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Evelyn Iritani


Pasadena, California

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An Ocean Between Us


Evelyn Iritani was a longtime economics correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, where she got to feed her curiosity and voyeuristic tendencies while covering headline events around the world. Her reporting has taken her from a prison in the Philippines to a bombed-out mosque in Pakistan to some of the most elite boardrooms in Asia. It also allowed her to explore many exotic markets, where she indulged her love of bargain-hunting and street food. In 2004, Evelyn won the Pulitzer Prize for a series she co-authored on Wal-Mart’s impact on the global economy. An interest in Japan, her family’s ancestral homeland, was the inspiration for her book, “An Ocean Between Us: The Changing Relationship of Japan and the United States Told in Four Stories from the Life of an American Town.” Since leaving the L.A. Times, Evelyn has worked with Saylor Co., a high-stakes PR firm, and Message, an L.A.-based communications agency, and she recently started her own company, Dancing Horse MediaShop.  In her spare time, she loves making wickedly rich desserts and herding cows in Montana.

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How To Woo Women With Food And Wine, Japanese Style Image

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Eating On A Budget In Japan? A Local Leads The Way Image

As a visitor, I’ve always been alternatively intrigued and frustrated by Japan’s food culture.

Intrigued because I know that behind almost every shoji door or noren divider there is probably a mouth-watering surprise of some sort.

Frustrated because my inability to speak or read the language — despite several years of college courses and patient tutors– leaves me unable to know exactly what I am walking into. I peek through what appear to be restaurant doorways and wonder: Can I afford what’s producing these stomach-rumbling aromas, and exactly what will I get?

So when a retired businessman offered to take me to his favorite spot for lunch during a recent visit to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, I was thrilled. There is nothing better than sharing a local’s “everyday” fare.

I was not disappointed.

East meets West in Otaru, Japan

Otaru, a picturesque port town a half-hour train ride from Sapporo, the island’s capital, was built on the fortunes of fishermen and traders. Wrapped around Ishikari Bay, the city features a “Venice of the Far East” canal lined with old warehouses.

A short walk away is Sakaimichi Street, a historic shopping area whose 19th-century western-style buildings, once home for banks and trading companies, are now filled with trendy shops selling Hokkaido glassware and seaweed candy.

Otaru’s civic leaders are passionate about preserving history, and within a few blocks of the port there are museums devoted to the city’s history, the railway system, the Bank of Japan, Venetian art, music boxes and even literature.

Tsukushi is tucked away on a side street and just around the corner from the Literary Museum, where you can learn more about novelist Sei Ito, who was one of Otaru’s most famous residents. If a filmmaker was trying to cast an authentic Japanese seafood experience, this tiny restaurant looks the part.

Behind its sliding doors, Tsukushi boasts a three-sided bar built around a stone robata-yaki grill. Dried salmon and flatfish dangle from hooks on the ceiling and ceramic shochu jars line the bar. Five hundred yen ($4.25 U.S., according to a recent exchange rate) will buy a shot of the shochu, a potent Japanese liquor. Fluttering paper banners advertise the daily fare in bold brush strokes: seafood, seafood and more seafood.

We arrived shortly after the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m., and the 11 stools filled rapidly with salarymen and women, utility workers and young female tourists. Linger too long and you’ll be asked to leave — politely of course. This is Japan, after all.


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An artist along the canal in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

It was nearly a decade ago that Katsuhiko Kawanishi decided to go out on his own after cooking for more than a decade at other people’s hot stoves. The Hokkaido native named his restaurant Tsukushi after the horsetail plants whose green shoots mark the end of Hokkaido’s long winter.

Kawanishi starts his day early, meeting with one of the three or four main fish brokers who serve Otaru or visiting one of the local markets where fishermen bring in their daily catch. During my visit in early fall, the hakkaku, or sail-fin poacher, was in season. This unusual fish, whose large dorsal fin gives it the appearance of an eight-sided prehistoric monster, is a Hokkaido specialty and is eaten grilled or raw.

Unfortunately, there was no hakkaku on the menu the day I dropped in. But I still had more than a dozen different versions of donburi to pick from. Donburi, which means rice bowl, is a form of Japanese comfort food.

At Tsukushi, the donburi was covered with different types of sashimi, or raw fish, topped in turn with a sprinkle of salty dried seaweed called nori. For 500 yen ($4.25 U.S.), I was served a bowl of noodle soup, salty pickled vegetables and a bowl of steaming hot rice covered with thin slices of maguro tuna, squid and tobiko, delicate flying fish eggs. I chose the cheapest offering, but there were 15 kinds of donburi topped with everything from scallop and salmon eggs or crab, squid and salmon to sea urchin.

