Even the official USDA dietary guidelines are heavily influenced by food companies, says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a nutritionist at New York University. In the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Nestle and Stephen Woolf, M.D., M.P.H., of Virginia Commonwealth University, write that "the food industry, ranchers, restaurateurs, and beverage producers—along with their lobbyists—have famously exerted pressure to eliminate or soften language in the guidelines that might harm commercial interests." That's why the guidelines never recommend eating less of a particular food, like steak, Nestle says. Instead, they vilify individual nutrients, such as saturated fat (which doesn't deserve its bad name; see Claim #4).
Those demonized ingredients end up distracting us from a focus on whole foods.
"There is a 'bad ingredient du jour' approach to nutrition policy," says Michele Simon, J.D., M.P.H., a public-health lawyer and the author of the book Appetite for Profit. "First it was saturated fat, then trans fat, and now it's high-fructose corn syrup.
"But when we focus on one ingredient, we end up with products like trans-fat-free Cheetos, or Pepsi Natural, which has sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. There's nothing natural about processed sugar. (And besides, this white stuff's not nearly as evil as you may have heard. To find more about how we've oversimplified the matter, read The Truth About Sugar.) We need to take a holistic approach and realize it's the entirety of processed foods that is the problem and not just one ingredient."
Claim #2: We Can Improve on Nature
A common trick of manufacturers is to inject so-called good nutrients into all manner of foods. But any gain is more marketing than science. Take fiber, for example. Beans and plants provide many benefits for the body. Fermenting and holding water as they pass through your colon is one of them.
Because nutritionism singles out the fiber in plants for this benefit, food giants like Cargill extract a kind of fiber from chicory root. They sell this fiber, known as inulin, to companies like Kellogg's and General Mills, which then incorporate it into processed foods like cereal bars and Pop-Tarts. "It's unlikely this ingredient has the same benefits of real fiber in the body," Young says, "yet companies imply that it has the same impact as naturally occurring fiber."
In fact, studies suggest that inulin doesn't lower cholesterol the way the fiber in whole grains does. Worse, it's packaged into refined carbohydrates, which we know raise triglycerides and lower good cholesterol. This Dr. Frankenstein approach to nutrients extends to omega-3 fatty acids. You'd think that foods fortified with omega-3s, including some cereals, pasta, and frozen waffles, would reduce your risk of heart disease. But foods are usually fortified with a type of omega-3 called ALA, whose benefits pale in comparison with the DHA and EPA varieties that come from fish, says Young.
But adding "omega-3" to a label helps sales. As Michael Pollan explains in his book In Defense of Food, "the typical whole food has much more trouble competing under the rules of nutritionism" because you "can't put oat bran in a banana or omega-3s in a peach." To separate more facts from fiction, check out The Truth About Fiber.
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