Surprisingly Unhealthy ‘Healthy Foods’
Here in the West, we live in an age where our relationships (or lack of relationships) with those providing us with our food is unlike that of any other time in our collective history. In the not so distant past we had personal relationships with the farmers, millers, hunters and gatherers who supplied us with our provisions, a huge contrast to today’s giant and impersonal corporations who flood our food markets with their products. (See my article Eating Chicken- What You Need To Know). Thanks to advances in food production technology, those of us in developed countries have the privilege of having more food products available than there is space on the supermarket shelves to stock them. With over a quarter of a million different food products made in America every year there is only room on the shelves for no more than 50,000 products at any given time. It sounds like a utopian environment but in reality it makes for rather fierce competition among food manufacturers to create products that sell better than those of their competitors. Another factor increasing competition among food manufacturers and thus creating a market where there is an ‘anything goes’ approach to advertising and food labeling is the fairly recent practice of stockholders being issued quarterly earnings reports. First implemented during the 1980’s, quarterly reports document company profits and losses every three months and is now the standard in company earning reports as opposed to the older system of earning reports being issued annually. As trivial a change as it may seem, it brought a major change to how corporations are run, as shareholders now expect to see higher profits every three months instead of every year. This profit centric shift affected the food industry in a very negative way as unlike other commercial commodity based enterprises, there is a finite limit to how much food the population of any country can reasonably consume. That said, increasing the competitiveness of the market drastically made for unscrupulous practices, often very much to the detriment of the consumer’s health. Keep in mind that here in the United States, every year we already make twice as much food as the entire population could possibly consume- and that’s even after exports.  So the challenge faced by profit driven food corporations was to make the consumer buy more of their products even when it wasn’t in their best interest. In essence they need the public to overeat, and overeat their products. (See my article The Economics of Obesity- Why The Food Industry Needs You To Overeat). One method commonly used to increase consumption and purchasing while giving an excuse to raise prices by increasing demand is by using what is called the ‘health food halo’. Studies and surveys show that consumer buying trends towards food marketed as being healthy have increased by an average of 6% each year- as a health claim on a food label dramatically increases the likelihood of that product being purchased. Ironically, as America’s growing ‘health food’ market has increased, rates of obesity and obesity related disease continued to rise, leading us to two logical conclusions. The first being that most health claims are misleading and that many so called healthy foods have the same effect on the body as foods commonly categorized as junk food. In this article we will take a look at some surprising offenders and explore how refined junk foods are magically rebranded as being healthy. Thanks as always for reading and do be sure to share the article with those you care about.
‘Healthy Foods’ That Aren’t Really Healthy: Vitamin Water
Vitamin Water. The very name embraces the healthy labeling effect that makes consumers more likely to purchase and consume a product! Most people associate vitamins as being inherently good for you and so it makes sense that a health conscious individual might consider reaching for a vitamin enriched water bottle instead of plain old (and free) water. It’s a very well marketed product but it still goes against some of the basic tenets of human nutrition- namely that unnatural additions to the human diet almost always result in negative health outcomes  and as far as being unnatural vitamin waters are right up there with the worst of them. Human beings are adapted to derive vitamins and minerals from the foods that we have eaten and evolved with over the past 2.4 million years- namely fresh or minimally processed meats, animal proteins, plants, fruits and vegetables. Vitamin water wasn’t on the menu and in fact studies have shown that multivitamin supplements have no increased effect in improving any health outcomes in regular populations and that they can in fact increase the risk of certain forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease. [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11] As for the notion that we need more vitamins and minerals because we eat poorly in developed countries- the advent of vitamin enriched foods in the 20th Century have all but eliminated serious vitamin deficiencies in First World populations, and by increasing your intake of vitamins from vitamin enriched water you run the risk of increasing your likelihood of negative outcomes as a result. What is also worrisome from a health point of view is that vitamin water contains nonnutritive sweeteners which studies have shown can makes you more prone to eating sugary foods, makes you prone to eating more food in general and most importantly can make you gain weight by disturbing our natural metabolic processes- even though it’s low in calories.[13,14,15,16] The nonnutritive sweeteners in vitamin waters increase inflammation responses in the body- which leads to a decrease in the good bacteria in your gut , promotes insulin resistance, fat storage and weight gain.[17,18,19] Millions of years of evolution and adaptation to naturally occurring foods make it such that biologically, the bodies of all mammals associate a sweet taste with the presence of calories. An artificially flavored vitamin water drink thus sets in motion the same metabolic process that a high calorie, sugary drink would elicit as our bodies aren’t able to tell that no calories are coming in. So you get many of the detrimental effects of drinking a regular soda or sugary juice even though the vitamin water isn’t high in calories. (For a more indepth look see my article 5 Ways Artificially Sweeteners Make You Gain Weight.) Regardless of how well it’s marketed, the standing rule is and always will be that natural or minimally processed foods are always healthier for you and it’s hard to compare the simplicity of regular water- which is an essential requirement for life with something as artificial as vitamin water. Ingredient wise, one popular brand of vitamin water has erythritol, stevia leaf extract, mono-potassium phosphate and di-potassium phosphate, magnesium lactate, calcium lactate, natural ﬂavors (which are a mystery to everyone outside of the industry), citric acid, ascorbic acid, fruit and vegetable juice (for color of course), vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate), gum acacia, glycerol ester of rosin and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). Not much of anything natural there and I would strongly recommend that you avoid it.
