Free marketing

Our community run childcare centre is increasingly the target of “offers” from companies wanting to market their products. At the moment we have a display of toilet paper in the foyer, and sometimes free samples are given out to families. It seems harmless enough, and sometimes the companies offer the centre something, in cash or in products, as an incentive. That seems like money for nothing to a small, community childcare centre that works hard on its fund raising, and keeping costs down.

I am becoming uneasy about it, though. It seems to me that, as a society, there is a whole conversation about the ethics of various marketing techniques that we are completely failing to have. While we have bans on some advertising, such as tobacco advertising in sport, and alcohol advertising to minors, marketing is getting cleverer and more subtle all the time. I think we are crossing some ethical lines without even realising it. Sure, marketing results in sales, which is good for our economy. But I do wonder if it is always good for us.

As a small community run child care centre with a good sense of community, we have, in marketing speak, a trusted brand. People feel good about the centre, and trust both the centre, and the extremely talented and popular Director. By advertising products to parents in this space, we are implicitly endorsing them, whether we mean to or not. By offering financial incentives to do so, the marketing geniuses make the deal hard to resist, but are we effectively become party to a “cash for comment” scenario? Is displaying a product in the foyer of our well-loved, trusted centre, an implicit comment on its value?

Certainly the reason this form of marketing is taking off is that it is effective. People feel good about our centre, and some of that good feeling will inevitably rub off on any product that they see displayed inside it – that’s why companies are so keen to make this kind of deal for advertising their wares. The same kind of effect works with “party plan” selling, where companies Tupperware, Intimo, and Enjo use social networks to sell their wares. You are in a friend’s home, and the more you buy the more free stuff your friend gets, so the pressure and incentive to buy is remarkably strong.

So where is the line? Displaying toilet paper in the foyer seems harmless, but what about infant formula? It is well established that marketing formula lowers breastfeeding rates, and higher breastfeeding rates are demonstrably better for the health of our babies. That is a clear case where improved marketing is bad for consumers.

Advertisers are moving more and more towards viral marketing – visible people, especially young people, using a product, wearing the clothes, reading the book, drinking the drink, will lead to more people doing so. It’s subtle, it’s effective. But is it wrong? I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but that doesn’t mean the questions shouldn’t be asked. These sorts of ethical issues need to be debated openly and vigorously in order for us, as a society, to work out where the lines should be drawn.

Misleading advertising is technically illegal, yet we have plenty of marketing schemes that trumpet “3 months free!”, which is apparently ok as long as the fine print discloses “on your 24 month plan”. And bait and switch is a common technique to get people to switch providers, whether it’s phones or insurance – offer a low cost first year, then bump up the price and bank on apathy to stop your customers moving on. It’s not illegal. It’s good for business. But no-one on the receiving end likes it. Too often we put up with it, either out of apathy or lack of real choices.

It’s time we started asking ourselves where the line should be, and voting with our wallets. Loudly.

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Ode to the ScEng

We all know them. Creatures of few words, they never use two words where one will do. And they always answer precisely the question you asked, rather than giving you the answer you were looking for.

“Did Chloe take the red or  green lunchbox today?” “Yes.”

“How did you sleep?” “Lying down.”

“What kind of pizza do you want?” “Round and flat.”

They are highly intelligent, and they look at the world from a decidedly quirky angle. While it can easily drive the uninitiated to distraction, this quirky angle is also what gives them the edge in problem solving. They will find unique but effective solutions to problems others have given up on – generally involving a rubber band, a piece of string, and an obscure tool on a swiss army knife.

I call them Scenges because when I first identified the species, they were disproportionately represented in the Science Engineering degree (ScEng – pronounced skenj) at Monash, but you don’t have to have studied Science Engineering to be a ScEng. It’s a state of mind.

Consider my husband who, after watching me suddenly and unexpectedly throw up when I experienced severe morning sickness for the first time, said “Would you like your toast now, or shall I flush it straight down the loo?” Some might consider it callous, but it was perfect comic timing. I was poised on a knife edge between crying and laughing, in shock at the suddenness of what had just happened. His comment highlighted the absurdity of the moment and relieved the tension beautifully. It’s a Sceng gift.

You learn to watch your language around Scenges. Careless talk may not cost lives, but it can throw a brick wall across your train of thought. Casual invitations like “Would you care to join me in a glass of wine?” are unwise (“I don’t think we’d both fit.”), but not as dangerous as not specifying your requirements precisely. “I don’t mind what sort of tea you give me.” “Really? Mushroom tea it is, then. With anchovies.”

