Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A healthier Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart is many things to many people.

A retailer that has trompled Main Street in small towns across the country.

A welcomed business, employer and tax base to mid-sized regional centers.

A horrific corporate giant dictating prices for consumer goods and groceries.

An uber-convenient, inexpensive shopping experience.  (Diapers, milk, birthday cards, digital cameras, craft supplies and tires for the mini-van all in one stop!)

The fact is - consumer goods aside - WalMart is the number one grocer in the United States; accounting for 25% market share.  WalMart is double the size of its number two competitor, Kroger.  When it comes to selling groceries, they know what they're doing.

Which is why Wal-Mart's latest adventure to roll-out healthier food choices and lower prices on produce left me scratching my head.  Or, more like banging my head against the wall when I watched this news piece on the CBS Evening News.  (You can read the store here.)

Did you see the reporter walking down the cookie/cracker aisle holding the bag of Oreos?  Did you see it?  Did it make you want to bang your head against the wall saying, "Changing a few ingredients in a package of oreos won't make America skinny, fella!"  Okay, maybe that was just me.

The cynic in me says this:  Wal-Mart has the muscle to do many things.  But to think they can curb childhood and adult obesity by altering some ingredients in the foods they sell is silly.  Ridiculous.  Bang your head against the wall absurd. 

Furthermore, to think Wal-Mart is doing this without considering their bottom line is naive.  The opportunity to use Michelle Obama AND sell healthier foods is a nice bit of marketing.  And to cut costs in their produce means further consolidation in fruit and vegetable production.  Good-bye mid-sized California strawberry farmer.  You're out!

Wal-Mart has never been my first choice for groceries, but I do some shopping there on occassion.  My perception of the store is that the grocery department is geared to convenience shoppers.  Think semi-homemade.  I'm more of a "do-it-yourselfer."  I don't need any help, Hamburger Helper, thank you very much.  I prefer Dillon's.  The store feels more like it's designed for folks who like to cook and bake, and I like the quality and price of their store (Kroger) brands.  But that's just me.

If you want to continue shopping at Wal-Mart, go right ahead.  I wouldn't even think about trying to stop you.  But don't let yourself be duped into believing that buying Great Value oreo cookies is a healthy food choice.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Beef in Bulk

Remember that grocery store trip from a couple weeks ago that ended sourly?  Well on Saturday morning, a mere three weeks later, I finally made it to the big city and the big store.  Good thing, too.  The pantry was down to a tablespoon of oil, a cup of flour and some canned tomatoes.  Figuring out what to feed the family was challenging my creativity.

While I filled my cart with purchases from every aisle, the one section of the store I didn't purchase anything from was the meat counter.  Beef from the family farm, pork purchased from a local friend, or beloved 4H project animals stock our freezer.

And we are fortunate to have such connections to the livestock industry - especially when beef (and nearly all commodity prices) are at all-time highs.  My husband - whether out of fear of starvation or pure love of red meat - never lets our meat supply dwindle.  He closely monitors our supply as well as market prices, and always comes out money ahead.  (I married this guy for good reason.)

Beef prices have been on the rise.  Timely.  Our supply of ground beef was exhausted.  I do have a degree in economics, see?  So my forward-thinking-meat-eating husband contracted with the local butcher to buy ground beef in bulk.  He bought 80/20 and 90/10 ground beef, blended them and packaged them in neat one-pound plastic bags and stacked them in the freezer.  Isn't he a dear?  He created his own version of an (approximate) 85/15 blend for around $2.20/lb.

Know how much ground beef was selling for this weekend at that big city store?  90/10 ground beef: $4.39/lb.  80/20: $3.17/lb.  Holy cow, folks.   

Being thrifty (down-right cheap) has its advantages.  Unless I want to get some popcorn of the off-chance (once every five years) he takes me to a movie.  But I digress...


