Should I Eat This? Part Three: Fake Health Food

By Jane | May 12, 2012

May Help Reduce The Risk Of Heart Disease

Better for you! Fat free! Contains whole grains! Just 100 Calories! 0 Grams Trans Fat! All-Natural!

Fake health foods are the carnival barkers of the grocery store, shouting at you from every aisle, promising longevity, beauty, and true happiness, if only you’ll buy their wares.

The reason I despise fake health food above most other kinds of food is that it’s always masquerading as something it isn’t. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, mutton dressed as lamb, a vicar in a tutu.

What is Fake Health Food?

Some of the worst examples?

Vitamin-enriched water is often filled with sugar. Most of them also make hoky health claims with no evidence to back it up.
Vegetable chips are just chips. They contain plenty of fat, salt, and empty calories, just like any other chip.
Granola is super-awesome hippy health food, right? No, not usually. Most granolas are drowning in sugar and fat. Make your own!
Flavored yogurt contains fruit, right? Sometimes. Highly processed fruit. Also sugar, sugar, and more sugar.
Granola bars and energy bars are almost always weighed down with calories, and lots of them contain high fructose corn syrup, palm oil or other bad-for-you oils.
Baked chips are about as good for you as eating salty cardboard. Actually, cardboard would have more fibre. Why bother?
Dried cranberries get all their yummy sweetness from sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Stick with dried fruit that is naturally sweet.

Almost everything item in these “healthy” vending machines also qualifies as a fake health food.

I Still Don’t Really Know What I’m Looking For Here

An easy way to avoid fake health food is to steer away from any food with a health claim on the front of the package.

In the same way that really famous people don’t have to walk around telling everyone how famous they are, real health food doesn’t have to go around shouting about it. Ever see a bunch of kale with a “Low Fat” sticker?

Here are my translations of some of the most common health claims:

Enriched. The original nutrients were all processed out so we had to put a few back in. Eat the whole food, not a processed enriched version of it.

Better for you. Than what? Cyanide? Sulfuric acid? A kick in the pants? Guess what, it’s also worse for you. Than what? Real food.

Fat free. Fat is not the enemy and fat free doesn’t mean it won’t make you fat. Probably contains sodium, sugars, and additives to make up for the flavor lost by excluding fat.

Made with… whole grains, real fruit, etc. This usually means that the manufacturer added a little of the healthy ingredient so they could say “made with” on the package. Instead of eating something that is made with whole grains or real fruit, eat whole grains or real fruit.

Just 100 calories. Exactly 100 more empty calories than you need.

0 grams trans fat. By FDA rules, food can have 0.5 g trans fat per serving and still be labeled “0 grams trans fat”. Aside from being stupid, this rule means you still get plenty of trans fat if you eat the whole box.

All-natural. Means it was made on Earth, from things found on Earth, not excluding any kind of chemical, GMO, or frankensteined compound. In fact, it could probably be made on Mars, since the FDA doesn’t define “all-natural” and doesn’t restrict its use.

Helps Maintain… or May Help…: Manufacturers are free to say absolutely anything after vague phrases like this. Note to self: manufacture candy bar that “Helps maintain Christie Brinkley body and Einstein brain”.

Part of this nutritious breakfast. Means it’s the not nutritious part of this otherwise nutritious breakfast.

Two last thoughts.

  1. If a food has a manufacturer and you can envision the factory where it’s made, it’s probably not that healthy.
  2. If you have to ask “Is this healthy?” it probably isn’t.

Is It Bad For The Environment?

If you’ve been following Should I Eat This? from the beginning, you know how bad GMO agriculture is for the environment. Many (most?) fake health foods are manufactured (there’s that word again) with GMO corn and soy products, so they’re worth avoiding just because of that.

Palm oil is another red flag ingredient that’s found all over the fake health food market.

Bad PR for trans fat caused lots of manufacturers to replace it with palm oil. Which allows them to say “0 grams trans fat” on the box, but doesn’t allow them any such claim when it comes to orangutans.

