The One Thing That Might Save America From Its Terrible Diet
On the False Promises of Ever-Shifting Food Science
I was standing in line at an independent grocery store in my neighborhood with my La Croix orange sparkling water, some hamburger buns, a bag of chips, a couple of bottles of wine—last-minute purchases for dinner. In front of me was a middle-aged woman dressed in business clothes, loading up the conveyor belt. She set a carton of Land O’Lakes Fat-Free Half-and-Half on the conveyor belt. I paused and thought, No, keep your mouth shut. But I couldn’t help myself. Half-and-half is defined by its fat content, about ten percent—more than milk, less than cream. I had to ask.
“Excuse me, can I ask you why you’re buying fat-free half-and-half ?”
A bit startled to be put on the spot by a stranger, she recovered enough to say, “Because it’s fat-free?”
“What do you think they replace the fat with?” I asked.
“Hmm,” she said, lifting the carton and reading the second ingredient on the label after skim milk: “Corn syrup.” She frowned at me. Then she set the carton back on the conveyor belt to be scanned along with the rest of her groceries.
The woman apparently hadn’t even thought to ask herself this question; rather, she accepted the common belief that fat, an essential part of our diet, should be avoided whenever possible. Then again, why should she question it given that we allow the food companies, advertisers, and food researchers to do our thinking for us?
The encounter crystallized many issues for me about the nature of our food and the nature of the people buying that food, and how food companies, nutritionists, doctors, and governmental recommendations influence what we buy. And, frankly, it drives me a little crazy.
Chief on my list is this fat business, and also salt. I address these two items first because, with regard to how we’re encouraged to think about food, they are the biggest of the boils on my ass and I won’t be able to think straight until I lance them.
We have a serious fat problem in America. It has nothing to do with our obesity problem. We also have a salt problem, and it’s not about hyper-tension. While signs of change are in the air, fat and salt remain the leading bugaboos in consumers’ ongoing national diet strategies, the wrench in the spokes of our quest for nutrition, the evil forces that, in our fearful, helpless craving for them, prevent Americans from achieving their whole-grain, high-fiber, all-natural health. And what can we do about it?
We should eat fat as we wish. We should cook our own food and season it with salt to taste.
There’s little disagreement that Americans have a hopelessly neurotic relationship with what they consume. It’s a neurosis that’s built into our culture from the broadest levels of agriculture and government, which demand that we subsidize farmers to grow crops you can’t eat without industrial processing, all the way down to our grocery store shelves, which are packed with confusing, marketing-spun messages about what’s good for us and what’s not.
There’s no better example than Snackwell’s, the low-calorie cake-like cookie. Who’s the clever executive who came up with that name? Want a healthy snack? Try buying Snackwell’s! This is a way to snack well—it says so on the package, and it’s low-fat, so it must be good for me. Are Americans stupid enough to buy this? You bet. By the mid-1990s these cake-like cookies had sales of $500 million.
Nabisco, which makes Snackwell’s, was acquired by Kraft in the early 2000s, so Kraft became responsible for Snackwell’s as well as one of America’s all-time favorite snacks, the Oreo cookie.
A Chicago Tribune article uses these cookies to exemplify big food manufacturers’ hustle to cater to America’s rapidly changing desires, and describes the pertinent issues well.
“Food fads and conflicting research force Northfield-based Kraft and other foodmakers to shift gears from one new product to another,” the paper reported, “in an endless quest to develop the next big thing out of the same old things: sugar, flour, and fat.
“In an era of fleeting health fads and niche marketing,” the article continues, “there has been an Oreo product for just about every new trend, whether low-fat, low-carb, low-sugar, or low-calorie.
“The Oreo now comes in forty different flavors, colors, and package sizes—from Mini Oreo Go-Paks that fit in a car cup holder to the Double Stuff Oreo Peanut Butter Creme. The cookie’s many variations are emblematic of a food industry that has sought to placate an overweight nation bombarded with conflicting information of what makes a healthy diet.”
Forty different kinds. Of one cookie.