Not only do we have strong ties to beloved livestock producers, but my father-in-law has a mini-butcher shop - slash - sausage making shop at his farm.  I don't exactly know how he came about owning a commercial meat grinder and mixer or a commercial-sized sausage stuffer.  I don't even know what the technical names for these machines are.  Obviously.  I'm just thankful he knows how they work and makes sure my thrify (down-right cheap) husband doesn't cut off his fingers.


So what's the point here?  Buy your ground beef in bulk, drive three hours to your in-laws farm.  Mix and package your own beef and drive home.

Or, your could read the information posted by The Beef Checkoff here, and figure out a few ways to stretch your beef dollar.  At times like this, when you have to think twice about how to spend your grocery dollar, there is no need deprive your family of tasty, filling, nutrient rich foods like beef.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Naturally

We all expect to find bills in the mail box at the beginning of a new year.  And, at this time of year, we all expect to be surrounded with information about how to improve our health.  But would you expect to find both in the same envelope on the 4th day of the new year? 

Probably not.

When the bill from my friendly chiropractor arrived in the mail last week, I certainly did not expect to find a two-page, slighted article on the safety of consuming high-fructose corn syrup neatly folded behind my invoice.  Stuffing invoices with misleading information about what I should be eating was something new from them.  This liability surged my irritability.

There is an abundance of information about our food supply available these days.  And it seems everyone, from the chiropractor all the way up to the First Lady, has an opinion on what exactly we should be eating.  However, knowing that 97% of us no longer have a direct connection to the production of that food supply, it can be difficult to discern the truth from the buffet of information.

As daughter, daughter-in-law, and sister to three of my favorite Kansas corn farmers, I wanted my fellow chiropractic patients to know the truth about this very interesting and useful ingredient derived from corn, affectionately called high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS.

HFCS was developed in the late 1950s and gained popularity as an ingredient in food production in the 1970s as US trade policy drove up the price of sugar.  It has sustained that popularity not because of price, but because of the beneficial properties of HFCS as an ingredient.  HFCS gives breads and cakes a soft-moist texture, protects the texture of canned and frozen fruits, enhances fruit and spice flavor in products such as ketchup and spaghetti sauce, and extends the shelf-life of carbonated beverages, just to name a few.

High-fructose corn syrup was specifically developed to provide an equal sweetness to sugar.  This way, food and beverage producers could substitute sugar with HFCS, and consumers would not be able to discern a difference in taste or sweetness.  Table sugar is 50% fructose, 50% glucose.  HFCS is either 42% or 55% fructose; the remaining balance is glucose and higher sugars.  Both sucrose and HFCS have the same number of calories, four per gram.

This particular article sought to slander high-fructose corn syrup by calling it “chemically altered,” and “not a natural food item.”  When in fact, the processing methods for converting beet or cane into table sugar, or corn into high-fructose corn syrup, are surprisingly similar.  Both are extracted from plant material and then both undergo processing steps including hydrolosis, flocculation/filtration, enzyme treatment, color/aroma removal, and concentration.  Additionally, HFCS meets Food & Drug Administration guidelines to be labeled a “natural” food ingredient.

The article goes on to say that HFCS is not metabolized in our bodies the same way as sugar and other sweeteners.  This corn farmer’s daughter further research, however, says this isn’t so.  High-fructose corn syrup does not reduce the body’s ability to produce insulin, is metabolized in the same way sugar is in the body, and has the same effect on feelings of fullness as beverages sweetened with sugar or a glass of 1% milk.

My favorite line from the article was this: “…food items that include HFCS are sugary cereals, toaster pastries, soft drinks, juice pouches and boxes, jams and jellies, salad dressings, sauces, ketchup, canned fruit, cookies and crackers.”  Thank goodness the chiropractor pointed this out for me. 

Mostly, the article tries to pin the source of rising adult and childhood obesity rates squarely in the lap of corn producers and corn processors.  And in a rural, agricultural based county in Kansas where corn production has quadrupled in the past eight years, I hardly see the dissemination of this article as a way to boost traffic through the doors of the chiropractor.

