With the ever-increasing number of products on grocery shelves, shoppers can feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices they face in every aisle. In addition to questions about cost, serving size, ease of preparation and processed versus unprocessed foods, naturals shoppers have the additional choice between "natural" and organic offerings in almost every category. Author Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and the keynote speaker at the Healthy Foods Conference/Natural Products Expo East, knows exactly how shoppers feel. Her new book, What To Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating (North Point Press, 2006), helps to untangle the many choices shoppers must make each day by looking at issues of nutrition, price and the environment.
Nestle's previous books, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002) and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (University of California Press, 2003), examined how big business and big government work together to make choices that are often not in the public's interest. Her new book is a hands-on approach that helps readers ignore the hype and advertising behind food products and make choices based on personal values.
The book grew out of feedback she received from readers of her earlier works; they all told her that simply shopping was an overwhelming experience. "I couldn't imagine what they were talking about, because it's so simple: Eat what you want but not too much of it, and include plenty of vegetables," Nestle says. "Then, on my first day of research, I went into a Wegmans and found seven different kinds of romaine lettuce. Figuring out which was the best buy based on different criteria took me several trips and required a calculator and a scale. That's when I knew I had a book." The lettuce Nestle looked at was whole, or in bags as heads, hearts or chopped. It came in five different package sizes at six different prices. The best buy depended on what a shopper valued—price, convenience, freshness or organic certification.
However, Nestle says, 80 percent of food dollars go to the processing sector, so it's no accident that millions of advertising dollars go toward selling these highly processed offerings. "These companies have to look at the bottom line," she says. "If you're a publicly traded company in America, you have only one vision, and that's profit for shareholders. The rest is window dressing."
Manufacturers and retailers in the naturals market face the same issues as those in the conventional market, she says, so shoppers can't simply assume that if a product comes from a natural foods store, it's going to be healthy. "The quality is terrific compared to other options," she says. "But the assumption is that everything is going to be healthy, and that's just not true. Natural chips and sodas are still going to have calories, even if they're healthier calories. And you're going to pay more for it. This is where the issue gets complicated."
She applauds consumers who are interested in buying foods that promote health and support social values, including environmental protection through organic cultivation, humane treatment of animals, and fair wages for laborers. "I like social values," she says. "But manufacturers are making products deliberately to attract this audience, and that's where things get questionable. This is about using health to sell products, and I find something very cynical in that. It's fine if the products are very healthy, but organic junk food is still junk food."
Portion sizes are another puzzle that shoppers must consider. "The FDA rules on portion sizes were set up in the 1950s and '60s, and no one eats that way anymore," Nestle says. "Manufacturers love having small portions because it looks like there's nothing in there." For example, she says, if a soda portion is eight ounces, but most consumers drink the entire 20-ounce bottle, they're really getting two and a half portions. As a result, they are likely consuming a great deal more calories than they think.
What To Eat ultimately takes readers on a complete tour of the supermarket, section by section and aisle by aisle. Along the way, Nestle looks at key terms such as natural and organic, and shows shoppers how to decode food labels and nutrition and health claims. She believes shoppers are best served by casting a skeptical eye on food manufacturers and marketers. "I think you have to be cynical about the whole thing," she says. "If we're talking about cigarette companies or drug companies, people understand this behavior. But the food industry is a $900 billion business annually, and to expect these companies to behave any differently is both na?ve and unrealistic."
Stores are stocking more organic products, for example, because they're selling, and giving retailers and manufacturers higher margins and a new area of growth in a generally stagnant market. "Supermarkets are set up to sell you food," Nestle says. Both mainstream and naturals chains, as publicly traded companies, have to keep an eye on the bottom line, but naturals chains have a difficult balancing act between profits and consumer expectations. "Chains like Whole Foods promote values more loudly than other grocery chains, so when consumers see a discrepancy between values and reality, they get huffier," she says.
Though making the right shopping choices can be a complicated process, it doesn't have to be, Nestle says. "The general rules for eating are: Eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables, cut out the junk food, and stick to foods that have been minimally processed," Nestle says. But as any shopper overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices knows, that's easier said than done.
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 18, 20