"Don't eat anything your great-grandmother would not have recognized as food," counsels Michael Pollan, author of "Food Rules."
Another of my favorite phrases attributed to him says, "Don't eat anything that contains ingredients you cannot pronounce." To which Pollan might add, "Don't eat a food with more than five ingredients."
Think about that for a minute and then take a look at the boxes and bags of store-bought food you have in your kitchen cupboard. It won't take long — a quick once-over tells you a lot.
If your cupboard looks like our pantry, it's hard to find a packaged and processed food with fewer than five ingredients. And I regularly purge our shelves of not-good-for-us-so-how-did-it get-in-here-food.
We try to follow the philosophy that if we spend more time shopping the edges of the store and not the middle aisles, we do better. But it's not always possible.
For instance, my husband likes soup for lunch — even on a 100-degree summer day. Do you know how many ingredients a can of tomato soup has in it? The one I'm looking at right this minute has 19. Tomatoes are listed first. That's a good thing. But high fructose corn syrup is also on that list. And a "serving size" of tomato soup is not an entire can, it's half a can. So if you eat the whole can of soup you get twice as many unpronounceable ingredients and you double the amount of sodium. This can of tomato soup has 820 milligrams of sodium. That's not a good thing. Sorry dear, just had to mention that soup issue ... again.
I need to be a little careful, because my husband is getting much better at reading food labels and making healthier choices. He would tell you he deserves credit for becoming a more "mindful eater." My words, not his. He doesn't talk that way.
If he were writing this column, my spouse could probably not resist telling you about something involving his wife's not-so-great food choices. He might refer to the fact that yesterday I stopped at the store at the end of the day. I was hungry but intended to get only bottled iced tea. But a package of chips positioned at the end of the aisle called out to me. The yellow-and-orange package implored me to grab it and run toward the checkout line. These were not just run-of-the-mill chips; they were made with sweet potatoes and said "all natural" in big, beckoning letters. The brand was "food should taste good," which I totally agree with, and it even sounded a little bit like a Michael Pollan line. There were eight ingredients and sweet potatoes were the fifth. There was also "evaporated cane juice." I bought them anyway but have not opened the package yet. I'm waiting for the right moment — maybe some night when my husband's not home.
"Eat food, not so much, mostly plants."
That's my favorite line from the journalist-turned-nutrition-advisor. It's in sync with the new USDA approach to eating well. See www.choosemyplate.gov, which reminds us to fill half our plates with fruits and vegetables, ideally those we've purchased at a farmer's market or grown in our own gardens. It beckons in a way those cans of soup and packages of chips cannot, although the chips had me at "food should taste good."
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.