These days, eating healthy has become a curiously difficult task. Despite the fact that the canons of healthy eating have not changed in centuries, the proliferation of health food products has continued unabated for years. It's become a crisis of abundance.
However, just because a product occupies shelf space in a boutique food store doesn't mean it's any better for you than its generic counterpart. Advertisers are very aware of the powers of "mood affiliation", which is the tendency to associate familiar claims with one another. For example, consumers are very likely to believe a food that has no cholesterol is very likely to have no fat as well, even though the two are unrelated.
This cognitive bias allows the food industry to make a variety of claims that confer fictitious health benefits, often resulting in higher prices and no value to you.
Let's take a look at the perpetrators.
- Deception #1: Excessive Use of the Word "No" on Labels.
The expectation that health foods contain no man-made ingredients is strongly held, and not without reason. However, health food manufacturers are much more likely to emphasize the lack of certain ingredients on their label, even when their commercial counterparts have the same qualities. For example, a Stanford professor compared the labels of 12 different brands of potato chips, and found that organic and specialty chips were 6 times more likely to emphasize the lack of ingredients such as soy, trans-fats, and cholesterol, even though this is just as true for Lays and Ruffles. There was no difference in health quality between the two groups of chips.
- Deception 2: Organic Food Is Always Better
Despite common perceptions, there's not a whole lot of evidence that the nutritional quality of organic food is much higher than non-organic food. This is because the term organic itself refers to particular manufacturing protocols used to make the food, and not necessarily the end product itself.
However, people frequently commit attribution errors when making judgments about organic food. A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that people assume an organic product has less-calories than a similar non-organic product, which causes people eating processed organic food to consume more calories than they would have otherwise. In some cases the inferred benefits of eating organic extend beyond nutrition, and gives people a belief that they need to exercise less because they eat organic.
- Deception 3: Fair Trade = Healthy
The Fair Trade certification industry is guilty of two swindles:
- #1: It doesn't help poor people (much).
- #2: It has little relation to the nutritional content of the food.
However, it's important to realize that most Fair Trade certification agencies (supposedly) grant their certification based on production inputs that bear no direct relation to the quality of food being produced, such as worker treatment and eco-friendly business practices. Much like the organic label, people mistakenly assume that Fair Trade means a food has less calories and more nutrients because it's Fair Trade, which isn't true.
- Deception #4: Grass-Fed Beef
Grass-fed beef has become popular in America, and it's purported benefits are that it has a more beneficial ratio of Omega-3/Omega-6 fatty acids, a higher concentration of anti-oxidants like superoxide dismutase, and lower levels of nitrates, which creates healthier beef.
These health benefits are either non-existent or exaggerated.
It's true that grass-fed beef has a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants than grain-fed beef, but the total amount of these and other nutrients in any kind of beef is very small compared to plant sources. To get the recommended 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acid a day from grass-fed beef alone, you'd have to eat 4.6 pounds of beef a day. The biggest health benefits of beef is its high protein content, and the minerals iron and zinc, which have a very high bio-availibility when consumed from meat. The differences between grass and grain-fed beef for these nutrients are not different from one another.
And while it's true that grass-fed beef has a higher concentration of "good" fat like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), these observations are typically made with raw meat, and it's usually lost after cooking. Similarly, the nitrate content in beef is influenced by many variables in the production process, such as the fertilizer used in the soil, run off from nearby water sources, and the moisture level the grass when it's eaten.
- Deception #5: Going gluten-free is good for everyone
About 1% of the western population has Coeliac's disease, which is an autoimmune disorder caused by a genetic modification to a peptide in the intestine which breaks down when it comes in contact with gluten based molecules. The consumption of gluten causes an inflammatory response within the intestine when it's ingested.
If you are one of these people, by all means, avoid gluten. You're allergic to it.
If you're not one of these people, relax a little bit, and do yourself a favor by being more discerning about food labels. It's true that gluten-intolerance is showing up with an increasing regularity, but it's still a small percentage of the population and partly caused by people's increased awareness of it.
For the majority of the population, the presence or absence of gluten has little bearing on the quality of food being eaten. It's the diet fad du jour, but any diet approach that exclusively emphasizes a single variable is too simplistic.
If you doubt this is the case for gluten, then consider the previous "single variable" diet fads popularized in the past: lactose, fat, sugar, etc. They've all been proven wrong.
The bottom line in all these myths is that people mistakenly assume various certifications as proxies for nutritional quality, but their presence bears no meaning to the quality of food you eat when you hold other things equal. The best way to ensure you're eating right is to consistently consume a diet of fresh foods with minimally processed ingredients, and spare yourself the confusion of deciphering the legitimacy of the latest fads of the health food industry.
- Shan, Lu, et. al. "Structural Basis for Gluten Intolerance in Celiac Sprue". Science. September, 2002, vol. 297 pgs. 2275-2279.
- Aggarwal, Sarrabh. "Screening for Celiac Disease in Average-Risk and High-Risk Populations." Therapeutic Advances in Gastroentology. January 2012, Volume 5, pgs. 37-47. URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3263981/ ?tool=pubmed
- Schuldt, Jonathan, et. al. "The Organic Path to Obesity? Organic Claims Influence Calorie Judgments and Exercise Recommendations." Judgment and Decision Making. June 2010, Vol. 5, pp. 144-150.
- Williams, Christine. "Nutritional Quality of Organic Food: Shades of Grey or Shades of Green?" Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2002, pgs. 19-24.
- Comerfod, John. "Telling the Grass-Fed Beef Story." URL: http://www.das.psu.edu/research-extension/beef/pdf/ Telling%20the%20Grass.pdf
- Blackman, Allen, et. al. "Producer Level Benefits of Sustainability Certification." Conservation Biology. December 2011, volume 25, pgs. 1176-1185.
- Stoltenow, Charlie, et. al. "Nitrate Poisoning in Livestock." North Dakota State University, September 1998.
- Daley, Cynthia, et. al. "A Review of Fatty-Acid Profiles and Antioxidant Content in Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef." Nutrition Journal. March 2010.
- Katz, David. "Is Gluten-Free Just A Fad?" Fooducate.
- Schuldt, Jonathon. "The "Fair Trade" Effect: Health Halos From Social Ethics Claims." Social Psychological and Personality Science. January 2012.