Health Claims- Do they make a food healthy?

Have you ever wondered why some foods have health claims where others do not? Often, these health claims are found on “junk foods” found in the center aisles of the grocery store. These claims can include sayings such as, “Low fat”, “Sugar free”, “Contains Fiber”, “Your daily dose of calcium, iron, and zinc”, “Healthy Choice”, “Promotes Immunity”, etc… Now think, have you ever seen a piece of produce, such as an orange, with a sticker on it saying “Great source of vitamin C”? Why is it that our society fixates on certain nutrients and the benefits that each individual nutrient has rather than thinking about the whole food?

Throughout history, science has competed against culture and social practices to prioritize specific nutrients over whole foods in our diets. This paradigm is what Michael Pollan calls, nutrionism. Nutritionism dichotomizes food in that individuals see foods as either good or bad and healthy or unhealthy. Nutritionism was developed through the Nutritional Industrial Complex, that was promoted by scientists, food marketers and the government. There were three tenets to the Nutritional Industrial Complex: Nutrients matter more than the food itself, we need expert help to decide what to eat because nutrients are invisible, and that the purpose of eating is to promote physical health. This is one of the reasons we have developed our current mentalities around food.

Remember in the 1950’s when the lipid hypothesis emerged and we all thought that fat was the enemy and that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol from animals was best? Well, since then we have discovered that the only significant association between fat and heart disease is between trans-fat and heart disease! Did you also know we have found that there is no association between fat intake and weight? What we do know, is that the ratio of fats is important for health… can someone say Omega 3’s and 6’s!? We should be consuming a ratio of 1:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3 but in many western diets the ratio is significantly skewed in that we consume a 15-17:1 ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3. Good sources of Omega 3’s that you should be consuming include flaxseed oil, salmon, chia seeds and walnuts.

When fat became demonized, a weird thing happened in America. During the 1970’s we, as a society, became fatter. This was largely because individuals were removing the fat from their diets and replacing it with refined carbohydrates and added sugars. The food industry had a field day with this one and formulated new products such as fat-free frozen yogurt, fat-free pretzels, fat-free cookies, and fat-free muffins. A secret culinary fact is that fat provides much of the flavor to a dish, so when you remove the fat from a food to make it palatable you must replace it with a whole lot of added sugar. This was a point in history where rates of diabetes and obesity skyrocketed. Next time you’re in the grocery store looking at fat-free products, read the ingredients on the nutrition facts label and I bet you sugar (or high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, etc) will be one of the first ingredients. If you’re going to eat processed foods, I recommend consumption in moderation and that you choose the regular version to avoid the added sugars.

So, where does this leave us? We MUST stop thinking about our food in terms of specific nutrients and acknowledge that there is a place for all foods, in moderation, in a healthy diet. It isn’t possible for food scientists to create a “perfect food” in a lab. This is because we understand there is a greater nutritional value to consuming foods in their whole, natural state. The benefits include consuming all the vitamins and minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. I challenge you to be more mindful as you make dietary choices and acknowledge what your body is telling you about hunger and satiety and tune in to how your body feels after eating certain foods. You should also ask questions when you read something or hear someone talk about foods in certain nutrients over whole foods. As you can see, we fixated our thoughts around fat and sugar and have since realized that what was once a demonized product is now perfectly fine in a balanced diet. The most important thing I can recommend is to enjoy your food!

As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Until next week.


Leave a Reply