In the food news: rising prices and expanding waistlines

Most of what appears in the food section these days seems to be gloom and doom about the rising prices of food, both at the store and in restaurants – one example is “Food Prices Expected to Keep Going Up” in last week’s New York Times. I’m often taken aback by such articles, not because I haven’t noticed my own grocery bill increasing, but because of the angle from which the articles are written.

Take “Food Prices Expected to Keep Going Up” for example. It begins with the following paragraphs:

For more than a year, food manufacturers have been shaving package sizes and raising prices, declaring that they had little choice because of unprecedented increases in the cost of raw ingredients like corn, soybeans and wheat.

Now, with the price of grains and other commodities plunging, it may seem logical that grocery prices will follow. But while prices for some items like milk and fresh produce are dropping, those of most packaged items and meat are holding firm or even increasing. Experts warn that consumers should not expect lower prices anytime soon on most items at the grocery store or in restaurants.

It’s very telling that the focus of the article is not on “real” food (by which I mean whole, close to the source food) but on manufactured food, the price of which is closely tied to that of “raw ingredients like corn, soybeans and wheat” and “commodities.”

I don’t buy much processed, manufactured, prepackaged food – 80%-90% of what we eat comes from the farmer’s market and is cooked at home. I know exactly what goes into each meal, and very little of what goes in comes from corn, soybeans, and wheat. The package sizes haven’t changed because almost nothing comes packaged, and the prices have increased only slightly over the past year. Interestingly enough, it seems that the prices of organically raised produce, wild-caught fish, and sustainably raised meat have remained stable, while vendors of conventionally grown produce are increasing their prices.

If you reread the NYT article’s opening paragraphs more closely you will see that there is actually reason to celebrate for those of us who don’t believe in “food products” as opposed to food and who choose to cook and eat more than 95% of our meals at home: “prices for some items like milk and fresh produce are dropping.” But look at the way that clause is inserted: “But while prices for some items like milk and fresh produce are dropping…” [emphasis is mine].

Wouldn’t it be more positive to say “While prices on most packaged items and meat are holding firm or increasing, the price for items like milk and fresh produce are dropping”? Then the writer could find someone with clout to say what a great thing this is because these are the real foods that we should be eating for optimal health to begin with.

The other article that grabbed my attention was also in the NYT: “Health Halo Can Hide the Calories.” The author relates a somewhat unscientific experiment conducted on New Yorkers concerning calorie estimation. It’s worth a read – although I would have found it more entertaining (as it was apparently meant to be) if it weren’t so distressing! Apparently, given a picture of an Applebee’s salad and a 20-oz Pepsi, most New Yorkers questioned made fairly reasonable guesses as to the calorie content of the meal. Add some crackers labeled “trans-fat free” and poof! Their ability to reason disappeared, and they underestimated the calorie content of the meal to the point that it had fewer calories than the crackerless one. But here’s the most interesting part for me, “the kicker”:

Just as Dr. Chandon had predicted, the trans-fat-free label on the crackers seemed to imbue them with a health halo that magically subtracted calories from the rest of the meal. And we got an idea of the source of this halo after I tried the same experiment with tourists in Times Square.

These tourists, many of them foreigners (they kept apologizing for not knowing what Applebee’s was), correctly estimated that the meal with crackers had more calories than the meal without crackers.

I take offense at the somewhat light-hearted way in which the article comments

“People who eat at McDonald’s know their sins,” Dr. Chandon said, “but people at Subway think that a 1,000-calorie sandwich has only 500 calories.”

because I think that it takes away from the very important conclusion (again the quotes are from Dr. Chandon:

“If no [calorie] information is available, people should say to themselves: ‘This restaurant or this brand claims to be healthy in general. Let’s see if I can come up with two reasons why this claim would not apply to this particular food.’

“Europeans obsess less about nutrition but know what a reasonable portion size is and when they have had too much food, so they’re not as biased by food and diet fads and are healthier. Too many Americans believe that to lose weight, what you eat matters more than how much you eat. It’s the country where people are the best informed about food and enjoy it the least.”

I completely agree with parts of the conclusion, but I do think that the idea that Americans are “the best informed about food” is problematic, mostly because the media approaches “food” from the perspective of food product manufacturers.

How about testing the average American’s ability to estimate the calorie count in a meal made from scratch from whole, close to the source ingredients? Or to estimate how much the same meal costs (both in terms of dollars and in cost to the environment) compared to one made of processed food from a restaurant?

With prices rising on packaged foods and American waistlines bulging, has there ever been a better time to shift the paradigm of how Americans read and write about food?

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