Seriously, folks, listen to your Midwest common sense.  You and I know the reason folks need bigger and bigger pants sizes: too many calories in, too little energy expended.   If toaster pastries and soft drinks keep appearing on your grocery list, you’re probably not dropping any pounds.

Am I boycotting my friendly chiropractor?  Certainly not.  But I refuse to accept information on the food I choose to feed my family from a source who fails to consider the farmer, the food processor, and every step involved in getting my food from farm to table.  And you should too. 

For more information, visit http://www.sweetsurprise.com

Monday, January 3, 2011

At least the oven's installed

2011 can only be better than 2010. Especially considering the way 2010 went down.

December 31. New Year's Eve. I woke up to icy roads and a dusting of snow. And I had plans. And a four-wheel drive pick-up and years of practice driving on icy, snowy road conditions.

Home-improvement hubby had the day off and was planning to install my new oven. The stress of such projects combined with three small kids and a wife who loves to read instruction manuals didn't bode well for a quick install.

So, I planned to load up the kids, head to the big city, get a bit of shopping done and meet up with some mommy friends and their kids at the mall for lunch and a play date. I figured the quicker we hit the road, the quicker I'm baking cookies in a shiny, new oven.

We drove 45 mph in four-wheel-drive the entire 35 miles and arrived safely. The kids sang songs and enjoyed the drive. We made it successfully through our first store, and were working our way through the check-out when things started going south.

I was paying for our items and the kids were drooling over the candy selection. They seemed to be all eyes, no fingers, so I turned to finish paying. And then I heard Nell say, "Uh-oh, boken."

Tucker had a broken, $3.00, battery operated, spinning sucker in hand; the sucker cracked and smashed on the floor; and a piece of sucker in his mouth.

You've got to be kiddin' me.

I made him pick up the pieces. He immediately broke into sobbing and wailing - he knew he was guilty. And I marched him, the broken sucker and all its pieces, two girls and a cart full of goods to the service desk. He placed it on the counter and I instructed him to say, or gently squeezed the back of his neck until he said, "I broke it." I then dug $3.24 out of my purse, paid for the sucker, and marched my brood to the truck. I even went so far as to say, "I'm taking $3.24 out of your piggy bank, young man."

I was steaming mad, folks. Steaming.

Now en route to the mall for a play date and adult conversation, I got a call saying my mommy friends weren't in favor of braving the icy, snowy roads.

Smile. Stay positive. We can still have fun at the mall. We can still have fun at the mall.

We found the play area, and the kids enjoyed running and climbing all over the germ-filled contraptions. I ordered some pizza and root beer. I promised a ride on the mall's Christmas train if everyone ate a good lunch. They did and we trekked down to the train.

Where things got worse.

A sign posted by the train engine read: Train rides begin at 5:00 pm. The current time? 11:45 am.

Reluctantly, I relayed the information to the kids, bundled them up and headed out the door for the grocery store. Noah took it hard. Very hard. Tears turned to sobs. Sobs turned to wailing. And the wailing turned into throwing up all that pizza in the pick-up.

"No, no. Don't throw up. Don't you dare." (This has happened before. She has a tendency for turning the mildy sad into the majorly devastating.) Before I could get out, run around to her side and catch everything in her "blankie," Nell, sitting next to her, was sympathy pucking. Tucker was gagging.

"Look out the window, Tucker. Hold your nose. Look away."

I can't believe this is happening. I really can't believe this is happening.

I stripped the girls of their now yucky coats. Tossed everything "yucky" in the back of the pick-up and drove home. Without groceries. Which terribly annoyed my husband. Nevermind what I'd been through at this point, I was coming home without groceries. Without big-grocery-store-lower-priced-groceries. Not a good thing for my (thrify, economical, down-right cheap) husband.

We arrived home safely. By now, the sun had warmed the roads and the ice was beginning to melt. We cruised home in two-wheel-drive at a steady 55 mph.

I put the kids down for a nap, and went to the kitchen to admire my newly installed oven. Because I couldn't bake anything. Because I had no groceries. So I just admired it.

January 1; only eleven hours away. The first day of a new year. It could only get better...