Food for Thought
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TERENCE SMITH: For many Americans, a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and eat better is as dependable as the celebration in Times Square.
LAURA McGINNIS: I think that we’re going to try and eat a little more healthy this year– at least I am. With the kids, it’s difficult to get them to eat much of anything.
TERENCE SMITH: And in America, where junk food lurks around every corner, and where portions have grown ever larger, the idea of eating healthier is often easier said than done.
BRIANNA VOORHIES: Finding healthy food can be easy if you have the time, and most people don’t have the time like me. So you just have to dedicate time to it.
TERENCE SMITH: In fact, the United States has the highest rates of obesity in the western- industrialized world. Yesterday, the latest numbers from the government, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported more bad news. A survey found that more than 44 million Americans were clinically obese in 2001, and nearly 17 million were newly diagnosed with diabetes. The findings were based on telephone surveys with a nationally-representative sample of almost 200,000 people.
This news comes at a time when the leader in the $105 billion a year fast-food industry, McDonald’s, is facing problems of its own. Last quarter, the company reported its first loss since it went public, and its stock price fell to a seven-year low. Last year, a group of obese New York teenagers filed a lawsuit against the company, blaming its food for their health problems. The company is even tinkering with its hamburger recipe to generate new sales. McDonald’s is also trying to reposition itself by buying an interest in newer chains, like Chipotle Mexican Grill. Meanwhile, growing numbers of Americans are learning about healthier cooking at home, and eating more ethnic foods. Analysts say people are looking for similar choices when they shop or dine out.
MIKE JOSSLYN: There are places that have soup now, like Le Madeline, and stuff like that. I try to avoid fast-food all the time, but it’s really hard when your traveling and your away from your hometown.
TERENCE SMITH: One chain has done especially well by promoting the concept of a less-fattening sandwich: Subway. There are now more Subway franchises than of any other restaurant in the country. And with me now to take a measure of how we eat are Lynne Rosetto Kasper, host of Minnesota Public Radio’s "The Splendid Table," a weekly show focusing on the culture and history of food; Marian Burros, a food columnist for the New York Times who writes the "Eating Well" column; and Dennis Lombardi, executive Vice President of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm whose clients are fast food and full service restaurant chains such as Wendy’s and Cracker Barrel. Welcome all three. Marian Burros the burger is the quintessential American food and yet McDonald’s is having problems What’s going on here?
MARIAN BURROS: There are a lot of different things going on. Partly I think it is is that they have a tremendous amount of competition, much more than they had before. Partly it is Americans are looking for new tastes. And partly it is that people are – it’s really coming together now this, this constant drum beat of this food isn’t good for you. It’s got too much fat in it and the filing of those lawsuits not only against McDonald’s but a couple of other fast food chains I think caught people’s attention.
I was talking to somebody in the food industry just this afternoon and I didn’t bring this up and but he started talking about how much more careful he is now when he goes to McDonald’s than he used to be. And I said, what’s the difference? He said they sort of brought it to my attention, I have been thinking about it. He said you have to look very hard if you want to pick out something good to eat but if you look hard enough you can probably find something that’s good for you.
TERENCE SMITH: Lynn Kasper what does this tell you and what does McDonald’s experience tell you about the way this nation eats and perhaps the way those habits are changing?
LYNN ROSSETTO KASPER: I think what’s happened is that we have never really been more concerned about our health and better informed about our health than we are right now. Of course there is an irony to this, because never before in our history either have we given over our nourishment to industrial concerns the way we do now. But I think what people are reacting to is a greater concern of where our food is coming from, what’s in it, how it’s been grown, and a realization that the burger and fries from a health point of view is an organized disaster. Of course the flip side of that is that we have a yupfication of the fast food industry, we have Chipotle Grills or Pin Neara cafes, places selling ethnic foods some even healthy ethnic foods but one of the concerns is the average dollar value of that meal is $5 to $7, not $2.99. So if you want to eat healthily or want to eat fast food or have to because of your lifestyle can you afford it, can the entire economic scale of the country afford to feed itself in that manner?
TERENCE SMITH: Dennis Lombardi, you study this industry; what do you think is going on?
DENNIS LOMBARDI: I think we’re seeing a slow evolution of education to the American consumer for foods better for them but I want to emphasize it’s a very, very slow evolution. I don’t think anyone will herald the imminent death of the hamburger, fries and soft drink as the all American male in the years ahead. What we’re finding though are restaurants trying to put menu items on venues more healthful but consumer demands stay so low for some of the items that they are uneconomical to keep on.
TERENCE SMITH: Marian Burros, there are all these other choices not only in restaurants but even in food stores, are Americans exercising them?
MARIAN BURROS: Depends on who they are. Just is this audience is probably most of them slim most of them are well ed indicated….
TERENCE SMITH: Of course they all are.
MARIAN BURROS: The people who watch this program are sort of doing what they’re talking about, they’re changing the way they eat. The people who probably need more than anything else to change the way they eat neither watch this program or do anything… they don’t even understand what’s going on and places like McDonald’s make it very hard because there is no sign in there to tell you how many calories or how much fat there is in food.
TERENCE SMITH: Lynn Kasper, what makes the most sense to you in terms of defining why people do – in other words, dieting is said to be an obsession in this country and yet the figures we cited earlier show obesity is more prevalent than ever, what’s happening here?
