Porn Flakes and the Road to Wellville

Readers who also listen to the podcast I cohost already know that I frequently talk about the cultural strictures on masturbation. I do this for two reasons. The first is to normalize masturbation generally as a natural, un-shameful, component of human sexuality. The second is to normalize masturbation for women. The idea that women are self-directed agents of our own sexuality is still a novel concept in the darker corners of society, and promulgating a pro-women, sex-positive message is my idea of empowerment.

Because sexual repression is often disguised as medical advice, actual information can be difficult to tease out of the pearl-clutching. This article originally published way back in 2009, so some of the links are probably broken. Enjoy!

As an anthropologist and foodie, I am somewhat attuned to dietary trends in our culture. As a skeptic, I am fascinated by unproven health claims on food packaging. I thought the current prevalence of such claims on food and supplements reflected a modern (among the affluent-- who can afford organic and other specialty food products) trend toward more dietary awareness and desire for "natural" healthful foods. I was wrong.  Marketing food as medicine has been around since at least the 1800s.  Carrie McLaren writes a fascinating history of 19th century exploitation of a credulous public in marketing food mythology.  In her article "Porn Flakes," McLaren outlines the mythology linking (sexual) health to food:

"As a rule, there's often more to folk wisdom than bad science, and so it is with myths about masturbation and other aspects of sexuality. In America, a peculiar flowering of these myths took place in the 19th century. Though the predictable culprits -- Victorian prudery, evangelical Christianity, entrepreneuriallism -- are part of the picture, what's less known is the the myths' century-old relationship with whole-grain foodstuffs. Thanks to certain influential health advocates, sex and diet were inexorably linked, and, for both, healthy meant bland."

She traces the fascinating origins of breakfast cereals as medicine, linking religion, medicine, societal mythology attributing masturbation with causing all diseases, klismaphilia (apparently as a substitute for sexual intercourse), and whole grains. Around 1895 C.W. Post was in competition with John Harvey Kellogg. Post wrote his own ads:

"Post wrote all the advertisements, product descriptions and company literature himself. In so doing, he created a totally new kind of copy -- the first to advertise food as a medicine for regular (sorry) consumers. The original campaign for Postum claimed "It Makes Red Blood." After that, Post went hogwild and invented a disease, "coffee neuralgia," to help sell Postum. "Lost Eyesight through Coffee Drinking," read the ad, followed by a tear-jerking case reported from Somewhere, Illinois. The moral: quit coffee, drink Postum.

Post's next brainstorm was a batch of wheaty, rock-like morsels called Grape Nuts. This time he advertised the cereal food as an alternative to surgery for an inflamed appendix. Grape Nuts, a "brain food" could also cure consumption, malaria and loose teeth.

Every box of Grape Nuts came with a copy of Post's classic text, The Road To Wellville. Basically, it urged conscious consumers to 'Eat Grape Nuts, drink Postum, and think positive thoughts.'"

Unfortunately contemporary Americans still need to be skeptical of such claims. Marketing departments know exactly how to craft compelling ads. Some skirt the regulations, and others accept the fines as the cost of doing business. Dr. Stephen Novella's discussion of FDA regulation of the dietary supplement industry appeared recently. Here's an overview:

"In the US, supplement regulation is primarily determined by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which is an amendment of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The purpose of DSHEA was to limit FDA power to regulate supplements and to expand the definition of 'supplement.' [...]

FDA regulation of [product marketing] claims was reduced with another double-standard contradiction - so-called structure/function claims. Under DSHEA companies are free to make whatever structure/function claims they wish. These are claims that a supplement or ingredient improves a structure or function of the body. Companies are not allowed to claim that their product treats or cures a disease. However, it did not take long for companies to figure out that they could restate disease claims as structure/function claims to skirt the FDA. For example, a company may claim that their product promotes a positive mood, but they cannot say it treats depression. Or they may say it boosts the immune system (which is important for fighting cancer -wink, wink, nod, nod), but they may not say it cures cancer.

The result has been an explosion of unregulated supplement claims, and a growing supplement market. The GAO report says the supplement industry grew to 23.7 billion dollars in 2007."

Health claims appear all over the grocery stores. Although they are less focused on preventing masturbation, health claims are still very prevalent in breakfast cereals. Bloomberg reported a case where Kellogg claimed that Frosted Mini Wheat cereal improved children's attentiveness. Reuters reports that General Mills claimed it's Cheerios product lowers cholesterol 4%.  

Today my older child asked if we could make Rice Krispies Bars. In the crunchy-competitive parenting circles, this type of pedestrian, colorless, processed, sugar bomb violates dietary taboos and would be a source of embarrassment and social shunning. However, I was buying groceries at Wal-Mart and therefore unlikely to encounter members of that tribe. We do typically eat a variety of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and so on. I add flaxseed into smoothies and reduce or substitute sugar in many recipes.

After a public incident in which my five-year-old didn't know what to do with a CapriSun pouch and asked what was inside, I now try to introduce my children to just enough junk food to enable them to function in society.  (I personally indulge in several vices under the auspices of "cultural literacy.")  

I mentally justified the Rice Krispies bar project by imagining the "learning opportunity" we would have measuring and counting.  (Besides, I love the butter-marshmallow matrix. I'm always a bit reluctant to add in the cereal.) So, we bought a box of Rice Krispies and a bag of marshmallows. Even Rice Krispies is making health claims. 

It helps support my child's immunity! Wait. What does that even mean?  It now has antioxidants and nutrients?  On the back it says:

"...antioxidants and nutrients that help support the body's immune system."

When I did a quick search of "antioxidants," many sites listed cancer-prevention claims. I'm in favor of adding vitamins to food when science supports it. One good example of this is Golden Rice:

"The research that led to golden rice was conducted with the goal of helping children who suffer from Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). At the beginning of the 21st century, 124 million people, in 118 countries in Africa and South East Asia, were estimated to be affected by VAD. VAD is responsible for 1–2 million deaths, 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and millions of cases of xerophthalmia annually.[10]"

Other examples include adding vitamin D to milk, or iodizing salt in the US.

I'm not sure what peer-reviewed literature supports the vague claims of Rice Krispies. The non-specific language makes such claims difficult to verify. And, what did Rice Krispies contain before now if not nutrients? I'm glad to know that Kellogg's has reformulated my vehicle for marshmallow-butter to include nutrients. I wonder what health claims will appear on marshmallow packages. Hopefully nothing that claims to prevent masturbation.

 

Update: The FTC investigated and imposed new advertising restrictions on Kellogg's.