Crusader With a Wooden Spoon

Baker Paul Stitt battles junk food, squishy white bread, gooey rolls, and corporate giants

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN food scientist Paul Stitt launched his career in the 1960s, he hoped to feed the world. But he soon found himself playing a second role - as an outspoken critic of companies that put profits ahead of good nutrition.

Mr. Stitt's targets: Soft-drink firms that lace beverages with caffeine; snack manufacturers that load foods with fat and salt; cerealmakers that use huge quantities of sugar.

Caffeine, salt, fat, sugar, and other additives are what food companies call ``natural flavors,'' but what Stitt terms ``appetite enhancers.'' When added to recipes, they encourage overeating by chemically creating a false sense of hunger, he says.

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Taking on the giants

Stunned by what he learned working at large companies, Stitt took on corporate America at its own game. Here in Manitowoc, on the shores of Lake Michigan, he is producing nutrition-rich natural foods.

It's been over 20 years since Stitt, a biochemist, fell out with the Quaker Oats Company, where he was working as a product-development specialist. One of his assignments there was to create a soy-protein breakfast bar.

As Stitt tells it, he was too successful. His bar was so filling that consumers were satisfied after eating just one. He was ordered to drop the project - sales would be too unprofitable.

Quaker spokesman Ron Bottrell says he doesn't want to refight that old battle with Stitt. But Mr. Bottrell notes that Quaker got its start in 1877 with whole-grain cereal, and today it annually sells $404 million worth of minimally processed natural hot cereals like oatmeal.

Eventually, Stitt was fired by Quaker and blackballed by other food companies. Jobless and frustrated, he decided to go it alone. He challenged the giant creators of sugared cereals, Twinkies, Oreos, and squishy white bread by launching his own bakery here in Manitowoc.

The results? Today, with 165 employees, his Natural Ovens of Manitowoc daily turns out 20,000 loaves of bread.

These are dense, nutritious loaves, such as his Garden Bread, made of whole wheat, flax seed, shredded carrots, and sunflower meal. There are moist Blueberry-Oat Muffins that are 27-percent blueberries, along with whole wheat, oat bran, flax seed, arrowroot - and more than 5 grams of fiber per muffin.

Thousands of people in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota are discovering Stitt's whole-grain breads, rolls, and muffins. Sales have climbed to $9 million through 1,100 grocery stores and mail orders.

Walking through the Natural Ovens bakery with Stitt and his wife, Barbara, one quickly realizes that for them, this is, as he puts it, ``a ministry, a calling, a mission.''

Company mission

Stitt laments the way many Americans eat, and what he calls the greed of many large food companies that exploit false appetites. He observes: ``It's against the law to sell a dog food unless it is nutritional. But there's no such law for human foods, and I feel there should be.''

When working for major corporations on new food products, Stitt says he found that ``if you make it nutritional, then people eat less. And to a food company, that's harmful. To me, as a nutritionist, that's an improvement. So that's our mission here, to make the foods as filling and satisfying as possible so that people can't overeat.''

Barbara Stitt shares her husband's crusading spirit. Before meeting Paul in 1980, she had developed a similar interest in wholesome foods. She had worked for two decades as a probation officer in Ohio, where she conducted a 5-year study of the diets of 1,100 criminals.

She determined that 82 percent of the criminals were hooked on sweets. They were ingesting 50 to 150 teaspoons a day of sugar in the form of soft drinks, candy, gooey rolls, donuts, sugared cereal, and other processed foods. Many of them never drank water, only syrupy, carbonated drinks, she says.

So impressed were judges in her community by the study that they began ordering convicted criminals to drink water regularly, to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and give up junk food.

The results of this new regimen ``were astonishing,'' says Mrs. Stitt. ``They changed physically. They changed emotionally. [And] 89 percent of the people we worked with on diets got into no more trouble.''

Stephen Schoenthaler, one of the nation's leading authorities on the diet-crime connection, says reducing sugar intake among prisoners as Mrs. Stitt did, can reduce criminal behavior - though sugar is not really the culprit.

Research in juvenile prisons found that replacing sugary foods with well-balanced meals consistently reduces violence and other anti-social behavior by about 45 percent, Schoenthaler says.

Junk food's big boost

Mr. Stitt says the proliferation of junk food got its biggest boost during World War II. Americans became addicted to soft drinks, French fries, processed meats, donuts, and other quickly dispensed items.

During that time, he says, mothers lost control of their families' eating habits. ``Before that, mothers kind of controlled the diet - what people ate, how they ate, when they ate.''

The Stitts ``mother'' their own workers when it comes to food. They provide free, nutritious meals. Coffee, tea, and soft drinks are banned.

``This [meal] helps people work harder, work smarter, improves morale,'' Stitt says. ``If we gave them all sweets and high-fat food ... they'd be falling asleep.''

Though Natural Ovens is a financial success, Stitt hasn't let his gains tempt him into becoming a food giant in his own right. He has capped his own pay at $40,000 a year.

``We've got all the money we want,'' he says. ``I'm not interested in just getting bigger.''

Instead, the Stitts are branching out in other ways - helping others get started in the bakery business (see story, left), and trying to improve the lunch program at local schools.

Stitt charges $1,000 for a one-week training program designed to launch would-be bakers who want to start their own companies. Or he'll train someone free-of-charge if they cannot afford it. About 50 people have gone through training so far, including some from as far away as Venezuela and Japan.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Stitt is focused on improving school lunches, which she says too often are ``just about pure fat.''

She says the declining performance of America's schools might well be traced to the caffeine, sugar, and fat being foisted on children through commercials on Saturday morning TV. And too often schools permit children to eat candy bars, potato chips, and colas - rather than fresh carrots, oranges, and juice.

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