A decade ago, nutrition advice was simple: eat nutritious food and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Today, it’s more complicated. Rather than broad, easy-to-understand guidelines, people are given specific and often conflicting instructions on the types of food they should consume and what to avoid. That advice often comes with a big serving of mommy shaming—the suggestion that if you love your kids, you’ll do exactly as instructed.
Casey Seidenberg is a mom, a DC-based food activist, and the co-founder of Nourish Schools, which bills itself as “a D.C.-based nutrition education company.” Seidenberg clearly cares about kids and healthy eating, yet her latest article for the Washington Post—entitled “Parental Primer on Kid’s Nutrition Questions”—achieves nothing more than giving parents an anxiety attack about affordable food sold in grocery stores. Even worse, her guidance is misleading and scientifically unsound.
Everything Is Processed
Seidenberg starts off sounding reasonable by tackling the question of whether kids need to eat breakfast. She gives practical advice, saying a morning meal helps kids stay focused and gives them the energy to get through the day. It’s a smart tactic. Starting off with some common-sense advice makes the reader feel comfortable. The writer seems sensible. This establishes trust.
Her next question—“What is a whole food?”—with its clear implication that whole foods are good and processed foods are bad, begins the transition into subtle mom shaming and food snobbery. She asks if the readers can “…imagine it growing?” Clever. Because everyone knows cereal bars don’t sprout from the ground, Captain Crunch isn’t found on trees, and one doesn’t dig up a Dorito. Building on this, Seidenberg asks: “Has anything been done to it since it was harvested?”
This is supposed to make readers contemplate with horror all the additives that have gone into their food, but, really, Seidenberg is revealing that she knows very little about farming and the modern food system. If Seidenberg really understood the concept of farm to table, she would know that a whole lot of things are “done to” food—even whole food—after it is harvested and that this neither alters nor diminishes the nutritional value in any substantive or measurable way.
While Seidenberg might believe her organic tomatoes are hand-carried to Whole Food’s tidy shelf by the migrant worker who picked it from the field, the truth is, all food is handled, cleaned, and packaged before it goes to the market—that’s called processing.
Even just-picked fruits and vegetables are processed (sorted, washed, de-stemmed, and packed up for shipping) before they appear in the grocery store. I’m not suggesting (okay, maybe I am) Seidenberg believes every grocery store comes with its own little plot of land and adjacent orchard for growing the things that end up in the produce aisle, but she seems blissfully unaware that a big, gas-guzzling 18-wheeler truck pulls up to the dock at the back of the store where boxes of fruits and vegetables (you know, “whole foods”) are unloaded and then placed on store shelves.
And you know what? That even happens at Whole Foods!
While Seidenberg may turn her perfect nose up at processed foods like frozen and canned produce, these products offer those who live at and under the poverty line a real option for getting nutritious food at a more reasonable price. Moreover, frozen food is actually healthier than fresh produce because produce destined for the freezer is allowed to fully ripen before being picked and processed. That means those items are picked at their most nutritious point and the freezing process locks in those nutrients. Why does Seidenberg leave this out of her “parental primer”?
Organic Doesn’t Mean Pesticde-Free
Seidenberg then asks readers: “What does organic mean?” But don’t expect Seidenberg to get the answer right. Instead she says organic foods are grown without pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. That sure sounds nice, but it’s completely false. Don’t believe me? Consider an investigation into this question by Atlantic writer Christie Wilcox who found that “there are over 20 chemicals commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops that are approved by the US Organic Standards. And, shockingly, the actual volume usage of pesticides on organic farms is not recorded by the government.”
Polls show the main reason people choose organic produce is to avoid pesticides. Wouldn’t it be nice if people were told the truth—that if they really want to avoid pesticides, there’s only one way: grow your own food.
But I have a better idea: stop worrying about pesticides. The truth is, both organic and conventionally grown food (which are nutritionally equal) are grown with pesticides, but this doesn’t mean you or your children are in danger. The Environmental Protection Agency constantly tests the produce sold in grocery stores to ensure that pesticide residues levels stay below what the EPA considers safe. In addition, the EPA regulates and monitors how farmers apply pesticides. So all along the food chain, there are checks built in to ensure the safety of consumers.
Just how miniscule are those pesticide residues that Seidenberg is so worried about? Well, here’s a visual that will give you a sense of the not-so-scary reality. My child would have to eat 1,500 servings of strawberries to reach the safe level of exposure. That’s right: he could sit down to a baby pool filled with strawberries and gorge all day and still wouldn’t hit a dangerous level of exposure. Now tell me again why my child eating three or four conventionally grown strawberries is a health risk? And why again do I have to spend two or three times more money for organic produce?
Neither GMOs Nor BPA Is Harmful
Revealing more of her penchant for conspiracy theories, Seidenberg catches a ride on the anti-GMOs bandwagon by first innocently asking: “what are GMOs?” then providing a thoroughly uninformed answer. Yet again revealing she’s a city girl, Seidenberg says (bracketed comments mine, obviously): “industrial farmers [what is an industrial farmer? She seems to like questions; maybe she can answer that one?] hope these GMO seed enable more crops to be successfully grown per square food of soil [Yes, that’s called yield, Ms. “I have a windowsill herb garden so I GET FARMING” Seidenberg, and for time immemorial, farmers—all farmers, not just those scary “industrial” farmers—have strived for a strong yield] thus making them more money [why do I think she has a closet full of Occupy Wall Street t-shirts?].”
Seidenberg concludes her irrational anti-GMO propaganda by blandly saying (with no link to scientific evidence, natch) “there are unanswered questions as to the safety of foods that come from GMOs.” Except there really aren’t any questions that remain about the safety of GMOs because after thousands of tests on GMOs, there hasn’t been one reported or documented case of GMOs causing any harm to any human or animal. We can pretend this is all still a big question, but the scientists who work on these issues know differently.
To complete the triumvirate of fear, Seidenberg delves into toxicology, giving us her thoughts on Bisphenol-A—that boogeyman of chemicals that led to a cottage industry of BPA-free products thanks to unfounded claims by environmental activists. Seidenberg claims (again, no link to any study) that “BPA in plastic containers seep into food and beverages” yet fails to mention the reassuring fact that hundreds of peer-reviewed studies show this “seepage” results in such low doses of BPA that it has no impact on the human body and that the trace levels of BPA one might ingest while eating a can of chicken noodle soup is metabolized and extracted quickly (through sweat and urine) and doesn’t stick around to do anything.
Seidenberg also clearly missed the latest news from European Food Safety Authority, which just released a comprehensive re-evaluation of BPA, finding that the chemical poses no risk to consumers of any age group, including unborn children, infants, and adolescents at current exposure levels. The agency also stated that exposure to BPA from food and a range of other potential sources (dust, cosmetics, and thermal paper) “is considerably under the safe level.”
Seidenberg probably means well. Her organization has a noble goal—to provide people with resources so they can make better decisions about the food their children are eating. But Seidenberg should remember she owes her audience accurate, scientifically sound information about food.
Seidenberg’s piece is riddled with questions. Perhaps she should spend a little more time asking some—instead of presenting herself as an expert with the answers. More importantly, she should ease up on the mom shaming and get back to a simple message about food: eat nutritiously.