry – specifically the processed food industry – is the answer to our prayers for a less obese and less-disease stricken nation. His view is that the arugula-munching elitists in the food movement are deluding themselves into thinking that the “obese masses,” as he puts it, are going to put down their large fries and Doritos Locos Taco Supremes and start eating kale and grilled salmon any time soon.
It’s a fun, contrarian argument – too much so for its own good. In his defense of processed food, Freedman relies on a flawed understanding of nutrition, food processing and what the so-called food elites, “the Pollanites,” really stand for. As a result, his argument comes off as naïve as he accuses real foodists of being.
Take that Egg McMuffin Delight. Why exactly is this healthy? Although it was once thought that eggs were bad because of the fat and cholesterol concentrated in their yolks, that thinking no longer has any scientific validity. Eggs are incredibly nutritious, loaded with vitamins B12 and B2, choline and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin – all of it in the yolks that McDonald’s has discarded to make their healthier sandwich. Freedman (and perhaps McDonald’s) appears stuck in a 1980s understanding of fats. We now know that just because something has had the fat taken out does mean it’s healthy. In fact, many fats are considered beneficial – those in peanut butter, almonds and avocados, for instance. Even the once dreaded saturated animal fats are no longer considered so hostile to our health. And it turns out that cholesterol in food, the substance that once helped demonize eggs, is likely to have little bearing on cholesterol levels found in your blood.
The same goes for calories. Just because something is low in calories doesn’t make it nutritious or a good idea for weight loss. Freedman talks quite a lot about the need for reducing calories in the food we eat, and while this can be a useful goal, it’s not a silver bullet. Weight loss isn’t a simple game of calorie math. If it were, diet soda would help people lose weight; it doesn’t. When it comes to calories, quality is just as important as quantity. Low calorie food needs to be satiating (a quality known to be inherent to many whole foods, but the mechanisms of which are not well understood by scientists), otherwise people will just replace the calories later.
Freedman also veers off course when he talks about food processing and the effect it has on nutrition. He writes:
“The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy.”
This is flat out wrong. While not all aspects of food processing are problematic, there are some industrial processes that unquestionably are. And sometimes it’s the cumulative effect of many manipulations that make processed food a nutritional disaster. A few examples:
Trans fat. The process that creates this incredibly unhealthy, artificial type of fat is called partial hydrogenation. Again, it’s a process. On its own, vegetable oil is not artery hardening, but heat it to high temperatures, stick nickel into it and bubble hydrogen gas through it, as the food industry has done for decades, and voila – trans fats.
Vitamins and fiber. Ask any food scientist and they will acknowledge that manufacturing and processing is often destructive to vitamins like A, B1, C, E and folic acid, as well as dietary fiber. When faced with intense heat and disfiguring processes like extrusion, these healthful components of food don’t fare well. Time and oxygen are also enemies for vitamins, and since most packaged foods need to have long shelf lives, this presents an inherent conflict for packaged food manufacturers that want to sell healthy processed food.
High fructose corn syrup. This stuff, along with other forms of sugar, is one of the worst health offenders in our food, but the corn it started out as isn’t. While not the most nutritionally endowed vegetable, corn nonetheless has fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B1 and magnesium. In the space between ears of real corn and HFCS is oodles of processing.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to create healthy processed food. But there are real limitations on what packaged food manufacturers like Pepsi, General Mills, ConAgra and Kellogg’s can do. That’s whyexamples of “healthy” processed supermarket foods are often laughable – Baked Lays, vitaminwater, Keebler Right Bites cookies, Rice Krispies, and most infamously, Froot Loops. Restaurants, on the other hand, stand a fighting chance because they can, at least in theory, work with fresher ingredients. In his article, Freeman confesses his devotion to Carl’s Jr.’s Charbroiled Cod Sandwich, a product that I agree represents a step in the right direction, albeit a small one. Carl’s Jr. also has a new Cranberry Apple Walnut Grilled Chicken salad, which is a great choice. And McDonald’s has its new, 420-calorie Premium Chicken Ranch McWraps with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato and cucumbers.
Yet the fallacy of relying on the food industry to get America eating healthy becomes clear when you realize that these products are outliers and half steps. The honey wheat bun in Carl’s Jr.’s cod sandwich has little more than a dusting of whole wheat (the addition of caramel coloring makes it look like it has more). McDonald’s wraps have no whole wheat at all, delivering a wallop of unhealthy refined carbs. And surely it’s possible to make these products without brewing together 70 or more ingredients, including flammable chemicals. Up to this point, food scientists haven’t focused much on how to reduce their impact on food – preserving, not trampling all over, its natural goodness. I’d love to see them try.
