Nutrition in the Media

supermarketThe Nutrition section of Boston.com has recently been advising Bostonians on how to lead healthier lives, last week focusing on how to eat less salt. According to the article, the average American consumes over seven times the amount of sodium our bodies need to perform every day. In order to help the average American consumer less sodium, author Joan Salge Blake takes the reader step-by-step through the grocery aisles, recommending that consumers check the labels of their processed foods for sodium content and offering alternatives to salty marinades and dressings.

Interestingly, nowhere in the article does Blake suggest buying organic or shopping at local markets for unprocessed foods, despite her claim that “over 75 percent of the sodium we consume sneaks in from processed foods.” Instead, she suggests ways to reduce sodium intake that allow consumers to still eat prepackaged and factory-produced foods, and all the while still shopping at corporate supermarkets.

I find it odd that Blake does not advocate organic foods at all, but instead tries to work within the industrial food system to get Bostonians to eat healthier. I understand that local markets are not accessible to all, but increasing awareness about the health benefits of local foods cannot hurt. Those who are reading these article on Boston.com are already conscious about eating healthier. Thus would it not make sense to suggest local markets to the masses, subsequently creating a higher demand for local foods and hopefully (eventually) lowering prices?

This week’s article does, in fact, recommend starting a vegetable garden at home to all who are able to do so. Yet I had several issues with the 320-word piece:

1) it lists cost-saving and taste as the reasons for starting a garden, never mentioning nutrition or the health benefits of organic food

2) it does not explain how to start a garden, or which fruits and vegetables to plant in a New England climate, and

3) it lists no alternative for local foods if a person does not have the time or space to start a garden

If a person had no previous knowledge of the nutritional benefits of organic foods and were unable to start a garden of their own, she would see no reason to buy locally; the “cost-saving” factor would be irrelevant, as would be the idea that produce tastes better if you cultivate it yourself. The combination of this article and last week’s, which gives pointers on how keep a clean conscience while still shopping at a corporate grocery store–despite hinting that it is impossible to do so (Blake herself says processed food “sneaks” in extra sodium)–does not really advocate local and organic food.

Instead, the underlying message is that you should create a vegetable garden yourself to save money, and regardless of that, there is a perfectly fine way to stay healthy by intelligently shopping for processed foods. So while the intentions behind these pieces are certainly good, the reader is given no real reason to stop shopping at supermarkets. And considering the fact that those who have the time, space, and money to invest in a vegetable garden are already more likely to be more health-conscious, I cannot see these articles really changing many people’s food philosophies.

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Over the weekend, I made my first trip to b.good, a Boston-born restaurant chain that offers a fast food-inspired menu made from local and organic ingredients. I ordered house-ground burger with locally made gouda cheese and a side of house-cut “air fried” french fries. As I waited for my food, I was able to read a bio on the farmer who supplied the meat I was about to consume, including where the farm was located, what the cows were fed, and animal living conditions.

The food was modestly priced and delicious, just as I’d hoped. However, I took away more from my visit than just a full stomach. After reading The Taste of Place last week, I have been paying closer attention to the way local and organic food is represented around me. For the most part, I’ve been noticing how “real” food–a.k.a. local and organic food–is marketed as being for a healthier and more sophisticated palette. Restaurants and markets that sell “real” food are often more expensive and geared toward the yuppie–read: young urban professional–population.

This generalization of the “foodie”–and I use that term for simplification purposes; it can certainly be pejorative–movement comes from both sides. The “average” American is generalized as not caring too much about where their food comes from. The foodie is generalized as having an image of herself as one with more refined ideas of taste and food and as one who has both the time and the money for fresh meals. The foodie movement normally conjures up images of pricey organic summer squash and locally made cheddar cheese–far from a cheap burger, fries, and shake.

Yet b.good obviously problematizes this stereotype. It marks the intersection between America’s foodie movement (the new) and our love of fast, familiar food (the old). Interestingly, the crowd I found at b.good was not the young, earthy crowd that one normally finds at eateries touting fresh and local ingredients (and higher prices to match). Instead, this group was much more eclectic and representative of the local population as a whole. It represented both the foodie and the non-.

