White House food policy czar Sam Kass and First Lady Michelle Obama, shown in 2012 at a Let’s Move event. | Carolyn Kaster/AP
When it was announced Monday that Chicago native Sam Kass was stepping down as White House chef, there was much well-deserved praise for all he’s done in the job.
With that news, today is like the day after Joe in the corner office gives his two-week notice. Yesterday everyone was talking about what a great guy he is, how they’re gonna miss him. The next day they’re all asking who’s gonna get his office.
Today we can start wondering who’s gonna replace Kass, and it’s not too crass to come up with a wish list for the new person.
Kass came to the White House as the Obamas’ personal chef, but he’s much more than that. His titles includes White House senior policy adviser and executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative (he’ll continue to be involved with the latter). He’s the one who has had the Obamas’ ear when it comes to setting food policy.
It was Kass who led the revitalization of the White House Garden and he’s been the one pushing the first lady’s changes for healthier school lunches (which are in jeopardy right now). He is a proponent of organic and locally grown food.
But this is what I remember, from Dr. Robert Lustig’s book, “Fat Chance,” where he talked of meeting Kass. The two had been on a panel at the Culinary Institute of America. They talked about the New York Times article written by noted science journalist Gary Taubes about Lustig and the sugar research. How Kass and those in the White House — including the president — had read the article. (An article you cannot read and NOT come away with concerns about the impact of sugar on a person’s body. It’s more than empty calories, folks. Read the article here.) But, and here is the discouraging part, while Kass and the O’s wished him well on his work and crusade, they weren’t joining in.
When I read that, I was so disheartened, but could understand at that point (the book was first published in 2013, the sugar article in 2011, so sometime between then) Kass and the Obamas had their plate full (pun intended) when it came to nutrition battles and didn’t have it in them for one more.
Ah, but time has passed, the public is more informed. so maybe with a new person in Kass’ job, sugar could be taken on, for this is a fight that has to happen eventually. Too much is known about what sugar does to our body to have the White House silent on it. (It’s good Let’s Move encourages avoiding “sugary drinks,” but sugar being added into so many other foods has to be addressed.)
During his tenure, I’ve followed Kass (great to see a Hyde Park boy done good) and the initiatives he’s backed with Let’s Move. He’s been big on pushing whole grains and reducing sodium and fat in foods. It’s the fat I have a problem with, as you might suspect if you read me with any regularity. (OK, I also have a problem with the whole grains for everyone; diabetics and anyone who’s tried and failed miserably at keeping weight off should consider a carb-restricted diet. And what we think we know about sodium is shaky, too, you’ll probably agree after reading this. But I digress.)
The notion that fat is our nutritional enemy is outdated and wrong. More and more studies have shown that saturated fat actually is our friend, that we should be including it in our diets. Nina Teicholz’s painstaking research for her groundbreaking book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” shows how we’ve been so misled when it comes to saturated fat.
My hope is that whoever takes over for Kass embraces this truth and doesn’t spend time and energy treating fat like a dietary bad guy. If we could let up on our fat phobia, manufacturers could put the good stuff (saturated fat, not trans fat) back into food and replace the sugar that’s there and shouldn’t be. I think one of the reasons sugar now runs rampant in processed foods is because manufacturers needed to put something in to make their products taste good. When you take something out of food, you must put something in to achieve flavor; anyone who cooks can tell you that.
Teicholz, Lustig and Taubes — three of the foremost authorities on the actual science of what we should be eating — should be asked for their ideas on what issues a new food policy czar should pursue as well as names of people to consider.
Kass has done a lot of good, no doubt about it. His work has set the stage for someone to take things to the next level, and that means really tackling sugar (oh, that’s not going to be a pretty fight), accepting and promoting the idea that carbs need to be limited in the diet of anyone who has trouble keeping excess weight off. Let’s make sure we have the right person, so we can take that step. After all, it’s our collective health that lies in the balance.