Family Food Habits Part II: Change Comes to the Woz House

Posted April 20, 2009 by

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My husband has taken to calling me the Corn Queen after my subsequent manic food label reading frenzy.

After reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I learned that essentially, the addition of corn in some form of processed sugar — or as a staple in the diet of the animals we consume — has successfully put to use all the corn over-production that is going on across the U.S.  I love farmers, but this might be a stretch even for me to support this corn-crazed dietary system. I learned about corn-filled food creations like yogurt, bread and cereal which I didn’t think contained corn until reading the ingredient labels and seeing all the versions of corn syrup that make the convenient-food-world go’round. I hadn’t recognized that corn can be listed on the ingredients label as High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) or plain corn syrup. Often it is called other things like sucrose, dextrose, fructose and is responsible for many more, unpronounceable, unnaturally created ingredients.

Mostly, the lesson I learned was about recognizing the need to provide food for our growing children from sources that are nutrient-dense:  simple foods that are delicious because they are fresh and not processed, packaged or prepared with 10+ tablespoons of sugar. The interview with Barbara Stitt’s, formerly of Natural Ovens, educated me on the concept that Plain Jane style food is delicious, affordable and will promote well- behaved kids because they feel good fueled with real food.

I began at home. Home is where the heart disease is. I tossed boxes into the trash if the label listed high fructose corn syrup or plain old corn syrup near the top of the ingredient list. I could not believe where I was finding it either — in tomato soup! in bread! in ketchup! in my half-and- half! What was shocking was how little remained in the cupboard after the purging.  The Stitts told me that not only would I be eliminating unwanted sugars, but I would also be tossing additives, food dyes, preservatives, hydrolyzed this, stabilized that and the odd container of may-or-may-not-contain-one-or-more-of-the-following in the ingredient list.

I imagine these ingredients may someday be linked to behavioral issues, attention issues and emotional disorders. I know they have already been linked to increased rates of childhood obesity and diabetes in children.

So the Corn Queen’s first experiment was to take the real eaters in the house and turn them into guinea pigs to test whether feeding them good food could result in good behavior at school. I sent my kids to school with carrots that still had their greens attached, the tail root still showing, no chopping or peeling required and clearly labeled organic in the grocery aisle.  I did manage to run them under water and get the dirt off of them — but you know, when I was a girl, I just pulled them out of the garden and wiped the dirt off on the front of my shirt and ate them. (Sorry Dad, we did not have that many rabbits…yes, I stole many carrots from the well-weeded rows and confess I may have been HFCS-avoider way back then.)

Yup, reports were filed at the end of the day.  My children told me they enjoyed the carrots and the best part was that they loved whapping each other with the long green stems! Well, so much for good food eliminating bad behavior problems.  My whole purpose for switching was to get well fed, cooperative kids who not only felt better but behaved better.  But then my daughter said, “They were awesome carrots mom, can you send more tomorrow?”

And while I was at it, I became the anti-corn queen browsing the upper shelves of the grocery store looking for whole wheat hot dog buns without HFCS.  It took me fully 10 minutes of searching, reading, rejecting, up and down an entire aisle before it hit me. Oh yeah, let’s serve some all natural, high sodium, unidentified processed “meat” dog on a nutrient dense bun! I started laughing out loud at myself right there in the store.

Well, I still think I might be on to something.

Next week I am going to see what else I spy in the grocery store. I hear going around the outside is best. Produce, milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, even meat all located on the outside wall of the store…focus on the packaging that nature gave it.  Hmmm. I also know I am supposed to read the labels on packages to see if all the ingredients are recognizable.  Real food has very few ingredients, actually, and the ones on the list should also be things that I would already have at home like flour (not bleached but whole wheat) and plain old sugar (not corn syrup or HFCS or sugar substitutes ) and milk and eggs (not partially hydrogenated anything).  I had been told that buying fresh automatically eliminates ingredients like additives and preservatives. Could it be this simple?

The next biggest change I made was to chuck the syrup. First ingredient, HFCS. I was mortified. Here I was making pancakes, cornbread, waffles, all from scratch but I had been pouring the potentially-mercury-laden liquid gold all over them. Then I saw the price of real maple syrup and did a double take. We compromised on two less expensive bottles of maple syrup- one that is half honey and one that has cane sugar instead of corn syrup and one jug of the pure stuff. Taste tests on waffles were planned for Monday’s breakfast.

The jury is still out on whether this is truly a choice that a fresh HFCS-spying Corn Queen needs to make, because now my kids love the real mapley-flavored syrup and won’t go back to the bargain stuff.  My husband… not so much. But then I don’t worry about his emotional state or his behaviors. Why try and change him? The Corn King will still be the kind of guy who can eat whatever he wants because truthfully, he already knows that daily exercise might be more beneficial than just eating in fear of the label.