Scenges are some of my favourite people to have around. Cool in a crisis, ever resourceful, and always entertaining, they will drive you insane, but it’s a fun place to be.

Scengeness starts young. My 7 year old refuses to participate, but my 3 year old, Jane, has taken to it with relish. “What should I wear today, Jane?” “Clothes, Mummy. Clothes.” Really, with fashion advice like that, what could possibly go wrong?

Shiny Happy People

A chance conversation with a friend of mine recently started me thinking about our attitude to sadness. It has often been observed by people far wiser than I that in order to be truly, ecstatically happy, you have to know what it is to be truly, desperately sad. Yet we seem to suffer from a collective and growing urge to pretend that sadness doesn’t exist. To sweep it under the rug, deny it three times, and surround ourselves with protective amulets and charms to ward it off.

I have wasted a ludicrous amount of time in my life trying to deny my feelings, pretend I wasn’t feeling them, or being angry with myself for how I felt. It wasn’t until I began to admit my feelings to myself that I was able to handle them successfully. Well, ok, less unsuccessfully.

My friend, Rebecca, summed it up beautifully: “To be a happy little pollyanna all the time – that’s unnatural…. so get off our collective cases and let us be sad and down from time to time…. and if we give ourselves permission to be sad maybe it won’t feel so horrendously like failure.”

Permission to be sad. That’s a beautiful concept. Why do we have so much trouble allowing ourselves to be sad? Of course, it’s no fun being sad (by definition), but denying it forces it down into something corrosive and damaging, instead of it being a natural part of our lives.

We have a conspiracy of silence about the hard parts of our lives. It’s not “done” to admit to struggling – witness the media frenzy whenever a public figure “confesses” to suffering from depression. Why must it be a “confession”? We don’t have to confess to the flu, or our eye colour, and depression is just as much a fact of life. According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, around 20% of young people will have experienced significant depressive symptoms by the time they reach adulthood, and at least 15% of people will experience significant depression at some stage of life.

Think about that. Not sadness, or mild depression. Significant depression will affect a staggering 3 in 20 people in their lives. Of course, all of us will be sad. My bet is that all of us will be mildly depressed at some point, too. But for some reason we don’t talk about it.

How many times have you parents out there felt that everyone else was a better parent, or having an easier time of it than you? But there is an appalling conspiracy of silence about the tough times in family life. Too often we wind up competing in the “my child sleeps/eats/talks more/less/faster than yours” game, and pretending that life is all peaches and cream (it may be an indicator of my current family life that I first wrote that as “peaches and scream”).

What about the workplace? Have you ever felt inadequate, or as though everyone else was better than you, harder working than you, cleverer than you, or just finding climbing the ladder much easier than you? My bet is that you’d be staggered to find out how accurately your thoughts are mirrored by almost every other employee in the place. Yes, even the CEO.

We all have low times. There are always going to be times when we feel inadequate or overwhelmed. We all know it. What would the world be like if we stopped denying it?

Reassemble, Stephanie!

This week my 3 year old came down with gastro. Our childcare centre, as most do, has a policy that states that children with diarrhoea or vomiting must be excluded from the centre for a minimum of 24 hours after the last episode. That’s easy if the staff know when that was, but it is all too common for parents to drop their child off and only later in the day reveal that little Cassie was throwing up right before she was dropped off. “But she seemed ok, so we thought we’d risk it.”

In some cases this might be ignorance, but the staff and Director are excellent communicators, and the policy is well publicised. In most cases it is a deliberate decision to ignore the policy. Rationalising that “we thought she was over it,” “he seemed ok,” or “we thought it was something he ate, not gastro”, these parents are choosing to put their own convenience over the welfare of the other children and the staff at the centre.

It is not always possible to avoid infections spreading, even when infection control procedures are the best they can be. And sometimes kids are infectious before they show symptoms. In the case of gastro, though, it is very clear that kids are most infectious when they are displaying symptoms. Bringing your children to childcare or school when you know they have gastro is dooming many other families to the same fate.

Why do parents do it? I doubt they would be willing to walk up to the other children and parents and say “I have decided to give you gastro, because it’s more convenient for me to put Sammy into childcare today.” Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the rest of us, there is a fundamental disconnect these days, in most of our day to day lives, between cause and effect. Those inconsiderate, thoughtless parents never have to face (or clean up after) the consequences of their actions.

This is an inevitable consequence of the downgrading of community, and the increased isolation in which many of us live. Locked in our big metal traveling cages, we are rarely forced to apologise for cutting someone off, blocking an intersection or causing an accident. We rarely even make eye contact with the victims of our thoughtless decisions, or our careless haste, much less actually converse with them (beyond a screamed obscenity or two at high speed).

