Sunday, June 11, 2006

Marion Nestle: What to Eat?

Marion Nestle asks some good questions about supermarkets in the introduction to her new book, What to Eat.
Why, I wondered, do they sell this and not that? Why are entire aisles devoted to soft drinks and snack foods? What do the pricing signs mean, and how do they work? Why is it so hard to find some things, but not others? Are there any genetically modified or irradiated foods among the fruits and vegetables? What does "Certified Organic" mean, can it be trusted, and is it worth the higher price? Is soy milk healthier than cow's milk? If an egg is "United Egg Producers Certified," is it better? Is it safe to eat farmed fish or, for that matter, any fish at all? Is it safe to eat take-out foods? If a sugary cereal sports a label saying it is whole grain, is it better for you? Does it make any real nutritional difference whether you buy white or whole wheat bread?
And she offers this interesting reflection on difficulty that she, Marion Nestle, Ph.D., chair of a leading nutrition department, author of several lucid and influential books on related topics, faces in answering such questions.
If you have trouble dealing with supermarkets, it is for a good reason. You need to know an amazing amount about our food system and about nutrition to make intelligent choices, but most of this information is anything but obvious. It is not supposed to be obvious. Supermarkets have one purpose and one purpose only: to sell food and make a profit, and as large a profit as possible. Your goals are more complicated: you want foods that are good for your health, but you also want them to taste good, to be affordable, to be convenient to eat, and to reflect social values that you might care about. In theory, your goals could overlap with the normal business interests of supermarkets. After all, they do sell plenty of inexpensive, convenient, tasty foods that are good for you. But in practice, you and the supermarket are likely to be at cross-purposes. The foods that sell best and bring in the most profits are not necessarily the ones that are best for your health, and the conflict between health and business goals is at the root of public confusion about food choices.
Here is an NPR interview with the author.