Getting Wealthier by Eating Healthier

June 01, 1994|By ANN EGERTON

In our government's relentless quest for a risk-free society (except for a bit of ambivalence about gun control), we now have a new food-label law that will tell consumers most of the nutritional facts about the food they buy.

As the laws go into effect this spring and summer, we'll know how much fat, cholesterol, calories, sodium and protein are in most of the foods we buy. It's estimated that over a billion dollars has been spend on laboratory analysis, redesigning and printing new labels and disposing of old ones.

This is helpful, I suppose, although people won't clog up supermarket lanes feverishly reading labels. But something has been overlooked. It's simply cheaper to eat right. I don't understand why this isn't a selling point of the Food and Drug Administration and of Congress, which passed the Nutrition Labeling Education Act four years ago. Most of us like to save money; to be wealthier by eating healthier is a special triumph and should be marketed to death.

An article in the Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter, April 1994, demonstrates (Boston-priced) menus that are both lighter in fat and cheaper as well. It should come as no surprise that a cream-filled doughnut is fattier (21 grams) and more expensive (35 cents) than whole-wheat toast and jelly, (2 grams, 18 cents) or that a seafood-salad hoagie made with real mayonnaise (15 grams) is pricier ($1.53) than a tuna-salad sandwich made with water-packed tuna and light mayonnaise (8 grams, $1.14).

A candy bar (14 grams, 45 cents) costs more than a banana (1 gram, 15 cents). Two slices of a vegetarian-topped pizza and tossed salad and two slices of garlic bread sets you back less at $3.26 than three slices of a meat-topped pizza at $4.19, and it has 25 grams less fat.

These pizza dinner menus are typical of another funny thing that usually distinguishes between fat-filled menus and the lighter ones in the Tufts Diet Newsletter: The latter actually offers more items to eat while you save $1.56 on a given day. In a hypothetical year of this kind of sensible eating, you could save $10.92 a week, that's $569 a year, and not be hungry.

Why, with all the information at our fingertips, don't we eat more sensibly? Perhaps it's the work and time that's involved in preparing inexpensive, fat- and cholesterol-light meals that we're trying to avoid; all that washing and peeling, chopping, boiling, seasoning, baking and cleaning up. It's so much easier to buy a hamburger and fries or to slip some processed (and therefore not very nutritious but very expensive) meal into the micro-wave or oven and then pitch the trash. And carry-out food has been improved and diversified, but except for take-out salads, it's still heavy in fat and sodium.

It's amazing what we'll do to avoid the tedium of producing healthy and inexpensive meals. After those new nutrition labels -- that we demanded, at great expense, which will of course be passed on to us -- have been around for a while, it will be interesting to see if our eating habits change significantly. I'm betting they won't. We Americans demand to be told what to do, but insist on the right not to do it. We're a contrary lot.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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