Leave a shopping trolley rolling loose through the carpark? No problem, my car will be long gone, it will probably be fine. (And you’ll never know if it wasn’t.) Drop some rubbish on the ground? It’s ok, nobody saw me, it’ll get washed away. (And chances are no-one saw the seal that choked on it in the bay and died, either.) Take your sick, infectious child to school? Ah, she probably got it from there anyway. Bash someone for driving too slowly? He deserved it, he was slowing me down, and besides, he started it. Punch someone who looked at you in a funny way? I was drunk, it’s not my fault.

There is always a way to make it sound ok. We are exceptionally good at rationalising the things we want to do so that we sound virtuous and justified.

Over the last few days I have read many articles bemoaning the consequences of the shutdown of European airports. Some of them discuss food security, and the fact that European supermarkets are increasingly dependent on fresh food from places like Africa. They talk about food prepared in African factories – like fruit peeled, cut, and seeded – and how Europeans are going to have to live without it for the duration of the volcanic dust cloud that has disrupted air travel. I have yet to see a single article pondering the fate of the workers in those African factories. Another group of people profoundly affected by our actions, yet well out of range of eye contact, and, apparently, empathy.

With the increasing distance between us and the consequences of our actions, and the lack of real connection with the people our actions affect, we are freed from any guilt or even awareness of the consequences. Only by rebuilding our local networks, and reconnecting with the people whose lives are interwoven with our own, can we become aware of our effect on the world.

Feed me, Seymour! But make it fructose friendly.

So now that you’ve wrapped your head around the complexities of gluten free catering (or, indeed, shuddered and been grateful you don’t have to worry about it), let’s look at catering for those who suffer from fructose malabsorption (sometimes known as fructose intolerance). Coeliac and fructose intolerance are both frequent causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and have similar symptoms – abdominal pain (ranging from mild to severe), diarrhoea, bloating, gas, even throwing up. It can leave you exhausted both from the symptoms and because you’re not absorbing your food properly. It’s much nicer to avoid all of that, if at all possible!

The good news about fructose is that, unlike gluten, cross contamination isn’t usually an issue. So you don’t have to be 100% scrupulous about making sure the wrong foods don’t come into contact with the fructose friendly ones. The bad news is that fructose is, as yet, relatively poorly studied, so the information about fructose load in various foods is a little sketchy. We follow the rule “if in doubt, leave it out”, or if we’re feeling brave and healthy, we will occasionally try a food to see what happens.

My daughter and I are very sensitive to fructose, so this guide is good for those whose tolerance for fructose is very low. Many people with fructose malabsorption will be able to be a little more relaxed about some things.

The first thing you need to wrap your head around is that there is fructose, and there are fructans. Fructans are chains of fructose molecules stuck together, and there is little you can do about them other than avoid them. Foods that are unsafe due to fructans include onions of all kinds (including shallots and spring onions), garlic (although many fructose sensitive people can tolerate a little garlic), wheat, rye, some legumes, artichokes, asparagus, and inulin and fructooligosaccharides (which you will see as ingredients on many processed foods).

Unlike fructans, fructose can, to some extent, be balanced with glucose to make it easier to digest. This is why some fruits are better than others for sufferers, because some fruits have a 50-50 ratio of fructose to glucose.

“Safe” fruits include bananas, citrus, cantalope, pineapple, berries, and tomatoes. These are all ok for us to eat, but only in small quantities. The literature says that grapes are ok, too, but we have found only very small numbers of grapes to be bearable, and I suspect that the ratio varies for different varieties – which makes it very hard to know what is safe!

Unsafe fruits have more fructose than glucose, and include apples, pears, watermelon, mango, honeydew melon, nashi pears and all dried fruits. We can get away with small amounts of these things if we have some glucose at the same time, to balance the fructose.

Safe vegies include cauliflower, spinach, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, sweet potato, mushrooms, cucumber, sweet corn and peas.

Unsafe vegies include broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, beetroot, chickpeas and artichokes.

Safe grains include rice, buckwheat and quinoa.

As you can see, even if you add the lists together, there are a lot of fruits and vegies not covered. We simply don’t know whether they are safe or not.

Also on the “definitely unsafe” list are coconut cream and coconut milk (although the flesh/fibre is ok, as is coconut oil), honey, fruit juices, sweet wines, foods sweetened with fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar and, of course, fructose and high fructose corn syrup. Once again, all of these can be balanced with glucose, but only in small quantities.