Has anyone tried this kind of  around-the-outside-of-the-store grocery shopping? Is anyone else eliminating the HFCS, additives and preservatives in search of  real food? Anyone noticed how your kids are behaving or if they are feeling differently at all?

About

Annita Wozniak grew up in a large, imperfect family in the Midwest. "As adults we have the power to build children up or tear them down," she says about the challenges of being a responsible parent, "and we never know when what we say is going to be a defining moment in a child's life." Woz is a writer and child-grower living in the Midwest with her husband and their three inspirational children. She is always learning. You can visit her website at annitawoz.wordpress.com

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  1. Marlene Report

    Hello

    Good for you for taking a stand to provide more nutritional meals for your family. As a breast cancer survivor and a mother of a 6 year old daughter I agree that wholesome meals are extremely important. I have also launched a new Television show titled Marlenes Meal Makeovers in which I hope to teach families how to “cook once, produce twice” in order to not only how to cook more wholesome meals but also to reduce the time spent in the kitchen as well. I think it might be something you would be interested in. Please check out my website and blog at http://www.marlenesmealmakeovers.com I would appreciate any feedback.

    Best Health,
    Marlene

    Reply
  2. Annita Woz Report

    Glad to hear so many are thinking about the same things– how to balance the diets of our children, how to teach good eating habits to last a lifetime, how to meet nutritional guidelines within the budgets and the available products…I have to share that yesterday we dug out of the cupboard the children’s vitamins that were way to the back — despite being expired, I had to read the label and what did i find!? CORN SYRUP was the first ingredient! Hilarious in it’s own way, isn’t it???

    Teresa- my husband drank raw milk from the bulk tank as did all of his many siblings…I don’t know what that did or didn’t do for him short term or long term, but it was the norm 40 some years ago….the more things change, the more they stay the same…

    One other note on tobacco industry– isn’t this crazy? I pulled out a magazine ad the other day and stared incredulously at the advertising for organic CIGARETTEs! isn’t that the most interesting combination? It says they “taste” better and they are 100% additive free, natural tobacco! (Yes, it also clearly states they do not reduce or elminate the health risks of smoking) I am all for green, and I’m quite naive, but come on! I’m still shaking my head at what I’m learning!

    Reply
  3. Dr. Mom7 Report

    Hi, I am a pediatrician and I am a little concerned about the choices you are making for your daughter. Raw unpasteurized cow milk can be a risk for Listeria infection as well as being low in the recommended levels of vitamin D and C necessary to prevent rickets and scurvy. This was a very common problem in the early 20th century when parents used evaporated milk to make their babies formula. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recognized that baby formula’s needed to be regulated to ensure the essential nutrients would be found in them to prevent disease. Our latest formula’s also contain DHA and other long chain fatty acids necessary for brain development and health also found in breast milk!). I advocate breastfeeding for all my patients and I am so sorry that it didn’t work out for you. Did you try the hydrosylated formula’s used for infants with allergies and colic? For example, Alimentum and Nutramigen are recommended in situations like yours. I recommend you consult with your baby’s pediatrician about the home formula you are using and also check out the aap.org website for more information on this and other topics.
    I wish you well on your quest toward greater health.

    Reply
  4. Teresa Report

    Hi Annita!

    Boy can I relate! We came to this organic is best, avoid processed foods diet via our newborn daughter (she’s now 3.5 months old). She was 7 weeks early when she was born, and while she was in the NICU, I was able to supply her with enough breast milk. But, as with my first baby, 2 and a half weeks after she was born, I dried up. They started her on formula 2 days before she got out of the NICU. By two days after, she was violently projectile vomiting the formula. Over the next week, we tried every single commercial formula out there — with or without soy, with or without lactose, milk and non milk based, and the broken down protein ones. NOT ONE worked. The baby was getting dehydrated and losing weight, and she wasn’t that big to begin with (she was 4 and a half pounds when she was born). So our doctor prescribed human breast milk from the milk bank. It was wonderful — no more projectile vomiting. BUT, it costs $4.25 PER OUNCE, and after 5 weeks ($3,600 up to that point), we found out our insurance wasn’t going to cover a single cent of that. YIKES!!!

    Anyway, we started looking for possible viable alternatives to the liquid gold we were paying for (I think it’s worth more than cocaine!!!), and came across a book called Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon. In it were 3 different alternative recipes for homemade baby formulas. We found that for our baby, the raw cow’s milk based formula has worked fantastically well. She is growing so well with the raw cow’s milk formula that she is getting fat rolls — she is a chubby, vibrant baby! And though when she was born she was in the 3rd percentile for growth, I think she may be getting pretty close to the 50th percentile now — her preemie clothes were big on her when she was born, and now she is in the 3 month clothes and she is 3 months old. She went from 4.5 lbs to 12 lbs in a little over 3 months. So she is growing like a weed! Getting hold of the raw cow’s milk has been a saga in itself, but we are now able to procure it without any problems.

