I’m not sure when I grew to be suspect or dubious about claims made on food packages, but it’s definitely not a new thing for me. As far back as 2006, I wrote a massively controversial blog post about Fig Newtons (blog comments: zero), which had just released their “100% Whole Grain” version of the finest mass-produced cookie ever known to humankind. In case you didn’t click that link, here’s the Cliff’s Notes: when comparing the “regular” Fig Newton package and the 100% Whole Grain Fig Newton package, there was NO difference other than 1 gram extra of dietary fiber in the Whole Grain version and that the Whole Grain version contained more saturated fat than the regular Newtons.
Through the years, I still pick up and examine packages of food in stores to compare how healthy they make it *look* on the front of the package to the actual measurements and ingredients on the back. Sizzle vs. detail, if you will. It’s safe to say that food manufacturers are still playing games with us. Their use of colors (green = healthy!) is occasionally misleading and if something is high in fiber, but contains 28g of sugar, you can be sure that the front of the package will contain some sort of wheat-like image that says “80% of daily fiber requirements” or something. A lie? No. Looking out for your health? Uh, no.
So I read yesterday’s New York Times story about protein bars with great interest. These bars always fascinate me. It seems like every store now has hundreds of them, all neatly lined up next to each other in a dizzying array of “healthy” colors and life-saving claims of all the protein you’ll ever need. Don’t be too fooled by them. These are perhaps some of the most egregiously labeled food packages put forth by our money-grubbing food processors, yet the Times points out that they are now a $2 billion dollar business. And they are essentially candy bars.
“You can put ‘keto’ or ‘protein’ on a candy bar and sell it, and people don’t even question it,” said Janet Chrzan, an adjunct assistant professor of nutritional anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
New York Times, January 26, 2023
So yes, protein is good for you. But not when it’s packaged up with enough sugar to make a grizzly bear dance for hours on end (sidenote: I cannot wait to see Cocaine Bear!). The Times also points out that a chocolate chip Clif Bar contains 16 grams of added sugars, more than what’s in a serving of girl scout Thin Mints. Candy bars with more protein. Sounds healthy!
So if I’m picking a protein bar, it’s these because I am encouraged (or suckered?) by the simple ingredients posted right on the front of the package!
And guess what, they are pretty tasty. And the ingredients on the front are exactly what is in it. And there are indeed no added sugars, though there are 15g of naturally occurring sugars. Maybe try one, I like them. Or don’t. But be careful out there, hardly any of these companies really care about you.
My typical approach to most things medical is “oh, that’ll go away” or “I don’t have to worry about that yet.” I’m not irresponsible by any means – I know when to go see a doctor, and I do. But if I have a sore hip or elbow or if my lower back aches, I’m pretty confident that’ll it go away eventually. If it gets to the point where it’s months, then I know I should probably go in for a look.
Things like metabolism, on the other hand, seems like stuff that floats around in the vast distance. In my 20s and 30s, I recall an older friend often saying “just wait until you hit your 40s and your metalbolism slows down.” Well, I didn’t really know what that meant and I didn’t pursue the knowledge. Why? Well, go back and read the first sentence of this post. I think I’ve always just thought of metabolism as tied to the energy my body produces as a result of my food intake or something. And that when my metabolism slowed down, I’d have to change my eating habits or exercise even more so that I didn’t gain unhealthy weight.
This week as I was reading my various news feeds I came across this article from the Scientific American about metabolism and I thought to myself that it was time to dig in and learn more about this thing that was supposedly going to show up one day, slap me upon the face and render me a useless sloth.
I know, I know, I had decades to just pop it into Google, so why now? I don’t know. I don’t have to explain myself! The urge just hit me. Lo and behold, the article is more interesting and fun than you might think when you hear the words “metabolism” and “Scientific American.” Witness here, the author talking about his daughter’s seventh birthday party:
Aside from the fresh veggies left wilting in the sun, none of the food was recognizable as a product of nature. The cake was a heat-treated amalgam of pulverized grass seed, chicken eggs, cow milk and extracted beet sugar. The raw materials for the snacks and drinks would take a forensic chemist years to reconstruct. It was a calorie bonanza that animals foraging in the wild could only dream about, and we were giving it away to people who didn’t even share our genes. All this to celebrate some obscure astronomical alignment, the moment our planet swept through the same position relative to its star as on the day my daughter was born.
