My trips to the supermarket are becoming increasingly problematic these days.
No, it’s not the trolleys. Although no matter how carefully I pick, I always seem to end up with one that would really rather not go in a straight line, if that’s OK with me. Which it isn’t. Ever.
Nor is it the fact that as soon as we’ve whooshed through the automatic doors, my toddler mysteriously morphs into a superhero with elastic arms, which means I’ll reach the checkout with numerous assorted items I’ve never laid eyes on before.
“I know Teenage Mutant Ninja Hero Turtle Denture Fixative wasn’t on my shopping list,” I protest to the bemused cashier, while Junior happily gnaws the end off a French stick.
No. The food itself is causing the headache.
I, like every Mum, want to serve the family nourishing, delicious meals. And I would never want to unwittingly set up eating patterns that might trigger off illness in later life. But the more informed we grow about nutrition, the less wholesome the majority of what’s on offer in the supermarket appears. I’m beginning to feel less like a mother than a slow poisoner.
In a mad fit of tidying-up, I happened to come across my old cookery notes from school the other day. Oh, those joyous, simpler times! A healthy diet back then seemed to mean eating lots of pretty much everything, and very comforting it all was, too. My classmates and I churned out endless amateurish but mouthwatering plates of cupcakes, gooey puddings and other assorted recipes with a heavy (and I mean heavy) emphasis on good old stodge.
However, that was then. It’s bewildering how far – and how often – our thinking changes. Not long ago, fibre was the buzzword, with dairy products cast as the nutritional bad guys. Milk? Not unless it’s skimmed. Eggs? Salmonella. Cheese? Cholesterol. Soft cheese, then? Listeria. Result? Hysteria.
But now it’s good old stodge whose credentials are coming under fire. Is carbohydrate still innocent? Jury’s out. I know it used to be. But recent research seems to be looking at carbs with seriously narrowed eyes, while those previously-naughty fats are undergoing rehab.
What’s perplexing is that no sooner have you read one piece of advice than somebody else, with equal authority, contradicts it. For example. You decide to cut out junk food, and cross crisps off your shopping list. Then, browsing through a leaflet at the dentist, you learn that crisps are a good snack. The real villains are sugary foods like cakes and peas. (Hold on a moment – aren’t peas vegetables, and therefore good?) For a between-meals treat, the advice declares, crisps are best.
Okaaaaay, you think, and make the mental adjustments. Until your next trip to the dentist, that is, when you come across a different leaflet which proclaims that crisps do cause awful tooth decay because they stick to your teeth more than sugar and are therefore now Bad. Badder than sugar.
Then you read an article that says All Snacks Are Bad. And another that says actually No, they do you good; Small and Often is the way to go. Grazing, no less. Conducting your life as an eternal snackfest.
Hah – at least I’m confident sugar can’t have any redeeming features, you think, switching to sugar-free versions of your favourite brands. Only to discover from the labels that they’re sugar-free because they’re full of additives.
Hmmm. Is that a good thing ..? At least sugar’s natural, you think, uncertainly. Maybe sugar isn’t so evil after all …
And I’m not even going to start on the food invisibles; chemicals like pesticides, hormones, fertiliser residues and the like. Although at this point I’d like to pass on a very practical rule of thumb I was given once by an elderly countrywoman.
“Always choose fruit and vegetables at the market that have bugs on them,” she told me.
“Why?” I asked, intrigued (although mildly disgusted).
“Well, my dear,” she explained, “it proves no pesticides were used on them.”
She’s got a point.
While our favourite foodstuffs jostle frantically for a low ranking in the Food Villainy Leaderboard, at least there’s some common ground. I think.
It would do us all good to take a long, hard look at our eating habits and become more aware of what – and how much – we’re putting into our bodies. To the best of our understanding at the time, of course.