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Originally published in the Hartford Courant, June 15, 2006.


Book Helps Decode Supermarket Gobbledygook

Supermarkets are not evil giants, but they are caught up in the business of giving you what you want, and figuring out what makes you want something.

Have you ever walked into a supermarket and been so overwhelmed by the bright lights, expansive aisles and mystifying labels that you thought about bringing a nutritionist with you the next time you left the house? Are you perplexed by labels claiming that the chicken breast you are about to buy is certified organic, farm-raised and antibiotic and hormone-free? Do you ever wonder if it’s just you?

If any of this sounds familiar, don’t pick up the phone and call your therapist just yet. Marion Nestle is a friend, a mother and a nutritionist all rolled into one, and in her new book, “What To Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating,” she eases supermarket angst and illuminates the food industry for what it is: a business that benefits from your confusion.

With her confiding tone and matronly air, Nestle wants to get one thing straight from the get-go: The food industry is not your friend. No matter what the labels on foods lead you to believe, with their claims of keeping you “heart healthy” and lowering your cholesterol, no one benefits if you watch what you eat. The food industries, including fast-food, restaurant, diet, gym, drug and health care, are making big bucks off your confusion, she says. By keeping Americans in the dark about what to eat (and how much), these industries drain consumers’ wallets and keep them fat, all for a mighty dollar.

In a recent phone interview, Nestle said that in researching her new book she focused on the environmental triggers of food choices. “I couldn’t believe the number of places in the store that sold sodas,” she said. There is a soda aisle, a special display in the fish section selling soda (“What was it doing there?”), another pyramid display in another aisle. Why the various displays? “To make it as easy for you to buy soda as possible,” Nestle explained.

Even the inscrutable supermarket maze, with its 320,000 edible products, has been planned down to a science by the food industry to maximize profits. Basics, such as vegetables, meat and milk are all placed around the periphery, forcing customers to circumnavigate the store for the essentials and to pass rows of other tempting products. “For the health issues, she says, you’ve got to take care of yourself.”

But how, when it’s so confusing? A visit to the produce aisle reminded her how complicated shopping can be. Her first day researching the book, she went into a supermarket in upstate New York with a homegrown section. There were seven different types of romaine lettuces - some were sold in bags and others by the pound. “It took me three trips to the store. You have to have a calculator and glasses if you want to read the label,” said Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food science at New York University. “And this is just lettuce,” she added incredulously. After studying the lettuce, so many thoughts ran through her head: How long has it been sitting here? Is it organic? Is it local? How much does it weigh?

Supermarkets exist to sell food, and they do it well, Nestle admits. Supermarkets are not evil giants, she says; but they are caught up in the business of giving you what you want, and figuring out what makes you want something.

“What to Eat” is a cheat sheet for the supermarket-challenged. Each chapter coincides with a different section of the store: produce, dairy, meat, fish, frozen, processed, beverage and special sections for bread and prepared foods. Nestle takes the reader by the hand, aisle by aisle, as she navigates the supermarket with all its misleading data and double-speak. When is fresh food really fresh? What are trans fats? And when is certified organic really organic?

Nestle is an apostle for improved consumer awareness.

“I see it as a social movement,” Nestle explained. “Every time you buy a food product you’re voting.” It’s the one place, Nestle says, where grassroots political action works in a way that other parts of our democracy don’t.

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