‘Healthy Foods’ That Aren’t Healthy: Baked Chips
In a world where ‘fried’ has become synonymous with unhealthy, the word ‘baked’ has gained connotations of health. Baked chicken is better than fried chicken, baked potatoes are better than French fries so obviously baked chips are better than their fried counterparts. Especially given the fact that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that a potato chip falls into the category of junk food. To further augment the healthy halo effect, most brands say that their chips are kettle baked- which brings to mind a nebulous idea of them being somehow healthier than regular chips as well. Truth be told, kettle baked means only that they are cooked in smaller batches, thus creating a (possible) difference in taste and texture. It has no bearing whatsoever on the food being healthier in any way. Many brands also add the common health food keywords for their chips –
‘Gluten free’- which means nothing because potatoes don’t contain gluten and the term ‘gluten free’ means nothing in terms of health as most candies are indeed ‘gluten free’. ‘All natural’- a term that has no legal definition whatsoever.
‘GMO free’- a term commonly seen on the packages of potato chips branded as healthy, but it’s absolutely meaningless. Genetically modified potatoes were taken off the U.S. market in 2001 after a failed bid to introduce them into common circulation by Monsanto in 1995. Manufacturers however are very aware of the fact that most consumers are wary of GMO foods and by declaring that their brand is GMO free it not only adds to the healthy halo effect, but it also helps justify a higher price.
As an example let’s compare classic fried potato chips with a healthy halo baked potato chip brand. For comparisons we’ll use Frito Lays’ Classic Potato Chips (which I don’t think anyone would mistake as being healthy) with the healthy-friendly sounding Kettle Bakes Lightly Salted Potato Chips. (As an interesting aside, Kettle Brand Potato Chips are sold at Wholefoods and other so called health conscious supermarkets and are very much marketed as being healthier than regular potato chips even though they are fried and have the same calories and fat as regular chips. Where you buy it doesn’t make it healthy.) Serving sizes are the same- 28 grams or 1 ounce, which is a size far below what any normal human potato chip eater would ever consume but will work well as a control for both foods. The ingredients are more or less the same, except that Kettle Bakes Chips are made with sea salt instead of regular salt, which is sadly just another way to justify a higher price and create the health food halo as sea salt is chemically the same as regular salt- you just pay more for it. (See my article – Sea Salt vs Table Salt).
At a glance the nutritional differences aren’t that significant- 160 kcals for the fried Frito Lay’s Potato Chips and 120 kcals for the Kettle Baked Potato Chips. Frito Lay’s chips also have a little over three times more fat than the Kettle Baked chips but that is pretty much where the differences stop. Aside from less fat and a little less calories, it’s the same product and the differences are somewhat inconsequential in real world terms. Both are highly processed foods using refined potato flakes as opposed to the natural unprocessed and high fiber potatoes that our bodies have evolved with over the past several hundred thousand years. Aside from increasing satiety levels and making us eat less- the fiber also serves to help regulate insulin levels, and the meagre 1-2 grams per serving won’t do that. Kettle Bakes Chips are labeled as ‘Lightly Salted’ and yet they have only 20% less salt that the regular brand- not the 50% less that is supposed to be the standard in order to label a product as being ‘Lightly Salted.’ Calorically, baked chips are also a bit of a nightmare. As we said previously, no one is going to eat one ounce of chips- they eat the whole bag, which with Kettle Baked Chips would mean a staggering 480 kcals. Putting that number into perspective, that’s more calories than a double cheeseburger at McDonalds (440 kcal), and more than twice as much calories as an order of Chicken Mcnuggets (190 kcal) or an order of Macaroni and cheese at KFC (170 kcal). [11,12] Nutritionally there’s not much of anything in a bag of chips besides carbs and salt but from a truly healthy eating perspective, you could have a healthy serving of baked fish with a large salad, have two handfuls of unsalted nuts as a snack and still have consumed less calories than a bag of baked chips (374 kcals vs 480 kcals). Pita chips, corn chips and the like are no better as they are all made with highly processed ingredients and offer little in the way of nutrition save salt and empty calories regardless of how healthy or organic they are made to sound.