I returned the next day at lunch to try Tsukushi’s teishoku meal set, which included a piece of grilled fish accompanied by a bowl of rice, noodle soup, sashimi and pickled vegetables. For 630 yen ($5.35 U.S.), you could try one of seven varieties of grilled fish, including hokke (atka mackerel), sanma (saury pike) grilled with salt, or salmon collar.

In the evenings, Tsukushi becomes a robata-yaki restaurant, serving all kinds of grilled meats and seafood with beer and sake. Arrive before 6:30 p.m. and you can get a special meal set for 1,300 yen ($11.04 U.S.) that includes two drinks (beer or sake), sashimi, yakitori and pickles. And don’t tip the chef or waiter. That custom has still not caught on in Japan.

Unfortunately, I ran out of time long before I reached the end of the menu. But a couple visits to Tsukushi convinced me it is possible to eat very well on a budget in Japan with the right introduction. If you go, tell Kawanishi-san I sent you.

Main image: Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Tourism That Can Save A Gorilla, Maybe Even A Country Image

I gaze at the 400-plus-pound silverback in what I hope is a submissive fashion. I was warned not to stare. But Humba, the king of a family of mountain gorillas, is a spectacular animal.

He’s as big as a piano, but somehow able to leap up and grab the top of a slender tree and bend it to the ground like a slingshot. Human-like, but not human. And those piercing eyes. To be within a dozen feet of one of these amazing creatures is a bucket-list experience I didn’t even know existed.

Emmanuel de Merode hopes others will make the long trek to Rumangabo, Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga National Park is home for 220 of the endangered beasts. But as the park’s chief warden, he knows only the hardiest travelers are likely to accept an invitation to a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the country, one of the world’s deadliest war zones.

To make the park safe for wildlife and visitors, De Merode and his army of rangers have had to take on gun-toting guerrillas, poachers and illegal charcoal traders. Since 1996, more than 130 rangers have been killed, most of them by poachers or armed rebels.

Editor’s note: Emannuel de Merode was shot by an unknown assailant April 15 on the road leading to park headquarters from Goma. He was airlifted to a hospital in Nairobi and is expected to fully recover, according to a park employee.  The police are reportedly investigating the attack.

Can tourism lead to a better way of life in war-torn nation?

The latest and most serious threat is what critics call the “oil curse.” The Congolese government is considering revising its laws to allow oil drilling in Virunga and other protected sites. The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and the European Union Parliament have opposed such a move. They fear oil exploration will introduce serious threats to the park’s fragile ecosystem and worsen the regional conflicts.

De Merode believes he can offer the people of the Congo a better life than poachers or oil companies. He has launched an ambitious partnership with philanthropist Howard Buffett, eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett, to turn Virunga into a multimillion-dollar job-creating platform using a combination of luxury tourism, fisheries, agribusiness and energy. But for De Merode and Buffett to win this high-stakes battle, they need others to enlist, starting with the world’s travelers. Call it adventure tourism with a purpose: Visit the Virunga, save a gorilla’s life and maybe a country.

Virunga is “the greatest park on earth and it is something that absolutely has to be protected, no matter what,” says De Merode, a boyish 43-year-old who grew up in Kenya and is a member of the Belgian royal family.

In spite of the damage from fighting and poachers, Virunga remains one of the world’s most biologically rich landscapes: It is home to 706 species of birds as well as 218 mammal species and 109 reptile species. It is the only place on the planet where you can see all three of the great ape species: the mountain gorilla, the lowland gorilla and the chimpanzee. The park is home to a quarter of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas.

Virunga was closed in April 2012 after the M23, one of two dozen groups battling for territory in the eastern Congo, seized control of the park headquarters. But in November 2013, the rebels agreed to negotiate a peace agreement, and in the past month the Congolese government has launched a major U.N.-backed offensive against the remaining insurgents. I visited Virunga in January as the park’s staff prepared to welcome tourists back.

Safety is De Merode’s top priority. Our gorilla trek began with a hike through villages and terraced fields of vegetables, accompanied by several park rangers armed with AK-47s and two-way radios. Innocent Mburanumwe, a senior ranger, met us at a station several hours up Mount Mikeno. The 38-year-old Congolese native knows each of the park’s seven “habituated” gorilla families by sight.