    Anyway, my point in this response is that the book makes for some REALLY interesting reading that challenges most of the dietary rules that we have all followed for our entire lives. It turns out that they did research on the 14 longest lived societies in the world, and found that they all had some very interesting dietary habits in common. Every one of them had diets that were rich in organic, pasture fed meats, wild grown seafood and non pasteurized dairy products like milk, as well as lactofermentation products like kefir, yogurt and cheeses, as well as vegetable products of lactofermentation, like pickles of all kinds. The things they lacked in common were any kind of mass processing of food, artificial ingredients (flavors or colors or anything else) or even natural ingredients that were highly refined (like white flour or corn syrup); they raised their animals (cows, pigs and chickens) free from corn and soy, free from antibiotics, and when preserving food, they did not use artificial preservatives. And the REALLY interesting thing is that, in spite of such high saturated fat diets, these societies have much lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, chronic inflammatory diseases, cancers, and the rapidly growing issues our modern societies are having, like allergies, anxiety and ADD and autism.

    My husband and I both have some of the health issues that the book said were products of our modern day diets. So I figured that it was worth a try to take a good look at our dietary habits and possibly change some of them. Needless to say, I have become an avid label reader in the past 3 months because of this, and our diet is changing because of it. My husband and I have decided to try a moderate approach by changing one thing out at a time, and just trying to buy our meats and vegetables at the local farmers market. The organic meats and veggies, milk and eggs aren’t so hard to change to — the increase in price is really the only hardship for us, and it’s not so much of a hardship that we can’t do it. But the processed, convenience foods are MUCH more difficult. We aren’t going to quit eating corn, but we are going to limit it to fresh off the cob and try to eat only organic corn if we can — no canned corn, and no products that contain corn syrups. We figure we will have much more success at changing our dietary habits and lifestyle if we take it one step at a time than if we try to change everything radically at once.

    It’s not as easy as we thought — the processed foods industry has done LOTS of research on consumer panels to find out exactly how they can heighten the flavors of their products to make them more addictive and sell more of them. It’s not just the tobacco industry that has worked so hard to make their products irresistible. So while 50 years ago, processed foods tasted like cardboard, nowadays most of them are pretty good for flavors, and the average american home lives on mostly convenient food.

    Anyway, that’s my comment! I encourage everyone to become label readers. If you can afford it, I encourage switching to organic as much as possible. I figure if we as consumers create a growth of demand for organic, less processed foods, the overall prices of organic stuff will drop, and we may force the processed foods industry to overhaul their practices and listen to their customers.

    Reply
  5. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Annita, good for you for becoming the anti-corn queen! I think label-reading is a good way to educate yourself on what you’re putting into your body, and a great way to educate your kids from an early age on how to eat right. (I love that you sent the carrots with the roots and stems on.) I do believe there is a powerful link between good food and good behavior in kids. It’s not the only answer, but in my opinion it’s part of the equation. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  6. ceciliarowe Report

    Annita,

    Welcome to the world of “not being able to shop in a regular supermarket”! We live in Atlanta, which thankfully is occupied by many different types of markets, and we’re specifically thankful for Whole Foods. I don’t think we’d be eating much around here without them! 😉 Our “normal” supermarket is where I get the staples, but certainly not much more.

    It is a tedious, but worthy, task to read lables, and you’d be surprised at how many folks are not – whether it’s from trusting the food manufacturers, or just not particularly caring what’s in the food (as long as it tastes good!). I know many moms that didn’t start reading labels until their child starting with behavior or neurological issues (ADHD, Autism, etc.) that would have them start looking at the yuck they were feeding their children. And no doubt, just like the pure maple syrup, it is more expensive to eat whole and/or organic, but well worth it. Search online for the things that are most important to shop for organically (berries, apples, etc.) as there are many items that are not as important to buy organic (bananas, broccoli, etc.), and you can save some money there. Also with eating whole foods/organics you’ll find you’ll not only use less syrup as it’s more tasty than the other you are used to, but your doctor bills will be lower!

    For your next topic to research for your family, you should try reading labels for MSG – talk about frightening! The side effects are disarming and the “secret names” for it are everywhere as it is in so many foods. Or maybe research the antibiotics/hormones added into our meats, farmed fish and dairy, or maybe the pesticides sprayed on our vegetables and fruits, or….

    Keep up the good work! I’m enjoying your column. 🙂

    Reply

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