What is "real food"?
My oldest son's official definition is: anything that doesn't taste good but is good for you.
As he witnessed the latest dinner table tug-of-war between me and his picky-eater younger brother, he jumped to his sibling's defense while honoring my role as health promoter: "It's not your fault we don't like real food, Mom. It's just that everything we ever eat away from home is chemically formulated to taste good."
At least I know they listen to me when I explain why orange Jell-O and actual oranges have so little in common.
I am but one food-aware mother up against a tsunami of preschool fruity sugar-water and salty cracker "snacks," and public school trays of pizza and fries.
And though my sources report that the majority of high school students at a local district are no longer bringing family-sized sacks of cheese curls to munch on throughout the day, I have it on good account that in at least one Chicago kindergarten classroom, spicy corn chips -- which, in some reported cases, have sent kids to the ER with abdominal pain -- are still all the rage.
I recently had a good belly laugh when I read a piece in The New York Times by food columnist Mark Bittman in which he suggests that to stem the rising tide of obesity we must "eat real food." Though I love the sentiment, anyone who experiences the futility of trying to educate people about nutrition understands how difficult this is.
Most Americans don't have a clue about how to eat well, much less what "real food" is. If any of us got direct instruction in public school about how we're supposed to eat healthfully, it was probably through the USDA's now-defunct, 22-year-old food guide pyramid that told us to, yes, carb up on six to 11 servings of insulin-spiking bread, cereal, rice and pasta. Some teachers still use it as a handout in health or cooking classes.
Here's my favorite food headline of the week, from The Washington Post's "To Your Health" blog: "Watercress tops list of 'powerhouse fruits and vegetables.' Who knew?"
Just like very few understood the great irony of the recent announcement by McDonald's that, in a move designed to bring more healthy choices to its iconic Happy Meals, yogurt is being added as an alternative to the existing fresh apple slices.
Not plain yogurt, mind you. "Go-Gurt," the low-fat "food" that contains 10 grams of sugar per 64-gram serving.
That's about as much added sugar as in a Fruit Roll-Up "snack" that, in case you didn't know, tastes like candy. There is even a tiny disclaimer on Fruit Roll-Ups packages warning: "They are not intended to replace fruit in the diet."
The phenomenon of caregivers not understanding what they're feeding their loved ones is not limited to parents of young children. A recent warning from the American Geriatrics Society's Choosing Wisely work group asked those who care for senior citizens to beware of nutritional supplement drinks, such as Boost and Ensure, which contain protein -- and tons of sugar with no fiber. One expert called them "liquid candy bars with vitamins."
It feels like a losing battle, this struggle to get our kids to understand that they truly are what they eat, and that "real food" is necessary and preferable in order to live a long healthy life. Even our tactics have been off.
According to The New York Times, yet-to-be published research from marketing professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, trying to sell young children on a food that would make you feel "strong and healthy" fell flat compared to telling them that it simply tastes "yummy."
Yet, kids who were simply offered a food with no pitch -- in this case, deliciously salty and sweet Wheat Thins crackers, but also, in subsequent tests, carrot sticks -- ate more than if they'd been told about its nutritional value or taste.
The researchers hypothesized that if children think food is good for them, they don't think it can also taste good.
Unfortunately, too many adults think this as well.
Esther Cepeda is a syndicated columnist.