From the time I was six weeks old, we would spend at least a month a year in America. Florida, for us, has always been an escape. It’s the place we visit to completely unplug and enjoy the sunshine when Berlin is filled with grey clouds.
It’s the place I dreamed of as a child when I couldn’t take another minute of the harsh German winter. I could already see myself, wearing shorts on my way to the beach. I would also picture how I’d walk down the aisles at our local supermarket, finally picking out my favourite cereals.
I could never quite get over Lucky Charms. Cereals with marshmallows? What a crazy concept. I loved it.
General Mills knew just how to lure me in. They had everything my 6-year-old self could ever want; lucky charms, cocoa puffs and, best of all, cinnamon toast crunch.
When the moment had finally come, I’d sprint into the store as soon as it opened, having been up for hours with jetlag. Even as I got older, I never quite got over this initial moment. Of entering the store and smelling the faint scent of the cinnamon air purifier that made all the difference between normal supermarkets and Publix.
Unfortunately, getting older also meant making more responsible food choices. I knew that sugar and white bread caused my skin to break out and had to be avoided at all costs. Sweets were bad and so were my beloved cereals.
Confidently, I switched to the brand with extra whole grain, flashing my mum a winning smile as she rolled her eyes. She knew that the whole grain symbol on the box didn’t mean its contents were any healthier.
After having given birth to my brother, the fourth and final child in our family, she had been struggling to lose the baby weight. She was working full time and the fact that there were 4 of us demanding her attention didn’t help.
To resolve the problem she did what any bookworm would do; she read about it.
She read everything she could get her hands on until she found Mark Hyman. He’s the one who helped Bill Clinton lead a healthier life. While I didn’t much care about Bill Clinton, I did care that my mum was suddenly adamant about our vegetable consumption.
Honestly, I thought she was overdoing it a little. I had replaced my pizzas with gluten-free ones, my cereal was now of the whole grain variety and most of the snacks I bought were organic. Where was the problem?
When I read the book and others like it, I felt like I had entered a jungle. This was seriously complicated stuff. Why were there so many chemicals in the food? Did I really have to read every single ingredient label before I could buy something?
In Europe, many of the ingredients the book warned me about were banned. How did Americans figure any of this out on a daily basis?
When I asked a friend about it, she told me it was about taking responsibility for yourself and having options. Knowing what’s in your food is your responsibility, so, yes, you should read the labels or make the choice that you’re okay not knowing what’s in your food.
For me, this made things even more confusing. In my mind, food companies had a responsibility and lying was something they just didn’t do. I trusted the labels because it didn’t make any sense that they could be wrong.
If it said gluten-free, and gluten-free was healthy, the meal had to be healthy, didn’t it?
The more I read, the more I realised that food companies were not lying so much as bending the truth. Finding the real truth, just as my friend had told me, was entirely up to me.
If I wanted to know what I was putting into my body, I would have to read every label, double check all ingredients and do even more research. Initially, I was terrified.
Then, with a lot of help from my family, I did some more research and realised that there were alternatives. Whole Foods was not an entirely valid alternative for our family because of the pricetag it came with, but it turned out that even our normal super market had alternatives. We only needed to know where to look.
Now, when I sprint into the supermarket upon our arrival in the US it’s to get some Ezekiel cinnamon raisin bread. While America provides a lot of processed foods that don’t always exist in Germany, it has also managed to perfect healthy food, creating new options that are not available at home.
I have learned to appreciate these options and how they let me navigate the American food jungle with a little more confidence. Nevertheless, I’m still baffled by the amount of research required to find them.
It is perfectly reasonable that everyone should be in charge of their food choices, but I am still left wondering how you’re supposed to be responsible when you can’t access the information required.
How are you supposed to know that you can’t believe a single label, that you need to check and double check every ingredient list?
Navigating the American food jungle as a foreigner is hard, but I’m not sure doing so as an American is that much easier.
It’s easy to blame people for their bad food choices but the truth I’ve found is that these choices are incredibly hard to make.
The jungle will always be hard to navigate and instead of judging each other we should be supporting anyone who’s trying.