LYNN ROSSETTO KASPER: I think first of all the medical profession has failed the problem of weight essentially; when we look at diet, we are told to keep doing it again and again and again. I mean I’m speaking from personal experience. I have fought that battle since puberty. But the other side of it is I think we have gradually started to learn how to eat differently. But McDonald’s and other fast food operations understand something that’s really key: Fat, salt and sugar are irresistible. They taste fantastic and they’re also cheap to produce. So you have the money factor, you have the satiation factor and you have something irresistible to people and then you have the flip side of it, which is we’re told essentially to grin and bear it and you know bear down and diet. It’s not easy.
MARIAN BURROS: I think there are two other things going on here. One is that we are exercising less and less and less and less and this is true in schools — used to have periods of activities. They have taken those away because they have to do better in test scores now. We are also being given larger portions of everything, and study after study shows that the more you’re given to eat the more you will eat. There is the third thing also going on in this country and that is the complexion of the population; it’s changing, and so there are a great much more other ethnic groups that are more inclined to carry more weight than some of the earlier people who came to this country. And that also makes a difference in why we’re seeing so much more obesity.
TERENCE SMITH: Dennis Lombardi, is that where the future lies in this country, with those growing ethnic populations?
DENNIS LOMBARDI: I think the growing ethnic populations are going to do two things: One, they’re going to introduce different styles of food and two, they’re going to increase the acceptance of different cuisines amongst the base population group. What I don’t think we’ll see however is a radical shift towards eating healthy. There are no national health food restaurant chains now because the demand still isn’t large enough to support them. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future regardless of the educational process we all try to put on to the consumer.
MARIAN BURROS: Well, there isn’t enough of an educational process.
DENNIS LOMBARDI: That’s correct.
MARIAN BURROS: They used to have some nutrition in schools; it’s virtually disappearing or completely disappeared. Where will kids learn it? The parents are very busy working; they barely have time to feed them much less tell them this is good for you and that’s not good for you. If the schools aren’t doing it nobody is.
TERENCE SMITH: Lynn Kasper, what’s your take on that?
LYNN ROSSETTO KASPER: I think my take, I agree with Marian. I think that there is precious little going on in terms of true education in terms of health and I think most of our information comes from sound bites we get from the media or we get from newspapers and newspapers obviously exploring in more depth. But the other thing is that it’s the old adage, if it doesn’t taste good we’re not going to eat it. And we all know how pressured we are. We all know that there is a tremendous amount of money in the food industry put behind advertising these foods, in fact to the point where there is now an effort to regulate that advertising, especially advertising that’s aimed at children. This is a very hard battle to fight and I think Dennis brought up an excellent point, that at this point there is no major fast food chain that is doing very healthy fast food. Subway is certainly credible. But for someone who is on a low carbohydrate diet Subway could pose a problem.
DENNIS LOMBARDI: Absolutely..
MARIAN BURROS: Have to leave out bread.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Dennis Lombardi?
DENNIS LOMBARDI: Exactly. Leave out the bread and leave out the meats and you probably have a healthy meal called a very small salad. But come back to a company like Wendy’s had a that has introduced a bunch of entree salad and put those on their menu as a way to provide a better more nutritious, healthful meal to the American consumer, those are selling relatively well.
TERENCE SMITH: Marian Burros, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about an article in your paper this week that suggested good news for many drinking in moderation of alcohol in moderation actually can be good for your health?
MARIAN BURROS: Well it’s not really new; it’s sort of old information, except it doesn’t apply everybody and I’m not sure they know to who does apply. First of all, drinking in moderation for a woman means one drink a day – and for a man two drinks a day. Maybe two isn’t so bad. One doesn’t seem like very much.
TERENCE SMITH: That’s indeed very moderate.
MARIAN BURROS: Very, very moderate. But it isn’t good for everybody and there are some people for whom it may be bad – for instance for women who have a history of breast cancer in their family. This isn’t necessarily the best idea.
TERENCE SMITH: Lynn Kasper, are there sort of historical trends in eating and food choices and selection?
LYNN ROSSETTO KASPER: Absolutely. There is a reason why we are the leader of the fast food world in a sense. If you go back to the 19th century and you look at the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, we were in a unique position as a country; we did not have centuries in fact, millennium behind us of agricultural traditions. People were not as deep lay attached to the land. We embraced the Industrial Revolution with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and anything that was new, anything that was scientific, anything that was technical we viewed as being good. Well, mass production of food gave us all of that. It gave us lower-priced food stuffs and it made people a lot of money.
Now, you marry that to another factor, and that is, how mobile we have always been. Right around that time is when we began reaching West and settling an entire continent. Now if you compare us to older cultures in Europe, for instance, people had been born, lived, died for many, many generations in the same place. Their food was a tremendous identifier. The land had already been settled it. It wasn’t a matter of traveling thousand of miles and setting up house all over again making adjustments to what you ate. The whole pattern of mobility, cheap food, a right to it, we were a democracy, we had a right — we felt we had a right to affordable food — then the love of the industrialized and the love of the new and progressive. We were primed. By the time McDonald’s came along we were ready. We were ripe.
TERENCE SMITH: And there was our national food. Okay, thank you, all three, very much.