On Pesticides and Buying Organic

By: Mark Scherzer

One of the areas we cover in our wellness program is the importance of learning where food comes from and how it’s grown. This allows us to make informed choices that can lead to better health and a safer environment. We discuss how healthy soil is made up of organic matter and explore methods for controlling bugs without the use of pesticides. A lot of our fruit and vegetables are sprayed with chemicals to keep the insects away, and this practice has health consequences. For instance, there are studies that link exposure to pesticides with ADHD in children. This leads to the obvious question — as parents, what can we do?

Buying produce that’s certified organic is one solution, but that can hurt your wallet. So if you have to limit the amount of organic food you purchase, it’s a good idea to choose the organic version of fruits and veggies that are the most contaminated. They’re called “The Dirty Dozen,” catchy title, right?

Here’s what makes the list:

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries (domestic)
  • Lettuce
  • Kale / Collard Greens

To save even more money, you can buy them from the frozen food section. They’re just as nutritious and taste great.

Exposing The Food Industry’s Marketing Tactics

By Mark Scherzer

The food indstry spends billions of dollars marketing unhealthy products to consumers, and a lot of those dollars are used to target children. It’s an issue we examine with students in our PowerUp! nutrition education program. There are many people who fight the good fight to change public health policy, and Michele Simon is a leader in the field. A public health attorney who specializes in food industry marketing and lobbying tactics, Michele has been researching and writing about the food industry and food politics since 1996. We talked to her about her work in countering corporate tactics that harm the public health.


IW:  Thank you for talking with us. Can you explain what a public health attorney does?

MS:  Sure.  Most people think of lawyers as people who sue each other. I’m a lawyer who advances public policy that promotes good health. There are all kinds of ways that we decide on certain policies that shape our food environment, like marketing laws for instance.  Public health lawyers are assigned to reshape policy in a way to help improve public health and make healthy choices more assessable and easier for people. It’s about putting health at the center of attention when it comes to public policies.


IW:  Who are some of your clients?

MS: Mostly I work for non-profits like Corporate Accountability International and Food Democracy Now! and others that are fighting to change laws.  I also occasionally advise law firms in lawsuits that hold the food industry accountable in that way.


IW:  Can you give an example of some of the work you’ve done?

MS:  Well last year, for example, I put out a report about McDonalds charitable giving in collaboration with Corporate Accountability International.  We teamed up to take a close look at how McDonalds exploits philanthropy for marketing purposes, so it’s that kind of deep research and writing that I do to try and expose many of the industry’s tactics.  For Corporate Accountability International, they have an ongoing campaign against McDonalds to try and get the company to stop exploiting young children with their mascot Ronald McDonald.


IW:  Using well-known characters to promote unhealthy food is one way to hook kids.  We cover this topic in ourPowerUp! program in the lesson about food marketing.  What are some other tactics corporations use to promote unhealthy food?

MS:  Well, the name of the game with any type of promotion is to use emotional triggers, for you to have a positive association with the brand, and there are all sorts of ways to do that.  They use these very sophisticated emotional techniques that are extremely effective when it comes to children, because children haven’t yet developed the brain capacity and the defensive strategies that we have as adults against deceptive marketing.  So that’s why you see, for example, the use of licensed cartoon characters on a box of cereal, which is a very deliberate strategy to get young children to nag their parents for that cereal not because of the contents, but if there is a toy or beloved character, then that’s what the child is attracted to.


IW:  Emotional triggers is a big one.  What are some others?

MS:  There are all kinds of pricing strategies and tricks that the food industry uses, whether it’s a value meal to get you to combine a burger, fries and a drink, all sorts of ways that at the point of purchase, marketers nudge you.  Like at the movie theatre, just spend a few cents more and get a thousand more calories in that tub of popcorn or in that big gulp soft drink.  So there are all different types of tricks of the trade that the industry uses to get you to eat more and more of the wrong kinds of foods.


IW:  The food industry is supposed to self-regulate when it comes to marketing to kids, but their actions have fallen short.  What do you say about that?

MS:  The industry charade to say that we don’t need government regulation, we have it covered — that’s a failed system and so we have to accept that it doesn’t work and instead we need government to step in and protect children.  We seem to accept the role of government when it comes to other ways to protect children, such as speed bumps, child labor laws, pornography laws, yet for some reason when it comes to the exploitation of children with food choices, it’s all up to parents.


