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Summer Musings Jeanne Rosner, MD

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Obesity is a major public health issue as well as a personal health concern. Estimates indicate that nearly one in five children and teens are obese. Obesity disproportionally affects children from low-income families, and obesity in childhood is a strong indicator of obesity in adulthood. The health implications are enormous and include earlier puberty and menarche in girls, type 2 diabetes and an increased incidence of metabolic syndrome, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and several cancers.

Recently, I had the honor to mentor my friend Sophie Lawrence for her high school senior project called “Kids, Sugar and Obesity.” During an interview for her project, I began to realize that a number of salient issues surrounding our existing food labeling raise some red flags for me. And through my work with Soul Food Salon, I have formed some opinions about what we teach in our high schools. Our increased consumption of sugar-laden drinks and food (which can ultimately lead to obesity) seems, to me, to be directly tied to the two issues I've been thinking about this summer: food labeling and cooking courses in high school. I thought it might be a good use of this forum, while we are in full back-to-school mode, to share these few concerns with you, as well as offer a few meaningful solutions.

Sophie Lawrence and Jeanne Rosner doing research for Sophie's senior project on sugar and obesity.

Food labeling Did you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires two labels be present on all processed food packages? These labels are the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label (NFL). Currently, the NFL includes a single line item labeled sugar. As it stands, one has no way of knowing if the sugar is a natural sugar or an added sugar. Natural sugar would be considered healthier than added sugar. The only way to differentiate the two would be to look at the ingredient list to see if various forms of sugars (added sugars) are listed and/or various fruit juices (more natural) are listed. There should be an additional line item under sugar, labeled “added sugar”—it would be a more helpful way of informing consumers, by helping them differentiate between natural sugar, such as from a fruit-derived source, and a fake or unnaturally construed sugar substitute. This line item was set to be instituted before our last presidential election, but it was not enacted before the administration changed. The revision to the NFL is currently pending; many, but not all, hope it will be enacted. As you can imagine, the Grocery Manufacturers Association is against this addition.

The NFL specifies the amount of sugar in grams. I don’t know about you but reading that such-and-such food item has ____ grams of sugar means very little to me. If sugar was listed in teaspoon amounts, I believe it would have more impact on the consumer. This would allow people to visualize the amount of sugar they are ingesting in a given serving. Recently, Panera restaurants started labeling their soda cups in terms of teaspoons. As another example, when I teach my middle school students the lesson on sugar-sweetened beverages, I include an exercise to figure out how many teaspoons are in various drinks. At the conclusion of this lesson, we count out loud 18 teaspoons of sugar (which is the number of teaspoons of sugar in a can of Arizona Iced Tea) while measuring teaspoons of sugar into a clear cup. I believe the visual of seeing the actual presence of 18 teaspoons of sugar is more impactful than reading its equivalent of 72 grams.

For the record, the daily recommendation for sugar is six teaspoons/day (24 grams/day) for children and women and nine teaspoons/day (36 grams/day) for men. To convert grams of sugar (which is what is currently listed) to teaspoons of sugar, use the ratio of 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar.

Cooking skills On another note, I believe a considerable weakness in our current school curricula is that high school students do not receive a basic cooking coursebefore graduating high school. I envision a course that includes training in basic knife skills, simple roasting and steaming of vegetables, and how to plan and prepare a few basic meals. Nutrition education, and the many benefits of eating a more plant-based diet with an emphasis on eating more whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds) and less processed foods, should be an integral part of any cooking course.

Chef Hollie Greene is trying to change that dynamic. She is the California program director for the national nonprofit Wellness in the Schools. She has created a year-long online cooking program for families and teens, called the Joyful 12®. Based on her experience of teaching thousands of families, her program includes more than 50 skill-building videos and is organized around four "classrooms"—summer, fall, winter, spring. SOULFUL Insights readers can access a complimentary membership to the Joyful 12® with the following coupon code when they log in for the first time: soulfoodsalon.

As a parent, I have tried to encourage my teenage kids to join me in the kitchen. Interestingly, my one son who has participated in cooking lessons over the past summers is really the only one of my three children who is comfortable cooking and creating in the kitchen. 

As an educator who’s passionate about making healthy food choices, I’ve been gratified by Soul Food Salon’s recent partnership with Stanford Medical Center to help to fund their teaching kitchen course. It has been a true delight watching our future physicians learn how to cook healthy, delicious food—knowledge they will undoubtedly share with thousands of patients over the years. Knowing how to prepare nutritious food will help reduce the incidence of chronic disease and obesity, the major public health issues plaguing our world today.

I am forever grateful to all of you for your continued support of Soul Food Salon and for reading our SOULFUL Insights posts. Here's to another year of learning together about how to live a healthier life!


Jeanne Rosner, MD

Jeanne Rosner is a board-certified anesthesiologist who practiced pediatric anesthesia at Stanford Medical Center for nearly 20 years. In 2011, she began teaching nutrition classes in her son’s 5th-grade science class. It was an “aha” moment for her. She realized that learning and teaching about nutrition and health and wellness in her community was her destiny. 

Since retiring from anesthesia, Jeanne has been a nutrition educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She teaches middle school children the importance of eating food closest to the source, making good food choices and eating in a balanced and moderate way. 

Jeanne started SOUL (seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local) Food Salon in 2014. SOUL Food Salon’s mission is to educate and empower people to be healthier. She holds small gatherings (salons) at which experts in the health and wellness community share their knowledge on how to lead a healthier life.

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