It would seem that b.good attracts a more diverse bunch because it produces traditionally cheap food with a sophisticated label. I cannot know whether the restaurant’s customer based is rooted more in its focus on local ingredients or its focus on great tasting, recognizable food. What I do know is that regardless of a person’s motive for eating at b.good, they will get access to learning about the pros of local, organic food once they are inside. They will read about where their meat is coming from, who cut their fries that day, and why the chain’s founders are dedicated to making food the “real” way. The idea that local, organic eateries exist for a class of people with a higher food conscious could potentially go by the wayside.

The fact that b.good serves traditionally fast food–rather than the haute cuisine local-centric cooking is often associated with–gives this form of local food activism exposure to a new wave of Americans. It gets people thinking about where their food is coming from and why fresh is better. It also relocates the farmers and chefs into the discusion of food chains. And it does all of it deliciously.

The Taste of Place

In Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, Amy B. Trubek explores the multiple connotations of terroir, a French word loosely translating to “the taste of place,” in both France and in the United States. The author uses stories from France, California, Wisconsin, and Vermont to examine how perceptions of a food’s taste and value change depending on particular cultural myths, meanings, and memories. Trubek begins by delving into the notion that food and wine in France can often evoke feelings of a romanticized French identity and agrarian nostalgia in an era of increasing globalization. The author ascribes this discernible difference in taste to the idea that how a food is perceived is dependent on the cultural value it is ascribed in addition to how it is produced; French food and wine are understood as being produced with traditional French values.Through the association of local foods and other culinary practices with “a certain time and place, and then creating value for [them],” French food is understood and experienced as different from other food (53).

While the ever-changing definitions and concepts of terroir did get tiring, I enjoyed reading Trubek’s analysis of the taste of place and how the United States has reappropriated the French importance of local foods. As someone who is fascinated by the interconnectedness of culture, politics, history, and consumption, I was enlightened by the author’s connection between French nationalism and American entrepreneurialism with regard to valuing food. 

In the United States as in France, food is often touted as being local to certain regions—such as cheese and maple syrup to Vermont or wine to California—which would seem to produce the same phenomenon as French food in France. However, Trubek argues that unlike the French and citizens of other “Old World” countries, Americans do not have strong culinary or agricultural roots to the United States and thus restaurants, artisanal food producers, and farmers have to create a sense of value in certain region-specific foods. Trubek explores how this American terroir becomes more of an urge for food sophistication in a culture historically based on abundance. By looking at the “foodie” movement and food activism that idealizes locally grown food, Trubek demonstrates a growing correlation between place and taste in the United States. Trebek’s analysis of cultural values with regard to taste in France and the United States demonstrates a fascinating connection between culture and food perception. 

While I found the comparison between terroir in France and that in the United States interesting, the association was not entirely helpful for me when considering the importance of food being “local” in the U.S. The author posits that American culture “relies on external information, not personal knowledge” and that “taste is defined chiefly in relationship to status” (37). She argues that American food values are driven by the idea that “authentic” foods from certain places–foods that are processed in the traditional fashion–taste better than those that are mass produced. Yet while Trubek addresses this cultural desire for sophistication, she fails to properly place the need for “local” within this need for “countercuisine,” despite touting it as the basis for this. Moreover, Trubek does not adequately examine how home cooking and domestic farming–the ultimate “local” with regard to food production–relate to the taste of place.

Instead of focusing on how a certain locale can affect a food’s perception in pop culture, Trubek focuses on how the representation of a food as “authentic” can give it cultural value. For example, she shows how labeling a bottle of maple syrup as from Vermont makes it more valuable because it implies a certain process was used to create the syrup. Yet she then shows that she and a team of scientists and syrup connoisseurs tested to see if they could tell the difference between different syrups, implying the average American–who consumes syrup far less consciously–did know immediately know, either. Thus she reaffirms that the value of Vermont maple syrup is not in its place of origin, but rather in its brand.

While interesting, this analysis does not fully mesh with the author’s analysis of French terroir, which is almost entirely contingent on specific location. Trubek does note that the concept necessarily differs between cultures; however, the fact that she failed to adequately outline the importance of location in American food values with regard to taste left me wanting to conduct my own investigation into localness. In general, I enjoyed learning about the association of taste and place, and I would certainly recommend the book to anyone remotely interested in food culture or culinary heritages. However, I would suggest readers keep in mind that valuing a food’s origin is quite different from valuing its social worth.

            

The FDA Fails… Again

If I unknowingly consumed those extra calories every day, in a week I would put on an extra pound of body weight.

