The right to choose our food – Are better food labels an answer?

 Mark Bittman in today’s NYT writes, that the government must frame policy that regulates what we choose to eat. I agree and I’ll explain why.

A society is a communal organization. Its success requires its members to live, behave and eat responsibly in a way that fuels both, their own personal growth as well as that of the community. When self-regulation and self-discipline falter, it always has a larger impact than the self and at some point a ripple effect will be set in motion. The people who today say that they don’t want to be told what to eat, must also understand that they will fall sick someday and then, other people will not want to pay for their health. Personal responsibility with lifestyle is acutely tied to health care costs. I am not saying that we must become ascetics; I only ask that we exercise some measure of control and balance in our eating choices. The right of choice is not absolute. It comes equally balanced with the responsibility of making the right choice. Without that active process of considered decision-making, we stare at the face of ruin.  Frank Herbert, the author of ‘Dune’, says it better: “Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty”.

The risk from a bad diet to disease and overall health is far greater than that from tobacco or alcohol. That fact cannot be ignored any more, simply because packaged food is ubiquitous and has invaded kitchens. Things strewn in happy, warm fuzzy places, like kitchen shelves and brightly lit grocery aisles, autosuggest good wellbeing. It is a very hard exercise to whip up enough worry to make this sort of food taboo. After all, unlike tobacco or alcohol, they don’t sit in designated areas in a supermarket; they occupy shelves in every aisle. 

Paul Cezzane: Still life; Bavarian State Picture Museum, Munich

Our eating and buying patterns are ingrained and changing them is akin to a huge tectonic shift in lifestyle and the task in indeed a formidable one. Yet, in the face of increasingly worrying information about food related health disorders, obesity and diabetic epidemics, change is not a choice anymore. 

But, how do we change? Most will agree that most of the fun in grocery shopping is in the mindless browsing of shelves cluttered with bewildering but delectable choice. We love indulging our curiosity with new products and in the warm feeling of guiltless pleasure in knowing that we are both, doing a ‘job’ and enjoying it at the same time. However, the actual business of buying rarely takes much time because we usually buy the same tried and tested products in the comforting sense of familiarity that marketing folk call, ‘brand loyalty’. To move away from the comfort zone of the products we know and like to the uncertain one of products we want to buy, but don’t know enough about, we need information. How reasonable is it to expect people to change eating practices, to make an informed decision on what they eat, when the subject of food and diet is littered with confusing jargon, poorly understood directives, improper classification and a lack of easily digestible information about ‘what to buy’ in the supermarket. 

The effort with changing what we eat is confronted with a problem at the outset itself – the definition of ‘food’. The word ‘food’, automatically connotes a good vibe of sustenance, nutrition and wellbeing. And that is also how it is defined. “Food” (or “foodstuff”) means any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be, or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans. For a more detailed definition, click here. Quite clearly, this blanket definition runs the gamut of all and everything edible and makes no distinction between, a)harmful b)harmless but low in nutrition and c)high nutrition varieties. ‘Processed food’ is yet another ambiguous term. Processing means altering food from its natural state for purposes of storage, nutrition or taste. Not all processed food is harmful. Bread made with whole grain, for example, is good nutrition. As is, fortified whole grain flour. On the other hand, sugared cereal and refined flour are not. Unfortunately, not all food distinctions are this easy. 

Current information on the ‘content’ of food is hard to assimilate. Food pyramids and Food plates, while useful, offer little real help with ‘products’ on the shelf. A consumer’s health interests are better served when a product’s packaging has its glycemic index, gluten content, protein and fat content emblazoned in a sharply designed standardized format that is in one defined place on the box. The current nutrition labels detail, in tiny impossible to read print, complicated information on serving size and percentages of recommended daily intake. This information is extensive and hard to assimilate.

In recognition of the difficulty with putting the food pyramid to practical use, My plate was developed as a more consumer friendly alternative. While that is indeed a welcome step forward; a tandem evolution in food labeling in step with My plate, would have not only increased the visibility of this public health exercise, but also converted it into information that consumers could readily use while making their food choices in a grocery store. 