IW:  What can we, as concerned citizens, do to change this?

MS:  Education is an important component, and it’s great you’re doing that, though we know from decades of public health research and experience that education is only one part of the picture.  What’s most effective is public policy change and that means changing the environment that people live in so that healthy choices are more available instead of what’s happening now.


IW:  What do you think the future holds?  Do you see things improving?

MS:  I would say we’re kind of on parallel tracks.  I do think that there is hope and there are a lot of people who are waking up to this problem of processed food and the food industry fooling people into thinking their products are healthy.  There are many people who are changing and making real food for their children.  But unfortunately, those are mostly the class of people who have time and money, who can shop at Whole Foods or are lucky enough to live near a farmers market.  For the majority of Americans, that is simply not the case.  It really does require a much more coordinated effort and holistic approach.


IW:  So there’s still more work to be done.

MS:  Yes.


IW:  Thanks, Michele.  We really appreciate your time.

MS:  My pleasure.


You can follow Michele Simon on Twitter:  twitter.com/MicheleRSimon

Website: www.eatdrinkpolitics.com

Running on Veggies

For those of you who haven’t checked out Lottie’s Running on Veggies blog, you’re missing out. She has passions for eating clean & plant-based food, running, fitness, and everything in between. She is a recipe guru go to for top level athletes, such as Kara Goucher, and fitness junkies looking to eat healthy. We were really excited when Lottie participated in Ironwill Kids’ #SmoothieStash campaign and even more stoked when she blogged about our #SmoothieStash campaign and our Ironwill Kids’ Purple Berry Blast Smoothie. In and effort to continue our mission to make healthy eating fun Lottie created the Mighty Green Hulk Smoothie.

Check out the link below for the full blog post:


Thinking Less Processed

By Dr. Katy Roberts, EdD, MPH, MCHES

People always ask me what type of diet I follow. It’s really quite simple, it’s a diet that is less processed. So any food made up of ingredients that are not made from nature, I avoid.

Since it’s the holiday season and there’s a lot of chocolate going around, let’s use the example of a Hershey’s Chocolate Kiss.  The ingredients are: sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter, lactose, milk fat, soy lecithin, vanillin, artificial flavor. Sugar is the first ingredient, so that’s what the product is mostly made up of. And sugar is highly processed. Also, you’ll notice vanillin. This is not vanilla, from vanilla beans, but a highly processed synthetic (fake) vanilla, which is made from guaiacol or lignin, a petrochemical precursor and byproduct of the pulp and paper industry1. Not something that you want to eat. Then, there is soy lecithin, which isn’t available at your local farm since it’s not natural; chemical solvents are used to extract it from soybeans. Lastly, artificial flavor – do I need to say more?

Let’s compare these ingredients to those of a more natural chocolate that you can buy or even prepare at home: cacao butter, cacao powder, maple syrup, vanilla bean. None of these ingredients are highly processed. Yes, it’s going to spoil quicker and yes, it might be more expensive if you buy it with organic ingredients. But, yes, it is better for you! And yes, it’s better for the environment! There is truly no comparison.

If you’re looking for a chocolate that’s not highly processed, check out this brand in our Ironwill Health Approved section

Reference1. Kumar, R., Sharma, P.K., Mishra, P.S. (2012). A review of the vanillin derivatives showing various biological activities. International Journal of PharmTech Research, 4(1), 266-279.  http://www.sphinxsai.com/2012/pharm/PHARM/PT=39(266-279)JM12.pdf

Women’s Running Magazine

We are excited to announce that our #smoothiestash revolution got featured in Women’s Running Magazine. Here at Ironwill Kids, we started the #smoothiestash campaign in an effort to show kids, adults and families across the country that healthy eating is fun. We never thought it would gain this much attention and momentum but are stoked our message is reaching thousands of people.
It has really taken off in the running world. Top level Olympians such as Molly Huddle, Emma Coburn, Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, Kim Smith, Ro Mcgettigan and many others have participated and helped spread the message that healthy eating is fun. Women’s Running Magazine got wind our #SmoothieStash campaign and wanted to help get it out there.
Check out the link below and be sure to show Ironwill Kids your #SmoothieStash!


