Sunday, March 7, 2010

Food in America. A retrospect.

When I grew up I was very active, soccer and high jumping being my favorite sports. My proudest moment was being the best 13 year old in the Donald Duck Swedish Nationals or Kalle Anka as he is called in Sweden. I was a tall, lean teenager. When I moved to Gothenburg in 8th grade I started dancing and taking karate lessons as well. The years when I danced and did karate at the same time was probably the most fit years of my life. I felt good, I looked good and the world was my oyster.

I lead a very active life in my late teens and my early twenties. But things took a turn for the worse at one point in my life and I stopped being as active. A lot of bad eating habits combined with poor self esteem put me at 227 lbs (103 kg) when I was 25. I had been around 180 since my early teens. I am 6 foot 2, by the way.

I had a monster of an unintentional weight loss one summer when I lost around around 44 lbs (20 kg) in 2 months. By that time I was an avid fly fisherman, so I lost all that weight from eating wild brown trout every day. And living in a tent in the woods for two months at my favorite river in northern Sweden.

But all that lost weight came creeping back slowly but surely and by the time I was heading to America in 2001 I was weighing around 209 lbs (95kg), which was an overweight of about 22 lbs (10kg) for me.

I went to Utah, (No jokes about Utah, please. Its painful enough to live there) to study. My years in school were great, albeit with some strange educational rules forcing me to take classes like Statistics 101 and Human Development Across the Lifespan (which basically was a class on how to become a good mother.) The reason a lot of students took that class was it covered three requirements. 3 credits and 3 requirements. Strange but true.

I remember going to the supermarket for the very first time. Smith's on 400 East. I had never seen a supermarket that size before. You better not forget something from aisle 2 because it is a long way back from aisle 19. The first thing that struck me was that vegetables were so expensive. And the bread available was far from what I was used to. I ate dark or sourdough bread, so the hordes of wheat and sugary bread in the bread aisle was just not for me.

I was used to fruit juice, I didn't know any better back then, but couldn't find any juices without added sugar. I asked an employee and he confirmed they didn't carry non sweetened juices. I looked for mineral water, but real mineral water, like Perrier was a bit pricey for me, and sodas has never been part of my regular diet so I skipped that all together.

Back home I always had yogurt for breakfast. Yogurt is a bit of religion in Sweden. In the US I did find "low fat" or "fat free" yogurts like Dannon, but they all had a lot of sugar added. And the ingredients were shady to say the least:
Dannon Activia Strawberry yogurt
Cultured grade a reduced fat milk, strawberry, fructose syrup, sugar, contains less than 1% of fructose, whey protein contentrate, corn starch, modified corn starch, kosher gelatin, natural flavor, carmine (for color), sodium citrate, malic acid 
(Contents are normally written in upper case, but I converted it to lower case to make it easier to read. Graphic designers know ALL UPPERCASE WRITING IS HARD TO READ. Is this intentional by the companies? Of course it is.)
First of all, anything with reduced fat is compensated with sugar or artificial sweeteners. If you remove fat from milk and add nothing to compensate the milk will  be tasteless. Ingredients are listed proportionally, most of the ingredient, first to last. In the above example, the least of total content is malic acid and reduced fat milk the most.

Natural flavor is a tricky one. The flavors and aromas are so concentrated they seem like a small part of the ingredients, but it only takes a very small amount to achieve the desired result. Think of it as perfume, the most concentrated one. Big Food does this to save on real flavor, in the above case strawberries.

A very recent study about fructose claims fructose could be a reason behind child diabetes. MD Robert Lustig's, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology lecture about sugar and fructose is excellent for anyone interested. If you know of additional studies showing dangers of HFCS, please post them in the comments or mail them to me. For more information on high fructose corn syrup and corn in general, do watch the movies Food Inc. and King Corn.

Let's move on to the confusing nutrition facts. Illustrated by the below comparison of US and European nutrition facts. I have used Wonderbread to illustrate the differences.

Now, if all products where based on 28 gram portions it would be easy to compare products, but of course they aren't. A few examples:

  • 113 grams - Dannon: Activia Strawberry Yogurt
  • 177 ml - CapriSun: Fruit Dive 6 Oz Pouch 100% Juice
  • 12 oz - Tropicana: Pure Premium - Some Pulp Orange Juice
  • 84 grams - Tyson: Oven Roasted Diced Chicken Breast
  • 28 grams - Wonder Classic White Bread

Below are the nutrition facts of Swedish whole milk.

Click the image for larger version

Now let's assume you want to buy bread for breakfast. You find three kinds of bread which are to your liking:
  • Portion size: 28 grams - Wonder Classic White Bread
  • Portion size: 38 grams - Thomas': Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Breakfast
  • Portion size: 85 grams - Western Bagel: Original Recipe Blueberry Bagels
Now you want to find out which one is more healthy. Based on the information available in the nutrition facts, how do you figure out which has the least i.e. calories? Unless you have a calculator with you or you are a savant with mad math skills, you can't. I used an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the facts I used in the illustrations.

My point? All food in Europe is marked the same, per 100 grams. No matter if it is a liquid or solid food. So when you compare two products you compare per 100 grams, not by portion size.

