Thursday, September 25, 2003

Will the food police get you?

You can keep the law at bay by exercising a little good judgment

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If it's on the nutrition label, Laura Ramsey reads it. Carefully.

On a recent weekly shopping trip, Ramsey scanned and rejected several brands of canned, diced tomatoes until she found a no sugar-added version.

"You have to read the label. They all had high fructose corn syrup in them, which is flat-out sugar, and I just want tomatoes," says the 33-year-old Madison Township woman.

Ramsey, who's lost 89 pounds in the last year or so, is the kind of consumer the food industry is paying attention to: In response to Americans' growing concern about expanding girth, leaner, greener options are becoming available at supermarkets, restaurants and even school cafeterias.

Ramsey decided to lose weight so she could more easily keep up with her son, Mitchell, now 22 months old. She joined Weight Watchers, which assigns all foods a "points" value based on calorie, fat and fiber content. Members are allotted a range of points per day based on their weight.

As she and Mitchell cruise the supermarket aisles, Ramsey occasionally whips out a kind of a slide rule that lets her calculate the "points" for different foods, including a low-calorie bread and a low-calorie ice cream treat.

In the produce aisle, she hunts for ripe peaches, string beans, zucchini, sweet corn and apples.

Mitchell doesn't need to lose weight, but Ramsey does read labels to make sure his juices and other treats aren't too high in added sugar.

Industry under fire

The food industry is under fire to do something about America's weight problem.

Several people have sued McDonald's, claiming the fast-food giant's burgers and fries made them fat and unhealthy. The suits have been dismissed.

One group has called for banning Oreos from school lunches, and lawmakers in several states are debating anti-obesity laws that include so-called "fat taxes" and other measures geared toward penalizing the overweight and the businesses that sell them fatty foods.

Schools are turning off soda machines during lunch to limit students' access.

Ramsey and her husband, Rob, like many Americans, used to eat out several times a week. Ramsey was especially prone to ordering a fast food "combo" meal on her lunch hour.

Now, they only eat out on special occasions, and Ramsey only eats half of her entree.

And she doesn't take home leftovers to avoid being tempted by them.

She estimates her husband has lost "40 or 50 pounds" thanks to her diet.

Portion size is another factor restaurants have to wrestle with: Most dietitians tell you restaurant portions actually constitute two to three servings for entrees.

Before she started trying to lose weight, Ramsey says, she thought restaurant portions were "just about the right size. I'd always leave full."

Now when the server brings her order, she thinks the portions are "huge. There's enough for two people."

The food industry is responding to concerns like Ramsey's: McDonald's is selling salads. Kraft Foods is looking for ways to eliminate trans fats from Oreos. Taco Bell is offering its fat-packed burritos and tacos "fresco style," so customers can substitute a mix of tomatoes, onions and spices for cheese and sauce.

Applebee's has teamed up with Weight Watchers to offer a selection of appetizers, entrees and desserts that are lower in fat and calories for weight-conscious customers.

John Cywinski, chief marketing officer for the Kansas-based Applebee's International, says the items should be available by the end of 2004. The company hopes to start testing the lighter menu items in November.

"There's been a bit of a sea change in that consumers have always said that they wanted to eat healthy, but what they did was a different matter," he says. "That's no longer the case."

Other casual chains, including Ruby Tuesday, T.G.I. Friday's and Don Pablo's, are also looking at ways to lighten up their menus.

Some consumers and food industry officials, unhappy about trans-fat labels or pressure on restaurants to cut the fat, complain about "food police" trying to dictate every bite that appears on Americans' plates.

But Gus A. Valent says the trend toward eating lighter could be good for the food industry's fiscal health.

Valent, the chief executive officer of the Valent Group, a Blue Ash-based strategic consulting firm, calls the pressure on the industry "a great business opportunity" for companies looking to re-invent their image or launch new products.

Restaurant chains or food manufacturers who emphasize healthy changes in their products not only hang onto longtime customers who decide they want leaner products, Valent said; they also attract new customers.

"Consumers are becoming more aware of their own weight issues, so just by the fact that we're talking about this, we're creating consumer awareness, which by its very existence, will create consumer demand for healthier products," he says.

Smart executives bombard the airwaves with commercials and other messages that their products are new, improved and healthier, Valent says. He points to the success of the Subway sandwich chain and Wendy's salads.

Most experts in the food industry say the trend toward healthier products is driven by consumer demands, not the fear of lawsuits such as those filed against McDonald's.

Taking responsibility

One issue raised by fast food litigation is how much responsibility the individual has for his or her weight.

A lot, says Lauren Niemes, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Nutrition Council.

She calls the lawsuits "very misguided."

"It's just placing the blame on the food manufacturers, which I don't think is right," she says.

She and others pointed to McDonald's McLean, a lower-calorie burger the chain launched in 1991.

It tanked: Consumers didn't like the taste or texture, and the company pulled the burger from its menu.

Randall Cottrell, a professor of health promotion at the University of Cincinnati, says the healthier eating happens after: Companies are encouraged to offer healthier foods, and consumers are motivated to eat them.

Getting the consumer to do his part can be tricky, since "healthy" and "diet" mean different things in a country where people order double cheeseburgers without buns so they can stick to their low-carb regimen, experts say.

For her part, Ramsey says she knows whom to blame when she walks up to the counter and gets a jumbo burger and fries: Herself.

"I'm responsible for what I put in my own mouth," she says.

Smarter eating

The Nutrition Council of Greater Cincinnati offers these tips:

At the market, make a list and stick to it. Plan healthy meals and snacks ahead and ignore bargain buys and free samples.

Don't shop when you're hungry. It's hard to ignore the bakery aisle if your stomach is growling.

Concentrate on the perimeter of the store, which holds less-processed foods - fresh fruit and produce, dairy, whole grain baked goods and lean meats.

Read labels for serving size, calories, fiber and fat contents. Look for foods high in fiber and lower in calories.

Fill your cart by the food pyramid: Lots of fresh produce and whole grains, and less meat, dairy, fats and sweets.

When dining out, read the menu carefully for clues to lower-calorie choices, such as grilled, poached or steamed.

Order the smallest portion offered.

Look for healthy choices, including vegetable and grain-based choices, as dictated by the food pyramid.

Ask for substitutions: Salads or veggies for french fries, baked potato for pasta, etc.

Don't clean your plate. Ask for a doggie bag and pack up half the meal to go.

Split an order with a friend or spouse.

Remember, wine and bar drinks also have calories. Lots of them.


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