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Armed with a grocery cart, and a critical eye

With all the choices, what's a shopper to do? A food activist offers advice, aisle by aisle.

May 29, 2006|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

Marion Nestle swings through the turnstile of a Vons supermarket near downtown, her observational antennae already on high alert.

"Oh, my God!" exclaims the nutrition researcher, food activist and self-styled supermarket anthropologist, abandoning her cart and practically running down the front of the store. She pulls down cans to read labels, and stares up at the mountains of sweet drinks that cascade from the end of the aisles like postmodern sculptures.

The petite New Yorker pauses to do some rapid calculations, then pulls a tiny digital camera from her blazer pocket and snaps a shot.

"The real estate devoted to this!" she exclaims. "This entire double aisle ... colas! Sprites! Candies!"

Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, loves food. In two earlier books -- "Safe Food" and "Food Politics" -- the outspoken professor took on topics such as industry influences on government food guidelines. Now she has written a practical book for consumers: "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating."

Americans are confused about food, Nestle says, and in large part she blames the powerful food industry's brilliant marketing, federal agencies interested in supporting that industry, and supermarkets that have made a science of cluttering the path to healthful items you need (such as milk, always in the back of the store) with unhealthful items you don't (such as snacks, candy and sodas in the central aisles and at the front.)

She wrote her book, she says, to help people eat better -- from a viewpoint of health but also of politics and ecology.

I needed to shop for my family of four, so I took Nestle along as advisor.

We hit a Vons, but it could have been Safeway, Ralphs, Gelson's or even Whole Foods because most stores adhere to the same basic layout and rules.

Cruising the aisles to the slow background music (designed to make you linger), Nestle points out that supermarkets carry about 40,000 products, and most of the center aisles are stocked with ones you don't need.

Her first tip: Stick to the periphery of the store. That is where you will find the necessities to eat well.

We begin on the outer edge, in the produce section. Nestle suggests that local produce be first choice -- because the longer it takes to move a food to where you buy it, the less "fresh" it is. Country of origin isn't always easy to ascertain, she says, because produce companies aren't required to state this. (She says pressure from the food industry led Congress to postpone until 2008 a law making such information mandatory.)

Second choice would be certified organic -- not for nutritional reasons (so far, scientific evidence for nutritional differences are negligible) but because organic farmers use fewer pesticides and keep the water cleaner and the soil richer. She points out the tiny "9" in front of a product's price look-up number (or PLU, used by clerks to identify produce) that identifies a food as certified organic.

Our produce purchases done, we move on to the dairy section.

"Oh, dear, it's gotten so difficult," Nestle says, looking at the wall of colorful milk cartons of 1%, 2%, whole, skim, organic, half gallons, quarts, cream, nondairy creamers, soy milk and Lactaid. She recommends 1% or skim to get the benefits of milk without the high saturated fats.

Again, she recommends organic: Safeway, which owns Vons, has launched its own organic line and there it is, reasonably priced. "If you don't want your kids to have milk with pesticides in the feed, or hormones from genetically modified cows, or all the other stuff that gets put in there that is bad, or not bad, you buy it," she says.

I buy it, but I pay about $1 more for a quart. That difference could quickly add up in a house with two small milk drinkers.


Watch the sugar

Over to the yogurt -- a handy snack that, as she says, has "an aura of health." Maybe so, Nestle says, if it is plain, low-fat or nonfat and with no added sugar. That type is pretty hard to find among the 40 or so brands.

"The amount of sugar in these things is staggering," she says. "I call these desserts."

I reach for the organic YoBaby Stonyfield Farm yogurt that my baby loves. Nestle scans the label: half an ounce of sugar in a 4-ounce container. "Sugar is providing half the calories," she says. "If you just add one teaspoon of sugar into a plain yogurt, that will be two-thirds less sugar.... I'd buy the plain."

Next up: The seafood counter, probably the most nerve-racking part of the store for a health-conscious shopper. The messages about fish are so conflicting that it is hard to tell whether one is doing the family a favor by feeding them fish or poisoning them.

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