Once again, I find myself reading an article about the shortcomings of the FDA and its ability to do what it says it will. Apparently, the somewhat controversial New York mandate for most chain restaurants to post calorie count is regulated by nothing more than the honor code. Basically, restaurants can post any number they like until someone decides it sounds wrong and has them audited (not very likely).

Again… why do we have the FDA? It’s seeming more and more that the Agency’s job is to come up with regulations and rules that it has no intention (or means) of enforcing. Neistat, the writer of the NYTimes article, spoke to the representatives of five chains that listed calorie values less or much less than their actual count. Responses from the chains varied, each having one excuse or another.

If this is a problem in New York, a state with some of the strictest nutritional regulations, then I can only imagine how bad the mislabeling is in other areas of the country. According to the article, the older method of calorie counting is far less accurate than the way we currently do it in a lab. Yet many companies base their values on the old system and old “set” counts for many ingredients. And no one seems to notice!

Especially not the FDA.

Live Unconsciously.

Panera Bread has a new commercial about their approach to “the right way” of preparing food through the use of foody buzzwords like “trust,” “community,” “farmers,” “humble,” and my favorite quote from the title, “live consciously”. By using these words, Panera attempts to conjure up an image of the company as one with a set of morals that prioritizes natural, local, and sustainable food systems. Its target audience is certainly health- and food-conscious consumers (again, see the title of the video), and yet that is the exact audience I think this ad alienates. Panera’s entire goal in this commercial is to convince consumers that by eating Panera products, they are living up to some set of unspecified ethical eating standards, yet the company provide almost no information on how eating freshly baked breads makes someone more moral.

Panera’s idea of providing “food you can trust” is extraordinarily vague: the entire text of the commercial is only 116 words long, spoken over a distracting Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that involves wooden chickens and a plastic tomato garden with a watering can. The commercial does not mention tomatos. The only examples given of the company’s “right way” of preparing food are 1) baking fresh bread from fresh dough, which the commercial notes has been done since Panera first opened, and 2) using antibiotic-free chicken in recipes.

We are supposed to believe that by buying Panera products we are living more “consciously.” Yet what does Panera what us to be conscious of? Obviously not where Panera’s vegetables and fruit come from, or how their soups are made. There is no mention of how far these antibiotic-free chickens and the ingredients for this fresh dough have to travel to get to each Panera location. Does “food you can trust” only encompass trusting that the bread is fresh? What about trusting where it comes from? Is Panera more trustworthy than local cafés and restaurants because it can afford artsy commercials? Brand recognizability is not synonymous with trustworthiness.

That decision made us wonder: what else could we do the right way? So we talked to our farmers and our chefs.

This quote invokes the image of Panera cooperating closely with its suppliers and its employees, humbly working together in harmony to create the ultimate moral and virtuous menu for hardworking Americans. The funny thing is, Panera was actually sued for failing to comply with the California Labor Code in 2009 and 2011. While they did not admit to any wrongdoing, the company still put aside $5 million to settle claims that it failed to allow food and rest breaks as well as termination payment for some of its workers. The company was also sued for racism in the workplace in 2011 with the claim that one store was placing attractive white women at the registers and keeping African American workers in the back room only.

So, Panera, what exactly should we be conscious about? Perhaps the way that the commercial attempts to trick consumers into thinking the company said more than it actually did. Decidedly vague references to morality and consciousness make it seem like Panera is in tune with the “foodie” crowd, and yet provide little to no evidence of supporting local farmers or operating with a food-centered business plan. Should we tune out the ethical implications of poor labor conditions to eat fresh bread? I do not want to ignore the good Panera has done with its Panera Cares outreach or its innovative “Pay What You Want” system that has helped feed thousands, but the idea that we are somehow living at a greater moral standard by eating Panera is ridiculous.

Mislabeling Food: Does it Matter?

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I began this blog with a question: how does the FDA regulate food in America? The more I look into it, the more it appears the answer is “very poorly”. A recent study has found that roughly a third of the fish in the United States is mislabeled in restaurants, fish markets, grocery stores, and sushi bars. Now, as a rule I do not eat fish, so my initial reaction was a bit apathetic; it didn’t really affect me at all. Still, though, I was a bit turned off by the thought of one fish being replaced by an even less appetizing fish. I knew this would cause a lot of backlash in the fishing industry and the venues that were mislabeling them.