Much of the world’s palm oil is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia. The fields are created by first slashing and burning old-growth rainforests and then planting huge monoculture palm plantations. This is not only deadly to species such as orangutans, but it takes away the food and habitat of people that have been living in these forests for centuries. They are often left with no option but to work on the plantations, sustaining a grueling life for a barely living wage.

And if you don’t give a shit about orangutans or indigenous peoples, remember, rainforests are the lungs of this planet. Without them, greenhouse gases rise, temperatures rise, and your local environment is also destroyed.

Though it’s slightly healthier than trans fat (maybe), compared to liquid fats like olive oil, palm oil is also pretty terrible for you.

Here’s a 2-minute video that illustrates just what I’ve been talking about.

What Else Should I Know?

You just can’t trust the research.
I’ll leave the explanation of this to Bruce Bradley, a one-time big food exec turned food politics blogger.

One of the main ways the processed food industry is trying to grow and defend their business is by funding self-serving research. The goal of these studies isn’t to uncover “the truth” or to improve public health. Instead, the research is carefully constructed to create sound bites and statistics to help market their products or combat potential regulation. This is one of the primary ways we end up with conflicting studies that confuse consumers on what they should eat or drink.

Most claims and advertising by Big Food companies are meant to manipulate you, not educate you.

Yikes.

Your fruits and veggies are next.
Guess what? Monsanto has created a better kind of broccoli. Which is a relief, because people are always saying:

Broccoli is great, I just wish it was a little healthier!

Also, I wish it came in a plastic package, because regular old farming is not damaging enough to the environment on its own.

Bleh. Monsanto. Unlike.

Should I Eat Fake Health Food?

Nope. Nu-uh. Negatory. No way. Maybe if you’re starving on an island somewhere.

If you really want a naughty snack, I say go for the gusto and eat actual junk food. Chances are you’ll eat a lot less, because you won’t be able to fool yourself into thinking it’s healthy.

I would choose Sea Salt Kettle Chips (potatoes, vegetable oil, sea salt) over a bag of Baked Cheetos (more than 20 ingredients, including our mysterious friends Artificial Flavor and Artificial Color) every single time.

What Can I Eat Instead?

It’s pretty simple to make the move from Fake Health Food to Real Health Food.

Instead of snack crackers and vegetable chips, make your own popcorn or just eat dry roasted nuts. You’ll get the salty fatty snack you’re craving without the processed empty calories.

Instead of granola bars and energy bars, I throw together my own trail mix with nuts, dried fruit (preferably not cranberries), and even high-quality chocolate chips. This is so much more satisfying.

And instead of vitamin water, just drink water. Seriously. Enough with all these fancy drinks in Earth-destroying bottles and cans. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you have the best drink available straight from your tap. (I know some of you don’t, and for that I am truly sorry. But doesn’t it piss you off that those of us who do don’t even appreciate it?)

Where Can I Find Out More?

What’s Your Connection To Rainforest Destruction?
Everything there is to know about palm oil
Leanwashing & Why It Sucks
A big list of leanwashed foods by Bruce Bradley
What “Helps maintain” really means from NPR
The Vanishing Man of The Forest on NYT

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Should I Eat This? The Complete Series

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17 comments

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  11. Comment by Rox

    Rox Reply June 3, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    What do you think of this article?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/food-industry_b_1559920.html

    Also I thought I had read somewhere that much of non-locally sourced organic foods (ie TJ’s/Whole Foods) is grown in Mexico (with questionable growing practices & standards) and the demand is causing a huge strain on their water resources.

    re: tap water, I might be wrong but I thought perchlorates were not voluntarily tested but not regulated. Here are some articles:

    http://www.epa.gov/region9/toxic/perchlorate/per_nv.html
    http://www.enviroreporter.com/perchloratepatrol
    according to this report the levels meet the standard, although I’m not sure how much I trust their testing and always feel where there’s smoke there’s fire?
    http://www.smgov.net/workarea/downloadasset.aspx?id=11924

    • Comment by Rox

      Rox June 3, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      I mean “voluntarily tested but not regulated”

    • Comment by JaneM

      JaneM June 4, 2012 at 9:30 am

      Hey Rox,
      Thanks for all the links. Lots of interesting / scary stuff.

