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.