Do granola bars grow on trees? What about cereal puffs? Do sausages roam in the wild? To assess a food product the question to ask is not, "is it healthy?". Instead, ask yourself "how close does this food resemble its natural state?". What did it look like in nature? The further away a product appears to how it existed in nature, the less healthy. Your granola bar may give you the impression that it’s all-natural, but very little in that granola bar appears as it did in nature.
With every step of processing there is a loss of naturally occurring nutrients
and a gain in food additives.
Visualize food existing on a spectrum, with whole food on the left and processed food on the right. With every step of processing, a food shifts to the right. In the image above, a whole green apple is on the left and a green apple flavored gummy bear is on the right. Apples grow on trees, green apple gummy bears do not. Sure apple cinnamon crunch cereal might be a smidgen better for you than apple puff snacks, but they are still closer to a gummy bear, than an apple.
If You Don’t Recognize It - Don’t Eat It
The terms used on food labels can be confusing, and making your way through an ingredient list can be overwhelming. What in the world is polydimethylsiloxane? Is isoamyl acetate safe to consume?* Instead of researching every single food additive, make it simple.
Avoid foods with:
If a food has more than one ingredient and you do not recognize the ingredients, consider it a food-like product. The goal is to eat on the left of the food spectrum, with whole food on the left and processed food on the right.
If a food has to tell you it’s healthy, it’s probably not healthy.
Manufacturers sell health by using key terms on their packaging. Some terms selling health include:
• nature, natural, naturally flavored
• good source of “nutrient X”
• vitamins added
• non fat, low fat, reduced fat
• low calorie
• trans fat free
• no high fructose corn syrup
Reduced fat, low fat and non fat are all ways of telling you that the manufacturer took out a naturally occurring fat and replaced it with sugar, starch or other food additive (2). Low calorie generally means an artificial sweetener has been added.
The FDA does not have a formal definition of the word natural. The FDA is currently soliciting comments about the term natural due to consumer concerns regarding genetically engineered ingredients and high fructose corn syrup in products with natural labeling (3). At this point in time, natural on a food label doesn’t really mean anything.
Gluten-free is important for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. It's important to keep in mind that gluten-free processed foods are still processed foods. When gluten comes out, a food additive, called a gluten replacement, is added in. Some gluten replacements include xanthin, pectin, agarose, oat B-glucan, carboxylmethylcellulose, hydroxypropylmethylcellulose, psyllium, gum arabic and locust bean (4).
If a manufacturer removes partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) from a product, they will add in another type of processed fat or fat replacement. If the product is "free from high fructose corn syrup", you can be sure there is another sugar sweetener or artificial sweetener. In the fat free product shown above, three of the first four ingredients are sugar (sugar, invert sugar and corn syrup). If you accept the cookie cakes as healthy, because they are fat free and high fructose corn syrup free, yet at the same time understand that they are dessert foods with added sugar and food additives, you have engaged in nutritional doublethink. You have simultaneously accepted two contradictory beliefs about this food.
if fat comes out -> sugar is added in
When you are trying to decide if a food product is a whole food, ask yourself, “Does it grow on a tree or a bush? Does it grow in the ground? Does it roam in the wild?” If the answer is no to all of these questions, the product is most likely “not healthy”. The product will not help you lose weight, it won't reduce your risk of heart disease and it won't lower your cholesterol, despite what the label tells you.
Most foods consumed today are not really food. People consume food-like products. Avoid foods selling health. Don’t be seduced by “low fat” and “low calorie” claims. Read the ingredient list. Buy food with only a few ingredients and ingredients you recognize.
* Polydimethylsiloxane is a synthetic, silicone ingredient used as an anti-caking and anti-foaming agent. Due to silicone causing immune system changes in animals, this food additive has a "C" rating. Isoamyl acetate is an artificial flavoring agent that naturally occurs in bananas. Because high amounts have caused headaches, fatigue and fast heart rates, this food additive has an "F" rating (5).
The way plants and animals are bred, grown, stored, processed, packaged, shipped and prepared impacts the naturally occurring nutrients in those foods. A low-fat, all-natural food product may imply “healthy and fresh”, yet the food contained in that product is merely a shadow of it's former self. Once a whole food is disassembled, extruded, emulsified, macerated, liquefied, pasteurized and/or irradiated, it's reassembled, many times into a playful shapes and sold with a bright and bold "natural and healthy" label. Food processing is not the only factor affecting the food we eat.
