A Year Of No Sugar: Post 82

November 15, 2011 § 5 Comments

Do you remember that movie The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin? I saw it when it came out- I must’ve been about twelve. The movie’s premise is that suburban housewife Pat Kramer (Tomlin) gets exposed to some experimental chemicals and consequently begins to shrink: she shrinks to her children’s size, and later she is living in her children’s dollhouse. Kramer ultimately shrinks to microscopic size, landing in a puddle of household chemicals, which- luckily!- cause her to begin to grow again.

The last scene of the movie is of Kramer, at her normal size, looking down to see her shoe splitting open. Kramer and the audience realize at the same moment… now, she is continuing to grow.


This movie scared the crap out of me as a kid.

Thirty years later, instead of watching Lily Tomlin get chased by mad scientists, I can scare myself silly by simply reading about actual chemicals in our environment to which we are exposed each and every day: Phthalates, Bisphenol A (BPA), Triclosan, Mercury, Teflon, Brominated Flame Retardants (PCBs, PBBs, PDBEs) and Pesticides (DDT and 2,4-D).

Recently I finished Slow Death by Rubber Duck, which is all about the chemical soup in which we collectively marinate as a society. But authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie go one better than just writing about the omnipresence of these chemicals in our everyday environment- they also chose to experiment on themselves. Over the course of a few days they exposed themselves to “normal” levels of common everyday chemicals to see what levels of them would later be traceable in their blood and urine (such as eating a tuna fish sandwich or sitting on a stain-resistant couch). The implications of what they found are perhaps even more scary than the prospect of shrinking to the size of a molecule on your own kitchen floor.

“But, wait a minute” you say, “what does this all have to do with sugar?”

Well, I’ll tell you. While reading Rubber Duck, it struck me that there are many points of similarity between the runaway proliferation of chemicals and that of sugar, namely:

  1. They’re both everywhere
  2. They’re both cheap
  3. They’re both linked to convenience
  4. They’re both hugely profitable industries
  5. They’re both perpetuated by a culture of denial and status quo

and of course…

  1. The more you try to avoid or eliminate them, the more insidious you realize their infiltrations to our everyday life have become.

It begs the question: do we have to go live under a rock to escape the health hazards of modern life? I mean, I’m starting to feel a little surrounded here. Sometimes it seems to me that the price of being a member of contemporary society is, knowingly or not, to put our very lives on a roulette wheel.

After reading Rubber Duck, my husband and I were inspired to get rid of our Teflon pans and replace them with a non-Teflon alternative. At the nearby kitchen store we were sold some pricey “Swiss Diamond” pans which were promoted to us by the salesperson as a great non-stick alternative to Teflon.

Later I wondered why, however, the literature that came with the pans was very careful to avoid saying the pans were Teflon-free. Wouldn’t that be a selling point? Something was fishy in Denmark… or perhaps Sweden.

After some online research the truth came out: Teflon by any other name… is still Teflon. PFOA is what they use to bond to the diamond in the Swiss Diamond pans. Which is… Teflon. Under its non-trademark name.

So here’s my question: why is it that we, non-chemistry majors most of us, are required to sleuth out that “PFOA” is the same thing as Teflon, and that “fragrance” is code for pthalates, that juice is just as bad for you as soda and that sugar is what is making people fat, not fat? Whenever I find out one of these things for the first time, my first reaction is always the same: why didn’t somebody tell me this sooner?? Why don’t more people know this? There are plenty of people being paid very well to argue that the status quo is fine, but is there really no one out there looking out for us? Who is our lobbyist?

In the end, even though the fake-No-Teflon pans had been used, we explained the situation and the kitchen store nicely allowed us to return them for store credit. This we promptly used to buy a large cast iron pan, the kind great-grandma would’ve used. It’s huge, requires some special cleaning instructions (No soap! Special scrub-brush! Dry immediately to avoid rust!) and is incredibly heavy. It isn’t what most people would consider “convenient” in our no-muss, no-fuss, flame-retardant, lavender-scented and oh-so-sweet world. But you know what? I’m starting to think that convenience is in the eye of the beholder.

Just ask Pat Kramer.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 77

October 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

I can pinpoint almost the exact moment when the other person’s face changes. If there were words running across their forehead like a stock ticker they would read: “Uh-oh. Here it comes.” It’s that moment when I start telling them about the No Sugar Project.

By virtue of the project I’ve initiated here, you might be tempted to think I’d be a pretty good in-person advocate of No Sugar: proselytizing at every conceivable opportunity, keenly expounding on a handful of key salient facts and shocking statistics, handing out my little business cards printed with my name and website address like they were, well… candy.

