After tackling weighty issues about food in her previous books -- Food Politics (2002) and Safe Food (2003) -- nutritionist Marion Nestle was surprised that people kept asking her a simple question: What should we eat? That refrain became the topic of her latest work, What To Eat (North Point Press). In it, Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, cuts through the marketing claims and maze of offerings in today's supermarkets to provide advice for making healthy choices. She spoke to Contributing Writer Amy Cortese about her findings:
Why are food choices so bewildering?
One reason is there are 50,000 or so items in a large supermarket. Another is the complexity of nutrition research, which tends to focus on one nutrient at a time: calcium and bone density, low-fat diets and heart disease, vitamin A and cancer, etc. That takes nutrients out of their dietary context. People don't eat nutrients. They eat lots of different foods. Food companies love to use research results to advertise the benefits of their products, even if those benefits are totally out of context. And the FDA lets them.
Take whole grain Cocoa Puffs. This is a chocolate candy-coated sugary cereal with one gram or less fiber per serving. Or trans-fat-free cookies of any kind. They still have calories. Or claims that the product "may help prevent" heart disease or cancer, but only when eaten as part of a healthy diet.
How should shoppers navigate the supermarket?
I call them "The Rules." Rule No. 1 is that supermarkets want customers to spend as much time as possible wandering the aisles because the more products they see, the more they buy. So it's best to stay out of the maze of the center aisles, where all the junk foods are, and just shop the perimeter, where the healthier, fresh foods are.
Rule No. 2 is that products in the best locations -- eye level, ends of aisles, cash registers -- sell best. So companies pay the supermarkets to slot their products in prime real estate. These products are mostly junk because they are the most profitable and most heavily advertised.
Is it worth paying more for organics?
I think so. At the very least, you know that pesticide residues will be low or nonexistent. Organics are certainly as nutritious as industrially produced foods, and maybe more so.
You advocate eating locally produced foods. Why?
I care a lot about how food is grown and where, and I happen to like having farms around cities. If you buy locally grown food, you are supporting local farmers. I like that synergism. It's also fresher and likely to have retained more nutrients than something picked two weeks ago and shipped across the country in a refrigerator truck.
Do you have any advice for making healthy choices when ordering from a restaurant menu or when buying prepared foods to go?
Once you buy foods that have been prepared for you, you have no idea what is in them unless you watched them being made or are told. You should expect restaurant and prepared foods to be higher in calories, total fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugars than those you prepare yourself -- and sometimes much higher. Because of the obesity problem, the biggest issue is calories and, therefore, portion size.
Since calories are so hard to figure out, the easiest way to control them is to control your portion size. In restaurants, order appetizers and share meals and desserts. Use small containers for prepared foods. If you buy the largest size because it's the best buy, be especially careful to measure out reasonable amounts to eat and put the rest away and out of sight immediately.