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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Told To Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries

Click here to read the full article from the New York Times

It’s been a busy week for vegetables.

The baby-carrot industry tried to reposition its product as junk food, starting a $25 million advertising campaign whose defining characteristics include heavy metal music, a phone app and a young man in a grocery cart dodging baby-carrot bullets fired by a woman in tight jeans.

On the East Side of Manhattan, crates of heirloom vegetables with names like Lady Godiva squash were auctioned for $1,000 each at Sotheby’s, where the wealthy are more accustomed to bidding on Warhols and Picassos than turnips and tomatoes.

Both efforts, high and low, are aimed at the same thing: getting America to eat its vegetables.

Good luck. Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a comprehensive nationwide behavioral study of fruit and vegetable consumption. Only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, it concluded. (And no, that does not include French fries.)

These results fell far short of health objectives set by the federal government a decade ago. The amount of vegetables Americans eat is less than half of what public health officials had hoped. Worse, it has barely budged since 2000.

“It is disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t working.

“There is nothing you can say that will get people to eat more veggies,” said Harry Balzer, the chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research company.

This week, the company released the 25th edition of its annual report, “Eating Patterns in America.” The news there wasn’t good, either. For example, only 23 percent of meals include a vegetable, Mr. Balzer said. (Again, fries don’t count, but lettuce on a hamburger does.) The number of dinners prepared at home that included a salad was 17 percent; in 1994, it was 22 percent.

At restaurants, salads ordered as a main course at either lunch or dinner dropped by half since 1989, to a mere 5 percent, he said.

The nation has long had a complicated relationship with vegetables. People know that vegetables can improve health. But they’re a lot of work. In refrigerators all over the country, produce often dies a slow, limp death because life becomes too busy.

“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it,” Mr. Balzer said.

In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly.

“Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost,” Mr. Balzer said.

Melissa MacBride, a busy Manhattan resident who works for a pharmaceuticals company, would eat more vegetables if they weren’t, in her words, “a pain.”

“An apple you can just grab,” she said. “But what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my purse?”

No one really wants to admit that they don’t eat vegetables. A nurse who works at the Hospital for Special Surgery on the Upper East Side openly acknowledges that vegetables make her gag. Still, she begged to not be publicly identified because she is in the health care field and knows that she should set a better example.

David Bernstein, who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is sheepish about the lack of vegetables in his diet. He waits tables at the hip M. Wells restaurant in Long Island City, Queens, and knows his way around the Union Square Greenmarket. But his diet consists largely of bacon, yogurt and frozen stuffed chicken breasts.

“It’s just like any other bad habit,” he said. “Part of it is just that vegetables are a little intimidating. I’m not afraid of zucchinis, but I just don’t know how to cook them.”

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