Do you remember the very first cake you baked by yourself?
I was in elementary school and had been signed up for the Brownies, the seven-to-ten-year old age group of the Girl Scouts. We were each given a mixing bowl, a round cake pan, spoon, two eggs, water, and a box of Betty Crocker chocolate cake mix to share between two girls, as each would make one layer of a two-layer cake with frosting.
Just add eggs and water! Mix, pour, bake, frost, and serve! Voila!
Within a few hours, we had Betty Crocker Supermoist chocolate cake and frosting on our plates, aprons, on the floor (how did it get there?), and on our mouths from licking the raw batter. The Brownie leaders took our cake pans and baked them in the oven, and within minutes of our cleanup time, our neurochemicals undulated to the beat of the Mighty Sugar King and his chocolate minions.
It was supposed to be fun! And it was! We made chocolate cake! We were goddesses of the modern kitchen in just a few hours. There were no tears, no frustration, and hardly a mixing of ingredients. We just dumped out the box into a bowl. What could be easier or more carefree?. From my childhood view, it was like watching a miracle spring out of a pan.
I did not understand what was happening to me as a kid in the 1970’s, when food producers had successfully overrun the slow cooking movement as well as the Home Economics agenda of the American school system. For several decades, homemakers had been targeted by powerful marketing and social pressure to convert their kitchens and larders into micro distribution centers of industrialized cooking methods, namely canned soups, TV dinners, and complete meals that could be poured from a box.
You had to be stupid (or paranoid) not to jump on the processed food bandwagon at that time. Why, food producers were handing women the keys to freedom from slaving away in the kitchen, while being mobilized to serve tasty food quickly for everything from a birthday party to an unannounced after-work cocktail soiree. These convenience foods made people happy. It made women look not only good, but competent. Products leaped off the shelves, and food producers happily hired chemistry geeks to create more food products to anticipate demand.
We were hooked. Cereals with high sugar content made children squeal with delight and finish their bowls in order to get seconds. A hot, four-course dinner came after thirty minutes of heating in the oven, not several hours of cooking from a tired but conscientious mother.
The food products were engineered to be convenient, tasty, and calorie-packed. These very foods, including that Supermoist chocolate cake and Nissin Food’s popular Top Ramen and Instant Noodles, ended up killing me, one bite at a time. My love affair with grabbing an instant meal on-the-go, of throwing water in a styrofoam cup, or whipping up biscuits and pancakes from a cardboard box, was irrevocably broken the way one’s heart is stolen across multiple acts of betrayal.
I got hurt. I fell, and I didn’t get up again for many years, trapped in a nightmarish cycle of illnesses. Well, I guess I did finally get up. I dragged myself over to the toilet, day by day, losing weight and looking worse as the days went by. My lungs became a magnet for repeated upper respiratory infections, from common colds to pneumonia; my stomach stopped anticipating tasty foods because the pleasure was always short lived. Post Celiac Disease diagnosis and discovering all my severe food allergies and intolerances, I turned to real food for help. When I removed the last of the convenience foods and processed foods from my diet, my health dramatically returned.
Recently, a woman who listened to my passionate arguments in support of eating real food to heal the body delivered a fantastically frank and honest rebuttal. She simply said, “Unless people are as sick as you were on food, they won’t buy it. It’s just too hard [to eat that way]”. As a parent responsible for putting food on the table for more than herself, cooking and eating real food instead of convenience foods purchased at the grocery store or served to you at a restaurant sounds impractical and unrealistic.
In many respects, she is absolutely correct. I completely understand why people would turn to processed foods in hopes that some of these products — any of them, for that matter — would help make life easier. And guess what? Even people with newly diagnosed autoimmune disease often turn to these convenience foods too. Why? Because the adage is true, desperate people do desperate things. And there is a horrible desperation about being sick, fatigued, and hopeless. Without a drop of energy to spare, wouldn’t you too just stuff that gluten free piece of bread in your mouth, praying that it will stay down, stay in, and give you some strength for another day?