Just about every box and bag on grocery store shelves has some kind of “low-fat” version of its “original” self, sometimes even if the real version doesn’t require fat in the first place. On a recent flight, I was handed a Quaker granola bar touting “low-fat” on its label—granola is good for you, and it’s low-fat, right? What the company doesn’t say is that granola doesn’t need much (if any) fat in the first place, but it does need sugar—worse for you, it’s now suspected, than fat—and you can bet abundant sugar is the reason my Quaker low-fat granola bar was every bit as sweet and chewy as a Milky Way bar. And a check of its “Nutrition Facts” (yet another form of misleading labeling) confirms that it contains 7 grams of sugar. But will moms who shop and read labels know what those 7 grams actually mean? Here’s what the 7 grams mean: the bar itself weighs 24 grams, so it’s nearly one-third sugar and two-thirds carbohydrates (17 grams according to the label).
On yet another flight, I was given a blueberry muffin in cellophane. The first ingredient in this item was not even flour—it was sugar.
What drives me crazy, though, is my fat-free half-and-half friend, the American consumer, who truly does care about food and cooking but is continually misled, largely by an uninformed media and unchecked marketing by food companies, notably regarding two of the most fundamental components of cooking—fat and salt.
I say unto you: Fat is good! Fat is necessary. Ask any chef. Fat does not make you fat—eating too much makes you fat. We aren’t filling our bodies with sodium because of the box of kosher salt we use to season our food, we’re doing it with all the processed food that’s loaded with hidden salt (case in point: those same granola bars). American cooks and American diners need to understand the differences between food we cook ourselves and food that’s manufactured for the grocery store shelf.
I hope it’s obvious that a diet composed of vast quantities of saturated animal fat is not good for anyone. This kind of fat has been linked to elevated blood cholesterol and heart disease—people who are at risk of these medical problems need to be cautious. And some people have serious issues with high blood pressure—salt will exacerbate this.
But most people don’t have these problems, and for them, fat is not bad, not evil, not dangerous. It’s a pleasure in the right quantities and we shouldn’t be made to fear it. If all you ate was lettuce, you would eventually become very ill, so I would like to caution you about the hidden hazards of lettuce. Consider yourself warned. But if you eat a variety of natural foods, including plenty of vegetables, and avoid foods that come in a box or bag or are in some way processed, you should be able to salt your food to pleasing levels.
Yet listen to what the media tells us. ABC News led a 2014 story announcing a “new” health crisis: “The danger is salt,” Diane Sawyer intoned ominously. At about the same time the New York Times published an anti-salt op-ed, in which Thomas Farley, a former New York City health commissioner, warned, “A lifetime of consuming too much sodium (mostly in the form of sodium chloride, or table salt) raises blood pressure, and high blood pressure kills and disables people by triggering strokes and heart attacks.” Two days later, reporter Nicholas Bakalar called the studies Farley relied on flawed: “A report commissioned by the Institute of Medicine just last year found that there was no scientific reason for anyone to aim for sodium levels below 2,300 milligrams a day. A study published in 2011 found that low-salt diets may increase the risk of death from heart attacks and strokes and do not prevent high blood pressure.” Increase the risk—that’s something you don’t hear much.
Who to believe?
Regrettably, I’d say no one at this stage. The only thing about salt’s effect on our bodies that we do know for sure is that if you consume no salt, you will die. That’s how important salt is to your body. Just like fat, we need it to be healthy.
As ever, the French can teach us about a healthy relationship with food. Americans scratch their heads over the so-called French paradox—how can the French eat all that rich, fatty food and have lower levels of heart disease and associated problems? I’ll bet their red wine helps, as has been suggested, but what is more likely the case, in my opinion, is that the French eat more natural foods than Americans, and they eat it in appropriate quantities. That, I would wager, is the root of their ability to eat a heavily salted duck confit dripping with duck fat, to luxuriate in Époisses and Reblochon, and have none of the health or weight problems we’re led to believe are associated with these foods. The French can do this precisely because they don’t eat “low-fat” granola bars and blueberry muffins that have more sugar than flour and eggs.
I’ve been an unabashed Francophile ever since I began writing about food. For most of that time I thought it was simply a love of that style of cooking—butter sauces, confits, pâtés, rillettes, the list goes on. But listening to an episode of This American Life that profiled a series of Americans in Paris to find out what living in that city was really like, I heard an illuminating comment on our country’s relationship to its food. One of the people interviewed noted the joy with which the French eat, and contrasted this joy with the way Americans consume their food: “Americans treat their food like medicine,” he said.
