Sugary drinks, bagels, cookies. Junk foods. In our synagogues, Jewish youth groups, camps and schools, adults are feeding us nutritionally empty foods. Most have ingredients that sound like my chemistry lab experiments.
That’s why I started Teens4Health.org. We’re teens trying to educate ourselves and convince our parents, rabbis, teachers, camp and youth group counselors and school cafeteria managers to stop harming us with unhealthy processed foods and addictive sugary sodas.
At the Jewish sports camp I attended, they served us cheap, greasy pizza, Coca-Cola and almost no vegetables or fruit. Most nights, our coaches drove us to Dunkin’ Donuts or 7-Eleven. When I pointed out that donuts and Slurpees are filled with dangerous sugar, they ignored me.
Teens4Health educates other teens about what junk foods do to our bodies and brains. Our biggest problem? Adults. Go to any Jewish youth group or camp or school. Adults don’t realize that the “healthy” foods they serve — “health” bars, fruit yogurt, orange juice — are loaded with sugar.
Sugar is as addictive as cocaine. Almost 80 percent of grocery store foods — from sugary breakfast cereals to pasta sauce to ketchup to energy drinks — are spiked with added sugar. The average teen eats more than five times the recommended allowance of sugar each day — an amazing 34 teaspoons! A big reason more than one in five American teens are obese? Sugar.
During school lunch, I see my classmates eating white bread and American cheese sandwiches, candy and other addictive and unhealthy foods. Teens make up one third of all new diabetes cases. It’s a gigantic crisis.
We’re trying to teach teens about real food. What’s Real Food? It’s what my great-great grandparents ate (they both lived until over 100). There were no vending machines or grab-and-go processed foods. Real Foods don’t need “nutrition facts” labels (which usually mean little nutrition and fake facts). Real Foods don’t use sneaky names for sugar — like corn syrup or beet syrup or molasses. To me, Real Foods also means Real Drinks: healthy, free tap water.
To understand why junk food is so profitable and addicting, we teens need to learn to follow the money. That’s partly why I started a complementary organization, Teens4Biz.org, where teens can learn how powerful industrial food companies are fueling the obesity and diabetes epidemics by adding salt, sugar and unhealthy fats and other harmful, usually artificial, ingredients to their “foods.”
We’re discovering how processed foods are magically (chemically) designed to last for months and how multibillion-dollar food, beverage and restaurant businesses use clever ads and marketing to convince us to crave unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. For example, we’re learning to recognize deceptive food labels, misleading menus and manipulative marketing messages. On field trips to places like supermarkets, we learn how to identify deceptively sugary foods and how companies pay for product placement.
We’re the digital generation; with a flick of a finger, we can share more texts, photos and videos than adults. Teens4Health.org and Teens4Biz.org are bottom-up, not top-down organizations, an approach I learned from my mentor Dr. Robert Lustig, UCSF pediatric endocrinologist. To end junk food madness, we’re trying to do our part. Wake up parents, rabbis, camp counselors, youth group leaders and teachers: The processed foods and sugary drinks you’re feeding us are fueling the growing global epidemics of teen diabetes and obesity. L’chaim! To Life!
Elias Rosenthal is a high school junior in Santa Rosa. He started Teens4Health.org and Teens4Biz.org.