A more specific labeling system for itemized everyday products like milk, juice, cheese, cereal, frozen food, processed grain etc., needs to be created.  This new system will link products directly to My plate in order that a consumer doesn’t have to make calculations anymore. The new chart should have already predetermined the My plate daily requirement to an absolute number. All labels will now have a value that is a percentage of that number. The brilliant design of My plate’s icon has five food essentials on display in five colors. Food labels can be simplified to display the contents of these same five nutrients in the same five color codes. The color can be graded based on how the percentage content of the box’s My plate requirements. The new labeling system might look something like this:

A quick look at the USDA site, reveals an extraordinary amount of excellent information that is however hard to pare down to needs. A lot of the information on My plate can be condensed and designed to fit into handy download-able charts. These charts should become ubiquitous from the home to the stores. They can be stuck to grocery carts and hung in the aisles. Grocery store employees must be trained in their use. And trained staff must ensure that they be distributed along with food stamps along with verbal instructions on their use.

Harmful processed food is marketed as grab-n-go convenience, sold in attractive packaging and labeled as ‘food’. Rather than the current nutrition labels that few read and fewer understand, parents and activists should lobby for marketing change to ensure that sodas, refined and processed food, etc have health hazard labels that link possible contents to FSIS/USDA alerts and labels that detail the connect between preventable disease and health care costs. While we, as the public, can be rightfully expected to be more responsible in our food choices, it is imperative that academics, scientists, ministries of health and international organizations start engaging in a collective exercise to standardize food terminology and nutrition charts that are easily comprehensible and acceptable to the public.

De keukenmeid
Johannes Vermeer: The Kitchen Maid; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

When dealing with the issue of regulating or rationing food to people who use and need government food welfare programs, policy can become predicament. It is hard to make a reasoned for case issuing food stamps that are used to purchase harmful food. Regulating what is purchased on food stamps curtails the choice of a consumer. But, the government cannot be expected to accept responsibility for the exercising of unhealthy choice. That is under the ambit of individual responsibility. On the other hand, any plan that targets the poor’s choices while giving the rich a free berth is obviously improper and partisan. One way of balancing this, might be to disincentivize purchase of harmful food by the public as a whole, by simply making the cost of harmful foodstuff prohibitive.  So, while their purchase is restrained by restricting access on food stamps; in general retail too, high costs will serve as an effective deterrent. This method has recorded success with tobacco and cigarettes. Of course, there are limits to how high prices can be raised and the margins might not make a dent with the wealthy. Yet, while it still doesn’t level the playing field; a change for the better, and the knowledge that our families are eating healthier, will be a satisfying emollient.

We need to start talking this subject, more heatedly, within our families and communities. After all, if desire is always going to trump discipline, policy must take over and enforce it.


The universal character of grief

I saw this extremely poignant photograph by Samuel Aranda, a NYT photographer on the NYT Lens page . This picture won the 2012 World Press Photo of the Year. It triggered an instant recollection of Michaelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican.

Ultimately the breadth of human emotion is the same and our common and shared griefs transcend any concocted divisions.


Pieta, Michaelangelo; The Vatican

Battery Park, NYC

Battery Park, NYC

One of my favourite pictures of Battery Park, NYC. Pretty good for an Iphone, I think.


One of my favorite pictures of Battery Park. This summer, in August, on what was probably the hottest day of the year. A seeming sisterhood between the tree with its outstretched limb and Liberty. Both managing to stand apart, despite all the clamor, in stoic detached silence.

The predator Indian male

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection

It seems, for now at least, I find the motivation to write only when provoked by others’ writings. The latest is Tripti Lahiri’s essay, on the India RealTime blog, entitled, “Why does India hate women?” For an Indian woman, the title demands a read and, from an opinionated one, a response.

