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).
Christine Dobrowolski is a nutritionist and whole-foods advocate.