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Humba is the king of a family of gorillas at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Before we set off through the jungle on a narrow path hacked through the undergrowth, Mburanumwe gave us strict instructions on how to behave. If a gorilla charges, don’t run, he said firmly. “Watch me and follow my lead. If the gorilla shows any signs of agitation, such as chest beating, look down submissively. Do not, under any circumstances, try to touch an animal.”

Mburanumwe took the lead, using grunts and other guttural sounds to let the gorillas know we were coming. As we drew close, we were asked to put on white medical masks to protect the animals from human diseases.

Amazingly, he was able to get us within a dozen feet of Humba and his harem, close enough to see the flies on the giant silverback’s black shiny fur and watch two young gorillas thump each other’s chests before skittering off into the jungle. A $400 permit bought an hour with the gorillas, significantly less than a similar experience would cost in Uganda and Rwanda.

De Merode is offering visitors a high-end experience at a bargain price. Congolese are being hired and trained at the Mikeno Lodge, where visitors  stay in luxurious thatched-roof huts with stone fireplaces. Rangers are building a high-end tent camp on Mount Mikeno so gorilla trekkers can sleep under the stars.

For adventurers willing to endure a rugged five-hour hike, the park is weatherizing eight wooden cabins perched on a ledge high on Mount Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanos within the park’s boundaries.  Their reward will be a night overlooking the world’s largest inland lava lake, lulled to sleep by the roar of the bubbling lava and an occasional whiff of sulfur.

“Every habitat you can imagine except desert and coastline is contained in Virunga,” says De Merode, describing a “best-of-Virunga” tour — yet to be developed — that will encompass all the park’s unique offerings, including a glass-bottomed boat excursion to watch hippos swim in crystal-clear spring-fed pools. “It is exceptional, and it is the window through which a whole economic sector will develop.”

Evelyn Iritani’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Top photo: Humba, the king of a gorilla family living at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Trader Joe’s, Greenpeace Bury Hatchet — Sort Of Image

Trader Joe’s has rocketed from 15th to third place on Greenpeace’s 2013 sustainable seafood scorecard based largely on the retailer’s decision to sharply reduce its sale of red-listed items and establish tougher standards for the seafood it purchases, whether wild or farmed.

Just a few years ago, Greenpeace was in a pitched battle with the Monrovia, Calif.,-based specialty retailer, which it had labeled “Traitor Joe’s” because of its sale of red-listed seafood such as Chilean sea bass and orange roughy.  The environmental group dropped its campaign in 2010 after Trader Joe’s promised it would have a fully sustainable seafood department by 2013.  Seafood ends up on the red list for a variety of reasons, including poor stock health, by-catch issues or habitat destruction.

With its move into Greenpeace’s “green zone,” where it joins industry leaders Whole Foods and Safeway, Trader Joe’s has achieved the “biggest jump in the history of the report,” said Casson Trenor, Greenpeace senior markets campaigner.

“No doubt the performance of this seminal dark horse has left more than a few of its competitors blinking in amazement and choking on its dust,” stated Greenpeace’s seventh annual Carting Away the Oceans Report, released May 29, 2013.

Trader Joe’s is also taking a leading role in important industrywide initiatives such as the campaign to protect the Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons of the Bering Sea, which are among the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, according to Trenor. He said Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Wegmans and Supervalu have thrown their support behind development of a science-based plan for protecting the deep sea canyons, which are also home for a large Alaskan pollock fishing fleet.

Asked how the retailer felt about its positive report card, Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said she could not comment on the seafood sustainability issue beyond a March 14, 2011, statement posted on the company website.

Report card: Trader Joe’s still has work to do

Though the overall news was positive, Trader Joe’s has not yet made good on its pledge to eliminate all unsustainable seafood items from its inventory by this year, according to Greenpeace. 

The report said Trader Joe’s was still selling at least four red-listed items: Alaska pollock, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic sea scallops and tropical shrimp. And, the report said, the retailer  still needs to do a lot better job of labeling its seafood so customers know what they’re buying and where it came from.

“The reality is they didn’t make good on their promise, but they sure did a lot of things well,” Trenor said, acknowledging mixed feelings about Trader Joe’s high marks given its continued red-list sales and lack of transparency. “In the end, we had to appraise it for the reality.”

Did “Traitor Joe’s” make a difference? “There’s no doubt that the Greenpeace-led campaign against Trader Joe’s to get them to change in 2009 and 2010 made them very uncomfortable,” Trenor said. “But at the end of the day, it was an outpouring of support from Trader Joe’s customers themselves that catalyzed this change within the company.”

Another piece of positive news tucked in the May 29 report: Wal-Mart has announced it will offer consumers canned skipjack tuna that has been caught without the use of fish-aggregating devices. The fish-aggregating device-free canned skipjack tuna will be sold under the Ocean Natural brand in more than 3,000 Wal-Mart stores across the U.S.

