Sylvia Carter of Newsday recently wrote about Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating. Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York Univers ity and former chair of that department, has a PhD in molecular biology and a master’s in public health in nutrition, but to research her book, she used common sense as well as science and shopping the aisles.
She also reads labels. She demystifies the writing on cereal boxes, outlines the complicated back story on fish, explains what whole grain really means and tackles the dubious benefits of sports drinks and cereals loaded with both sugar and added vitamins .
Nestle, who also wrote “Food Politics” (University of California Press, $39.95), is herself a regular consumer, after all. In a telephone interview, she confessed that she shops a lot at convenience stores as well as at Whole Foods. She readily admits tha t she favors a nut candy bar that does not make any particular health claims over a “nutrition” bar: “I want a couple of hundred calories and I want them now, in the subway.” And she enjoys a sprinkle of raw sugar on top of her yogurt.
“I’m not rigid in my own diet,” Nestle said. Her philosophy: “Eat less, move more, don’t eat junk food.” Now that’s my kind of nutrition guru.
Here is a smattering of facts and opinions from the book:
Sports drinks such as Gatorade promise, according to the label, “to promote complete rehydration and carbs to refuel working muscles. . . . Nothing rehydrates, replenishes, and refuels athletes better.” Nestle comments, “Maybe, but try water for rehydrati on; it works better than anything to replace lost fluids. For replenishment of ‘fuel’ . . . try food.”
All fish have PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and related toxic chemicals, but farmed fish that have been fed fish meal and fish oils have higher concentrations. Predatory fish that eat other fish have more PCBs than those that don’t. Sardines and herrin g are good alternate sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
“The best evidence that organic standards really do mean something – and are not so easy to achieve – comes from the USDA’s unrelenting efforts to weaken them,” Nestle writes. She points out that the Department of Agriculture ignored its own organic stand ards board and overruled a decision to certify as organic eggs from chickens denied access to the outdoors. (Organic producers and consumers have thus far beaten back this and other attempts to weaken the standards.)
Pasture-fed cattle have lower levels of harmful E. coli than cattle raised on feed-lots and excrete fewer dangerous bacteria in their feces, thus reducing the spread of such bacteria onto meat in slaughterhouses, Nestle writes.
Don’t take tots grocery shopping or let them near a child-sized “training cart,” or if you must take them, set spending limits (suggested: $1) and don’t set foot in the center aisles, filled with sugary cereals. (Nestle comments: “Research on how to marke t foods to children is simply breathtaking in its comprehensiveness, level of detail and undisguised cynicism.”)
Some nutrition claims made for margarine are “just silly” – no cholesterol, for example. “Soybeans are vegetables and cholesterol only comes from animals: meat, dairy, eggs and fish.” As for “light” margarine, it has fewer calories because the first ingre dient is water.
Cows injected every two weeks with rBST, the growth hormone, will give 10 to 20 percent more milk, Nestle explains, but rBST is controversial because of its possible effect on human health as well as issues having to do with the health of cows and the fut ure of family dairy farms. The Monsanto company, which manufactures rBST, argued, however that labeling milk as being from cows that were never given hormones “might make people suspect – horrors – that untreated milk might be better,” Nestle writes. That is why such milk carries a disclaimer that the Food and Drug Administration “has found no significant difference” in the two kinds of milk.
“Candy is candy, and everyone knows that it is a once-in-a-while treat. It’s the candy pretending to be healthy that bothers me; it is still candy.”