In the meantime, there are fresh and healthy foods already available to most Americans, including many of those “obese masses” Freedman talks about. And they aren’t just found at Whole Foods and farmer’s markets, but at the most pedestrian and non-elitist of stores – Walmart, Target, Safeway, Price Chopper, Kroger and the thousands of grocery stores that populate American towns and cities. And the foods they offer are not the kale, yellow beets, heirloom tomatoes and organic squash blossoms that Freedman uses to caricature and misrepresent the food movement. It’s basic stuff like bananas (just 30 to 90 cents per pound!), bags of baby carrots, spears of broccoli, fresh lean meat, plain yogurt teeming with beneficial bacteria, cartons of eggs, canned beans, bags of nuts, brown rice and frozen peas. Freedman would call me naïve, but I believe that it’s essential to find ways to get people to consume more of these affordable, tasty and basic foods.
Doing this is not the least bit easy or immediate, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the effort. During research for the book I wrote on processed food (which Freedman was not a big fan of), I sat in on a series of free cooking classes offered to low income people. Run by a national organization called Cooking Matters, they struck me as a great model for the sorts of programs we should be thinking about for improving America’s eating habits. All of Cooking Matters’ recipes cost no more than $10 for a family of four.
But while the solution has to do with education, some government regulation, reform of the perverse farm subsidy system and perhaps taxation, it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. The food industry can also play a role, though a supporting one. Ceding over the goals of public health to McDonald’s and Kraft only seems like a good idea to those who believe that things like Baked Lays and egg white sandwiches with processed cheese are healthy.
 Yes, there are food deserts and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, but there probably aren’t as many people living in them as you think. The 30 million people the USDA defines as living in a food desert have to travel more than one mile to a grocery store. Is it too much to ask people to drive two or three miles?
(Originally published August 13, 2013 at US News’ Eat + Run)
Food companies understand that Americans are increasingly interested in buying food that actually seems worth eating. We want food that’s some degree of fresh, healthy, natural or otherwise of higher quality. It’s for this reason that you see images of plump fruit decorating packages of cereal bars and the greenest broccoli you’ve ever laid eyes upon appearing on boxes of frozen dinners. At Burger King, you don’t order a mere salad – it’s a Chicken CaesarGarden Fresh Salad. Those chips aren’t just cheese-flavored – they’re Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips, with “harvest cheddar” an entirely meaningless term.
Few companies have applied this appeal more literally than Papa John’s, which for years has boasted “Better pizza. Better ingredients.” Printed on every Papa John’s pizza box is a little story: “When I founded Papa John’s in 1984, my mission was to build a better pizza,” says “Papa” John Schnatter. “I went the extra mile to ensure we used the highest quality ingredients available – like fresh, never frozen original dough, all-natural sauce, veggies sliced fresh daily and 100 percent real beef and pork. We think you’ll taste the difference.”
After all, who wouldn’t want fresher, better ingredients in their pizza? A great deal of the food we currently eat, both from the supermarket and at chain restaurants, is comprised of ingredients created as cheaply as possible (tomatoes chosen for their shipability, not flavor; chicken as bland as a pizza box because the bird only lived for 10 weeks and ate a monotonous diet) and highly processed additives, many of them not even technically edible.
So you’d think if Papa John’s was really following a different model, they’d want to tell us all about it. Too bad they don’t. Those “better ingredients”: Good luck finding out what they are. Unlike the packaged products you buy at the supermarket, restaurant food isn’t required to list ingredients. Many fast food chains, like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Subway, do voluntarily provide them, in part for indemnity against lawsuits and in part because they realize some of their customers actually want to know what they’re eating.
But not Papa John’s. They’ve decided it’s better to keep their ingredients a secret. You won’t find complete information about them on either the company’s website or in stores. Charlie, the friendly and accommodating employee who took my order for a small cheese pizza at my local Papa John’s in Boulder, Colo., told me that he didn’t know what the pizza ingredients were. “I think they’re listed on the website,” he said, making a reasonable assumption.
When I called Papa John’s customer toll free number, I was told that for “additional information on allergen or nutritional info” I should leave a message with Connie Childs, who would return my call the next business day. I left two messages, but Connie never called. Public relations wasn’t much help either. My emails and voicemails went unanswered. Only Charlie offered a few thoughts about what exactly makes Papa John’s pizza “better.”