Plant breeders have bred sugar in and nutrients out of plants (1). Many of the nutrients lost in this process are phytonutrients, also known as phytochemicals. Every plant naturally produces several hundred phytonutrients. These naturally occurring plant chemicals are involved in cell communication, metabolism and enzyme function. Phytonutrients protect us from damaging free radicals, promote healthy cholesterol levels and inhibit tumor growth (2). As a result, plant food has more sugar and fewer phytonutrients before it even reaches the manufacturing plant.
Chickens are bred and raised to have large breasts, but not flavor. The hard, bland chicken meat of today has not only lost flavor, but also nutrients (3). Both animals and plants are disassembled and then reassembled to create a product appealing to consumers. With every step of processing, naturally occurring nutrients are lost (4). As nutrients are lost, flavors and other food additives are added in (3, 5). Food additives can negatively impact our health. Artificial sweeteners are popular food additives and may actually lead to (as opposed to prevent) obesity and obesity related diseases, such as diabetes (6).
The packaging used to keep these products fresh and safe contains substances that can migrate into foods and beverages (7). Canning results in substantial nutrient loss (8). Loss of nutrients and the addition of synthetic chemicals to our food can impact our health. For example, exposure to the synthetic estrogen bisphenol-A (BPA), found in the lining of canned food, is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity (9).
Different types of food preparation methods result in nutrient loss. For example, boiling and frying has been shown to cause significant losses of vitamin C and chlorophyll (10).
The type of food we eat changes the type of microorganisms existing in our gut. Researchers demonstrated that consumption of artificial sweeteners change the type of the microorganisms in the gut and this change is associated with metabolic diseases, such as prediabetes (6).
Our complex food system has had an impact on our food and our health. This blog will explore the factors affecting what we eat and how those factors impact our health.
It’s common to see eggs and chicken breasts advertised as 100% vegetarian-fed. At first glance, this might seem like a healthy choice. It’s easy to assume that meat and eggs from vegetarian-fed chickens are more nutritious than conventionally raised chickens.
There is one problem, chickens are not vegetarians. Chickens do not naturally seek out a 100% animal free, vegan diet. Chickens are omnivores; they are scavengers. Chickens eat a variety of insects including grasshoppers, pill bugs, spiders and even fly larvae (1). In contrast, corn is the most commonly used grain and soybean meal is the main protein in conventional chicken feed (2, 3). In addition, almost all soybean and corn in conventional chicken feed is genetically modified (4).
Consumers looking to avoid genetically modified foods may choose organic foods. To meet USDA organic livestock requirements, chickens must be fed 100% certified organic feed and managed without animal by-products (5). Many consumers consider this a reasonable requirement. But, without the ability to use animal byproducts (e.g.: meat-meal), grains and soy have become the mainstay of poultry feed for industrial organic farmers. A diet high in cereal grains is typically low in methionine, an essential amino acid. Methionine deficiency can retard growth, reduce egg production, result in poor feather growth and increase feather pecking (3). To help meet methionine requirements, synthetic methionine is fed to chickens. Yes, organic chickens can be fed “synthetic substances” as defined by the USDA (6).
We are being sold meat and eggs from naturally omnivorous chickens fed an organic, 100% vegetarian, synthetic substance supplemented diet.
In 2005, Mother Earth News published the results of a survey evaluating the nutrient content of eggs from pasture raised chickens and compared them to data in the USDA nutrient database for eggs from conventionally raised chickens. They found half as much cholesterol, twice as much vitamin E, four times more omega-3 fatty acids and up to six times more vitamin A in the eggs from the pasture raised chickens (7). Another survey published in Mother Earth News in 2007 found similar results (8).
Critics of these surveys point out that the results were not published in peer-reviewed journals and subsequent studies have both supported and contradicted the claims about cholesterol and vitamin content in free range eggs (9, 10). It’s important to keep in mind that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines have eliminated cholesterol intake limits due to the lack of evidence demonstrating a significant relationship between cholesterol in the diet, cholesterol in the blood and heart disease (11, 12, 13).
Despite the conflicting evidence, consumers have demanded meat and eggs from chicken raised in a more natural setting (14). Products with claims such as “cage free”, “free roaming” and “free range” are commonly found on egg cartons.