“Until this happened, American consumers operating on a budget had to make a choice between their wallet and protecting the planet,” Trenor said. “It’s a huge change.”

Top photo: A fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. Credit: Greenpeace

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Sustainable Seafood: Trader Joe’s or Traitor Joe’s? Image

I’m a Trader Joe’s groupie. So I was thrilled when my Hawaiian-shirt-clad friends announced that they would be purchasing all their seafood from sustainable sources by the end of 2012. The Monrovia, Calif.,-based retailer had been a target of a Greenpeace “Traitor Joe’s” campaign for its ocean-unfriendly policies, including the sale of a variety of endangered fish. With that pledge, Trader Joe’s joined the good guys.

But four months past the deadline, my glee has changed to frustration over Trader Joe’s unwillingness to say whether it has indeed gone sustainable. The retailer’s only statement on the subject, a customer update posted on its website March 27, does not address the deadline at all. Instead it lays out a number of steps it has taken in “support of our seafood goal of shifting to sustainable sources.”

Trader Joe’s says it will do the following: Stop selling swordfish caught in Southeast Asia, only sell canned yellowfin and albacore tuna caught using approved sustainable methods, set up new standards for suppliers of farmed shrimp and keep genetically engineered salmon off its shelves.  The store has also stopped selling endangered Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper. Those are all steps in the right direction. (May 30 update: Trader Joe’s, Greenpeace bury hatchet, sort of)

Trader Joe’s mum on meeting deadline

But can I go to Trader Joe’s today and pick up fish fillets for dinner without worrying about whether I am contributing to the degradation of the ocean?

Apparently not. When asked whether Trader Joe’s had met its December deadline, company spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki was mum. “Beyond the statement, there is nothing else we can say at this time,” she says.

Why the mystery? Everyone understands a missed deadline, particularly when it involves something as complex as seafood sustainability, global supply chains and the economics of food. But refusing to discuss the matter makes it look like Trader Joe’s is hiding something.

Casson Trenor, a senior seafood campaigner at Greenpeace, acknowledges Trader Joe’s is making “tremendous progress” toward saving the oceans. But he says the company’s reluctance to provide more information about its seafood sourcing policies has made it nearly impossible to determine whether the retailer is actually living up to its promises.

Casson Trenor. Credit: Greenpeace

Casson Trenor. Credit: Greenpeace

For example, he says the store is still selling items such as farmed salmon and dredged scallops that Greenpeace and other groups do not consider sustainable. Are they simply clearing out old inventory? Or are they flouting their own goals and hoping others won’t notice?

There are a lot of things to love about Trader Joe’s if you’re a foodie on a budget, a time-strapped cook (who knew broccoli slaw could taste so good?) or an aficionado of cheap wine. But unfortunately, transparency isn’t one of them. Trenor explains that a key part of Trader Joe’s success is its ability to create tasty, easy-to-use foods — such as spicy fish fillets — that aren’t available anywhere else. To prevent those products from being copied, the retailer has resisted pressure to reveal its sourcing or its suppliers.

“Trader Joe’s is all about magic and illusion,” Trenor says. “It delivers an experience that it doesn’t have to compete for because no one else can produce that product. Why would it give itself away?”

Verifying the sustainability of a seafood product requires two key pieces of information: where it was caught or farmed and how it was caught or farmed, explains Victoria Galitzine of FishWise, a Santa Cruz, Calif., organization working with the seafood industry to develop sustainable business practices. As a first step, she recommends checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has an app and pocket-sized cards with lists of ocean-friendly seafood and fish to avoid.

Trader Joe’s says it is in the process of enhancing its package labeling to include information on species’ Latin names; origin; and catch or production method. But until that happens, I will need to ask my friendly sales clerk whether that frozen yellowfin tuna from Fiji was caught using a long-line or purse seine equipped with a “fish aggregating device, or FAD.” If the answer is yes to the FAD, it’s on the red list and off my grill.

“Asking questions demonstrates to the retailers that its customers care about the environmental performance of its seafood and eventually those messages will trickle up the chain of command to the decision-makers who can affect significant change,” Galitzine says.

I can also support retailers who are clearly ocean-friendly. In mid-May, Greenpeace will publish its annual Seafood Sustainability Scorecard ranking grocery stores by their sustainable seafood practices. Last year, the top scores went to Safeway and Whole Foods while Trader Joe’s ranked 15 out of 20.