“We get deliveries in every three days, so nothing that’s in the fridge is more than a few days old. And we form the dough here. It doesn’t come ready to go, though it is made in a central facility and then frozen,” he said, offering a slightly different version of the story than what’s printed on the pizza boxes.
Maybe Papa John’s doesn’t use chemical dough conditioners in their pizza dough, corn syrup or sugar in the sauce, or preservatives in the meat toppings. Maybe they go the extra mile to make a high-quality pizza that’s as close to homemade as possible. Although the fact that Papa John’s garlic sauce, which comes in little packages, is made with a slew of additives – mono and diglycerides, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and the preservatives sodium benzoate and calcium disodium EDTA – does not inspire confidence.
By not disclosing what’s in its food, Papa John’s is revealing that it doesn’t think too much of its customers. It is either asking customers for blind trust or assuming people are too stupid and complacent to ask questions. When we do ask questions, they refuse to answer. At least that was my experience, both when I approached Papa John’s as a journalist and a customer. This strikes me as a foolish approach in an age when American eaters are demanding more transparency (see GMO labeling) when it comes to food, not less. For some reason, Papa John’s has failed to realize that when you hoist your entire brand up on the idea of high-quality food, you’d better be able to back it up.
While Papa John’s is the most egregious example of this marketing mendacity, they’re hardly alone. Olive Garden wants you to believe that eating at one of their restaurants means you’re getting authentic Italian cuisine. Many of its “chefs” have been trained at the company’s Culinary Institute of Tuscany, located, we are told, in a “quaint 11th century Tuscan village.” But Italian cuisine is notoriously fresh, individually prepared and lacking in shortcuts. Are Olive Garden’s offerings anything close to this? They, too, won’t tell you. The allergen chart on the website, though, reveals that there’s soy in the meat sauce and chicken parm, suggesting that Olive Garden’s specialties are closer to Chef Boyardee than something Benedetta Vitali came up with. Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s and TGIF’s are some of the other sit-down chains that also won’t tell you what’s in their food.
Given how dramatically food production has changed in the last half century, Americans deserve to know what they’re eating. That’s the impetus behind the growing public support for the labeling of GMOs. Even those who are OK with eating genetically modified corn or soy still would like to know about it.
Chipotle has done a great job with this sort of transparency. The company details its policy against buying meat raised with antibiotics, arsenic and growth hormones, and it’s been open about its attempts to source locally-grown food. In other words, they don’t just say “better ingredients” and leave it at that. They also publish their ingredients, so that customers can decide for themselves whether Chipotle really sells “food with integrity.” Anything less would be nothing more than marketing hype.
(Originally published August 27, 2013 at US News Eat + Run blog)
When Papa John’s makes its pizza sauce, it uses a few simple ingredients – vine-ripened tomatoes that haven’t been turned into concentrate, sunflower oil, some sugar, salt, garlic, olive oil, some spices and citric acid. Its sausage toppings contain no preservatives, artificial flavors or cheap bulking agents like cornstarch or soy protein. And unlike so many other commercially produced bread products, Papa John’s doesn’t load up its dough, which isn’t frozen, with chemical dough conditioners like sodium stearoyl lactylate or azodicarbonamide. In other words, Papa John’s food is not your standard fast food fare. Comparatively speaking, it’s more like actual food (fresh and additive-free) and less of what Michael Pollan has termed “edible food-like substances.”
At least that’s the story that emerges piecemeal from Papa John’s – on their website, in a recent blog and accompanying video, and in emailed answers to me. “Our ‘better ingredients’ are the hallmark of our business and our brand; it’s what we’re founded on and of what we are the most proud,” the company wrote on its blog. “We fervently stand behind our fresh ingredients and everything that goes into them.” This blog posting was a response to an article I wrote two weeks ago, where I questioned Papa John’s strategy of building its entire brand on the idea of superior ingredients (its slogan is “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza”) without bothering to fully disclose what those ingredients are. Go to Domino’s site and you’ll see a full listing of everything in its food. McDonald’s ingredients are here, Taco Bell’s are here and Subway’s are here. Among national fast food restaurants, Papa John’s is in the minority (though in fairness, most pizza chains don’t reveal ingredients). After my story ran, Papa John’s shot back that it does in fact disclose ingredients. It pointed to sections on its web site like this one and this one. But these aren’t ingredient lists. They’re incomplete snippets of info.
I was still left to wonder: Why not go all the way? Papa John’s sent me an emailed answer:
“Papa John’s takes great pride in its recipes and formulas, and the make-up of many of them is proprietary. There is a fine line between transparency and sharing of proprietary information, unique recipes and trade secrets, and it is not one that we feel compelled to cross.”