Table sugar, or sucrose, is actually 50-50 glucose and fructose, so it is one of the things we can have, but only in limited quantities. That means we can use sugar or golden syrup in place of honey in many recipes, and fortunately maple syrup is fine, too.

So how do we actually eat on a day to day basis? There is an awful lot of label reading. Because of the need to avoid wheat, there is a high proportion of gluten free foods in our diet, like gluten free breads, biscuits, cereals, and pasta. Not all gluten free foods are safe though, those that include chickpea or besan flour, pea flour, dried fruit, inulin,  fructoologosacharides (FOS) or are sweetened with honey or fruit juice concentrate aren’t good.

Even though tomato is ok, we can’t have a lot of it, so I tend not to make tomato based sauces anymore. We use pumpkin a lot, to make meat sauces more sauce-like. We can’t use commercial stocks as they invariably contain onion or onion powder. That is also a problem with many sauces, although there are a few that are safe – notably tamari (gluten free soy sauce) and Chang-brand gluten free oyster sauce. Mayonnaise is often ok (again, subject to careful label reading).

As for herbs and spices, you really need to start being creative to get over the huge reliance western cooking places on onion and garlic. We use a lot of fresh garden herbs like basil, parsley and mint, and quite a lot of ginger, cumin, turmeric and good old salt and pepper. We can also use chili and some curry powders (although the girls aren’t wild about spicy food – notwithstanding the fact that they are both enthusiastic autocondimenters when faced with a pepper grinder!).

So there you have it. Tricky, but not impossible. Of course, combining gluten free, fructose friendly, and my daughter’s reflux triggers gets closer to impossible, but that’s another blog or 20.

Many people who suffer food intolerances are more than happy to bring their own food, so that they can still join in and be social, without inflicting complicated cooking requirements on their friends. We are used to it, and for many of us it worries our hosts much more than it worries us. I often go to restaurants, eat before I go, and just have a coffee, if there is nothing I can eat. Let’s face it, it gives me a better chance of monopolizing the conversation!

If you’re planning to cater for someone with these food problems, it’s always worth talking to them first. Everyone has slightly different tolerances and sensitivities, and the super-sensitive may always choose to bring their own to be on the safe side.

Good luck, and happy cooking!

You might also be interested in my gluten free post

Feed me, Seymour! But make it gluten free.

Feeding someone with a severe gluten intolerance such as coeliac disease is a lot harder than most people think. Before I was diagnosed, I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding wheat, rye, oats and barley. Sure, those things are in a lot of foods, but once you take those off the ingredients list the rest is easy, yes? Er, no, as it happens. Not at all. Not even close. So this is my attempt to explain how to cook gluten free. It covers all of the traps I have encountered so far, and I hope it will be a good guide for those who wish to boldly invite somebody with coeliac disease over for dinner. Take heart! It’s tricky, but not impossible.

The biggest problem with trying to be gluten free is cross contamination. People with coeliac disease react to a single crumb of gluten, and can be poisoned by as little as a drift of flour dust in the air, or a spoon that was put down on a crumby surface and then used for stirring. Being poisoned with gluten is a little like getting gastro. For some coeliacs it doesn’t have obvious symptoms (but nonetheless damages the intestine), but for others it can lead to full gastro symptoms, which I won’t disturb you with. Suffice to say that there is a reason that “Crumbs!” is now my worst swearword.

There are many traps with cross contamination, especially if you don’t regularly cook gluten free, because if you have ever used a spoon for flour and then put it into your sugar jar, your sugar is no longer gluten free. Your butter, margarine, jam or honey is not gluten free if you ever put the knife from the toast back into the spread. If you are cooking gluten-free pasta and use a spoon that you just stirred wheat-based pasta with, your gluten-free pasta isn’t. See? Nasty, isn’t it?

Another surprise trap is that cooking surfaces like BBQs that have ever been used to cook anything with gluten are contaminated unless they have been very thoroughly cleaned. You can’t deep fry gluten free and glutenous* food in the same oil, as the crumbs will cause cross contamination, so hot chips and the like are usually not gluten free, unless they are cooked in their own special oil. You can’t use the same tongs, or the same spatula. People with coeliac even need a separate, gluten-free toaster that has never been sullied by ordinary bread. One slice of glutenous bread in that toaster renders it unusable for us.

I have lost count of the number of cafes I have seen that sell “gluten free” cakes and slices, but keep them on the same plate as the ordinary cakes, and use the same tongs.

The safest way to be gluten free is to use fresh packets of everything, have all your surfaces thoroughly clean and crumb free, and not cook anything glutenous at the same time (to avoid mixing up your utensils).