Teachers College to Conduct PowerUp! Study: Literacy as the Foundation for Healthy Learning

By Mark Scherzer

blogpicIn 2007, the Provost’s Investment Fund of Teachers College, Columbia University was created to foster cross-disciplinary projects with the potential to add more value to the college. Since that time, the fund has awarded numerous seed grants of up to $20,000 each for innovative projects.  Dr. Sonali Rajan, Assistant Professor of Health Education at TC, was recently awarded one of these grants to conduct an evaluation of PowerUp! that merges both the Health and English Departments of the college. We sat down with her to discuss the details.

IW: The title of the grant you received is:  “Literacy as the Foundation for Health Learning.”  Can you explain what you mean by this?

SR:  Through this grant, we’re hoping to demonstrate that literacy is essential to gaining health knowledge and skills.  But further, and perhaps most importantly, we’re hoping to demonstrate that if youth are engaged in learning health, they’re more likely to also further their literacy skill development.  It’s a reciprocal relationship and one that we’re excited about exploring with this grant.


IW:  What are some of the aims of the study?

SR:  There are four aims.  First, to compare changes on school engagement between youth participating in PowerUp! and youth not exposed to the program.  Second, to compare changes in nutrition knowledge, self-efficacy, and perceived norms regarding fruit, vegetable and water intake between youth participating in the program and those who are not. Third, to evaluate the feasibility of integrating this innovative nutrition program into middle-school English Language Arts (ELA) classes. And fourth, to utilize this work to foster an active and productive discussion among Teachers College faculty, students, and administrators on integrating health learning with core academic subjects and developing best practices for teachers working in NYC schools.


IW:  Why did you choose the Ironwill Kids PowerUp! program as the intervention?

SR:  Perhaps one of the best aspects of the Ironwill Kids’ PowerUp! program is that it is beautifully designed to engage youth in their learning, while also empowering them to take ownership of their health.  PowerUp! is the kind of program I want kids to be a part of, and so I’m honored to have the opportunity to rigorously evaluate the impact of this intervention.


IW:  What are some of the things you’ll be measuring in this study?

SR:  We’ll be measuring a number of different factors, among them, schoolengagement, nutrition knowledge, and program feasibility.


IW:  How will the findings contribute to the literature?

SR:  A number of researchers, educators, and psychologists alike have and continue to advocate for an education system that works with and supports the “whole child”; specifically, that synergistic efforts are made to improve youth’s quality of health and engagement in their learning process. In this context, we believe that educators must therefore address, not only gaps in health knowledge and behavioral skills, but also ensure that youth are cultivating key academic skills that facilitate an ability to learn.  We expect and hope that our study’s findings will contribute to that research base.  More specifically, we expect we will see significant increases in school engagement, nutrition knowledge, and a positive shift in normalizing healthy food consumption (e.g., fruit, vegetable, and water intake) during the school day.


IW:  How do you plan to disseminate the results so we can learn more?

SR:  To facilitate the broader dissemination of the study’s findings, as well as foster a conversation among faculty, administrators, and students at Teachers College, we plan to share the study’s findings via the Institute for Urban Minority Education (IUME).  We will be hosting a colloquium in 2014 with IUME that would provide the opportunity for individuals across Teachers College departments to come together for a substantive conversation about integrating health learning with core academic subjects and developing best practices for teachers working in NYC schools.  Further, we are aiming to publish the results and corresponding implications of this work in the Journal of School Health, as well as in the two leading literacy journals: English Journal and Research in the Teaching of English.


IW:  Why do you believe that this project is relevant to Teachers College?

SR:  Among the many initiatives that Teachers College promotes and supports, is the institution’s dedication to addressing critical health and learning needs among youth.  There is strong evidence confirming the relationship between poor health and a reduced ability to effectively learn; however, few efforts exist that actively treat health and learning as integrated issues.  In addition, while there are a number of school-based nutrition programs available, few, if any, actively facilitate academic engagement by improving literacy skills via interactive and creative learning methods.  Further, few health education programs meet current National English Language Arts and National Health Standards. Research on in-classroom initiatives is promising and suggests that school-based nutrition education programs for youth, such asPowerUp!, have potential to improve both health and learning outcomes.

