The choices we make about “healthy” foods to put in our cupboards rest with each of us, not on Food and Drug Administration.
Yes, companies find ways to label food to make us think it is healthy. The old test continues to be 1) can you say (or know) the ingredients on the label and 2) can you visualize it? Recently, Dana Hunnes, a registered dietitian with the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, answered the question about what makes food healthy, and I feel her answer rings true.
Healthy foods are simply those that you can identify as close as possible to nature (in original form). This means foods that are not highly processed or adulterated. So as we shop, it benefits us to look for foods with fewer ingredients as well as ingredients that are easily recognizable as food. A list of ingredients easily recognizable as a food might entail things like almonds, oatmeal or vinegar. Manufactured ingredients – with unrecognizable names like methylparaben, maltodextrin, artificial color yellow 5 and the like – can indicate foods that aren’t so healthy. The fewer labels you have to read, the more natural the form of the food.
Single-ingredient foods, such as green beans, quinoa and avocado, have excellent health benefits, but what about a frozen dinner made up of quinoa, bell peppers and brown rice with the additives and excess salt?
Hunnes feels food can also be healthy if its ingredients are not associated with development of chronic illness. Trans fats found in processed foods (particularly commercial baked goods), high levels of added sugars, sodium (salt) and saturated fats are some of the biggest contributors to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancers. We know that processed meats contain carcinogens as defined by the World Health Organization.
The term “healthy” in advertising must be used in a way that directs consumers to food products that are, more or less, unadulterated, unprocessed and contain identifiable ingredients. A long list of unrecognizable ingredients should be cause for concern.
Popcorn kernels are identified as a “healthy” food because they are natural and high in fiber, but when trans fats, butter flavoring and salt are added, they lose the “healthy” status. You could call trail mix that contains a mixture of dried fruits and nuts a healthy food (though not in excess), but add chocolate with a smattering of nuts in it or granola with high fats and sugars, and it’s hard to call it healthy.
To understand “healthy” foods, we must look at supporting research (the devil is in the details). We need to look at the science behind which nutrients and foods help prevent the chronic diseases. We must question where the research was conducted, know how many test subjects were involved and not take someone else’s summary as gospel. I just can’t wrap my arms around a study conducted in Japan based on 10 subjects and accept sweeping changes based on that.
And don’t forget, claims about particular ingredients can be misleading in understanding the nutritional value of the entire food.
Rather than waiting for the FDA or government to direct us to what’s healthy, what we are willing to purchase can say much more about the producer. Our first order of business should be to create a rubric of what will be accepted as “healthy.” Then, we can set about revising current food-labeling regulations. At the end of the day, the clearer food labels are, the likelier consumers are to make healthier choices.
Wendy Rice is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 382-6461.Wendy Rice