But I’m so not like that it’s kind of ridiculous. So when I’m at a bonfire party, say, like we were last Saturday night, and my daughter runs up to me complaining about the fact that there isn’t anything to drink but apple cider and what should she do… then, to the curious person I was talking to, I go into Explaining Mode. Half apologetic, I relate the Reader’s Digest version of our “Family Project,” carefully monitoring the listener’s face for the tell-tale switch from curiosity to boredom, repulsion, defensiveness.

Of course, most friends and acquaintances are way too gracious to express these reactions outright, instead I get the forehead ticker. Something every-so-subtle shifts in their posture towards me and they assume the expression of someone who is politely interested, yet has no intention of changing any aspect of their current life, thank you very much. They are ever-so-subtly on their guard, as if I had casually turned the conversation towards the fact that aliens talk to me through my toaster oven.

At the bonfire I got several different variants of this reaction throughout the course of the evening. It’s hard. Even though I am a “True Believer” to the Sugar-is-a-Toxin cause: I am a writer to the core, and extemporizing is not my strong suit, to put it kindly. Instead, I much prefer to sit and put words together, reviewing them until it all comes out right- waaaaay better, more convincing and interesting than I ever could have described in person.

Plus, I’m just really, really bad at being persuasive. I would have been the worst debate team member ever. Whereas my husband is frequently described as the kind of guy who could sell snow to eskimos, I on the other hand, would have a hard time selling lemonade in the desert. In such a conversation, I can’t help but feel anxious that the other person will feel put-upon, like I’m trying to tell them What To Do– like I’m sooooooo smart that I have all the answers.

Not everyone reacts this way, of course. Every so often I’ll end up talking to someone who is genuinely intrigued by No Sugar, doesn’t feel threatened, and asks questions that are clearly motivated by actual interest. Then it gets kind of fun.

Anyway, like all parties in Vermont this was a potluck, so I decided to let dessert do some of the talking for me. I brought my Famous-In-Our-Family No-Sugar Coconut Cake, which you may recall is a recipe from David Gillespie’s terrific “how much sugar” website. Even though I’m painfully awkward about it, I tried to encourage everyone I spoke with to try the cake. In some cases, for all their enthusiasm I might as well have been offering them Castor Oil Pudding.

But after the first bite a new look came over their faces, and the stock ticker changed. “Oh!” It now read. “This not only tastes like dessert, but- actually- a really good dessert!”

My favorite part was watching people come over and take a piece who had no idea that it was any different from any other on the buffet table. “Oh!” one woman exclaimed, “It’s still warm!”

“Really?” her companion asked. “Get me a piece too, will you?” Before long, the entire cake was gone.

And, I am happy to say, sitting among a host of pies and cookies, it was the first dessert to go. It probably helped that most other desserts seemed to be supermarket purchases- cookies in plastic boxes, pies in aluminum tins with stickers on the cellophane. Delight in my culinary success, however, turned to dismay when my children came to me complaining bitterly that the only dessert they were allowed to have on the table was gone and they hadn’t even gotten a piece. Whoops.

I promised up and down that I would make another one, just for us. Tomorrow. I promise. Satisfied by my assurances, they went back to whooping with their glow sticks in the dark.

Beyond promising another Coconut Cake, I don’t have all the answers, of course, any more than anyone else. We’re all just fumbling about trying to do the best we can in a world that moves faster and faster every day. We want to protect our families and ourselves but feel frustrated by the lack of answers and the potential for disrupting our life, our routine, what we have come to understand as “normal.” Don’t mess with my world,” those forehead-tickers seem to read silently, “I have a hard enough time as it is without you telling me I can’t use convenience foods or have a soda when I want to.”

I know. It’s a message that’s hard to hear. And there aren’t lots of clear answers… yet. But I firmly believe there will be, and when they start to come we will look back and be amazed all at once that we didn’t see it before… just like with cigarettes, or lead paint, or DDT or BPA. Toxins that were really fun or convenient until we realized- they were killing us.

I don’t want to make people’s lives any harder than they already are. I don’t want to take away joy. But after all I’ve read and experienced, I can’t help but wonder what causes all these modern maladies? Why are so many people so sick? What’s up with skyrocketing diabetes/obesity/cancer/autism/heart disease/weird new allergies? No Sugar isn’t the answer to all these things- but given it’s overwhelming prevalence in our society, it’s pretty likely to be the answer to some of them. And maybe a lot of them.

Couldn’t we turn our stock tickers off long enough to begin to find out?

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