Ms. Lahiri writes on social evils that plague the Indian woman – child marriage, child labour and the thankless and unacknowledged toil of the Indian woman. While I agree with the overall drift of her disquiet, I do not agree with the conflation of criminal acts like pedophilia and modern day social problems like teen pregnancy with traditional social ones such as child marriage and pregnancy in married teen mothers. The unnecessary enjambment of these issues confuses and muddies already fervid waters, taking us farther away from appropriate and sustainable solutions. The primary grouse of the article is child marriage (I am assuming the high teen pregnancy ratios since reported in the context of child marriage are related to it. The author does not break the figures down) and the narrative sticks to the ‘beaten-to-the-pulp’ orientalist belief of chronic social abuse of women and children by Indian society. The ease with which sociologists, historians, journalists etc., spit out the same tired narratives smacks of intellectual laziness. Social history is best recorded by its own people. The colonial interpretation of our society has left us permanently scarred. I have rarely come across any other people that are as driven to self flagellation as the Indian. We excoriate ourselves and our past; deny our own histories and unquestioningly absorb, like sponges, the ‘other’s’ perception of our own selves. By this, I do not mean that we disagree with every record not suitably flattering to us. I instead suggest that it is high time indigenous interpretations of our texts, culture and religion are given the due intellectual scouring they deserve. From such an exercise, a more balanced picture of our past might emerge.

Clearly, I disagree with the author’s take on social tradition and might go so far as to argue that in many of the cloistered communities in which child marriage is still practised; it is a continued tradition of a well meaning parental/societal elder intervention to stabilize the child’s future. It comes from a good place even if out of step with modern times and thoughts of liberated freedoms for women. Many of these social ‘evils’ (as they are called; I would use a more morally neutral term like practices) such as child marriage and dowry were simply aimed at protecting the finances of the girl, giving the new family a resource to dip into when times got hard and attempted to ensure a stable future for children in an unpredictable age. These fundamentally sensible practices (for their time) were distorted and abused as political and economic change spun society into a more rapid dynamic churn than, customs or thought could keep step with.

The struggles of today’s Indian woman, whether that of the urban working woman who has had the liberty of choice or the voiceless subaltern still subject to ancient stifling traditions, is largely due to the inability of men to evolve suitably with the times. The modernization of society brought on by social reform, although necessary, unwittingly ensured the loss of traditional safety nets for women. Industrialization and the consumerism that followed, further eroded traditional dignities of mutual gender respect. Add urbanization and the advent of the nuclear family to the cocktail and you have the perfect petri dish for modern day abuse like prostitution and sexual abuse. Regulation and the law cannot fully solve the problems even though they have tried stepping into the space vacated by tradition.

From this culture of motley reasons, arose a virulent bacterium, ‘the predator male’. Every 20th century gender crime whether female feticide, child marriage, sexual abuse or dowry deaths, can be traced to this root. Of course, it is not hate that drives this treatment of women; but Ms Lahiri knows that already and as an occassional writer and avid reader, I concede that ‘hate women’ has a potent eyeball catching effect.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Agostina, 1866

I wish it was simpler to define and describe the perception and treatment therefore, of women in India and that I could say with dogmatic certainty that it is this or that. If I had to stretch my mind to find a descriptive word; it would be disrespect, not hatred. But then I know that; that’s not true either. There is a great deal of respect for women in India at many disparate and disjointed levels. India is so steeped in paradox; it is a wonder that 20th century existentialist thought was not conceived here. But I digress. To get back to where we started; confounding questions on sexuality and culture invite convoluted analysis. Difficult though the exercise, it casts some faint light on the subject; enough to pin the following as probable reasons with a good measure of certainty.

  • 1. We are a randy race. While this statement can arch eyebrows for its dogmatic proclamation; any woman who has lived in India will attest to its veracity. There is simply no other way to explain the crude and lecherous behaviour that is rampant in the majority of Indian men like a fulminant disease. We live here in the certain knowledge that, only in this country, for some reason (maybe the one I stated above); the minute a woman (irrespective of class) steps out of her home she feels the predatory assault of men in varying degrees. This is a consistent behaviour pattern of the Indian male. As a true example of a great Indian paradox, despite resounding agreement over the truth of its existence, much of this behaviour is tolerated and suffered. So complete is the acceptance that nary an eyebrow is raised at legislated ‘women only’ seat reservations on public transport. Mind you, this is not on account of any religious or moral objection to the co-mingling of travel amongst the sexes. We frame transport policy in India as a protective measure for women in complete acknowledgment of the raptorial attitude of the Indian male. Sadly, civil society that should be taking cudgels against this desecration of fundamental decencies puts great pressure (in fairness, some of it is self-imposed) on women to cope and to resort to silence as one of a host of adaptive responses. Most often, the Indian woman with the wired-in understanding that she is her own best defense, routinely employs her own creatively devised stratagems for survival and self-protection.