      On the HuffPo article: It still astonishes me that there are millions of people out there who don’t get just eat real food. But it’s true, so basic articles like this are great. Maybe a few more people will get the message.

      On non-local organics: Yep, this is a problem for sure. That’s why I advocate for CSAs where they’re available. Then you know where your food is coming from and can actually go see where it’s grown. That said, my local markets have lots of Mexico-grown fruits and veggies that would never make it into the chain stores because they’re not pretty enough, not the right size etc. I like that these oddball foods are being sold and eaten, rather than thrown away. So should we stay away from Mexican produce? I don’t know, but I would always opt for food grown as close to home as possible.

      On tap water: This is a minefield and varies so hugely from community to community that I don’t really know what to say about it. I do agree that we can’t really trust the standards set by the government. But I also wonder how much paranoia is sponsored by the bottled water industry? They make billions of dollars a year from people who think tap water is not good enough for them. Right now, I’m sticking with filtered tap water, because the effects of bottled water are so horrendous. Let’s hope I’m not trading my health for the health of the planet!

    • Comment by JaneM

      JaneM June 4, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Oh, and one more thing on the HuffPo article. It’s so nice to see an MD talking about nutrition. Our medical system is so geared towards “curing” people with drugs, surgery, and other treatments – after all, that’s where the money is. So it’s great to see someone from within the system promoting nutrition as the first step towards better health.

  12. Comment by Rox

    Rox Reply May 14, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Hi Jane,
    great article. Two questions: does this mean I shouldn’t eat those veggie chips from Whole Foods (fried in non-hydrog canola oil), and

    b) what do you think about organic foods sourced from California having high amounts of ammonium perchlorate due to irrigation with Colorado River water? Is it still really worth it to buy organic if the vegs are laden with rocket propellant?? Also I’ve been kinda blissfully ignoring this and drinking water straight from my tap (save $$ and decouple myself from the plastic water bottle mess), but now I’m rethinking…

    • Comment by JaneM

      JaneM May 15, 2012 at 8:26 am

      Great questions!

      On veggie chips: I don’t really mean to ban food from people’s lives. I enjoy a good veggie chip every once in a while. Just be aware when you’re eating those veggie chips: 1) no, it doesn’t count as a serving of vegetables 2) it’s junk food. I just don’t want people to be fooled by the big corps into thinking their crappy foods are somehow good for them and can be eaten instead of real whole food.

      On ammonium perchlorate: I don’t know that much about this subject – definitely an idea for a future post.

      On tap water: I do know that if you live in some parts of the Central Valley in California, your tap water is probably not safe to drink (or in some cases even to wash in). Tap water quality varies so much from place to place that we really each need to do our own research and find out if it’s OK. For example, in LA, where I live, our tap water rates pretty highly, but so many people are under the impression that it’s poison. And remember too, that if you’re buying bottles water, a lot of times it just comes from a tap somewhere else.

      It’s sad that for some people the choice comes down to: should I poison myself with tap water or should I poison someone else’s environment by buying bottled water? For most of us in the west at least, this isn’t the choice – we can safely drink from the tap and we should.

      On organic: I think it’s always worth buying organic (if you can afford it) because it’s “voting with your dollar”. The more organic farming we support, the less poison farming will go on, and the less our rivers and soil will be poisoned. Supporting clean ways of doing things is one of the few things we can do as a consumer to have a huge impact on the environment.

  13. Comment by ann

    ann Reply May 12, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    fantastic work. there are just so many people who don’t know this stuff. but they probably won’t be up on sunday morning reading this…

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