The politicians in EU are however trying to make Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) standardized in Europe. Big Food are having a blast of course. An example was OLW Chips, a Swedish brand of potato chips. One of their chips packages said the chips had 135 calories based on a portion size of 25 grams. 25 grams is about 13 pieces of chips. Do you know anyone who eats 13 chips and then says:

Thanks, I'm good. 

Me neither. The Swedish FDA approved OLW's portion size. However if you eat the whole thing, 300 grams of heart attack artery clogging goodness, you consume about 1500 calories. 135 vs 1500. No wonder Big Food hearts GDA.

Since nutrition facts have been like this for a long time, people have gotten used to them and have accepted them. Why does the FDA allow this?

Some time ago the FDA changed the limits on how much trans fat a product could contain in order to use the words "Trans Fat Free" on the packaging. Big Food of course was annoyed by this, but they are ingenious, so they found a solution very quickly. Change the portion size to a smaller one. Trans fat fell below the limit with the new portion size and voilà - it's legally Trans Fat Free, without changing the actual trans fat content of the product.

Ok, I got way off topic there. Back to my retrospect of American Food. As you can tell, the culture shock was severe. I tried eating healthy, but it was hard. And once school was seriously under way late nights in the studios became more and more common. Late nights mean hunger, means food, means available food, means vending machines. My sweet Jesus, I ate a lot of junk food during those late nights. Coke, candy, chocolate bars, burritos heated in the disgusting microwave used by everyone and not cleaned since before America put a man on the moon, hamburgers, Powerade, cookies, pop tarts, pies, chips, pizza and tons of the watery crap called coffee. The coffee did have a very vague flavor of the real thing and it did wake me up, so I suppose it had caffeine in it and got the required job done...

I have no idea how much sugar I consumed the first few years, but after 2 years I had gained 37 lbs (17 kg) and had become officially obese. By that time I had pretty much given up. I didn't really care how much I weighed anymore. Given it is socially accepted in Utah to be obese, nobody else really cared either. Strange thing is I didn't gain more as far as I recall. Maybe part of it was I starved myself long periods of time. I simply didn't eat.

Recalling the vending machine food, I don't really want to know how much sugar I consumed. Out of sight out of mind.

My staple food was Domino's, Burger King, a local Mexican joint, which was infamous for all food poisonings, Chili's, an Indian place, Subway and occasionally the local diner for a "regular" warm dinner. I never cooked at home anymore. Not that I really ever had.

I recall visiting home during those years. My friends were kind enough not to say anything, but I could tell. Their eyes said:
"Peter , what on earth have you done with yourself?"
I  had no answer for them. I knew. There was nothing to say. No excuses. I had officially become a fat guy.

Looking back at it today, I could have eaten low carb in America and stayed in shape. I eat what a lot of Americans eat for breakfast i.e. Bacon and eggs, sans the bread.

Unfortunately I wasn't aware of low carb then. Upon returning to Sweden I fought with my weight until last Christmas. Then I decided to change my habits. And it sure has paid dividends. Reading contents and nutrition facts requires some practice, but boy is it worth it.


  1. 100 grams is good and well when you know what 100 grams an American I didn't until I bought a scale. It's much easier to eat healthier going from America to Sweden. Yes, there is junk (oh the delicious cinnamon rolls...and the curse of sugar at fika!), but there is good stuff in even the rural grocery stores like my beloved Gammaldägs Mjölk or reindeer.

    I wasn't a fan of the sausages though, lots of them have flour and whatnot in them. And I never did find good lard/ister, though I did find duck fat from France. The loss of butchers in Sweden is also very sad.

    But in defense of America, you did live in one of our food deserts. NYC, San Franciso, Seattle, and Chicago or any major city will have better food. I lived in middle America before and I'm quite happy with the food in NYC since there are lots of AMAZING butchers! Meat is also much more affordable here, even grassfed organic meat. The only such meat I found in Sweden was from Järna and it was very very expensive!

  2. Melissa: I don't know how much 100 grams is either.

    But I do know the difference between 35 grams of sugar in one product and 2 grams of sugar in another.

    The cities you mention are, in my opinion, exceptions, not the rule. And of course I have had delicious and nutritious food in the States.

    The poor nutrition facts are making it's way to Europe as well. And the high fructose corn syrup, which is injected into pretty much everything, is making a killing in Europe as well.

    What we need is a food revolution. Globally. To quote Food Inc: Every time you shop you vote.

    However, that requires education, as well as the cooperation of authorities. One would assume that they are chosen by the people to represent the people, but that unfortunately is not always the case.

    Being realistic I do believe Big Food and Big Medicine has a stranglehold on governments allowing little room for change.

    Obviously I realized what I wrote would be provocative to some people. But I hope they realize I did what I did to myself. I don't blame poor nutrition facts for my bad choices. Logic is after all not out of order, just because the cornflakes package claims it's healthy food.

    That being said - the above doesn't take away from the fact the nutrition facts are horrible and it makes good choices harder.

    And yes I am envious of being able to buy grassfed beef at a decent price. Grassfed beef is as you say very expensive in Sweden.