Friday, January 28, 2011

Coming soon to a grocery near you

Maybe you saw a news story this week that the food industry is going to change its nutritional labeling soon.  On the front of many packages will be a chart showing key ingredients that health-conscious consumers might want to avoid or limit.

The industry announcement credited Michelle Obama with inspiring their new plan, saying, "we would not be here today if she had not defined the common objective."

However, Michelle herself isn't all that thrilled.  Seems that the food guys had been in discussion with the FDA for several months about new government guidelines, but pulled out of the talks because the FDA wants stricter rules than the food guys want.  This plan is apparently an attempt by Big Food to head them off at the pass; if they go ahead with their own version it will be harder for the government to impose a new and different set of rules.

The sticking point between the food guys and the government, apparently, is whether food labels can tout "healthy" ingredients such as vitamins.  What's wrong with that?  Well, the problem is that we consumers are basically ignorant about nutrition and terribly susceptible to advertising, even if it's misleading (circling back to the ignorance part).  We are willing, even eager to be persuaded that potato chips with Vitamin A are really good for us!  And we should finish the whole bag because hey, they have Vitamin A!!  (So the food guys added .001 cents worth of Vitamin A, which doesn't do much for either you or the potato chips -- big deal.)  Similarly, ice cream is going to be really "healthy" because it contains calcium, and that "fact" is no doubt going to be prominently written on many packages.

Wait, I'm not that dumb, you say.  Oh no?  Look at all the people who buy "healthy fat-free" cookies with more calories than regular ones.  Or those who buy "healthy" breakfast cereals with 26 grams of sugar per serving.  I hope you're not among them, but I know I have cringed now and then to read the label on something I bought in haste and have been eating happily ever since.

I think the chart is a good idea, although I have a quarrel with the small type that says "25% DV."

Do you know what DV means?  And does a healthy food have more or less of the DV?

Intuitively, I tend to think that if Food A has 25% of the DV and Food B has 35%, Food B is the healthier one.  But that's wrong -- this label means eating a serving of this stuff will constitute one quarter of the total fat you should eat in the day.  So Food A is healthier.

And DV means daily value, which took me a while to figure out.

I have been reading a lot about the food industry recently and do not think much of their business ethics or their attitude toward nutrition.  The people who brought you Froot Loops do not get up every morning trying to make your diet healthier.  So I'm unhappy about this latest plan, much as I have to grudgingly admire the chutzpah of blaming it all on Michelle.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Some nice new recipes for you

I wrote last week about the deserted research station we visited in Antarctica and what I found in the kitchen.  A couple of days later we visited another such place, except this one has been kept heated and occupied as a museum/gift shop.  I think some of the stuff in this hut is not authentic, but brought in as representative of the supplies and equipment that would have been found in the 1950s. 

That would explain the relatively good condition of the cookbook on the stove, which I stupidly neglected to photograph the cover of.  Maybe it's a latter-day compilation of recipes from the time.

But in any case, we're all looking for new ideas to perk up our boring repertoire of entrees, so maybe these will pique your culinary imagination.  I know the reconstituted turnips and peas sparked some thoughts for me.  Bon appetit!

Rats -- I should have turned the page to get the end of the recipe.  Guess we'll just have to improvise from here.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Food of the past

I've just come back from a magnificent trip to Antarctica.  One of our stops was at Base W of the British Antarctic Survey, on Detaille Island off the Antarctic Peninsula.  The Brits established a series of bases there during and after World War II, initially to keep tabs on potential German wartime maneuvers and subsequently to conduct scientific research.

Base W was evacuated on a few minutes' notice in 1959 when the men were told that icebreakers couldn't reach them, and they'd have to go by dogsled 13 miles over the ice to meet a rescue ship.  The building survives as it stood that morning, with unmade beds, dirty dishes, abandoned work papers and left-behind clothing and boots. 

The kitchen and pantry constitute a food museum of the 50s.  My friend Wendy, who spent the first ten years of her life in England, said that visiting Base W was like a time capsule back to her childhood, with all the favorite British foods on display.  I didn't recognize the brand names except for Grape Nuts cereal, Colman's mustard and Rose's lime juice.  But I did reflect on the heroic measures that the occupants of this base took to make sure they would get not only nutrition but psychic comfort from their meals in this harsh and isolated place.

Here's a sampling of what they left behind.

What struck me about the foodstuffs was first, how attached the Brits have always been to their sweets -- clearly the limited food service facilities at Base W were fully prepared to do desserts of many sorts.  Second, how food service a half-century ago was so closely tied to canned goods.  You didn't have to be in Antarctica to get the bulk of your nutrition from cans and jars (even in New York City, where I happened to be living at the time, heavily processed foods were the norm).

Today you can be on a ship below the Antarctic Circle and chow down on fresh vegetables and fruit every day.  How dramatically our expectations have elevated in 50 years, and how fortunate those of us in our blessed middle-class existence have become, in terms of food as well as in many other aspects of life.