By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
If there was ever a time when Americans were confused about what to eat, this is it. The specter of obesity haunts every food choice. Entire food groups are called into question. Should we eat carbs? Proteins? Are any fats good fats? Should we consume five fruits and vegetables a day, or many more? And what are whole grains, anyway?
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an updated Food Guide Pyramid designed to lead Americans toward the answers -- but instead of one pyramid, the government produced 12. The new versions are meant to mirror real >lives, but consumers must go online to figure out the one that fits them.
Most of us, however, already have a powerful tool at our disposal. Let's call it the New American Pantry. A reality to some consumers, a concept to others, that pantry (which realistically includes the refrigerator and freezer) doesn't replace self-control or exercise. But it makes healthful, full-flavored eating easier.
This pantry is made up of far more than the shelves of packaged goods of days gone by. It's a storehouse of fruits and vegetables from cuisines all over the world. It's stocked with the whole grains, beans and lentils that have been the staples of >traditional ethnic diets for centuries. It's brimming with lean meats, poultry and fish, and accented by a vast variety of sauces, spices and condiments. It includes healthful fats. And its contents can accommodate personal preferences -- because food should be satisfying, or no one will eat it.
Chefs and nutritionists call the pantry an important resource. "If people stock their pantry in the right way . . . it opens up some wonderful opportunities for new tastes, and can improve their health and weight in the process," says Donald D. Hensrud, associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and editor of the new "Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight for Everybody."
"It is important what that pantry consists of," says Harry Balzer, the eating patterns expert at the NPD Group, an international sales and market research firm that tracks what Americans eat. "We know what happens once food makes it into the house. People will eat it."
Two developments in American life have expanded the scope of our new American pantry: our interest and openness to world cuisines and flavors, and a growing concern with health and wellness. While neither trend is strikingly new, there are signs that both are accelerating.
A trip to just about any large supermarket shows a ever-expanding range of ethnic food products. Today, national tastes embrace not only American and European ingredients, but also Asian, North African, Caribbean and Latino flavors.
The concern for health and wellness is also hard to escape. Supermarket chains have Web sites with guidance on healthful eating. Food manufacturers are busy ridding their products of trans fats. Diet plans define themselves as ways to avoid diabetes and coronary heart disease.
"American cooking has changed in fundamental ways," says Greg Drescher, senior director for strategic initiatives of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in California. "Consumers and diners are displaying an interest in culinary adventure that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago."
Some observers see these two trends linked in a positive way: "Americans' accelerating interest in world cuisines gives us a potentially powerful new strategy for meeting our health and wellness challenges," says Drescher. "Many countries around the world have developed cuisines that are full of ideas for healthy eating, such as emphasizing vegetable and legume dishes -- and that kind of eating is >associated with lower rates of chronic disease."
For example, as far back as the 1950s, studies of Mediterranean eating patterns showed that people on the island of Crete and in Greece had the among the longest life expectancies in the world.
"There's a delicious repertoire of these dishes that still speak to modern palates, from countries and regions from Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean to North Africa, to Southern Italy, Mexico, Southeast Asia and India," Drescher says. "It's a huge opportunity to leverage the public interest in these world flavors to help implement the dietary guidelines."
The guidelines, released by the government in January, are the scientific and nutritional foundation for the revised pyramid that was unveiled last week.
The Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a food-issues think tank in Boston, also endorses this approach. "We are not one people in America," says K. Dun Gifford, Oldways' founder and president. "We're a mixture of waves of immigrants. And each wave brought its food preferences with it, changing what's in our markets, restaurants and pantries.
"Look at rice paper, tortillas and pitas as a way of carrying food to our mouths. These roll-ups traditionally use small amounts of liquid >fats -- they're not deep-fat fried or loaded with salad dressing, mayonnaise or tartar sauce. They rely on seasonings for their exciting tastes."
The increase in affordable ethnic restaurants has also affected how we shop for food. "One thing we see all the time in food service trends is a filtering through to what people eat at home," says Bill Patterson, the U.S. research director of Mintel Group, a firm based in Chicago and London that analyzes consumer markets. "Ethnic fast casual restaurants grew 160 percent between 1998 and 2003."
There are practical reasons for stocking an expanded range of ingredients and flavors as well. No last-minute panic about dinner. No frantic trips to the grocery store or desperate calls for takeout. ""It allows you to be versatile," says Ellen Haas, a former undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer services and founder of FoodFit.com. "You can start with a chicken breast and give it a different taste and flavor if you have a wide variety of herbs and spices from different parts of the world."
Will Americans embrace a changing world of ingredients, flavors, spices and herbs for their pantries? To some extent we already have. According to the Food Institute, an information resource for the food industry, sales of Mexican and Asian food products are gradually increasing. Americans spent a slight 0.8 percent more on Mexican food products in 2004 than in 2001, increasing the total to $1.03 billion. But Mexican sauce sales rose 7.4 percent, to $932 million from $867.4 million. And Asian food expenditures rose to $310 million from $285.2 million -- an 8.7 percent increase.
Inherently healthful foods have become more popular, too. According to the Soyfoods Association of North America, tofu sales, for example, increased to $265 million in 2004 from $250 million in 2003, a 6 percent rise.
Balzer, who has been studying the American diet for 25 years, is cautious. "We are explorers with our diet and adventurous in our eating but extremely resistant to change," he says. "We like to try new things. But once we try them, they're old. So the real challenge is the repeat. And it's the things we repeat that dictate how healthy we are."
Balzer holds out hope that the dietary guidelines and the more informed way we shop for food and stock our pantries will benefit future generations.
"Today's mothers have more information about what to feed their families, so that taste may be altered for young people," he adds. "I can already see that happening. It's hard for us to change, but we might have our children change, and therein lies the benefit."