Scientific American, January 2023
Not exactly what went through my mind during my kids birthday parties, but I digress. The author is an “evolutionary anthropologist” and the article goes on to report out on a study done by he and his colleagues, where they made “important strides in understanding how our bodies use energy” and how their findings “have overturned much of the received wisdom about the ways human energy requirements change over the course of a lifetime.”
So my very amatuer understanding of metabolism seems to be in the ballpark. The author further defines it for me in the article:
And there you have it. Bascially every phase of our life, every minute of it in fact, requires some kind of energy. Our growth, reproduction, day-to-day needs – all driven by food and energy. I won’t ruin the rest of the article for you – you really should read it – but it goes to talk about the results of the study and as it turns out, my older friend was both wrong and right about metabolism “coming for me” in my 40s and 50s. Wrong because I’ve managed to stay active and eat relatively healthy, therefore my energy has generally been good and consistent. But he was right because it really depends on your food intake, exercise regimen and yes, those pesky genetics. Turns out that metabolism stays remarkably consistent until about age 60, but of course depending on how you treat yourself in the run-up to that age.
A couple of marbles rolling around in my head lately that I need to staple into the motherboard for safe keeping:
This past weekend I did something that I probably haven’t done since college or maybe even before that. I wrote a handwritten letter. Remember the thrill of getting physical mail? I don’t mean crap, I mean cards from distant family members or letters from people or whatnot. Thrilling! I still get a touch of excitement when my two magazines show up on my doorstep. I love that a thrill from childhood remains with me like that.
Anyway, I wrote a letter to David McCullough. This was part of an exercise I did with my kids where we all decided to write a letter to someone who has influenced us in a positive way. I’ve read several of his books over the years, so I dropped him a line to tell him so. It ended up taking up almost an entire page and by the end of the letter, another memory from childhood came rushing back to me – that feeling I used to get in school when my hand hurt from writing too much.
Zachary decided he would write a letter to J.K. Rowling, and boy did he ever. He filled up a piece of paper, front AND back, telling her how much he loved the Harry Potter stories, how he wanted to be a writer and asking her all kinds of questions. Nathan wrote his letter to Wayne Gretzky. The admiration for Gretz is a recent one, as Nathan has been watching a lot of countdown shows on NHL Network and #99 was featured on one. His letter was shorter (part and parcel) but no less inquisitive and adorable. I hope they answer us. Law of averages says we’ll be lucky to receive even one response, but you never know.
Last week my employer sent myself and a co-worker off to Worcester for two full days to immerse ourselves in advanced techniques in Microsoft Excel. Now, I know my way around Excel pretty well and I thought I was in a for a real snoozefest during the first 2-3 hours of the class, but then shit started to get real. I learned way more than I expected and was really happy with what I got out of it. With a full time job, kids at home and a marriage to maintain, time for learning isn’t plentiful, so this was welcomed. I was really glad to add some advanced capabilities into my Excel arsenal. Always trying to build.
Some other highlights of the class happened outside the class. One was a terrific lunch at Armsby Abbey. This is a place I would totally hang out all the time if it were closer. Excellent local & organic menu and a very, very impressive beer list, backdropped by a cool wood/brick decor. My kind of place for sure. We struck up a fun conversation with the two barkeeps, too. Just a great vibe. Go there if you’re local.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention my co-worker Jeff Bercume, whom I attended the class with. Jeff and I see a lot of each other at work and I consider myself lucky, because I know a few people who don’t get to work closely with people they enjoy on both a personal and professional level. He’s a future leader, smart, well-spoken, a good person and we laugh a lot, not to mention play a fair amount of ping-pong. That’s a good dude to take a two day Excel class with. The ice cream Big Boppers were an added bonus….and added calories. I can’t remember if he’s holding both of them in the picture here.