How true. We even have a governmental agency whose name underscores this message: the Food and Drug Administration.
Americans need to be better educated about the food we eat, what’s truly good and what’s harmful, quantities that are necessary, and super-sizes we don’t need. Until we find out for ourselves from reliable sources the answers to these questions, we will instead rely on knee-jerk media alarmism and marketing hooey, and we’re not going to eat the food that satisfies both our souls and our bodies. Our fat and salt dysfunction will carry on unabated.
We shouldn’t take any information at face value. Too often, it doesn’t make sense, and much of it has been warped to some degree by lobbyists in Washington (there are approximately five hundred lawmakers in Washington and more than ten thousand lobbyists, or twenty lobbyists for every lawmaker).
Moreover, there is little evidence that doctors and nutritionists are making decisions based on reliable data, but rather based only on inferences—just as in the 1970s, when we made a countrywide appeal to cut fat and eggs from our diet. Ultimately, there is little hard evidence as to what is good for us and what is bad for us.
In a New York Times opinion piece in 2014 headlined “Why Nutrition Is So Confusing,” the journalist Gary Taubes addresses this very issue.
“We’re going to have to stop believing we know the answer,” Taubes writes, regarding what is good and what is bad for us to eat, “and challenge ourselves to come up with trials that do a better job of testing our beliefs.”
Taubes is a founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative, whose website dares to say, “Americans are unhealthy, diabetic, and obese—not because they are making conscious decisions to eat unhealthy foods—but because the information and guidance they receive about what to eat has been poorly tested and is quite likely incorrect.”
The current state of affairs, he continues, “is an unacceptable situation. Obesity and diabetes are epidemic, and yet the only relevant fact on which relatively unambiguous data exist to support a consensus is that most of us are surely eating too much of something. (My vote is sugars and refined grains; we all have our biases.)”
That last parenthetical sentence is critical, because increasing information does indeed point toward the veracity of his biases. Reducing sugar, which has little nutritional value on its own and of which we consume inordinate amounts in everything from fat-free dairy products to bread to jarred tomato sauce to, of course, soda, is the primary new directive from the government (surely someone in the sugar lobby lost their job when the report was issued in January 2015).
But reducing the consumption of refined wheat products was not among the mandates. This is significant because refined grains are but one dietary step away from sugar, as these carbohydrates are converted quickly to sugars once they enter our system. Moreover, we do know why these refined grains are scarcely different from eating pure sugar in terms of how our metabolism handles them.
But before I get into that, let me conclude this little rant by returning to the Woman Who Bought the Fat-Free Half-and-Half. What actually happened? Our middle-aged businesswoman had followed one of our government’s nutrition guidelines, but only by consuming more of those guidelines’ main concern: sugar. In other words, she replaced natural dairy fat, good for you (about which more anon), with corn syrup, bad for you. How on earth are we to make good decisions when the processing of our food has made those decisions so complicated? Life is busy, stressful, and complicated enough; we consumers don’t want to have to agonize over what to put in our shopping carts at the grocery store. We expect our food not to be harmful to us, but who is making that call?
No one you can rely on, that’s who. Ergo: It is our job to think for ourselves, not the lobby-influenced government, not the nutritionists, and certainly not the food companies trying to sell you their convenience food. It’s our job to make commonsense choices as best we can.
But how does most of America actually shop? How do we make decisions? To find out, I contacted Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst and a vice president of the NPD Group, which consults for restaurant chains and food manufacturers. He’s been studying what food people buy for thirty years. I first read about him in a New York Times Magazine cover story by Michael Pollan. The accompanying photo showed a modern kitchen filled with cobwebs and addressed the strange fact that though America seems to have become more interested than ever in cooking, food, and chefs, and is watching more cooking on television than ever before, American families are cooking less and less.
Pollan has been one of the most important voices in the food world, with such books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and has been a fierce advocate for the notion that cooking our own food is an important part of our culture that has been disintegrating for decades.
He spoke with Balzer for an hour and could only say how depressing it was.