  • 2. Mainstream cinema, the prime entertainment resource for the masses, revels in the disgusting and vulgar degradation of women and in the depiction of them as titillating stereotypes further fueling lasciviousness. Sexual and otherwise humiliation of women in the guise of a hero’s machismo is the casually accepted norm in Bollywood and its sister industries. And the common cinematic response of the heroine? Either burst in tears and exit stage left, or heave chest suggestively in mock anger (a response soon tamed by the man with a teasing song filmed with him jabbing violently at different parts of her body in what is called, the tree chasing routine, or worse, dance!), or heroically accept her lot in stoic suffering. Off the screen and on to the curb; life imitates art and the street easily adopts this hero-like attitude thinking it acceptable and now proceeds to inflict it on unsuspecting and irate woman. It is a farcical tragedy that the same heroes, who don’t think twice about their public image in the portrayal of abusive behaviour towards the female sex, are thronged in their public ‘appearances’ by screaming women fans and this is interpreted by the man on the street as a condoning of the screen abuse. ‘If it’s ok there, why not here?’ And, can we honestly say the thinking is flawed?


  • 3. If a woman can pick up her sandal as response to vulgarity on the street, why not in the cinema halls? A sandal lashing on the screen will surely right perceptions on how we would like to be treated. The influence of cinema cannot and should not be underestimated. Unwanted attentions and lewd comments or vulgar songs sung in cinema style are so commonly rained on traveling women, that we even have a name for this behaviour – Eve Teasing and for the pavement predators – Roadside Romeos. In typical Indian light heartedness, the criminals and their acts are given mild, even humorous, sounding names totally belying the enormity of the agitated anxiety they provoke. Both phrases, aptly descriptive of the local culture, are unique Indian-isms. The more serious assaults are what we read in the papers everyday, register for micro-seconds, before we turn the page. While the law might make distinctions between degrees of sexual abuse; a very faint moral line exists between a lewd remark and actual assault.


  • 4. Even in educated and professional circles; the imprinting of gender roles is strong enough that an unconscious acceptance of status inequality exists in both sexes. A married woman and her family still see working as more of a privilege or as a measure of feminist independence and less as a right that is automatic and does not need to be fought for. I am reminded of a scene in the movie, ‘Made in Dagenham’ – a dramatization of the real life story of the fight in the late sixties for equal pay for factory women workers in the UK. In a defining moment in the film, Sally Hawkins, acting as the protagonist, is confronted by her husband about her neglect of their household which from his perspective has been brought on by her activism. Husband and wife get into a quarrel wherein he makes a comment on things having gone too far and of how supportive he has been of her up until then. She turns around in hurt rage and says, ‘that’s just as it should be’. This sentiment of the normal case scenario, of ‘should be’, is not felt strongly enough by women to protest the burden of multitasking that they solely bear. Multitasking, at is best, is an exercise in distracted inefficiency. Instead of calling its bluff and in a bizarre twist of the narrative that does not work to any woman’s advantage; we are now gauged (and, in all fairness, gauge ourselves too) on our multitasking skills.


  • 5. The pampered relationship that sons have with mothers is so characteristically Indian as to be almost unique. For even those Indian mothers and wives who do not think of the pati as paramesh; the son is definitely paramesh. Every generation of men is brought up on this belief and have an innate sense of superiority and entitlement. Not a small part of the blame for this is due their mothers. This peculiarly possessive relationship does not admit to itself the entry of an outsider, laying the ground for future tussles with daughters in law. Reams of print have been dedicated to the unhealthy relationship between mothers in law and daughters in law, the seeds for which were sown many decades before. Women are culpable in festering and fostering these cultural memes.

It seems imperative that Indian women accept the roles they unconsciously have played in engendering modern societal attitudes towards them. Change then, might flow faster and more furious, coming as it will from the very victims of the abuse. In most conflict situations; finding a solution especially for complex social issues, lies in the accurate definition and description of the problem. Legislation alone cannot change or solve society’s evils. Reformation of thought is paramount to the development of a strong reconstructive social fabric in order that our daughters might reap the spoils of a more equal life.