Trenor wouldn’t say whether Trader Joe’s will be getting a better grade this year. However, if Greenpeace finds a large gap between Trader Joe’s promises and its delivery, he is not ruling out a revival of its “Traitor Joe’s” campaign.

“Trader Joe’s did make a promise to Greenpeace and other groups and that’s why we suspended our campaign,” he says. “The time is up. The question now is did they actually do what they said they were going to do?”

Top photo: A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe’s store. Credit: Greenpeace

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A Five-Step Program To Help You Count Calories Wisely Image

In this tweet-driven, entertainment-focused world, it’s hard to break through the clutter. But the giant bus advertisement featuring two plates of bacon, eggs and pancakes caught my eye. “Do just a couple extra pancakes and two slices of bacon really make a 400-calorie difference?”

It does. And now I know the consequences.

After years of imploring people to eat more leafy, green vegetables and use the stairs rather than the elevator, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is trying a different tactic as part of its “Choose Health LA” campaign. Give people the information they need to make healthier choices, even if it’s simply less of an unhealthy choice.

Portion control is the latest weapon in America’s battle against obesity.

“We understand it’s a bit of a shift,” says Paul Simon, a physician and director of the county’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. “Here we are promoting some foods that aren’t viewed as particularly healthy. But what we’re saying is, “If you’re going to eat this, at least eat less.”

An advertisement used in the Choose Health LA campaign. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

An advertisement used in the Choose Health LA campaign. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

While the dramatic rise in obesity levels in America has slowed in recent years, the overall picture is sobering. More than one-third of all adults in this country are obese, and by 2030 an estimated 42% will be overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is approaching tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and is an important risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and many forms of cancer.

There is some good news. Intensive health education, mandatory fitness testing and the passage of a law restricting the sale of sugary beverages on school campuses seems to have paid off in California, according to Simon. Between 1999 and 2005, the obesity rates among fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students in Los Angeles County climbed 1% every year — an increase of 15,000 more obese children annually. But in 2005, those obesity levels plateaued and appear to be on the decline. A similar improvement was seen among preschool children enrolled in a federal program that provides nutritional counseling and subsidized food for low-income families.

But the same is not true for these children’s parents. Among adults in Los Angeles County, the obesity level nearly doubled to 23.6% between 1997 and 2011. Health officials are pursuing a variety of tactics in their battle against the obesity epidemic, from the expansion of bike paths and workplace wellness programs to encouraging supermarkets to promote healthier purchases. Next up: a program that will reward restaurateurs who offer healthy dining options, such as smaller portions, offering to box up half-portions and ample access to water.

Not everyone likes these ideas, particularly when they cut into profits. Beverage companies and business groups have filed a lawsuit to stop New York City’s ban on the sale of supersized sodas and other sugary drinks. Some of those same companies have complained about L.A. County’s campaign against sugary beverages. One of those ads showed a bottle of soda being poured into a glass filled with sugar packs and the question, “YOU WOULDN’T EAT 22 PACKS OF SUGAR, WHY ARE YOU DRINKING THEM?”

Need to count calories? Here are simple ways to keep numbers in check

Interested in learning more about combating calorie creep? Check out the “Choose Health LA,” website, which offers a slew of interesting factoids and the following advice:

Think small:  Everything in the kitchen — from portions to dinnerware — has grown since the 1950s. The surface area of the average dinner plate has increased by more than one-third over that period.  Try substituting a salad plate for your dinner plate, making it easier to keep your portions small. And reduce the temptation to over-consume by serving up single portions, leaving the serving bowls on the counter.

Avoid mindless eating:  Sit down in front of your television with a small bowl of snacks and leave the bag in the cupboard.  Just 10 extra calories a day — a stick of Doublemint gum or three small Jelly Belly jelly beans — will add a pound to your waistline in a year, according to Brian Wansink, food psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think.”

Ditch the “clean plate” club:  The average restaurant meal today is more than four times larger than in the 1950s. When dining out, don’t hesitate to leave food on your plate, share entrees or ask for a doggie bag for the leftovers.

Downsize your fast food: Hamburgers are four times larger today than they were in the 1950s. By choosing the smaller version of a burger, soft drink and fries over the supersized version, you can save 570 calories, which is more than one-quarter of your daily caloric needs.

Sip smartly: Substitute water, low-sugar or unsweetened beverages or nonfat or low-fat milk for sugary beverages. To find out just how much you could save by cutting back on your soda fix or frozen coffee drink, check out Choose Health LA’s  sugar calculator.

Top photo: Paul Simon is a physician and director of Los Angeles County’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

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