Why? Because Balzer, having studied Americans’ food buying and cooking habits for three decades, says that Americans are moving steadily away from cooking, and that it’s going to keep going that way. While 58 percent of our evening meals require some assembly, that number is dropping. Even the definition of cooking had to be refined for our new food system, Balzer said. Microwaving a pizza was not considered cooking by Balzer, but pouring bottled dressing over lettuce or making a ham sandwich was. “Some assembly required” was about all Balzer needed to consider a process “cooking.”
“A hundred years ago,” Balzer told Pollan, “chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking, and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”
When I talked to Pollan about his interview with Balzer, he said he was so depressed by what he heard that he had to struggle for even a glimmer of optimism from the gleeful cynic. Balzer explained precisely why cooking more nutritious meals would never be in our future: “Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.
“We’re all looking for someone else to cook for us,” Balzer told me, separately. “The next American cook is going to be the supermarket. Takeout from the supermarket, that’s the future. All we need now is the drive-through supermarket.”
Pollan persevered in his effort to pull something, anything, hopeful out of Balzer. How would Balzer suggest people eat food that enhanced their well-being and might reduce the damage already done by a diet of industrially processed foods? Balzer’s words conclude the article: “Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want—just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
Of course, I thought when I read that. Simply buying food that requires you to cook it ensures that not too many manipulations have been done to the food. You don’t cook a bowl of cornflakes. Yes, you can crush them and coat chicken pieces with them (one of my dad’s favorite ways to prepare chicken, which I denied him most of his life because I couldn’t stand the flavor of cooked corn flakes), but the majority of that dish is chicken meat, nourishing protein. And I bet that if we bought only whole foods and cooked them ourselves, just about every one of our food-related diseases would fall away like butter off a hot knife.
The idea that we could radically alter the health of our country simply by cooking is a powerful one. Pollan even made it the foundation of his next books, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
“He’s a really interesting guy,” Pollan told me, of Balzer. “You should try to have dinner with him if you’re ever in Chicago.” I could be pretty sure Balzer wouldn’t offer to cook it himself.
Having no plans to be in that city (although it’s my favorite restaurant city after New York), I reached Balzer by phone to see if anything had changed in the seven years since that article had been published. Short answer: nope. Had Balzer become any more hopeful about the American diet, with our enhanced interest in food and its impact on our health? Nope.
“We’re in a state of flux right now,” he said during our conversation about the food we buy and how we prepare it. “Nobody knows how this is going to shake out. They’re trying to get out of processed food. And yet most of the food we eat is processed.
“I remember in the last recession people said more people were gardening, growing their own food. What a load. Maybe some people were putting seeds in the ground, but I watched. There was no movement toward growing your own food. What [people] discovered was the farmers’ market.”
In other words, we wanted freshly grown food, so we found the people who would do the work for us. In Balzer’s world, farmers’ markets are not a fad. Because they do one main thing: save us time in getting something we desire. “We will always move to the two great values of our life, our time and our money.”
Therefore, all food companies try to create products that save us one or the other. But he doesn’t even think saving money will result in lasting change. It’s all about time, he said, “because I can always make more money. I can’t make more time.”
But so much of the marketing these days, I noted, was not about time, it was about health. I didn’t get into my beef about eating “healthy,” a term that shouldn’t apply to our food, because it’s too ingrained.
“If we didn’t have healthy to market to, I don’t know what we’d market to,” he said, noting that the push toward “healthy” food began in the 1970s—again, about the same time our food-related illnesses began to appear.
How about this move away from processed foods, how even Kraft Mac & Cheese was trying to offer a less chemical-laden product?
“I think this is a backlash from the 1980s,” he said. “When we tried to make our food better by altering it. By getting rid of the fat, getting rid of the cholesterol. Then what did we create? Low-fat foods. But that’s not food. . . And what happened to all that fat we took out of the dairy products? Where is all that fat? Is it up in Wisconsin? Are there great mounds or tourist traps somewhere?
“So, people start eating low-fat foods. What changes? Am I healthier? I don’t know. There are no immediate benefits, like buying something cheaper or something that saves you time. You and I only eat fries cooked with no trans fats anymore. What have you noticed in your life now that you eat trans fat-free fries? What is the key benefit in your life?”
