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How Michelle Obama Helped Promote Anti-Science Sentiment

by Eric Hall

May 9, 2015

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Donate In February, Michelle Obama made news when she was featured in an article in Cooking Light magazine. In the article, the First Lady tells a story of her daughter Malia and an interaction with White House Chef Sam Kass, wherein he gave Malia a block of cheese and told her if she could turn it into the powder from a box of mac and cheese, then he would make the boxed kind.

Here are the often-quoted passages from the article:
My kids loved the macaroni and cheese in a box. And he said, if it's not real food then we're not going to do it. If we want macaroni and cheese, we'll cook it with real milk and real cheese. He said, there's nothing wrong with mac and cheese, but it's got to be real food.

So my oldest daughter [Malia], who was probably 8 at the time, he took a block of cheese and he said, if you can cut this cheese up into the powder that is the cheese of the boxed macaroni and cheese, then we'll use it. She sat there for 30 minutes trying to pulverize a block of cheese into dust. I mean, she was really focused on it, and it just didn't work, so she had to give up. And from then on, we stopped eating macaroni and cheese out of a box, because cheese dust is not food, as was the moral of that story.
Real food? What does the term "real food" even mean? Is cheese real food, since it is milk processed into cheese with the help of humans? Pasta is also made from flour, which is from a special, cultivated variety of wheat and has to be processed before getting to the White House. In fact, wheat takes quite a bit of area to grow enough to be of any significance, so I doubt it is being grown on the White House lawn.

Most people part of the naturalistic fallacy of "real food" would agree that beef jerky would qualify. It is beef simply cut, marinated, and dried—something people have been doing long before electricity and refrigeration. But if I gave my kids a slab of beef and said make beef jerky out of this or you can't have any, they would be without beef jerky.

To demonstrate this, I picked up a box of macaroni and cheese at the store and checked out the ingredients. Since "organic" foods are often associated with being healthier by pseudoscientists and the Food Babe crowd, I used Annie's Organic Mac and Cheese for my ingredient list to show how there is nothing it it that distinguishes it from "real food." Here is the list of ingredients in the powder packet:
Cheddar Cheese (Cultured Pasteurized Milk, Salt, Non-animal Enzymes), Whey, Buttermilk, Salt, Cream, Natural Flavor, Natural Sodium Phosphate, Annatto Extract For Natural Color.
So the powdered cheese is just dehydrated cheese. The same exact ingredients as "real" cheese, but with the water removed.

The one ingredient that could cause naturalistic fallacy folks to quickly anger is sodium phosphate. I see a meme about trisodium phosphate passed around on a regular basis, saying that in very large amounts it can be used as a cleaner. Sodium and phosphates are found naturally in every cell of our body, and in normal amounts it is harmless. So before anyone tries to point out that it isn't "natural," just know it actually is.

The basis of this not being real food is because one can't make it at home. I can't make many things at home that could be still considered healthy. I can't make olive oil at home. I can't make beef at home (growing cows doesn't work well in town). The idea that food isn't "real" because it is designed not to spoil quickly is like saying electricity isn't real because I don't have a generator outside my home.

The First Lady goes further into her anecdotal evidence of eating healthier. After explaining that her pediatrician felt her daughters' BMI and other health measures were "a little off," she switched from prepackaged juice to fresh juice. She later mentions she also started watering it down, but points to the idea of fresh squeezed as being better. And she claims that the pediatrician was amazed by the rapid improvements in the daughters' health. What these improvements were is not explained.

I don't know where she gets her juice from, but the Mott's I give to my kids contains the following ingredients: water, apple juice concentrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and contains about 120 calories per serving. According to several nutrition websites, fresh-squeezed apple juice contains about 110-125 calories per serving. So while my kids get added vitamin C, they don't get any more calories. But somehow the fresh squeezing and not the watering down is what produced the greater effect?

There is a real issue here as well with the idea that this can be done on any budget. If I wait until it is on sale, I can buy a box of mac and cheese for under a dollar at the store. Let's say it take two boxes to feed my family, plus a little milk and butter for the sauce, I can feed my family a meal for under $3. If I buy pasta and an 8 oz block of cheese, I am already a little over $3. Plus, if I buy it and don't use it, I risk my cheese spoiling. The dehydration means I can keep it for a much longer time period.

I can buy a gallon of 100% apple juice for about $4 on sale. To make a gallon of fresh squeezed juice take 40-45 apples. That would cost me about $12-16 depending on the type of apple. And because my juice would not be pasteurized, I would have to drink it within a few days. This doesn't include the cost of a juicer. It also doesn't account for the fact juicing the apples can allow less to be subjected to spoiling. Bruised apples are perfectly edible, but not very pleasant to eat due to the texture. They also would quickly spoil. By juicing those apples, the apples are not wasted. It's very likely that food producers like Mott's uses bruised apples, but less likely that you'll find them at the supermarket and even less likely the average person will use them at home.

I don't want to give the impression that Michelle Obama is giving out all bad advice. I also am not doing this for any political reason. I simply want to point out that by using the same buzzwords of people like Dr. Oz and the Food Babe, she ends up misrepresenting food science and science in general. We face a real issue with scientific literacy globally, and it is concerning when someone who should be a leader in food science with her "Let's Move" campaign is allowing nonsense to creep into what could otherwise be good for the U.S. in its battle against obesity.

And really, we should be concentrating on the moving part. As health columnist and skeptic James Fell says in his blog, it is more or less about calories in versus calories out:
Certain brainless invertebrates in the low-carb community will dispute the law of caloric balance. Screw them. You want to believe that manipulating macronutrients magically opens a rift in the space-time-insulin continuum that miraculously transports your belly fat to the fifth dimension? Fine, go do it somewhere else. On this website we deal with reality.

Calories are all that matter to weight loss, but that doesn't mean eat whatever dafuq you want, because quality affects quantity. A low quality diet is often one that is higher in calories, and vice versa. ANY diet will lead to weight loss if you're in a caloric deficit, even one that is based on Twinkies, Doritos and Oreos. There is a role to be played by physical activity as well.
So again, the First Lady is really on the right track with many things. Mac and cheese is pretty calorie-dense, and whether made from a box or from fresh cheese, it should be consumed in moderation. Eating more lean meats and many more vegetables is a good thing. Growing your own can also be good since gardening requires physical activity. But let's not also claim that food from a box is good or bad. It's just food.

Processed foods serve an important function in providing needed calories that do not easily spoil, and at a low price thanks to large volume. There are many kids who go without meals, even processed ones, simply because their family cannot afford it. Processed food can help us bridge that gap. Let's just make sure we do the math of calories in and calories out.

by Eric Hall

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