Fear of Food


December 08, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- It's not that I am ungrateful for the new food labels that have just been approved by the government. I am pleased that Washington takes our food literacy seriously.

Like many Americans, I spend more time in the supermarket studying than actually shopping. In the past decade, I have certainly read more cans than books. I have stood in the aisles glaring at cereal boxes longer than I have stood in the checkout line leering at tabloids.

So the news that we're going to get some E-Z reading in the food chain nourishes my consumer soul. I won't need a degree in nutritional linguistics anymore to understand the meaning of words like ''low-fat'' and ''cholesterol-free.'' I won't need a calculator to figure out the calories.

As Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan said, ''The Tower of Babel in food labels has come down and the American consumers are winners.'' At the very least the Library of Babble has come down. Words will have the same meaning on all the 300,000 packaged goods that make their way to the market.

Too bad they didn't ban the word ''Lite'' -- scourge of the American spelling world -- but that's another story.

I also do not wish to use this food literacy lesson as a moral menu. I cannot have been the only one who was jarred by the two stories that led the newspaper on the very same day: famine in Somalia and food labels in America. One nation is worrying about getting any food to eat, the other is worrying about what's in the food they eat. Is this the new world order or the new world eating disorder?

Nevertheless, as someone who grew up in the milk-drinking, meat-eating, four-food-groups era of American life, I can read the fine print of a social message in this change of labels. It may be crammed in as densely as the new nutritional lesson on a tiny tuna can, but it's there: Beware of Food.

This is how Bruce Silverglade, one of the consumer advocates who applaud this re-labeling, put it: ''For years, labels gave consumers the good news about the percentage of vitamins and minerals a food contributes to the amount one should be eating per day. But they never really told the consumers the bad news about how much fat and cholesterol a food contributes. The new food label will do that.''

In short, the old news was the good news. The new news is the bad news.

The reason for the revision is, essentially, to slap a warning label on what we eat. And that is part of an overall change in the American attitude toward food.

Once food was love. Now it's just as likely to be fear. Fear of fat. Fear of heart disease, cancer, stroke, you name it. Eating is less ++ of a hedonistic experience and more of a health experience. If we are what we eat, we're nervous.

Not even the most committed of the cholesterol cops and fervent of food police has yet suggested a rectangle on the mayonnaise bottle: Warning, the surgeon general has determined that this stuff will block up your arteries. No one is pushing for potato chips to carry a skull and crossbones.

But millions of us switched from butter to margarine to olive oil by doctors' orders. Our passion for oat bran varied with the research, not our taste buds. The New England Journal of Medicine has become more of a guide to our menu planning than Gourmet.

Even ''good foods'' we praise are extolled for their medicinal purposes today. Increasingly we serve them because they are ** prescribed: fiber for breakfast and broccoli for lunch.

Only rarely indeed does something like red wine escape the health censors with a mixed message. The bottles may soon come covered with competing health claims: bad for your pregnancy, worse for your driving and good for your heart. There won't be enough room for the vintage.

As a confessed supermarket reader, a member of the literati of labels, I confess to being a part of this pattern. The older I get, the lower I eat on the food chain. I search for the holy grail of the no-fat, high-fiber chocolate fudge sundae.

So I greet the new and legible labels with approval. Somehow though, I wish they'd find room for two more words: Bon Appetit.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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