Food is a necessity and a luxury, a source of health and sickness, business and pleasure, fun-filled and fear inspiring. Food brings people together, is a fascinating and vital component of life, and it has been a career for Jo Ellen Helmlinger, OCJ’s “Food Chat” columnist.
“People have to eat, and if you are going to eat, you may as well enjoy it,” Helmlinger said. “I think food is really interesting. I am interested in the science of how things work with food. Food as pharmacy is a really important topic too.”
Helmlinger has shared her interests in food through her writing in “Ohio’s Country Journal” since 1997. She recently announced that she is retiring to do more cooking, golfing (which she admits is very challenging), and competing with her Welsh Corgi.
“I have written a column every month since September of 1997,” she said. “I have never missed one. At that time, Connie Cahill was doing her TV show and I was doing her writing. She recommended me and that is how I got started.”
She brings a wealth of food industry experience to the table, literally, through her columns.
“I started in foods as a 4-Her in Shelby County and I really enjoyed that. I went to OSU and majored in journalism and home economics. Then I worked for a newspaper in Illinois, just across the River from St. Louis, and did their food writing. That got me interested in writing about food,” Helmlinger said. “I came back here and worked in consumer affairs for Big Bear Supermarkets. I was on the buying committee for the company. I learned a lot about retail food. Then I went to Borden and worked on publicity for their brands. After that I went out on my own and continued to do a lot of work for Borden. I did their trend tracking and had access to a lot of their research and information. I would write trend information for them and I would pick up a lot of column writing ideas through that.”
Helmlinger has seen many trends come and go in the time she has spent working in the food industry — both good and bad.
“Right now, for example, a food that is really trendy is Brussels sprouts. You are seeing them in every restaurant,” she said. “A lot of food trends come from restaurants and trickle down. It has gotten a lot easier to track these trends on the Web. I also use a service called ‘Family Features’ that is available to food editors. I know those recipes will be good because they are tested in test kitchens. I have a library of references too that I use.”
Helmlinger points out that some food trends can be contrary to good nutrition.
“With low fat and no fat foods becoming so popular years ago, you ended up with trans fats, which were much worse for you than the fat,” she said. “Now they are talking about legislation on banning trans fats.
“Sodium is really a big health concern with low fat foods. It has a big effect on your cardiovascular system. When you get into a lot of these reduced fat products, it may have fewer calories, but to get the flavor, the sodium has skyrocketed. We know that too much sodium has a detrimental effect and the problem is not coming from your salt shaker.”
Another more recent dietary fad is a gluten free diet.
“The trend right now that dieticians are cautioning people about is this gluten free diet. The number of people who really have a gluten allergy is very small,” Helmlinger said. “People can be sensitive to it, but that doesn’t always translate into the need for these diets. People also think gluten free is low calorie, which it is not. People think it is a way to lose weight, which it is not.”
A more favorable food trend is the growing interest in buying locally raised foods that support the local economy and provide a fresh product with a connection to the farmer who produced it.
“New restaurants serving local are opening all the time. That is great for farmers and for getting fresh food, even if you have to pay a little more. When you buy a fresh Ohio apple, you realize how tasteless the apples are that are grown in Washington and brought here,” Helmlinger said. “And, when you get meats or fresh fruits and vegetables locally, they are typically low in sodium. So that is a good thing.”
In watching consumer trends over the years, Helmlinger said the fears and misunderstandings about genetically modified crops are real and a significant challenge for the future of agriculture.
“Genetically modified foods are a real issue. The problem is a lot of people feel like it hasn’t been proven safe for a long enough time,” she said. “People also connect ‘genetically modified’ with antibiotics — it is all thrown into one pot. When their child is resistant to antibiotics, they think it must be connected to meat and they think that is connected to GMOs. The industry is expecting to convince people right away about this; I think it will take a long time. Centuries ago people didn’t eat tomatoes because they thought they were poisonous. People adapt, but health concerns are scary for people.”
Helmlinger encourages people to use some common sense and to make sure to find the fun in food.
“The biggest thing in eating healthy is eating reasonable portions of good foods and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat. We all look for a quick fix,” she said. “When you start obsessing about what you are going to eat or not eat, you miss out on the fun and social experience of food. Food is an important part of what we do. It is very communal. It always tastes better when you are eating with someone else, unless you are having a depressing moment with some Ben and Jerry’s.
“Enjoy your food. You don’t have to guilt yourself about food. Your food doesn’t all have to be made from scratch to be healthy. It should be fun to learn about your food and you should enjoy it, even if you just open a bottle of wine and have grilled cheese sandwiches.”