Look around your supermarket. A can of peaches boasts "50 percent less calories," while fresh peaches sit unadorned in a bin. New "spreads" shout that they'll lower your cholesterol, while perfectly healthy butter sits quietly on cool shelves. Pop-Tarts offer "20% DV fiber," while beans—the kings of dietary fiber—are called, simply, beans.
Why are we being bombarded with such sketchy claims? It's mostly marketing, but part of the blame also lies with science. Scientists isolate and identify nutrients, which sounds like a logical way to analyze food. But it isn't. "We eat foods; we don't eat nutrients," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., a dietitian at New York University.
This focus on individual nutrients can lead to misleading conclusions. Gyorgy Scrinis, Ph.D., a sociologist of science at the University of Melbourne, Australia, calls the mindset "nutritionism." "It's the tendency to celebrate or demonize particular nutrients," he says, "and to take nutrients out of the context of the foods in which they're embedded, and exaggerate their health effects." As a result, nutritionism can inadvertently steer consumers toward processed foods instead of away from them.
There was a time before nutritional science, of course. For centuries, humans followed cultural traditions, not dietary guidelines. The age of nutritionism took flight in the 1970s, when health officials, in an attempt to combat chronic diseases, launched campaigns that vilified natural components of food, such as fat. (Plus, the food industry has kept a few secrets from consumers—read 5 Secrets Food Marketers Don't Want You to Know to find out what they are.)
The result has often been the opposite of what the food police intended. "In response to the low-fat campaign, the food industry has produced numerous commercial products labeled as 'low-fat' or 'fat-free,' but with high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar," writes Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues at Harvard school of public health in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. But as fat consumption has declined in the United States, they argue, rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity have risen dramatically. And while the benefits of a low-fat diet have been largely debunked, the assumptions of nutritionism continue to lead to the creation of unhealthy foods.
The solution: Ignore the nutrient hype and focus on actual ingredients and whole foods. As an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association put it, with the exception of omega-3 fats, trans fat, and salt, "the greater the focus on nutrients, the less healthful [processed] foods have become."
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Claim #1: Sugar Is Healthier Than HFCS
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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Claim #3: There Are Silver-Bullet Foods
Whole foods are much more than just delivery systems for the nutrients that are found in supplements. "In studies of the benefits of supplements," says Young, "the people taking vitamin E or beta-carotene were no healthier than those who didn't take vitamins." The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants in isolation are also exaggerated, says Scrinis. "Simply adding these nutrients to foods . . . takes the nutrient out of the matrix in which it is usually found in whole foods."
The fact is, science has a long way to go when it comes to understanding the healthful compounds contained in foods. "We're not sure why fresh foods offer protection against disease, because every component hasn't been isolated," says Young. "We know that broccoli has vitamin C and beta-carotene, but it also contains fiber and phytochemicals such as sulforaphane."
What's more, the synergies at work are not completely understood. The health benefit may come not from the nutrient or even the food, but from "the nutrient composition in naturally occurring foods," according to an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study by epidemiologist David R. Jacobs, Ph.D., and colleagues. "A person or animal eating a diet consisting solely of purified nutrients . . . without the benefit of coordination inherent in food may not thrive and probably would not have optimal health." This explains why some nutrients, such as beta-carotene, are shown to be ineffective when studied in isolation. What's more, antioxidants might not be the cure-all that the media makes them out to be. Here are 5 Myths About Antioxidants that you should never believe.
"We have to ask what else this person is eating," Young says. "Look at the Mediterranean diet. It is very unprocessed, but then we take one component like olive oil and elevate it. Olive oil is a heart-healthy fat, as is the fat found in nuts. But if we dump a bottle of olive oil onto a salad that's piled high with cheese and nuts, the total effect of that meal changes."
"As scientists continue to discuss nutrition from a nutrient perspective," Jacobs and colleagues write, "the public may be better served by focusing on whole foods [and not] on nutrient interpretations of them." In other words, a diet of doctored foods isn't the answer.
Claim#4: Saturated Fat Is Evil
In the 1960s and 1970s, health officials began to distinguish between "good" and "bad" fats. Then nutritionism made dietary assets into enemies. "Naturally occurring saturated fats were vilified," says Scrinis, "while trans fats in margarine were promoted by default. No distinction was made between naturally occurring nutrients and those that had been processed and chemically transformed."
The problem is, naturally occurring saturated fats really don't deserve their sordid reputation. You may not hear it from your cardiologist anytime soon, but the towering dogma impugning LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, is on shaky ground these days.
As a result, the case against saturated fats has largely crumbled. Yes, consumption of saturated fat does raise LDL—but mainly the benign forms. The supposed role of these fats in heart disease has been debunked.
According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by lipid scientist Ronald Krauss, M.D., and his colleagues, "there is insufficient evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to conclude that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease], stroke, or CVD [cardiovascular disease]." To find out more about how no one has ever proved a link between saturated fat and clogged arteries, read What if Bad Fat is Actually Good for You?
Ironic, isn't it? If nutritionism hadn't wrongly targeted saturated fats as nutritional enemies, we wouldn't be trying to avoid so many dangerous trans fats today.
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Claim #5: Superspreads Save Lives
Food manufacturers have now engineered a newer crop of "spreads" that are free of trans fats. With names like Benecol, Promise activ, and Smart Balance HeartRight, these products seem to promise enduring health with a simple swipe of the knife across your morning multigrain waffle.
But though their labels claim that the omega-3 fatty acids and plant sterols they contain may help lower cholesterol and promote heart health, the science is far from clear. In fact, consuming margarine enriched with omega-3s doesn't prevent heart attacks. A recent New England Journal of Medicine study of 4,800 heart attack survivors found no difference in the numbers of subsequent heart attacks among those who ate spreads laden with omega-3s and those who did not. And an opinion paper in the European Heart Journal argued that while plant sterols can indeed reduce LDL cholesterol, there's no evidence that they reduce the risk of heart disease. What's more, some researchers believe that plant sterols can raise that risk. So much for that miraculous heart-healthy spread.
Always question the hype—and the claims on food labels. Generally speaking, the fewer health buzzwords your food comes with, the better it probably is for you.
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