Looking back at her statement, I think this is when I began thinking about one of my real battles with helping people today. People do want to get better, they do want to stop eating crap, and they are ever so trapped inside a sugar-coated, sticky world called, “Betty Crocker Syndrome” (BCS). We simply trade our dollars for convenience, and if it appears to work, we continue to do this, until it doesn’t work.
Today’s biggest food producers have all paid attention to new consumer trends. There are truly more people concerned about the amounts of fat, salt, and sugars found in their food. The FDA has recently added new rules for labeling that require transparency about the amount of added sugar found in a serving of processed food. More and more people indicate that they are reading labels, although it isn’t always clear if the buyer is rejecting a product outright by what they read on the label, or simply adjusting their serving size.
By now, I know you are aware Betty Crocker Syndrome isn’t a real disorder. It’s just a name I’ve applied to a dramatic change in the way we think about food, which happened in the last century yet has a profound effect on the way we think about food today.
Busy young professionals are taught that cooking at home from scratch is either an extravagance one does for celebrations, or something you purchase from a meal kit that gets delivered to your door after you’ve locked in your monthly subscription. For some, the idea of being able to eat all the nutrients you need in a shake which you need only add water is a modern breakthrough.
However, it’s a breakthrough until it isn’t.
I don’t think anyone would label the reliance on eating processed and industrialized food as a syndrome unless there was an undesirable consequence that the eater accepts, even to the detriment of his or her health. A syndrome, for example, is considered one when there is something dysfunctional about the behavior of a person in regards to either a norm, or in relationship to behaviors that would be in a person’s interest, yet the person cannot seem to break out of pattern of behavior without significant effort.
This is what I encounter with those trapped in the Betty Crocker Syndrome. They recognize something is wrong with their health, such as troublesome GI symptoms, weight gain, problems with fatigue, sleeplessness, fogginess, and even changes in their blood lab tests that indicate disease and poor health. And they may choose to answer to those health indicators with another cup of caffeine, a packet of supplements, a packaged health food bar, or yet a different shake formulation.
To me, Betty Crocker Syndrome is exactly that — a syndrome — because once you become reliant on it, it’s hard to break free, even when you know something isn’t working for you regarding the food you eat and/or your relationship to that food.
All I want to share about Betty Crocker Syndrome is that it is real, it is here, and there are many of us trapped into thinking that conveniences in modern food technology have always improved our lives.
But in my next post, I’ll explore with you my thoughts about why I think it’s time that we heal ourselves from BCS, and get back to eating real food. Not just for the people with autoimmune disease. I mean, everyone. I’ll be revisiting Betty Crocker’s Supermoist Dark Chocolate Cake Mix, Top Ramen, and other convenience foods as part of a discussion around healing ourselves from the seduction of fast-food eating in the home (including your take out pizza and even your “faster food” meal subscriptions). When Momofuku Ando created a noodle dish you could eat by just adding hot water, he was just trying to make money and feed people in post-war Japan. He had no idea how his food changed the way we eat over 70 years later. And it’s time that we revisit exactly what that revolutionary idea did in relation to Betty Crocker Syndrome. If we understand what happened in the past, we have a better chance to change our future.
To my beloved Hungry Minions, I am still committed to making food fun again, even at the end of this oh so serious post. In my freezer, I’ve finished off Batch 1 of my protein-enhanced Chocolate Coconut Mint Ice Pops, and they are incredibly easy to create. I personally devoured three-quarters of a gluten-free pizza I baked myself from scratch, all in preparation for about twelve hours of triathlon training in preparation for Ironman Mont-Tremblant in less than sixty days. I have little time or bandwidth to prepare and cook anything too complex, so I am committed to keeping my recipes that I share with you as easy as possible, while keeping them clean, nutrient-dense, and fun, fun, fun.
For those of us where food”cheats” leave us nothing but physically devastated, you’ve come to the right place and the right conversation.
Let’s eat well, shall we?