Although the organic label and the 100% vegetarian-fed statement may imply health, there is no evidence to support that the eggs are healthier. Cage free, free range and free roaming statements do not guarantee chickens roam outside and eat a natural, omnivorous diet. Pastured poultry, as defined by the HFAC’s Certified Humane® requirement, refers to chickens raised outdoors on a pasture (18). Eggs from pastured hens may have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (a healthy fat), greater vitamin E content and more beta-carotene (7, 8, 9, 10).
If a food has to tell you it’s healthy, it probably isn’t healthy.
When shopping for healthy foods, it’s easy to be seduced by health claims and nutrient claims on food packages. Claims such as “low fat”, “contains 90 calories” or “high in fiber” are what the FDA calls nutrient content claims (1). The FDA regulates these claims in an attempt to prevent manufacturers from misleading consumers, yet nutrient claims and other packaging terms can be very deceptive.
Let’s take a look at the terms used on Fruit & Grain Cereal Bars.
This product is selling health with the terms:
In addition, there are pictures of whole blueberries on the product cover and a whole wheat plant. Both imply whole food and health.
This is classic nutritional doublethink because it’s easy to look at the cookie-like bar with a jelly filling and know, intuitively, that this is not a healthy food. In addition, for a food to be considered a good source of fiber, it needs to have at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving (2). This product has 2 grams of fiber per serving, which means it is not a good source of fiber.
The very first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. There are 56 other ingredients in this product. Let’s take a look at the first seven ingredients in the filling,
If we follow Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (3), products like this violate rules 4, 5 and 6.
#4: Avoid food products that contain high fructose corn syrup
A whole food doesn’t need to tell you it’s healthy. A whole food won’t make any nutrient claims or health claims. With every step of processing, a food loses nutrients and gains food additives.
Be skeptical of food products trying to sell health.
Nutritional doublethink is the simultaneous acceptance of two contradictory beliefs about a food. Nutritional doublethink is the ability to believe a food is unhealthy, while at the same time believing the food is healthy. The term nutritional doublethink is derived from George Orwell’s book, 1984, best known for the omnipresent, tyrannical party leader, Big Brother. In 1984, the ruling party encouraged doublethink, defined as the ability to simultaneously hold two contradictory thoughts in one's head without recognizing the contradiction. We can apply the concept of doublethink to nutrition.
Manufacturers use food labeling laws to make unhealthy products look healthy, to make unnatural products appear natural and to make processed food appear whole. For example, Organic Fruit Snacks have “natural strawberry, cherry and raspberry flavors” listed immediately under the product name. Organic and fruit imply naturally occurring. The common thought process is, if it’s natural and contains fruit, then it most certainly must be healthy.
The package displays a picture of what looks like colorful gummy bunny snack foods. Inherently we know that gummy snacks are not foods that promote health. We know that gummy snacks do not occur in nature. It’s clear that these snacks are “fruit flavored” and not “whole” fruit. We know this product is not natural, we know this product is processed and we know candy is not healthy. Yet, we accept it as natural, we accept it as whole and we it accept as a healthy snack. By accepting this product as both unhealthy and healthy, as unnatural and natural, as processed and whole, we’ve simultaneously accepted two contradictory beliefs about a single food. This food product has created nutritional doublethink.
Bunny Fruit (TM) Snacks ingredient list:
Organic tapioca syrup, organic pear juice from concentrate, organic cane sugar, organic tapioca syrup solids, citrus pectin, citric acid, sodium citrate, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural flavors, organic sunflower oil, organic carnauba wax, colors (black carrot, blackcurrant extracts).
Translated ingredient list:
Sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, fiber additive, food additive, food additive, vitamin C, natural flavors created in a lab, omega-6 fatty acids, food additive, color additive.
Sugar intake is associated with tooth decay, fatty liver, insulin resistance, inflammation, obesity, food addiction, heart disease and cancer (1-5). Although this product boasts 100% of the daily value of vitamin C, the vitamin C is not squeezed from an orange. Most vitamins are now made in China, with China being one of the largest suppliers of vitamin C in the world (6). Fortifying Organic Fruit Snacks with Vitamin C is violating the Jelly Bean Rule. The FDA’s Jelly Bean Rule states,
“…random fortification of foods could … result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods. The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify … snack foods such as candies (7).“
Although a slightly better choice than it's conventional counterpart with artificial colors such as Red #40 or Yellow #5, Organic Fruit Snacks are more like candy than fruit.
Avoid nutritional doublethink by reading labels and identifying sugar and food additives in ingredient lists. Don’t be fooled by health claims, the word natural or assume that organic means healthy.
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.