Obviously, the fact that a third of the fish sold in American is mislabeled is a bit frightening; that is not a small fraction by any means. It begs the question of how that large a percentage went unnoticed by the FDA for so long (that is, until an external organization discovered it). Of course, it is impossible for the FDA to test every single food item in the U.S.; that’s both unreasonable and inefficient. But there has to be a more effective way of making sure Americans are eating what they think they are eating. What else could be mislabeled? Is the FDA doing anything to attempt to figure that out?

But all this discussion of regulation got me thinking about why we care so much in the first place. Why do we think eating one type of grouper is fine, but eating another is bad for us? True, some species of fish (and meat, for that matter) are not good for us by any means. The study cites allergens and “potential safety hazards” as the reason for public concern. Yet while I understand the concern for allergens, I cannot get over the idea that what we deem “acceptable” for fish is based on culture: we would prefer to pay more for Pacific cod than Atlantic cod. Likewise for grouper over Gulf grouper. The study lists no differences in health or nutrition for these replacements, just availability/appropriate price. Yes, it is important to know what is going into our bodies, but if a scientific study had to tell us, and not our upset stomachs or allergic reactions, how bad could it have really been?

The FDA’s initial response was weak: it wants to get rid of vernacular terms for fish to prevent fraud such as this. It did not apologize for any health problems this may have caused, which furthers the point: why should Americans care that they’re getting cod from a different ocean than they thought? We are so ingrained with the idea of what is “good” to eat and what is a delicacy that eating a similar species under the wrong name is an outrage. It’s similar to the fact that we scoff at the idea of eating, say, seagull, a delicacy in Newfoundland, Canada, while Indians think it’s disgusting that we eat cow. But it isn’t a difference between cultures in this case; it’s just a learned sense of what we “should” eat.

The article ends by advising consumers to buy fish in the least processed (and thus most recognizable) form possible to avoid fraud. Obviously this requires consumers actually being able to identify different species of fish, which I believe is great advice because it requires us to be more in tune with what we are eating. But it also puts the onus of regulating one’s food intake on the consumer, and not on the FDA or other government agencies like Customs & Border Protection. Indeed: what we “should” eat should not be determined by a government agency–especially one that is not doing its job–but rather by ourselves by better knowing our food.

Fad Diets

While browsing a food blog the other day I came across this list of 200 calories worth of many different foods. Most came as no surprise (obviously celery has very few calories, and I knew jelly beans were not good for me) but some caught me off guard: only 34 grams of peanut butter? Only 33 grams of nuts? And then seeing 50 grams of Splenda sweetener. Maybe I am naive, but I feel so misguided by the message certain food companies seem to send. Splenda touts itself as so much better for you than real sugar, but it really isn’t that many grams (50) of Splenda that equals 200 calories. It takes fewer grams of Splenda to reach 200 calories than gummy bears.

Why does our society have this defined idea of what is “good” for you? How do we determine it? To me it seems like even if contrasting information comes out, like how certain macro/micronutrients matter more than caloric intake in terms of obesity or that what kind of calories you eat doesn’t matter at all, we just believe what we think is easiest to believe. We have this societal notion of what we are supposed to eat that seems to be really hard to change.

Check out this article on the history of dieting in America: trendy diets virtually always come into popularity with pop culture. We see a famous person “succeed” with a certain eating pattern and copy that, such as the cigarette-instead-of-snack diet that became popular in the 1920s via Lucky Strike. In retrospect, this does not seem like sound medical advice. Obviously that fad has been proven to have negative effects (to say the least), but our society is still continuing the pattern of listening to ads and celebrities instead of scientists. Even today, we see Jessica Simpson, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and others influencing people (mostly women, but men too) in their eating habits. But the emphasis is rarely on health: it’s on losing weight.

It seems like the obsession our mainstream society has with food is less about what we believe is good for us and more about how we think we should relate to food based on what the media tells us. This becomes more evident when we look at other cultures: in the Netherlands it’s perfectly normal to put mayonaise on nearly everything; in France they emphasize huge meals with many fats and meats; and in Russia they endorse starch-y, carb-y foods that are often served with butter. Our idea of good eating is heavily influenced by our culture.

But back to my point: why do we simultaneously tout low-calorie diets and not always know how many calories are in many of our favorite foods? Why do we insist on less fat, more protein, less calories, more working out if we do not even know where these theories come from? Because food directly relates to our culture and how we see our relationship with food is not based on biology. I’m very interested to read about Terroir and the idea that food has a certain meaning in different cultures later in the year, because it seems to have a larger effect than I had originally thought.