Counting Calories and Everything Else

Safeway shoppers such as Gladys Gattison -- seen here checking out with the help of Cierra Jefferson at the chain's location on 14th Street Southeast -- now can track the nutritional value of their food purchases.
Safeway shoppers such as Gladys Gattison -- seen here checking out with the help of Cierra Jefferson at the chain's location on 14th Street Southeast -- now can track the nutritional value of their food purchases. (By Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My husband issued a clear directive as I left to buy groceries one recent evening. I had planned to make one of his favorite dishes: crab-stuffed manicotti topped with alfredo sauce -- creamy and melt-in-your-mouth rich. But I also try to keep us on the nutritional high road.

"Don't get anything light," he warned as I walked out the door. "It messes it up."

This is a dilemma played out at dinner tables across the country. We want to indulge in the foods we love, but we don't want to worry about whether our eating habits will give us a heart attack.

To address this issue, I turned to an online program Safeway launched last month, FoodFlex, which shows you the nutritional content of purchases made with your club card and points you to presumably healthier alternatives. Does it really help you be more nutrition-conscious, I wondered? Or is it just marketing? I decided to put the program to the test -- and crab manicotti was sure to give it a workout.

Several Washington area grocers promote sound eating, with Harris Teeter labeling heart-healthy products and Giant Food's consumer adviser Andrea Astrachan dispensing tips on nutrition. Safeway claims it is the first chain to offer a customized interactive nutrition program. Safeway Vice President Kevin Herglotz, in town recently to tout FoodFlex to the American Heart Association and the Department of Health and Human Services, said the company hopes promoting healthful living will differentiate it from competitors. Increasingly, these are not just traditional food chains but also discounters such as Wal-Mart.

Safeway has "a very large emphasis on health and wellness and giving consumers more tools to make more choices," Herglotz said.

FoodFlex loomed in the back of my mind when I arrived at the store. My husband and I aren't trying to lose weight, but we don't want to gain any, either. I knew FoodFlex would be watching, sort of like Big Brother -- if he ever did wheatgrass shots. Should I keep it real (as my husband had asked) or keep it healthy?

I picked up an organic baby romaine salad mix and felt a flush of pride. Orange juice, Odwalla energy bars and Pacific Rose apples all found their way into my cart.

But I couldn't forestall the inevitable. I hit the dairy aisle to buy ricotta cheese to stuff the manicotti. I scanned the options -- regular, part skim and fat-free. I compromised and nabbed the part skim. (Hopefully, my husband wouldn't be able to tell.)

Things went downhill from there. Picking an alfredo sauce was easy: There were only two choices -- garlic and four cheese -- and not a jar of low-fat in sight. Next came the pasta. Though we now eat mostly whole-wheat pasta, I've never been able to find a manicotti version. But I did check.

My shopping trip happened shortly before Valentine's Day, when everyone deserves something sweet. I felt that I deserved vanilla-yogurt-covered raisins -- raisins, that's a fruit, right? And yogurt is totally dairy. I checked the nutrition label and ended up enticed by the cookie recipe. Yummy! I stocked up on the ingredients and then checked out.

A few days later, after the manicotti was long gone and the last cookie devoured, I logged on to FoodFlex for a reality check.

The program adds up the calories in everything purchased, calculates the total fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, protein and carbohydrates, and charts them against an individual's recommended daily intake, taking into account the number of people in your household and factors such as age and physical activity.

I stared in disbelief. Fat: 136 percent of the federal dietary guidelines. Sodium: 159 percent. Cholesterol: 165 percent. It's a wonder my arteries were still functioning.

FoodFlex showed the culprits included the walnut halves that I had used in the cookies: 172 total grams of fat and 1,801 calories. Eight ounces of fresh crab meat had 260 milligrams of cholesterol, and the 16-ounce jar of alfredo sauce weighed in at 68 grams of fat and a whopping 3,100 milligrams of sodium.

On the plus side, those yogurt-covered raisins counted as fruit after all. But that didn't make me feel much better. And my numbers certainly didn't pass muster with Katherine Tallmadge, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association who has a nutrition practice in the District.

"How much fruit do you eat in a week? Based on this [report], you don't eat much," she said. "It looks like you're buying a lot of processed foods, and that's why your sodium is so high."

After some searching, Tallmadge did discover the two apples I bought. But FoodFlex didn't register their nutrients. Safeway later told me the variety was new to the stores, and the data likely had not been entered yet.

FoodFlex also sidestepped the issue of trans fats, which may increase the risk for heart disease and have been banned from restaurants in some cities -- saying only that there are no dietary standards for these fats found in many fried foods and baked goods and that intake should be "as low as possible."

Certified nutrition counselor Michele Pishalski-Schlossberg, who runs Rockville-based EveryBody Nutrition and Wellness, called the ability to search for healthy alternatives the most useful feature of the site. She usually goes to the grocery store with her clients to teach them how to make better choices. If someone knows what to target -- sodium, because of high blood pressure, for example -- FoodFlex could help him prepare for wandering the aisles solo.

My report told me I could have replaced the walnuts with sliced almonds, which have only 12 grams of fat per serving compared with walnuts' 17. Instead of garlic alfredo sauce, I could have substituted vodka sauce, which has half the fat and less than two-thirds the sodium. Even better would have been a garlic marinara sauce, with only 86 milligrams of sodium and one gram of fat per serving.

One limitation of this tool is that FoodFlex by default seeks alternatives in the same category as the original purchase. Request a substitute for Gatorade that has more Vitamin C or potassium, and you'll get only other sports drinks. Comparing it with a broader range of products requires more clicks.

Also, while the nutrition report may have been accurate, it didn't reflect real life, Pishalski-Schlossberg said.

"When you have this mathematical, scientific kind of equation, it labels everything as having the same value. And there's so much more to food and what really nourishes somebody."

Wait a second, food is nourishing? In the focus on numbers I'd almost forgotten we need fats and calories to function -- they're not just hidden traps to make us gain weight. As the Safeway program's name suggests, I need to be flexible about food.

So I refuse to feel guilty about using manicotti shells that aren't whole wheat. But maybe I'll give the marinara sauce a chance.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company