My older son is in 5th grade. Recently invited to his class to read to a group of seventeen eager minds and discuss the intersection of reading and writing, I began with my favorite childhood poem and ended with “Cartoon Characters and Crappy Food”, an excerpt from my book, What The Fork Are You Eating? To my absolute surprise, an intense Q & A ensued after I offered a few insights on how to be more mindful about food choice. One student asked, “If our government and food companies know how bad some of these ingredients are, then why do they put them in our food?” Another, “Isn’t Europe more strict about food?” And, “Junk food is favored because it is cheaper than fruits and vegetables so many people don’t have a choice.” Finally, “If Gatorade has all this bad stuff then why does my mom buy it?”

These kids wanted to understand, learn more and make a difference. Which brings me to this—never underestimate the power of our kids to push positive change forward. Let’s just give them that chance.

I have been obsessed with everything food since childhood, and given that I was born and raised in “The Land Of The Free”, American food producing, food regulating and food marketing has always been of great interest—in the end, it is a large part of what drives eating habits and consequently health status. So let me shine a little light because helping folks understand how food is regulated in the U.S.A compared to the EU is critical. As it turns out, this “progressive nation” is not so progressive!

In a nutshell, this is how we roll in the U.S.A:

Food is regulated through the joint efforts of several agencies—the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps an eye on all the plants that are grown and animals raised in their natural habitat; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that products (and drugs) are safe for consumption; and as there are many harmful chemicals added to food, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also gets involved to ensure that these substances remain at subtoxic levels.

But this is where it gets super tricky—and I go back to this question from one 5th grader: “If our government and food companies know how bad some of these ingredients are, then why do they put them in our food?”

In the US, a food additive is a substance that has no proven track record of safety and must therefore undergo testing for approval by the FDA before it can be used in a food. However, there are plenty of ingredients in the foods you eat every day that are not defined as additives by the FDA, but as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) because they have been:

1. Deemed “safe” by FDA scientists for intended use based on “published studies, which may be corroborated by unpublished studies and other data and information”

2. Used in food for a long period of time (with no “scientifically based” concerns); thus their use is exempt from FDA approval

Center for Science in the Public Interest—“A consumer advocacy organization in Washington DC whose twin missions are to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being”—can help clarify my point with this fabulous info graphic: Not So Safe—How The FDA Lets Food Safety Slip Through The Holes.

In the end, food companies care very little about consumer health and the U.S government does a sub-par job of regulating anything edible. So much so that there are a multitude of things in our food or being done to our food in the U.S that have been banned in Europe. “In 2008, the European Food Safety Authority required that all foods containing dyes have warning labels, prompting many companies to move away from the dyes and go with natural sources of coloring. So a McDonald’s strawberry sundae in Europe gets its color from strawberries, but in the United States, it gets its color from Red No. 40.” (What The Fork)

So, kids can suck down colorful beverages and edibles stateside with no warning label regarding possible adverse effects but Europe requires alert labels on all products containing the risky rainbow. And the UK has banned them altogether. What’s wrong with this picture? I am not proud to be an American!

But it doesn’t stop with food dyes. EU Food also has restrictions on pesticide use in food production and has very different standards relating to GMOs, hormones, chemicals and other additives in our food.

Shame on the U.S. of A!

As I am incredibly solution oriented, navigating choice and helping my kids (as well as other kids and their grown ups) understand how they can opt for my better for you alternatives is a regular thing. In fact, about a month ago my younger son came home from school with a green lollipop in his mouth. “Where did you get this?” I asked. “From our treasure box at school Mom,” he replied with a little too much sass for my liking. While I do let my kids dabble in the super bad junk every so often (candy, hot dogs, etc.), I don’t leave it to them to choose when (especially not my 7 year old with health challenges). Despite the fact that I provided his teacher with ample supply of Hunter-safe junk (apparently she ran out) and my child is very clear on what he can and can’t have, he always pushes the limit. But he’s a kid and that’s what he’s supposed to do. So as the parent, I am frequently coming up with new ways to communicate with him about food and give him the tools to want to make better choices.

This is what I have realized over the years whether from teaching grown-ups, kids or my own experiences with motherhood—with an #EdibleEducation, realism, a strategy and patience you can easily impart what you know onto your kids. But be sure to talk with them, versus at them and make them stewards of your family’s sustenance. Strategies for Introducing New Nourishment (an abbreviated excerpt from What The Fork, Chapter 15) could perhaps offer some insight…

Let’s face it—the most difficult part of your task is not going to be clearing out your pantry and checking labels one by one. If you are reading What the Fork, you are motivated on some level. The toughest part will far and away be convincing your family to get on board. So you have to make it fun while also setting some new boundaries and ground rules.

Talk to the adults about what you plan to do for you and your kids (if you have them) and hand them a copy of this book, but in the end they will make their own choices. Kids (from birth onward) develop healthy eating habits by modeling their grown-ups. Thus constant exposure to healthy food and conversation about food is critical. Before suggesting some tested getonboard strategies, I would like to establish a few ground rules:

Never presume your child (or even your partner/ spouse) won’t like something. I bet you are already thinking that you won’t buy this or that because you know that they won’t like it. If you have an open mind, it’s likely that they will too.

Make a rule that everyone has to try something once.

Never quit on introducing new foods. If your kid (or resident grown-up) doesn’t like the new Better for You version of those chocolate sandwich cookies, keep reintroducing. For fresh food like broccoli, relentlessly reintroduce (at two-week intervals), but think about how you are preparing it (perhaps you should sauté it with some olive oil, even add a little butter, rather than steam it, or try Skillet Broccoli on page 256).

When your child does not like a food, talk to them about why they don’t like it. Explain to them why it is healthy. For example, “Spinach can give you muscles like your favorite professional athlete hero…”

Never forget that it is your job as a caregiver to provide your children with a variety of healthy foods, and it is their job to choose what to eat within that context. If they skip a meal, they won’t starve.

Don’t push food on your kids (as in “you must eat everything on your plate”); children need to learn how to self-regulate.

Surely there is more but I will leave you with this—it’s the small changes that make the big difference so pick your starting point and go from there!

(Adapted from What The Fork Are You Eating? © 2014 Tarcher | Penguin Random House)

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About Stefanie Sacks

Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN is a Culinary Nutritionist, author, consultant, speaker and food firebrand! She has her Masters of Science in nutrition from Columbia University, is a Certified Nutrition Specialist, Certified Dietitian Nutritionist and is a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts. Stefanie works hands-on with individuals and groups seeking a healthier way of eating. For companies and organizations looking to do the right thing for their consumers and environment, Stefanie is the go-to-gal—her unique background in food and agriculture as well as health and wellness gives her the knowledge and skills to guide groups towards true food transparency, sustainability and ultimately health. She authored What The Fork Are You Eating? An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate (Tarcher/Penguin Random House) is a sought-after consultant, speaker and media guest expert on the topic of healthy choices, with frequent appearances on the Dr. Oz Show, PBS, Fox Media, and multiple radio programs. Her extensive online and print contributions are extensive.