And this goes back to something I alluded to earlier. This is part of America’s food problem, the issue of eating more nutritious food. If you have a really nutritious meal, you feel good afterward. But you go to sleep and you still have to get up in the morning and go to work, and the work is stressful. You bolt a quick lunch, and the work keeps you late and you don’t have time to go to the store, figure out what to buy, take it home, prepare and serve it, and clean the kitchen afterward. And this is not likely to change. The only way for this to change is for society to recognize the long-term benefits of carving out the time to cook. That’s all it really is: being organized and making time. You never hear people say, “You know I would really love to shower more, but I just don’t have the time.”
I asked Balzer what some of the trends were that he was seeing. And even here he was cynical.
“By 2000 we were hearing ‘eat more whole grains, eat more dietary fiber.’ And I’d say we’ve run the course on that. Whole grains are going down, antioxidants are going down. And there was the gluten-free—which is really just a digestion issue. Probably all of us have digestion issues. But gluten-free has already jumped the shark. As all health issues will eventually jump the shark.
“We will never have a healthy food supply. This country will never have a healthy food supply. Never. Because the moment something becomes very popular someone will find a reason why it’s not.”
He did acknowledge that meat remains a big problem in our diet, that we do eat too much of it, and that meat consumption is indeed going down.
“The snacks that are growing are healthy snacks. Yogurt, nuts, meat snacks, and granola bars and fruit bars and nut bars. The sweet snacks are not growing. We’re snacking on savory things now. But those snacks are not growing at snack time, they’re growing at mealtime—they’re replacing mealtime.”
“So when we do prepare or at least assemble dinner, what is it?” I asked.
“The main dishes for dinner in America, it’s either going to be a piece of chicken or a sandwich,” he said. “Those are tied for the main dinner dishes. At lunchtime it’s clearly a sandwich. Even at breakfast, sandwiches are growing. Why? Because they’re easy to make and they’re almost an entire meal in themselves. And the accompaniment to a sandwich—it’s not soup, soup and sandwich, that’s just something that Campbell’s said. It’s chips, sandwich and chips. The easiest side dish in America.” And by far the most popular, as it had been when Pollan interviewed him in 2009.
“And the number one side dish is vegetables, number two is potatoes, mashed potatoes or something like that, number three is salad, and number four is bread. But of those, what’s the easiest side dish to make? Because all those other four are going down. Chips. Chips are going up. A man can serve chips. ‘I’ll take care of the side dish, hon.’”
Among the changes to cooking in America over the last few decades, the most prominent of them by far has been the microwave. Microwave ovens were invented in the 1940s but were only feasible for residential use by the 1970s. In 1986, 25 percent of all households had them. By 1990, Balzer said, 90 percent of American households had microwaves.
“The stovetop is still the number one appliance used to prepare foods, that fire we create in our house, even after all these years,” he said. “The microwave is number two.”
Some 20 percent of all meals assembled in the home use the microwave. Which is substantial, but that’s not the most significant influence of the microwave. That would be the fact that it changed food manufacturing. Suddenly, frozen food could truly evolve, offering all kinds of meals that would have been difficult to heat in an oven, such as spaghetti and meatballs. With the microwave oven in most households, food companies could devise any number of exotic dishes to feed our desire for new and different options. And, of course, there’s microwave popcorn. By the mid-2000s, microwave popcorn had become so ubiquitous, many people born after that time didn’t even know you could make popcorn on the stovetop.
But Balzer has noticed another major change in his lifetime. “We discovered that men can cook,” he said. And who was promoting this? “Every wife in America was telling her neighbors that nobody can barbecue like her husband. And for only one reason. Then and today, the number one person preparing the food is a woman. And she wants to do one thing, which the ages of humanity were trying to solve, and that is get out of it. So supermarkets come along and say, you know what? We’re going to start preparing food, because we are a food-service operation.
“The history of mankind always follows one path when it comes to eating,” Balzer concluded, “and it never deviates from that path. And that’s who’s going to do the cooking. The answer to that now is the same as it was since we began cooking: not me.”
Or to repeat his words to Pollan: not going to happen, because we’re cheap and lazy.
An excerpt from the new book Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman published by Abrams Press.