The company also pointed out that its research indicates that 18 of the top 25 national and regional pizza chains do not detail their ingredients and that only one pizza chain of the top five does (Domino’s). But this isn’t really a fair comparison because Little Caesar’s and Joe’s Pizza aren’t asking us to believe that their ingredients are “better”.
The problem with Papa John’s piecemeal disclosure is that it doesn’t give the whole story. While the company’s sauce, dough and sausage toppings are made with simple ingredients and the veggie toppings are sliced regularly at the stores, other pizza components are not all that Papa John’s would like you to believe them to be. The company doesn’t list its full ingredients anywhere, but they are printed on the distribution boxes coming into the stores. According to photos of labels sent to me by a former Papa John’s store employee, the ingredients in the company’s “100 percent real cheese” include modified food starch, whey protein concentrate, sodium citrate and the preservative sodium propionate, all of which are not ingredients with any business in real cheese, mozzarella or otherwise. Papa John’s says its “real” designation refers to just the actual cheese, not the cheese blend recipe, which is like saying that Taco Bell’s caramel apple empanada is 100 percent real apples. Please ignore all of the other ingredients.
Some of the other information Papa John’s gives out to customers about its food is also potentially misleading and might give the impression that its ingredients are a lot more special than they are. The company, for instance, refers to the fact that its tomatoes are grown in “the rich, fertile valleys of California” as if this were a distinction. No less than half of all U.S.-grown produce comes from California. The statement that Papa John’s dough uses “high-protein flour” in the pizza dough appears to leverage the fact that most people don’t have a technical understanding of wheat varieties. High-protein flour is the standard for pizza dough because of the need for a chewy, crispy crust.
Then there’s the claim that Papa John’s bell peppers and onions are “sourced locally,” which if true is a huge achievement for a company with more than 4,000 stores. Locally grown food has been a big trend in recent years and, while the term has no set definition, many people consider it to be food grown within 200 miles of where it is purchased or eaten by the consumer. Under the widest definition, it is food grown within the same state. For its local sourcing, Papa John’s may be applying its own special definition. A former store employee in Louisiana sent me photos of boxes of bell peppers coming from Gilroy, Calif. and onions coming from Las Cruces, N.M. (For the record, Las Cruces is 1,000 miles from that Louisiana store and Gilroy is 2,000 miles.) Another former employee in Arizona said their peppers came from California. I asked Papa John’s what it meant for its produce to be locally sourced.
“Our produce is sourced the closest distance possible to our distribution centers,” the company wrote in an email.
Sorry Papa John’s, but if “the closest distance possible” means thousands of miles away, that’s not locally grown.
I’d like to be able to champion Papa John’s food. When food companies go the extra mile to provide higher quality or healthier fare, they should be applauded. And while I appreciate that Papa John’s doesn’t use vacuum-packed vegetables or preservatives in its dough, it’s hard to get excited about a company that doesn’t carry its principles all the way through, or at least doesn’t tell us why they’re unable to. I’m part of a growing subset of Americans who are interested in eating food that’s free of strange, barely edible additives and food that doesn’t taste like it’s been manufactured to death. Perhaps one day Papa John’s will honor us by actually publishing all of its ingredients.
This picture of 4-year old Thomas’ English muffins (purchased at Giant Foods in 2009) was sent to me by Harold Verret. He writes:
“The Thomas’ English muffins, while being placed in storage, along with several bags of dry kitty food, were covered with a black plastic trash bag by accident. Months later, I discovered them. The shock came upon realizing that bread (by artificial means) could remain in pristine condition after so long a period of time. (We had considered them to be a ‘healthy’ choice). The question then presented itself – How long would it take for the effects of natural decay to appear? Almost 4 years later they are in remarkable shape.”
He added that the muffins were still soft to the touch. This may be because of their high moisture content, which you then would think would result in mold or other decomposition. But thanks to the preservatives calcium propionate and sorbic acid, the microorganisms went elsewhere.
While reading Pandora’s Lunchbox, @jacobadelman unearthed this great 1984 commercial for Breyers ice cream. I love this commercial, not just because of the Dorothy Hamill hairdos and 80’s sweater vests, but because it’s a window into food marketing history. Alas, Breyers strawberry ice cream is no longer just those four simple ingredients, but also whey and tara gum. Nevermind the mono and diglycerides in the butter pecan, or the carob bean gum, guar gum and carrageenan in the black raspberry chocolate, or the propylene glycol in the fat free varieties.