‘Healthy Foods’ That Aren’t Healthy: Dried fruit
Dried fruit are quite common as a go to snack among the health conscious crowd and on the surface you would be hard pressed not to think that its popularity isn’t merited. Instead of reaching for a highly processed junk food like potato chips or candy, why not grab a convenient handful of dried fruit? Aisles of raisins, dried cranberries, apricots, bananas, apples and many other fruits and berries are commonly sold in the so called ‘health conscious’ and ‘organic’ supermarkets and they are commonly eaten as well with nuts in popular trail mix products that promise the energy of nuts with the healthy vitamins of fruit. Sounds great, but there is a small problem- dried fruit and natural fruit are completely different in many very important ways. Ways that make them not as much of a health food as you might think. How could that be possible? As we have said earlier in the article, the answer lies with the fact that we are adapted to eat fresh fruit and foods in their natural states, an end product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. We can consume natural fruit and berries without unwanted spikes in our insulin levels because of the naturally occurring high fiber content and the high water volume. Fruits are mostly made of water and it’s that water content along with the dietary fiber that tells our body when we have had enough. Which is why it’s relatively difficult to overeat fruit when compared to dry, low fiber products like cookies or candy. The proportions of water to fiber in fruit aren’t accidental and if you change the formula the relationship with our bodies changes as well.
While drying fruit their shelf life and makes them a convenient food you can carry around with you without spoilage, the reduction in water volume also increases the amount of sugar you consume per serving. The reduced water volume also means you have significantly more calories per serving which makes them much easier to overdo in terms of calories. Consider the fact that a half cup of grapes yields only 30 kcal and 7.5 grams of sugar whereas a 1/4 cup of raisins ( which is half as much) yields 130 kcal and a whopping 29 grams of sugar. If cutting calories is important to you then it doesn’t make any sense to have raisins as a snack as even if you eat less of them you still are ingesting far more calories and far more sugar than regular grapes. The concentrated sugar makes it easier for you to eat more as well and dried fruit costs far more than the equivalent amount of fresh fruit. So you pay more for a product that is less healthy as the original. Some manufacturers add table sugar (sucrose) to their dried fruit which drives up the sugar content and calorie load even more. So as healthy as dried fruit may sound, it doesn’t belong in the ranks of truly healthy foods and isn’t the best choice as a snack. It’s best used sparingly (if at all) as a way of adding some flavor to your oatmeal here and there in very small amounts- but even then you are better served by using the real thing. It’s true that dried fruit may not be as convenient as real fruit in terms of storage, but one of the wonders of living in a developed country in the 21st Century is that you can get fruit just about everywhere. So you don’t have to compromise. As for trailmix- nuts are a great natural snack that can give you energy and help you lose weight in the process[21,22,23]- so just eat nuts. You don’t need the added sugar and calories from the dried fruit and berries. (See my article 5 Ways Nuts Help You Lose Weight) The list of unhealthy foods that are marketed to look healthy doesn’t end there as there are numerous other dishonorable mentions that deserve including: protein shakes, (Read My article Why Protein Shakes Are Bad For You), granola, instant oatmeal, rice cakes, energy bars, reduced fat peanut butter and unfortunately many, many more. In the end we can walk away with the conclusion that any popular ‘health foods’ that isn’t naturally occurring or minimally processed can’t possibly be as healthy as they claim to be given the fact that we are very much adapted to the foods that have been in our natural diet for the past several million years. Any deviation from those foods always comes with some negative impact to our health, regardless of how convincingly they are marketed.
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