Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eating is Fundamental

Though it has taken me a few weeks' worth of lunchtime reading, I've finally finished reading Marion Nestle's new (well, 2006) book What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating. And once again, I'm impressed with her sensible nutrition advice, down-to-earth debunking of food and marketing myths, and understated sense of humor.

As in Food Politics, Nestle gives you a clear view of how marketing influences our food choices. In this book, she explores how an item's location in the supermarket can affect your urge to buy it. The obvious example is endcap advertising, where highly processed food items (often on sale) are shelved at the end of a row to make them more highly visible and attractive to consumers, but the design of long rows that take you past many more goods than the ones you want also encourages the purchase of convenience processed foods.

(I'm very glad that my local supermarket follows tradition and keeps the produce right up front as I walk in the door... that's usually all I want! Colorful fresh produce, with organics up front, always manages to seduce me with its variety of colors and shapes and scents far more than the bags, boxes, and cans that scream "Eat me!")

I won't give a comprehensive review of Nestle's book, following her row-by-row outline, but here are some of the basic messages she repeats throughout the book:

--Eat foods that are as close to the natural state as possible, with no or little processing or additives, for the best nutritional and economic value. (As she notes, "Aging, drying, freezing, canning, and cooking do change foods, but they cause little loss of nutritional value, if any, and they often make the nutrients in foods more available to the body (p.307).")

--Read the labels. Granted, fresh produce doesn't carry nutrition labeling, but do you really need it anyway? For those processed foods you do buy, though, be sure to look at the labels for added ingredients as well as caloric and fat content... then decide if it's worth the price.

--Everything in moderation. While Nestle advocates a wholesome diet based on a variety of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and sensible amounts of meat and dairy (if you partake), she acknowledges that we all indulge in snack foods that may not be so healthy. (She admits to a fondness for Oreos.) That's fine, as long as we stick to portion size, don't make it a regular habit, and don't go overboard with calories.

--Know the origin of your food. This isn't always easy, given the lack of COOL (country-of-origin labeling) on many foods, but stores are learning that consumers do want to know where their food is grown, not just where it's processed. This also means that for the take-out types of food available at the deli counter or at restaurants, you should want to know who handles the food, how safely it's handled, and how fresh it is.

Nestle doesn't place quite as much emphasis on local foods as I would, but she strongly suggests buying organically AND locally grown items first:

When you choose organics, you are voting with your fork for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil, and cleaner water supplies -- all better in the long run. When you choose locally grown produce, you are voting for conservation of fuel resources and the economic viability of local communities, along with freshness and better taste. (p.66)

Having grown up with a solid education in nutrition, thanks to the Chef Mother, I've always known to look at the labels and be smart in comparing costs, so for me, Nestle's book mainly reinforces what I already know while adding the occasional new tidbit of information. I would definitely recommend the book, though, to those readers who don't have as firm a grasp on nutrition or who are seeking a comprehensive source of shopping wisdom. (I mentioned the book to the Southern Belle, and with feeding two small boys, mostly cooking from scratch, she's looking for just this sort of no-nonsense practical help to improve but not overhaul her shopping habits.)

Ultimately, Nestle notes, the question of What to Eat goes beyond what we put into our bodies:

The choices you make about food are as much about the kind of world you want to live in as they are about what to have for dinner. Food choices are about your future and that of your children. They are about nothing less than democracy in action. (p.524)

What your mom or your teacher always told you is true: you are what you eat. It's basic, once you get past the hype, and Marion is just the person to give you the guided tour.

So remember Nestle's tips when you head to the grocery store. And I would add, don't forget
your shopping list. (This is one I wrote for my mother back when I was 5... yes, she saved that sort of thing for me. Who knew I would use it this way?) If you know going into the store what you really need, you'll find it easy to resist the marketing ploys and the brightly colored signs and packaging for the things you don't really need.

You know what to eat. But sometimes it's nice to have someone confirm what you know and to add to what you know!


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