One last thing. You may have noticed lately a few references to childhood and memories. My last post went into it a little more seriously, but today I’m keeping it light. I really, really want to work on bringing the word “der” back into heavy rotation. This was an ’80s staple and it’s so damn funny.
One of the things we treasure in our house is the crock pot. It is as versatile a piece of cooking machinery as you could ever hope for. When we first got it, we made a lot of very exquisite dishes that tasted out of this world, but took a long time. The first thing we made when we got the crock pot was Stephanie’s Coq Au Vin, which turned out delicious to the tenth power, but also required a LOT of time, including prep the night before and a good amount of work the next day. Not exactly what we intended, given our limited time, but the meal took us right back to France! It was THAT good! While we still do the long prep meals occasionally, the crock pot really shines for us when we need to throw together a quick meal that doesn’t take a long time to make, but tastes like it does take a long time to make. I love my italics. Simple stuff, you know? For example, Steph threw a pork tenderloin and a bottle of TJ’s BBQ sauce in the cooker one day. Literally 1 minute of work – and the pulled pork tasted awesome!
Anyway, last night we trotted out this delight, called African Sweet Potato Stew with Red Beans. This recipe comes from the Cooking Light cookbook, aptly titled, “Cooking Light Slow Cooker.” The combination of sweet potato, spices and peanut butter made this dish really stand out for me. It’s one of a few Cooking Light recipes that actually taste quite rich. It’s easy to make and really really good. Have at it:
2 TB olive oil
1.5 cups chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
4 cups peeled sweet potatos, chopped into one inch cubes
1.5 cups cooked red beans
1.5 cups vegetable broth
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/2 cup water
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 can diced tomato (drained)
1 4.5 ounce can diced green chiles, drained
3 tb creamy peanut butter
3 tb chopped dry roast peanuts
1. Heat oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat, add onion and garlic, cook 5 mins
2. Place onion mixture, sweet potato and next 10 ingredients in the crock pot, cover, cook low for 8 hours
3. Spoon 1 cup of the finished broth into a bowl, add the peanut butter, whisk, add back into crock pot, stir.
4. Ladle into individual bowls, add a lime wedge and sprinkle peanuts.
Don’t buy the canned shit. Make your own! Try this really tasty cranberry sauce recipe for the holidays (Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, whatever). You will be glad you did. Takes literally 10 minutes to assemble and maybe 15-20 to sit in the pot. The food goes in the pot, not you.
4 Naval Oranges, peeled and sectioned
2 cups sugar
4 cups fresh cranberries
1 cup chopped apple
1/2 cup of raisins
1/4 cup of chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon vinegar
1/2 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 tsp of cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a pot. Boil. Reduce and simmer for 10-15 mins or until cranberries start to pop. That’s it. You will love it! Happy Thanksgiving!
In Berlin, Massachusetts, about 30 miles due west of Boston, there’s a little farm nestled in between innocuous residential streets. We discovered Balance Rock Farm when they started setting up shop at the Maynard Farmers Market about five years ago and this past summer, in our initiative to increase eating more locally and more responsibly, we purchased nearly all of our meat, eggs, butter and cheese there. It was a good choice! Because everything they produce tastes fresher than what we buy in the supermarket.
Unfortunately, during the winter months, their offerings are slightly more lean and we have to drive over to Berlin to grab stuff from them instead of just walking down to the farmers market. Sometime in December, I’ll get the call from them that our chickens are ready. Back in September, I signed up to take six of them. Not live chickens – I’m not really ready for that – but six freshly killed chickens that we’ll freeze and will take us through the winter. So I am looking for good whole chicken recipes if you’ve got ’em. Send it on over!
In the meantime, I’m still trying to figure out and get on board with something that will turn this company (and others like it) on its head the same way Google turned search on its head…….someone’s going to do it. Just a matter of when.