Say you want a dozen eggs. You go to the grocery store. On the way to the back cooler, a display of champagne bottles practically leaps into your path. Other items jump up to attract and distract. Lip balm? Luna Bars 40 cents off?
But you make it to the eggs, where a bounty of choices awaits. Do you want a booster shot of Omega 3s? Are you opposed to caging hens? Should they have sufficed on an "all-vegetable ration" or will it have to be "100 percent organic feed"? And what was the problem with cholesterol, again?
Marion Nestle's book, What to Eat (North Point Press, 2006), is a consumer-centered walking guide to the 30,000 items offered in the typical American supermarket. Along with her groundbreaking 2002 book, Food Politics, revised and updated this year, Nestle's sharing a recipe for healthy eating and smart shopping. First on the list of ingredients: knowledge.
You're traveling right now. I'm curious about what food choices you're making. I've been eating great food but it's hard not to eat too much. I'm just back from New Zealand, where restaurants are specializing in serving local, seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed lamb and beef. The food is delicious but the presentations are still a bit fussy for my taste. I went to several places that are still very much into vertical food: vegetables piled high into towers on the plate and great plumes of thin cookies on the desserts.
The U.S. now produces nearly 4,000 calories a day for each of its residents. Where are all those calories going? Or, in other words: Why is malnutrition and hunger still a problem? Some of those calories -- more than 1,000, probably -- go to waste. We don't have much evidence of malnutrition or hunger in this country. What we do have is plenty of evidence of food insecurity: uncertainty about where the next meal is coming from. The USDA estimates that about 12 million Americans are in that category.
Aren't those people relying on the cheapest items they can find to feed their families, and therefore suffering from poor diets? Some are, some aren't. It's quite possible to eat healthfully on a low income but you have to work at it.
Have you seen any good instances, in the U.S., of breaking the food-and-class pyramid in which junk food is cheap and readily available and fresh, organic, "whole" foods are scarce and sold dear? As long as we have farm supports for corn and soybeans, but not for fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, I don't see how that could happen. The actual cost of producing food is reflected more in whole foods than it is in processed foods. Another point about New Zealand: they stopped all farm subsidies a few years ago, cold turkey. Farmers experienced a bumpy period for a bit, but the farm economy has recovered and farmers are now doing better than ever.
Would you recommend we expand U.S. farm subsidies to cover fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, or abolish price supports? Subsidies corrupt. They need to be seriously rethought. They are such an obvious indicator of corporate power over legislators. Every administration wants to get rid of them. Why can't they? Food politics in action!
What is the nutrition transition? The nutrition transition refers to the rapid change in the population from one that really does suffer from hunger and malnutrition to one in which obesity becomes normal. All but the poorest countries in the world are experiencing this transition, to the great detriment of their health care system if they even have one. Suddenly, physicians are faced with coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and strokes in one segment of the population while dealing with overt malnutrition in another. Something about the rate of change of dietary intake and sedentary activity patterns makes the newly affluent especially subject to this transition.
Can you talk about the Food Pyramid's morphing into MyPyramid, and why that happened? What is the message of the new pyramid? In short: politics. The chief political objection to the 1992 pyramid was its hierarchy; it made it clear that people would be healthier if they ate more plant foods than animal foods. MyPyramid eliminated the hierarchy so we are back to "all foods can be part of a healthful diet," which may be true but is not helpful. I talk to dietitians and nutritionists all the time who say they just can't use it. It's useless.
Are local foods a fad, or does this trend have staying power? Have you looked at the price of fuel oil lately? Local foods look better all the time. I don't think you have to be a purist, but it's a great idea to support local farmers whenever you can. If more people bought even some local foods, we would have much stronger farm communities and more young people interested in staying in rural communities.
What do you think of food companies' claims to health? If I eat things that are marketed as healthy, will I be healthy? Oh, please. I think health claims should not be allowed on food packages. They are all misleading unless you read the tiny print.
But if there's no such claims on packaging, how would we make decisions in the grocery aisle? How about by choosing real, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods? If you stay out of the "junk" (translation: highly processed) food aisles, you don't have to worry about what's in them.
What do you think is the best way to teach your loved ones how to eat right? Best is by example. I always say if you don't want kids eating junk foods, don't have them in the house. Teach kids about marketing and how to become critical consumers. Explain how the system works. And teach them how to cook!