Dr. Sonali Rajan, Ed.D, M.S. is an Assistant Professor of Health Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  She is the Principal Investigator for this grant.

Why Reward Ourselves with Foods that Punish our Bodies?

By Gary Salmirs

We have all heard people say it… “I just finished that hard work-out and now I’m going to reward myself,” and then they go out and eat a stack of pancakes with chocolate chips and whipped cream.

You may feel the need to celebrate after a hard effort, but celebrating with highly processed, nutrient poor food wipes out a lot of the benefits you’ve just gained. Is that really what your body needs at this point? Our bodies do need nutrients in order to recover and repair muscle, but high quality nutrients that you find in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables and legumes, not sugar covered pancakes.

Americans have been conditioned to associate foods that are high in processed fat, sugar and salt as a reward for achievement.  It starts at an early age, with something I like to call the displaced reward punishment syndrome with parents stating, “If you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.” What we are really saying is, the healthy choice is the punishment and the unhealthy option the reward. And so it goes, our love affair of rewarding ourselves with foods that actually do more harm than good to our bodies.

Eating a proper, nutrition-based diet is a mindset. How we think about food and how we contemplate our choices is all part of the process. If we continue to think in terms of unhealthy rewards as it relates to our food decisions, then sustaining a healthy lifestyle will become increasingly harder.

Here are some of the tips that have worked for me to overcome the displaced reward punishment syndrome:

  • Recognize that rewarding yourself with nutrient-poor food is backward thinking and not healthful for your body.
  • Come up with a list of healthy whole foods that you enjoy and set those as your reward foods.
  • Change your mindset and realize that eating healthy whole foods after a hard effort is a reward to your body, it is going to make it function better and ultimately give you a great quality of life for a long time to come.
  • Use other healthy activities that are pleasurable as rewards, such as getting a massage, spending time with your family, giving yourself time to relax and read a good book, or buying new exercise clothes.

Junk Food Overload: Pop Rocks at Old Navy?

Recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a report that shows how prevalent highly processed junk food is at the checkouts of major non-food chain stores. With the rate of obesity in this country at an all time high, selling junk food in a non-food retail environment only compounds the problem. By selling chips, candy and cookies at places like Old Navy and Bed, Bath & Beyond, people have even more access to food items that are detrimental to their health.  We discussed this report and its implications with Jessica Almy, Senior Nutrition Policy Counsel at Center for Science in the Public Interest.


IW:  Tell us about the study. For instance, where was it conducted and how many stores were involved?

JA:  Our team at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) visited 30 stores in Washington DC, or just outside of the city.  All were chain stores that you could find almost anywhere in the United States, places like Barnes & Noble and CVS.  At each, we looked at the foods, drinks, and other products that the stores promoted at checkout.

You might wonder why we did this.  When most people think of marketing, they think about advertising.  However, displaying food at checkout is also a powerful form of marketing that induces people to purchase (and eat) food and beverages that they otherwise might not.  We wanted to see what exactly the companies were pushing at checkout, and whether it was more likely to promote health or harm it.


IW:  What did you discover?

JA:  We found that a wide variety of retail stores display foods and beverages at checkout—including the vast majority (86%) of non-food stores we visited.  The majority (90%) of checkout food offerings are unhealthy.  Examples include candy, chips, and snack cakes.  Likewise, the majority (60%) of checkout beverage offerings are unhealthy—soda and other sugar drinks.  In other words, most checkouts push foods and beverages that are more likely to harm health than promote it.


IW:  What surprised you the most in this study?

JA:  We found that food and beverages at checkout are pervasive not only in supermarkets, but also in many stores that are not in the business of selling food.  We found Nestlé Chunky bars and large bags of Milky Ways at a Bed, Bath & Beyond outlet, and Air Heads, Pop Rocks, and Mentos at an Old Navy checkout.  We decided to call our report “Sugar Overload” [link: http://cspinet.org/healthycheckout.html] because of the prevalence of candy and sugar-sweetened beverages we observed at checkout.


IW:  Do we know how many people actually purchased these unhealthy foods at checkout?

JA:  Our study shows that retail stores are prompting people to purchase and consume calories that contribute to obesity and harm their health.

