But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children… These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus. Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea.
- The Theogony of Hesiod
A few years ago, I befriended a stray cat while vacationing on an island in the Adriatic. She was a small, delicate creature with a bright, happy little face and an open and loving disposition. When we first arrived at our island retreat, she appeared to my delight accompanied by four or five little kittens, who frolicked and played joyfully as they followed her about the arid landscape. Each day I waited for them with anticipation, as the entertainment of the kittens’ play was irresistible, and my fondness for the little mother was growing fast. But as day after day passed, I noticed fewer and fewer kittens in the group, until finally there were only two. I was puzzled by this, but assumed that the woman who had rented us our little cottage, and who came every day to look after the place and feed the cats, was taking the kittens away to some new homes. This idea didn’t quite make sense, as cats are not normally house pets in that part of the world, and these kittens, born to a stray mother, were destined to a hard life living off the land. But when the mother cat finally appeared alone, with no kittens anywhere in sight, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to know. I waited for the landlady to arrive, and in my broken Croatian I asked her what had become of the kittens. She said she did not know, but she assumed that it was a male cat, most likely the father of the litter, who was killing them off. I was horrified, and distraught. I went back and looked into the face of that little cat, hardly more than a kitten herself, and wondered about how power, ambition and greed brings out the cruel beast in all creatures.
For we humans are hardly superior to the animal world in this respect; though we may not individually devour our young outright, we often act collectively in ways that are, by all methods of logic, contrary to our species’ interests and survival. Man’s desire and attempts to remain all powerful forever is a truth of human nature that plays out endlessly throughout literature and legend, as well as in the daily news. In Greek mythology, the Titan Cronos, Father Time, ironically tries to conquer time by devouring all of his offspring, so that his power over the gods will never be usurped by the next generation. Today’s paper no doubt will be full of stories about more acts of short-term greed causing untold amounts of pain and deprivation for countless numbers tomorrow.
And while our minds are spinning from the sensationalistic and inconceivable figures that bombard us daily regarding the latest financial misdeeds of Wall Street or the latest political maneuverings on K Street, we somehow miss or shrug off the most troubling statistics of all, those regarding our health, and more specifically that of our nation’s children: nearly 5% of children between the ages of 6 and 17 are now diagnosed with ADHD, documented cases of autism in children has increased about fifteen-fold in as many years, and an unbelievable estimated 23 million children are overweight or obese.
The culprits causing our kids to be overweight are easy enough to pinpoint, and are obviously related to high-fat diets and little or no exercise. But determining what factors are contributing to the astounding rise in behavioral and cognitive issues in children is not as obvious, and results in a distressing maze of unanswered questions for parents and teachers, as well as many health professionals. With medications like Ritalin all too easily prescribed for children exhibiting hyperactivity, and parents desperately trying to control their child’s behavior and intimidated by school and social service officials, a whopping 2.5 million kids end up on some form of stimulant drugs, most of which have not been fully tested, and whose long term effects are totally unknown. “Although the drugs are widely viewed as safe, many parents were alarmed when the Food and Drug Administration ordered in 2006 that stimulants like Adderall, Ritalin and Concerta carry warnings of risk for sudden death, heart attacks and hallucinations in some patients.” (nytimes.com)
Some other less severe possible side effects of these drugs are well documented: decreased appetite, weight loss, insomnia, abdominal pain, and personality changes. However some potential effects are much more ominous. “In a 1995 study by the government’s National Toxicology Program (NTP), the most popular ADHD drug, methylphenidate (Ritalin), caused malignant liver tumors in male mice and benign liver tumors in female mice… Although there is no evidence that methylphenidate causes cancer in humans, no good studies have been done.” (cspinet.org) Our children have become our medical guinea pigs, and as is typical in our western approach to healthcare, we choose as a society to throw dangerous medication at the symptoms, rather than investigate and treat the underlying causes.
