Bacon and eggs sneak back on American plates

October 19, 1994|By Pat Dailey | Pat Dailey,Chicago Tribune

Wait a minute, let's get this straight. Butter consumption is on the rise? People are eating more cheese, eggs and bacon, those cholesterol-laden culprits?

Yes. Tired of denial or maybe just tired of pretending, Americans are beginning to turn a deaf ear to all the doom and gloom that has been piled on their plates. Many of the foods that we have been told to regard as sinful, wrong and just plain bad are finding their way back onto the table. This time, when they show up, they bask in all their glory, without the weight of guilt or apology.

Call it a backlash.

It's not an all-out war against the gains of nutrition education. Rather, we're hammering out a truce so that intelligent eating can exist within a framework of pleasure.

We're buttering bread. Serving steaks with a thin rim of fat on them. Scooping out ultra-rich ice creams and plopping them on pies and cakes. Frying bacon and eggs for breakfast and feeling smug about it all.

They've never really been gone, you say? That could be. Denial never has been an effective means of behavior modification, particularly when it comes to food.

Trend-spotter Faith Popcorn, president of BrainReserve, has coined various feel-good phrases that embrace a backlash: the pleasure revenge, small indulgences, the I-deserve-it syndrome. Writing in her book, "The Popcorn Report," she Paradoxically, there also is a strong sense that food kills us. Food has become both the cure and the curse, setting it afloat in a sea of conflicting behaviors.

Health reports and studies, many of them making food and dietary habits the nails in early coffins, assail us. Some of these issues have been magnified or reported prematurely or out of context, according to nutrition consultant Mary Abbott Hess, president of Hess & Hunt Nutrition Communications in Winnetka, Ill. The result can be despair.

'I can't cope'

"People keep hearing that foods are bad for them. Whatever they do is bad," says Ms. Hess, a former president of the American Dietetic Association. "They end up saying, 'I can't cope,' and just give up any attempt. They don't even allow themselves credit for the positive changes they've made. This can lead to bad choices."

Obsession with health and the notion that perhaps just one behavior or one food may save our lives has led to what Julia Child calls "fear of food." This ultimately contradicts the need for food, both biological and social.

"Denial is not a natural thing for humans, especially when it comes to food," says Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, an Illinois market research firm. What is natural, apparently, is people's ability to make a little virtue go a long way:

"Ninety-three percent of people report eating some low-fat products in their diets. They think this covers them, that they've taken care of the need to eat healthfully," Mr. Balzer says. "But really, only 15 to 16 percent of foods sold are positioned as low-fat. How important are they to the total amount of food people eat? That leaves 85 percent of foods that aren't positioned as low-fat."

He says the consumption of fatty and caloric foods such as bacon and hamburgers is on the rise, but cautions that it may not be a backlash to dietary restraint.

Americans are far more likely to base their food choices on cost and taste rather than health issues, Mr. Balzer says. It follows, then, that when the cost of butter, eggs, beef and bacon is down, consumption increases. "The thing that gets people to change behavior is to change the price, Mr. Balzer says. "Right now, butter is in a favorable position."

Butter looks better and better

Butter appeared to be one of the earliest casualties of the war on fat. Packed with cholesterol, it was easily replaced by margarine, the substitute that had everything but the cholesterol. Margarine's golden reputation has been tarnished by a report that the trans fatty acids in margarine might increase people's risk of heart disease. Suddenly, butter didn't look quite as bad, and its price is low.

"Butter had a major rebound in 1993," reports Martin Veeger, a research associate for the International Dairy Association. Consumption rose from 3.7 pounds per person in 1992 to 4 pounds in 1993.

Ms. Hess, a dietitian, is not one to tell people that butter -- or almost any food, for that matter -- is bad for them. She accepts a little rebellion, but only as part of a whole diet, not as a lifestyle. She admits to eating a small amount of chocolate each day.

"People have tended to get total messages that meat or butter is bad for them," Ms. Hess says. "But there can be trade-offs so anyone can eat whatever they want. If brie cheese is your favorite food, have it and enjoy it. Make your changes elsewhere."

There has been an irrevocable change in how America eats. Lard and 16-ounce steaks probably never will become staples again. A comparison of older and newer cookbooks shows that a lot of excess has been pared away.

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