Our study didn’t assess how many people bought candy or soda at checkout, but when food company researchers interviewed 1,300 shoppers, more than half said they had bought candy from checkout in the past six months.  We also know from industry publications that these purchases don’t replace what people buy from other parts of the store.  When stores sell an item from checkout, people spend 8.8 percent more than they otherwise would.  We also know that just seeing food can prompt people to eat it—even if they’re not hungry.

If stores were pushing bananas or carrots, this practice might be ok.  But they’re not.  They’re pushing candy, chips, snack cakes, soda, and energy drinks.  No one needs more of those foods and drinks in their diet.


IW:  What, if anything, has been the reaction of the retail industry?

JA:  Recently, a trade publication asked me to write an opinion piece about candy at checkout.  I argued that, in an age of obesity and diabetes, it is unethical for retailers to push candy on their customers.  The trade publication couldn’t find anyone to argue the other side!


IW:  What do you hope people will take away from this?

JA:  Many of us have gotten used to seeing candy and soda at checkout, but it doesn’t need to be this way.  Our study showed that nearly half (47%) of all checkout offerings are non-food merchandise.  Stores must be making money on the sales of these items, or else they would not be selling them.  I hope people will question why stores like toy, hardware, and office supply stores, which are not even in the food business, are selling junk food and soda.  I mean, when someone goes shopping for curtains, why should she face candy at the checkout?  From a public health perspective, it doesn’t make sense.


IW:  As concerned citizens, what can we do to ensure that stores eliminate junk foods at checkout?

JA:  We can ask Bed Bath & Beyond and other non-food retailers to stop pushing candy and soda at checkout.  Here’s a sample tweet:

Please @BedBathBeyond, healthy eating is hard enough. Don’t sell candy at checkout. #SugarOverload

We can also call on supermarkets and other food stores to adopt nutrition standards for checkout. Talk to your local store manager, or send an email to the store headquarters.

To join the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s work to make it easier for people to eat well, please sign up for our action network:  www.cspinet.org/actnow.

Breakfast Linked to Better School Performance

By Dr. Katy Roberts, EdD, MPH, MCHES

Breakfast is considered one of the most important meals of the day because of the timing.  It occurs after we have slept through the night without any food, so, in essence, we’ve had a mini-fast.  Every morning when we wake up, it’s time to “break that fast” and get our bodies ready for the day.

Research has shown that skipping breakfast can affect cognitive performance including reduced alertness, attention, memory, and problem solving as well as on-task behavior in the classroom.1,2  The quality of the breakfast matters too.  There is some evidence that students who consistently consume three or more food groups at breakfast have better mental health (e.g., less depression, aggression) and higher average grades than those who skip breakfast or eat one food group.2,3  In addition, if we eat a healthy breakfast, we can reduce hunger, so by the time lunch comes around, we aren’t so famished that we grab for anything, which usually means consuming highly processed food.

Unfortunately, the majority of students are not eating breakfast every day.  Only 38% of high school students stated that they ate breakfast every day of the week.4  Nutrition in young people is especially important because their bodies and brains are developing.  Their behavioral patterns and social skills are also developing.  If they come to school less likely to cognitively function, less able to pay attention and more likely to have emotional distress, they won’t do as well socially or academically.

Eating a healthy breakfast can give us a better chance to do well in school and in our jobs.  It doesn’t have to be complex.  Put all the ingredients of the Ironwill Kids Purple Blast Smoothie (see below) in a blender and refrigerate the night before.  Wake up, open the refrigerator, run the blender and voilà, a breakfast with three food groups in it:  Vegetables, fruits, and grains (rice milk) or protein (almond milk).

Purple Berry Blast

1 cup frozen blueberries
1 large ripe banana
1/2 cup frozen spinach
1½ cups vanilla rice milk or almond milk
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp honey


  1. Basch, C.E. (2011). Breakfast and the achievement gap among urban minority youth. Journal of School Health, 81(10), 635-640.
  2. Adolphus, K., Lawton, C.L., Dye, L. (2013). The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 1-28
  3. O’Sullivan, T.A., Robinson, M. Kendal, G.E. et al. (2008). A good-quality breakfast is associated with better mental health in adolescence. Public Health Nutrition, 12(2), 249-258.
  4. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2012). Youth risk behavior surveillance–United States, 2011. MMWR Surveill Summ, 59(4), 1-162.