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False Ideas About Food

September 29, 2013

It seems to me that everyone is interested in their diet, but that there is so much publicity and marketing around food that most people are taken in by it.  Here’s what I have determined, based on my own grocery shopping trips.  I’m assuming that peoply buy all the products that are on store shelves.  After all, the food retailers need sales to make money.  Products wouldn’t occupy shelf space if they didn’t sell.  I realize that product claims may not correspond with people’s beliefs.  They may be forced to buy it anyway because there’s little choice if they all make the same claims.

People prefer simple rules, even if those rules are sometimes incorrect.  Unfortunately, this attitude makes them easy prey for marketing campaigns.  It’s easy to see when a rule is incorrect.  It only takes one piece of contrary evidence to demonstrate that.

The first rule these days seems to be that natural food means healthy food.  This rule implies then that artificial food means unhealthy food.  When I did a web search on natural food, I found only thousands of promotional articles from people who manufacture or sell things they call natural food.  There was very little contrary or even cautionary information.  I was looking for proper scientific studies, but that was obviously not the way to find them.

Canadian government guidelines, from Health Canada, focus on food safety rather than on nutrition or false advertizing.  All foods are safe because they are tested for acute toxicity, and are banned if they are not safe.  Scientific research and news reports based on that research does indicate that some foods are especially healthy.  Blueberries and red grapes are popular now for that reason.  Some constituents of foods, such as omega-3, antioxidants, and vitamins are also in the news recently.  Some foods are good for you one month and bad for you next month, as research results change.

One of the problems is that there’s no strict or official definition of the term natural.  Does it exclude packaged or processed foods?  Must the food come from a natural source, whatever that is?  In reality, it’s a marketing term.  Any food can be called natural by the manufacturer or seller, unless it’s blatently incorrect.

Some natural products are highly processed.  One of these is the sugar substitute Stevia, which is more processed than sugar.  Are they both natural?  Some clearly natural products are bad for you.  Poisonous mushrooms are an obvious example.  Some purely chemical products are good for you.  The sugar substitute Aspartame is an example.  It’s been declared safe by comprehensive scientific studies.

Sometimes a food ingredient is the same, regardless of whether it’s derived from natural and chemical sources.  The only difference is that the natural one appears better to consumers.  Sea salt and ordinary salt are both 100% sodium chloride, for example.  Honey and sugar are both sugars and both have the same calorie content.  They are different types of sugar, though, and may be digested differently in the body.  Cultured celery extract is essentially another name for sodium nitrite.  Likewise, yeast extract is another name for monosodium glutimate.

Another rule that people appear to follow is that fruit is good for you.  Sales of fruit-flavoured beverages are soaring, just as sales of carbonated beverages are declining.  People are just substituting one sugar for another.  This article warns that smoothies and fruit juices are now a risk to health.

Finally, there’s the rule that amount doesn’t matter.  People buy products that contain only a token amount of a healthy food.  A cereal bar that contains cranberries is still mostly cereal and sugar.  It’s true that it has a healthy ingredient, but there’s not enough of it present to have any effect.  The scientific study that established the health benefits of cranberries also determined the amount you have to consume to obtain the benefits.  Believing that tiny amounts do anything is magical thinking; it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t take much scientific knowledge to recognize the falsehood of these simple rules.  An attitude of healthy skepticism helps too.  Don’t be taken in by all the publicity and marketing in your quest for a healthy diet.  The reality is much less exciting.  Don’t expect magic, but just good food.

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