THE HEALTH AND WELLNESS MOVEMENT has encouraged many people to change their eating behaviors and lifestyles, and much for the better. More and more people are exercising, reading labels and eating more fresh foods. I see this as a new social movement focused on food and health, one in which people can vote with their forks for the kind of food system they want.
While this segment of the population moves forward, however, the food industry seems stuck in an old mind-set that ignores the new emphasis on fresh, seasonal, organic and locally grown — authentic, if you will — foods. Sure, they're introducing new, better-for-you products. But too often, these are half-hearted measures cloaked in advertising and clever marketing. Retailers and government policies, unintended or not, allow such practices to continue. The result? It often costs consumers less to buy soft drinks than bottled water, and fruits and vegetables seem more expensive than prepared and packaged foods.
Everyone involved in the food system could do better. For example, how about considering policies that subsidize specialty vegetable crops instead of corn and soybeans? Or placement of healthier foods in prime supermarket real estate? Or pricing strategies that favor smaller portions? How about dealing with the food environment so that it becomes easier for people to make healthful choices without having to think about it? Right now, the default at most retail outlets is to make not-so-healthful choices.
There is plenty stores can do to promote sales of healthier foods and retailers know perfectly well how to do it: Place healthier foods in prime real estate — eye level, endcaps and cash registers. Provide cooking demonstrations and tastings of fruits and vegetables. Put special displays of healthier items throughout the store. I'm particularly impressed by the Hannaford Bros. star program, which grants one, two or three stars to foods of increasing nutritional quality, as judged by an independent panel of experts, and holds in-store promotions of the starred items. But guess what? Less than one-quarter of the products in their stores qualified for even one star.
Of course, it's the consumer who decides what to eat, and how much. But practically nobody recognizes how environmental cues trigger “eat more” behavior. People don't make food choices in a vacuum. Supermarkets encourage sales of high-calorie, larger-size junk foods by product placement, special displays and other well-researched techniques.
People need to be taught to understand food issues. That's why I wrote “What to Eat.” I hope that readers will understand what the issues really are so they can make informed decisions about food choices. When I'm traveling, my lectures start with the obvious fact that the purpose of food marketing is to sell products, not promote health. Everyone needs to recognize that the food industry's job is to sell products and meet shareholder and Wall Street expectations for growth. I have no problem with that. Just don't try to sell junk food as health food.
We are already seeing that the health and wellness products are the fastest-growing segment of the food industry — the only segment with real growth. That's why everyone is getting into the act. But this trend is only sustainable if the benefits are real.
Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, in the department that she chaired from 1988 through 2003. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health” and “Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism” and is co-editor of “Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Food and Nutrition.” Her new book, “What to Eat,” was published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in May 2006.