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Kim Martin, of South Korea, browses the fruit and vegetable section at the Vilseck, Germany, commissary with her children Rachel, 6, and David, 3.

Kim Martin, of South Korea, browses the fruit and vegetable section at the Vilseck, Germany, commissary with her children Rachel, 6, and David, 3. (Seth Robson / S&S)

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Colorful cardboard and plastic containers decorated with cartoons and glossy photographs of fried chicken and sausages filled Jill Cheatham’s shopping cart last week at the Vilseck commissary.

On the other side of the store, Kim Martin’s cart was rapidly filling with fruit and vegetables in the produce section alongside soybean paste and tofu.

The Grafenwöhr commissary, like others, has a variety of foods. But commissaries around the world are trying to steer consumers toward a healthier balance through a program called “It’s Your Choice, Make it Healthy.”

“Throughout the store we have posted shelf tags which point out the ingredients a customer should look for in their products in order to eat in a healthier manner. We have posters, news releases and buttons in all commissaries worldwide,” said Kay Blakley, the Defense Commissary Agency’s consumer advocate in Europe.

DeCA encourages stores to work with local nutrition professionals to create displays educating customers. More information is available at the “It’s Your Choice, Make it Healthy” link at www.commissaries.com.

Patricia Hamel, whose husband works at Grafenwöhr’s Non-Commissioned Officer Academy was shopping at the Grafenwöhr commissary on Friday.

Hamel said she was unaware of the “It’s Your Choice, Make It Healthy” program but regularly shops for healthy food.

“I buy a lot of the healthy luncheon meats like Healthy Choice turkey and ham and the Lean Cuisine frozen items,” she said.

However, Hamel, who has three children to feed, said she did not have time to read nutrition labels.

Another Grafenwöhr commissary shopper, Sgt. 1st Class Avery Mayfield, of Company D, 3rd Battalion, 58th Aviation Regiment, also was unaware of the “Make It Healthy” program.

Mayfield said he had a high metabolism that enabled him to eat all sorts of foods without getting fat and that he stuck to the food he had grown up with — things like chicken, beef, pork and a lot of seafood.

“We eat a lot of seafood in my hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia,” he said.

It’s hard to say what, if any, difference the program that’s been in existence since February 2005 has made, according to Geraldine Young, spokeswoman for DeCA Europe.

“In general, people are more educated about the right way to eat these days and our program aims to make that education easier by putting it right on the shelf for customers to see,” Young said.

A quick stroll through the Grafenwöhr commissary revealed plenty of healthy food on sale, from low-fat milk and ice cream to no-fat I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables, soy milk, frozen fish and low-fat snacks such as rice cakes.

However, there was also plenty of processed food high in fat, sugar and salt.

For example, in the frozen food section there was Red Baron’s Classic Four Cheese Pizza. The pizza is meant to serve four but looked like it might feed two hungry soldiers. According to the box, each serving contains 19 grams of fat (29 percent of the recommended daily allowance), and 11 grams of saturated fat (56 percent of the recommended daily allowance). So, if a couple of soldiers split the pizza, each would have exceeded his or her daily saturated fat allowance.

Another high-fat, high-sugar item on sale was Grands’ Cinnamon Rolls. Each roll contains 23 grams of sugar and 9 grams of fat. But a soldier might easily consume an entire container of five rolls, meaning 115 grams of sugar and 45 grams of fat or 65 percent of the recommended daily allowance.

If you wash it down with Pepsi, one of many soft drinks on sale at the commissary, you have added 28 grams of sugar. Drink a liter of it and you have consumed 110 grams of sugar.

Cheatham, who was shopping at the Vilseck Commissary with 5-year-old daughter Jenna said she does a big shopping trip to the commissary once a month and then comes back for extra items when she needs them. This time, she’d bought packs of Kid’s Cuisine fried chicken, Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages, Scooby Doo yogurt and Pop-Tarts.

Cheatham said her No. 1 concern when shopping is taste. After that, she looks to buy healthy food and occasionally she is attracted by bargain prices.

Martin, a South Korean who was shopping with her children, Rachel, 6, and David, 3, said she seeks out ingredients to make traditional Korean foods such as cabbage to make kimchi.

Sales drive commissaries’ choices for products

So how does DeCA decide what food to stock in its commissaries?

According to Blakley, customer demand is a major driving factor.

“In recent years especially, our customers are demanding more healthy eating choices and we are responding to that. All our buyers look for more low-fat, low-salt, low carb, whole grain, low-sugar items. We certainly responded well during the low-carb craze and greatly increased the number of products we carry in that range,” she said.

With the decline of the low-carb craze, commissaries have eliminated some low-carb products as a result of low sales, she said.

“The sales volume of an item certainly can impact how long it stays on the shelf. Because European commissaries are often smaller than those stateside, we have limited shelf space and must strike a balance between the items desired by the many, versus limited-use items. However, some special items such as those needed for babies, will remain on our shelves despite low sales because we know they are important to the few that need them,” she said.

Commissaries also look at cost when deciding which items to stock, Blakley said.

“The financial factor is really driven by how much savings we can get for our customers and we negotiate prices with the vendor representatives to get the best deal. Because we sell at cost, there is no profit factor at work here,” she said.

Commissaries are required by law to buy mostly American products, but they also stock some items unique to Europe such as Scottish cookies, Danish butter, Italian pasta and special detergents for use in European dishwashers, she said.

Why are so many processed foods that are high in fat and sugar sold in commissaries?

According to Blakley, nutrition experts agree that categorizing foods as either “good or bad” is not a particularly good idea.

“There is a place for all foods in a healthy diet, even those pure-pleasure treats of little nutritional value can be worked in from time to time, but balance is the key,” she said.

How do I eat healthy?

Kay Blakley, the Defense Commissary Agency’s consumer advocate in Europe, advises:

¶ Choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods each day from each of the five foods groups — grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, and meat and beans — and limit your consumption of saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars and salt. Concentrate on whole foods (those with little or no processing) that typically line the perimeter of the commissary. Then, fill in the gaps with lightly processed products from the center aisles.

Anything in the fresh produce section, for example, is fair game. All vegetables are good for you, and the more you eat of these, the less room you’ll have for higher-calorie foods. Get 2½ cups per day. Fresh fruits are excellent choices for adding some sweetness to your diet without adding many calories. Plus, they are loaded with fiber and vitamins and minerals. Aim for 2 cups per day.

¶ Go lean with protein when shopping the fresh-meat case, by focusing on beef and pork cuts with “loin” or “round” in the name. Choose white meat poultry cuts for the lowest amount of calories and fat. Vary your protein choices by including more fish, beans, dried peas, nuts and seeds, and pay attention to the amount consumed from this food group. Most of us need only 5½ ounces each day.

¶ Make sure you get the calcium-rich foods you need each day from the fresh dairy case — 3 cups for adults and 2 cups for children ages 2 to 8. Make most of your choices either fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1 percent), and save the full fat versions, like real whipped cream, for occasional treats.

¶ Make half your grain choices whole. When choosing breads, cereals, crackers, rice and pastas, read the ingredients label to see that the word “whole” precedes the name of the grain used. Ingredients are listed by volume, so look for those with the whole grain used listed first. Just six, 1-ounce equivalent servings per day is all that most of us need. A one-ounce serving is usually about one small slice of bread, 1 cup dry breakfast cereal, or half a cup of cooked rice, cereal or pasta.

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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