Mark Bittman seems to have read a few pages from Michael Pollan’s book (or books). Although ostensibly Bittman has always been a proponent of eating “real” food (which is to say minimally processed [or completely unprocessed]), his newest column in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times has him sounding more like Pollan and less like himself. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with this; I imagine that after years, decades, of writing his Minimalist column he was ready for bigger things- certainly for different things- and I welcome Bittman’s opinion on just about anything. Plus, he’s always had a little of that “Pollan streak” in him anyway(see his TED talk as exhibit A).
But it’s Bittman’s recent critique of McDonald’s newest breakfast offering (oatmeal) that I’d like to talk about. There are many aspects of his column that I agree with: oatmeal has been wholly abused by industry trying to improve on something that really needs no improvement; that it is unnecessarily sweet (with 32 grams of sugar!) and loaded with calories (as Bittman points out, 10 fewer calories than a cheeseburger); and that it really doesn’t matter to McDonald’s if you buy, or even like, their oatmeal… what matters is that they get you in the door.
And that’s where the illusion of healthfulness is particularly dangerous, in my opinion. McDonald’s (and they are being vilified here, but all food companies are the same) needs you to want their product over their competitors. So, in this age of health consciousness, they create a product that makes you feel as if you’re doing something good for yourself (I suspect that most people would tell you they have heard that a bowl of oatmeal is a “healthy breakfast”). A customer will buy said oatmeal and either like like it or not. If they like it, they will continue eating a breakfast that is not particularly healthy and probably continue to experience the same sharp declines in energy (because of the precipitous drop in sugar levels after eating the oatmeal), weight gain (because of all the calories), or other adverse health complications and then give up on the whole idea of oatmeal because “it’s not doing me any good and why not just have an Egg McMuffin?” If they don’t particularly like it, well, then they will go back to eating their Egg McMuffin and think “Oatmeal tastes terrible, why would I ever want to eat that?” Either way, the future is bleak.
I realize I’m being a bit melodramatic. But maybe not.
What about kids who are taken to McDonald’s and given oatmeal (what kid wouldn’t love being able to dump things [dried fruit and nuts and brown sugar] into their cereal before eating it)? Again, their parents are told they are doing something good for their children (“We offer oatmeal. Oatmeal is a healthy way to start the day”), but those kids end up learning that oatmeal tastes the way McDonald’s prepares it- [sickly?] sweet. Not only might this have long-term consequences for their ability to ever have a plain bowl of oatmeal, but there is some evidence to suggest that the more sweetness we are exposed to the more habituated we become and the more we need to satisfy those sweet cravings. (Our preference for sweet tastes evolved in ancestral times, when survival depended on being able to identify the flavor [berries would have provided crucial micronutrients], and do not seem capable of dealing with modern environments saturated with available sugars.) What’s more, an extensive body of research suggests that eating (what, when, how much) is a learned behavior, with long-term patterns modeled after our primary caregivers and highly influenced by the hedonic experience of food. Even more frightening is the fact that (at least in animal models) flavor-nutrient prefrence learning begins before weaning- so what happens when the nutrient piece of the “flavor-nutrient learning” is removed and those highly flavorful food items no longer indicate nutrient rich foods? What then?
In the end, my concern is not that McDonald’s offers oatmeal. Food companies and restaurants are not going anywhere, and if we are really going to make a difference in the dietary habits of Americans we need to engage them in the process of providing healthier, lower cost, dining options. We have to. No, my concern is that McDonald’s is offering this particular oatmeal (when pressed about their use of cream rather than skim milk (or even half-and-half) or over 150 calories from brown sugar (not to mention the fact that there are 21 ingredients in this concoction- many of them chemical), McDonald’s responded that people can order it without the cream. Or the sugar. Or the fruit or nuts. “You can ‘Have it Your Way’,” they replied). As with most things, people will take the path of least resistance; why not make the default offer the healthier option?
As a side note: Other “oatmeal” options are not immune to this problem. Take Starbucks for example. A search of their nutritional information (separately for each item) revealed that a bowl of their Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal contained 140 calories, 4 grams of fiber, zero grams of sugar and a whopping 14 ingredients. But when you order Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal you don’t get just oatmeal: with the Brown Sugar, Dried Fruit, and Nut Medley Topping your breakfast will provide 390 calories, 6 grams of fiber, 33 grams of sugar, and 11 grams of fat (mostly from nuts). Not exactly the paragon of a healthy breakfast either. At least at McDonald’s you can get this nutritional information all in one place. At least that’s something.