Then there’s the hidden gluten in processed foods. Fortunately these days labeling in Australia is very good – if it is derived from wheat, barley, rye or oats, it must be listed on the label. It is usually safest to avoid products labeled “may contain traces of gluten”, although some coeliac sufferers choose to eat those, so it is worth checking with your friends what they prefer.

Products that contain wheat glucose syrup as their only glutenous ingredient are actually safe, as the glucose syrup has been so highly processed that there is no gluten left. Wheat starch is not ok, however, so if you’re not sure, best to avoid it. Most sauces, especially soy sauce, are not gluten free, so either read the label very carefully or avoid them. Sausages and many cold meats like ham and processed meats often contain gluten, so its best to seek out alternatives that are labeled gluten free.

There is gluten in the weirdest places – some cornflour is made from wheat (go figure). And the flavourings in many chips, nuts and other snacky sorts of foods often contains wheat. Obsessive label reading is your friend, or play it safe and only buy things labeled gluten free.

There are gluten free alternatives available in many supermarkets (often in a separate gluten-free section), and some excellent specialty shops about the place – check out your local coeliac society website for details. Anything labeled “gluten free” is safe. For many recipes you can directly substitute gluten free flour for ordinary flour with good results, although it takes a bit of practice to refine the proportions. In general, gluten free flour tends to leave things dry and crumbly, so make your mixtures wetter, and use xanthan gum to help them stick together. (You can often buy Xanthan gum in the health food section (or, as I like to call it, the freaks and weirdos aisle) at the supermarket.)

So that’s gluten free in a rather large nutshell. But wait! There’s more! Stay tuned for my next exciting installment – how to be fructose friendly!

(Please add a comment if you know of any traps I have missed – it would be great for this article to be a continuously evolving, up-to-date resource!)

*Note “glutenous” means containing gluten, as opposed to “glutinous”, which means sticky.

You might also be interested in my “fructose friendly” post.

Being there

One of the hardest things about grief is knowing how to help when the grief is not your own. When someone you care about is grieving intensely, it is incredibly difficult to know what to do or say. It’s awful to see them in pain, particularly when there is nothing you can do to relieve their agony. If you have unresolved grief of your own (and in my experience all grief is unresolved – how can you resolve grief??), it is particularly painful, because you know what they are going through, and it stirs up your own distress.
A natural response to pain is to avoid it, and when faced with the big unknown of what to say in the face of someone’s grief, people often wind up avoiding the issue. It’s easy, and natural, to put it in the too hard basket, put it off, and without ever meaning to, become an absent friend. We often spend a lot of time worrying that we will say the wrong thing, or somehow make things worse, so I want to share a little secret with you. You can’t make grief worse. But you can make it easier to handle.
The single most important thing you can do for someone who is grieving is to be there for them, and take your cue from them. If they want to talk about their loss, don’t be afraid of their tears. If they just want to be distracted, to talk and laugh, escaping their grief for a moment, roll with that, too. Above all, be present. Call regularly. Arrange to catch up.
Offering to help is lovely, but help is much easier to accept when it is presented as a fait accompli. “Call me if you need anything” is unlikely to work, because grief can be crippling. The act of picking up the phone and asking for help is, at the worst times, way out of reach. Even answering “how are you?” is difficult to do honestly, sometimes. It’s simply too big to handle. So to be supportive, we need to be present. Ready to talk about the big stuff, but equally ready to laugh and play if that’s what works. Cook meals, go for coffee, play with the kids, do anything at all, just be there. The worst thing that you can do is stay away, with the idea that someone who is grief stricken needs space. Of course, everyone processes grief differently, and if someone asks you to give them space, that’s a different story. But don’t assume. Ask. You can’t hurt them by asking.
It can be difficult to know whether to talk about someone who recently died, but it is an important part of honouring their memory, and of building their memory into your life. Of course, tears can be scary, and uncomfortable, and no-one likes to see a friend in distress. But tears are an important part of healing, coping, and expressing yourself emotionally. Being there for someone in distress is the greatest gift we can give (whatever Tony Abbott might say).
Grief often comes in crippling waves. One minute you are coping with the minutiae of life, the next you can barely walk, overcome by the trauma of your loss. To have someone beside you who can hold you up in those moments is truly priceless.
I have been amazingly lucky to have many dear, dear friends who have been there for me in times of trauma. Even more importantly, these friends have stuck around long after most people had moved on and forgotten. Grief is not temporary, like a wound that heals. It’s permanent – a price we pay for letting people in to our hearts. Just by sticking around you can make life more bearable for someone you care about.