In truth, some studies have been done, specifically on the effect of diet on hyperactivity, and their results, though not indisputably conclusive, do indicate a link between some foods and food additives and hyperactive behavior in some kids. In particular, research has shown that artificial colors and preservatives in foods can contribute to attention deficit and hyperactivity, information which has caused the UK and the European Parliament to recently take action, asking for the voluntary recall of six artificial food colors by food manufacturers, as well as the labeling of foods containing these additives. “These actions were spurred by a study published in September 2007 in the medical journal The Lancet supporting what some parents and scientists had suspected for decades – that food dyes are linked to hyperactivity, even in kids who don’t normally exhibit this behavior.” (latimes.com)
But the FDA is holding fast to their claim that these additives are safe, citing findings from 30-year-old studies to support their policy. Perhaps more astounding is the public’s lack of accessible information about what these additives truly contain, namely petrochemicals and coal tar! The next time you take a bite of those bright orange cheese puffs or pop a few lime-green candies in your mouth, ask yourself if you wouldn’t rather be ingesting some pretoleum, because, in fact, you are. Especially if they were made in or for the USA. “Kellogg’s strawberry Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars that are sold in Britain now contain beetroot red, annatto and paprika extract, while those sold in the U.S. are tinted with Red 40, Yellow 6 and Blue 1.” (latimes.com)
Petitions to the FDA to review their policy on artificial food dyes are underway, but so far to no avail. Many food manufacturers have been moving away from the artificial colors on their own to satisfy international markets, replacing them with natural dyes, the majority of which are vegetable-based, however “the most popular of which is cochineal, a dye made from insects that are ground up and added to foods to make them rosier.” (usnews.com) Cochineal, also known as carmine, is made “by scraping female bugs and their eggs off cactus leaves and grinding them into a powder.” (usnews.com) Whether to ingest petroleum or crushed bugs should not be part of our decision process when making food choices, for ourselves, or for our children. Until the FDA wakes up and decides to re-evaluate its priorities regarding the food industry vs. our national health, one would do better to avoid all packaged foods that contain either artificial or natural colors.
It’s little wonder that even the most attentive and aware parents become demoralized, for even if they do manage to keep these additives out of their children’s diet at home, what to do about the hundreds of meals served every year to millions of our kids at school? These school lunches are notoriously high in saturated fats and sugars, and provide very little in the way of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which are vital for humans, and especially growing children, to thrive. “According to the Society for Neuroscience, recent studies reveal that diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory. Unfortunately, foods with saturated fats are often the most affordable and widely available in schools. French fries, sugary desserts, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, and other cafeteria staples are filling kids with food that actually lower their brain power before sending them back to class.” (publicschoolreview.com) Not to mention the high levels of preservatives and artificial colors that are packed into these low-cost mass meals, which may be contributing to kids’ hyperactive behavior in the classroom.
In recent years there have been some encouraging initiatives to improve the quality of school lunches, including the “Healthy School Program,” which has been incorporated into many public and private schools across the country. One school on the program reported that “after serving healthier foods, there were ‘no discipline problems, no acting out, no violence to speak of,’… Also, since the studied implementation of healthier school plans in 1997, the ‘Healthy Schools’ across the country report lower incidences of dropouts, expulsions, drug use, weapons, and fighting, with a simultaneous rise in student performance, as grades have also improved and gone up at these schools.” (publicschoolreview.com)
Not surprisingly, however, many schools find themselves up against considerable obstacles from the government when trying to implement healthier lunches. “One longstanding barrier to schools serving more healthful meals is the USDA’s commodity foods program, which distributes large quantities of unhealthful ‘entitlement foods.’ Every year, the USDA purchases hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pork, beef, and other high-fat, high-cholesterol animal products, primarily as an economic benefit to American agribusiness. In 2005, for example, the USDA allocated close to 60 percent of food program procurement expenditures to meat, dairy, and egg products, while providing less than 5 percent to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.” (healthyschoollunches.org)
Our elected leaders pay endless lip service to the fact that our children are our future, that we must invest in them at all costs, yet we have allowed our schools to continually pump them full of nutrient-empty, energy-draining calories and line the halls with chemical additive-laden snack food and soda vending machines, all so that major food manufacturers and agribusiness can cash in. We look the other way as these little representatives of the future line up in the nurse’s office to take their prescribed stimulant courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, as if we cannot see the obvious, horrible truth. Could it be more evident that proper diet and exercise are critical aspects to our children’s health, and that schools need to step up in this regard immediately? How much more of this disregard for our children’s welfare at the profit of big business are we going to tolerate before we finally say enough? ADD, ADHD and the numerous other current issues that our kids are facing may not disappear, but it would at least give them a fighting chance.
“After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, and he vomited up first the stone which he had swallowed last. And Zeus set it fast in the wide-pathed earth at goodly Pytho under the glens of Parnassus, to be a sign thenceforth and a marvel to mortal men.” If Rhea had not finally acted and fed Cronos a stone instead of their last child, Zeus, he may be king of the gods to this day, and we would have had none of the marvelous myths that unraveled under the rule of his son. Male cats may continue to kill their offspring in the wild, but humans can rise above our bestial drives and stand up to power and greed, especially to protect our young. When you look at how our government prioritizes big business’ interests over our children’s health, and how our schools don’t know the first thing about nutrition but certainly are well versed on all the latest pharmacology, it’s high time to pick up our own proverbial stone.