On Pink Washing: Dear Food Makers, Please Shut Up.

Pink washing health claims on food packaging are obnoxious. They are confusing, misleading, and (often) inaccurate. As a science journalist, I know that 99.9 percent of these health claims are hogwash, and I find it morally offensive that food marketers prey on people’s fear of disease to sell products. I actively avoid buying products with health claims or pink washing. So, imagine my surprise when I opened a new container of miso and found a giant health claim lurking beneath the lid. Sneak attack!


Nothing kills my appetite more than a pink-ribbonly reminder of my mortality. Thanks Mr. Miso!

I will give them a tiny prop for including a study citation, even though its presence could be construed as manipulative because it adds superficial credence to the claim. So, I walked my anger right over to PubMed and looked up the study. A tiny part of me (the sucker part) hoped the health claim was true. But a much bigger part of me (the pompous part) wanted to feel “right” and, therefore, justified in my anger. Guess which part won?

Here’s the miso dish: In 1990, 21,000 Japanese women filled out diet questionnaires that included a question about miso soup. (BTW: Diet questionnaires are notoriously inaccurate because, really, who can remember what they ate for breakfast? Much less for breakfast six weeks ago?) Researchers followed the women for nine years and charted how many got breast cancer. In the end, fewer cases of BC popped up in those women who (reportedly) ate 3+ bowls of miso soup a day.

A few caveats: the study’s small sample size means its accuracy is suspect; miso’s magic only applied to postmenopausal women (bummer for me); I live in the West, not Japan, so my confounding factors are enormous; and, finally, who eats 3 bowls of miso soup a day for years on end? Not me.

When it comes to health claims, even those with citations, don’t be a sucker. Health claims on food packages are nothing but savvy marketing with a scientific sheen. I can only hope that, if we all vote with our dollars, food makers will get the message that we don’t want our fears manipulated at the grocery store.

One Year and Counting

Well, the one-year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis came and went last week with little hullaballoo. Part of me was braced for an emotional tidal wave that never manifested. As it turned out, January 29th, 2010, was just another day. And, more than anything, I felt/feel lucky. Lucky that I’m on the other side of cancer (knock wood). Lucky that mine was the type that could be sliced out—I have a good friend with lymph cancer who will never have the luxury of another cancer-free day. Lucky that I’m back to worrying about the little stuff, like freelance work. Lucky that I get to move on with my life. Speaking of moving on, friends sometimes ask me what nuts-and-bolts lifestyle changes I made in the past 12 months, so I thought I’d make a little list. Of course, this is not meant to be health advice, I’m just offering a little window into what I did after my cancer diagnosis (aside from freak the hell out). So, here it goes:

  • Stopped drinking Diet Coke
  • Started drinking green tea
  • Started juicing in the mornings
  • Stopped eating sugar, wheat, soy and dairy
  • Went vegan at home
  • Traded anti-perspirant for natural deodorant (yeah, it sucks)
  • Got serious about buying only paraben-free soaps and shampoos
  • Bought chemical-free laundry detergent and dryer sheets
  • Traded soy milk for rice milk (I’ve eased up on the soy)
  • Reduced my use of canned beans
  • Replaced most of the tupperware in my kitchen with glass containers
  • Cut back on wine
  • Yoga, yoga and more yoga

None of these rules are written in stone. In fact, they fluctuate depending on the day. But, more days than not, I follow them, and my plan is to keep it up for a long, long time. I’m not naive. It would be silly to think any one of the actions above might ward off cancer. But it would be equally foolish to stick my head in the sand. I figure that the least I can do is to cut back on the number of cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting substances I invite into my home and body. After that it’s anyone’s game. This time around, maybe I’ll get lucky.

The Accidental Vegan

Seems I am always hungry these days.

After being a happy-go-lucky vegetarian for twenty years, on the heels of my breast cancer diagnosis and with the encouragement of several trusted sources, I’ve sworn off dairy, wheat, and sugar. And, given that my cancer is estrogen sensitive, soy may be next. (Even though soy lattés are the only thing saving my sanity at the moment, so you may have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.)

What do I eat? Mostly veggies, nuts, beans, rice, steel cut oats, and a few quixotic grains, such as quinoa.

Of course, I’m hoping to expand that list (soon). Any given day will find me wandering the aisles of my local health food store with a wild look in my eye. I skip sections I used to drool over, like the cheeses and baked goods. Instead, I hover dutifully in the produce aisle and fill my cart with purple kale, lush broccoli, and stumpy carrots. Then I take my greenery for a spin. We ride up and down every aisle hunting for something that will satisfy my gnawing hunger. Last week I discovered a bulk bin full of date bars sprinkled with coconut, and I felt like I’d won the lottery. Sure, they look like cat turds coated in litter, but I devoured them anyway. That’s how desperate I am. Besides, I’m cranky. I’ve got a caffeine headache. And I’m never in the mood to cook anymore. 

My predicament is made doubly painful by the fact that I love food. (And, by food, I mean anything that contain sugar, wheat, and dairy.) And, when I say love, I mean LOVE. Food is my hobby. I love to think about it, shop for it, and–once upon a time–cook it. For years I meticulously planned my afternoon outings according to what errand might take me within arm’s distance of a brownie or overpriced coffee drink. Mary laughs because I won’t even go on a dog walk without at least $2 in my pocket  in case I stumble across a bakery. If you’d told me six months ago that I’d soon give up every food I held dear, I would have laughed–hard. But then I got breast cancer and things changed. I changed. Funny how once you hear the doctor say, “it’s cancer,” you can’t help but stare at the food perched on the end of your fork and think “did you do this to me?”

Yes, trying to regain control of one’s life with a knife and fork is a cancer cliche. Whatever. Shortly after my diagnosis, I spoke with several breast cancer survivors. Our conversations meandered down the usual paths of diagnostics, surgeries, and treatment protocols. And, near the end of each chat, I’d ask about lifestyle changes. As in, “so, did you change your diet?” Without fail, every woman admitted that, yes, in the throes of the initial scare, she’d raced out to buy “The Juicer.” Then she’d guiltily confess that, after securing a clean bill of health from her oncologist, she ran straight back to her old ways of eating. Sayonara juicer (aka sucker). Once a symbol of health and salvation, the treasured juicer became just another discarded souvenir of her visit to Cancerland…a trip she’d rather forget. Besides, what better way to forget your troubles than with a triple fudge sundae?

Call me a control freak. Call me self-punishing. But I don’t want to forget my trip to Cancerland. How can I forget when I’m tossing back 20 milligrams of Tamoxifen every morning and wondering if the drug will make my uterus implode. Plus, HELLO, if something is going to have an impact on your body wouldn’t it be food…the stuff you’re gobbling by the pound instead of by the milligram? And so I trudge on…steering my cart through a world of temptation, listening to my stomach growl, and, eventually, heading for the cat turds.