Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Truth About "Healthy" Processed Foods


Should we buy food with natural, health claims on the label? 

These days, we are seeing more and more health claims that go beyond the usual.  These claims include “trans fat-free,” “gluten-free,” “heart healthy,” and foods/drinks spiked with vitamins ... such as these Vitamin Waters. 

We see whole-grain Pop Tarts and Tyson chicken with misleading labels such as “raised without antibiotics.”

We see natural sweeteners called Sweet Fiber. 

We see whole-grain Cheerios that are still full of sugar. 

Now you can get “health food” like salads at McDonald’s ... but with salad dressings that have more calories than a Big Mac. 

And we also see antioxidant-spiked junk food and ginkgo-spiked energy drinks. 

What should we make of all these marketing claims? Do they provide any benefit? 

In Michael Pollan’s new book “In Defense of Food,” he rails against the notion of “nutritionism” ... the idea that we can single out nutrients from whole foods, add them back to processed food, or take them as supplements, and achieve health benefits. 

His point is very well taken. 

We must be very careful to avoid the marketing ploys of the food industry ... which wants to trick us into eating more junk food by putting it in friendlier packaging. 

Make no mistake. 

These foods are still wolves in sheep’s clothing. 

We need to be very wary of any food that comes in a package, box, or a can. 

That is not to say that there are not some good whole foods that are available in boxes, packages, or cans. 

However, most of what is available in the marketplace is simply not real food. 

I remember reading an article about a food scientist who worked for a large food industry company.  His job was to invent and create new foods in the laboratory by mixing food and chemicals to create certain tastes and flavors that mimic real food ... or that stimulate appetite and satisfy our need for various tastes. 

Think of these as “Frankenfoods.” 

Anyway, this guy became quite sick from handling these compounds and chemicals everyday. 

And, at the time, I was shocked to read the very careful and deliberate marketing ploys used to gain a foothold in our increasingly health conscious market. 

The advice to the food industry was clear:  Modify packaging and ingredients in food just slightly to give the impression of health, while continuing to provide poor-quality, nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods. 

For example, Tyson Foods cleverly labels their chicken as “produced without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans,” meaning they did use antibiotics ... just not ones that cause problems in humans.  They hope. 

Who are they fooling? 

Another article stated something to the effect that innovation in the food industry will continue in areas of “perceived” health and wellness, convenience, and ethnic products. 

Read that carefully. 

“Perceived” health and wellness ... not actual health and wellness. 

As long as you make people think they are getting something healthy, that is good enough ... even if it is the same old junk food. 

Other new junk foods include allergy-free junk foods and energy drinks. 

There was also an article about Lean Pockets. This company now offers whole-grain pocket sandwiches, which are still full of chemicals and processed food, but now have a few more flecks of fiber to give the illusion of a health food. 

There is even an ad for something called Vegi Pure, a compound designed for cholesterol reduction that puts plant phytosterols in sugary junk food! 

So what’s the bottom line? 

If it has a label, do not eat it ... or, at least, please eat it very minimally and only occasionally. 

We have to be very cautious as consumers to recognize label claims for health benefits on processed foods ... which sprinkle miniscule, non-therapeutic amounts of healthful ingredients into otherwise poor-quality, high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods ... giving us the illusion that we are doing something good for ourselves. 

I encourage you to eat food that comes from a farmer’s market and not from a food chemist’s laboratory ...  and you will not have to worry as much about all these functional food claims. 

Here is what we need to be eating more of: 

Whole, real food such as vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains

Lean animal protein like small wild fish, deer and poultry, and whole omega-3 eggs.

Small amounts of grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free beef or lamb. 

Food scientists tend to make us think that we need all these special ingredients in foods to stay healthy. 

But they are just extracting them from real, whole foods .... so why not start with the whole food in the first place? 


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