“Healthy” is the watchword of the decade, closely followed by “heart-healthy.” We’re told to eat healthy, get a healthy amount of exercise, do healthy this and healthy that. It’s a word that’s lost whatever power it once had. In fact, as I talked about in another post, it’s really just a weasel word. Today “healthy” is nothing but an advertising tool, a term that can be twisted to mean whatever the advertiser wants it to mean.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the arena of “healthy” food. Slap the word “natural” on a product and its sales will jump. But tell people that it’s “healthy” too and sales will go through the roof. Heck, some medical association might even add the product to their “guidelines.”
Today, the word “healthy” is used to describe any number of foods. Of course fresh fruit and vegetables don’t need to brand themselves as “healthy.” But countless other foods declare themselves “healthy” on their labels. Everybody wants to jump on the “healthy” bandwagon.
So…is your supposedly “healthy” food really good for you? Let’s take a look at some things we commonly think of as “healthy.”
Fruit juices have been marketed as “healthy” for donkey’s years. They’re a staple of the nursery room. Parents who would never dream of giving their children soda pop will cheerfully pour a glass of juice, often multiple times per day. Yet that juice probably has as much sugar as the same amount of soda. And that’s if it’s a no-added-sugar variety. The bulk of commercial fruit juices do have added sugar and may have even more than a comparable serving of soda. So is this really “healthy”? Sure, juice has nutrients that soda doesn’t have, but these are mostly artificially-added vitamin C and calcium. There are much better sources of these out there (leafy greens, for example) and the nutritional value of juice otherwise is basically nil.
Instead of promoting fruit juice as “healthy,” we should be eating more fresh fruit. That way, we get the whole complement of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Bottom line? Bottled or frozen fruit juices are no “healthier” than sugary soda.
For many years, soy was promoted as the ultimate “health food.” Vegetarians and vegans still push soy as a “healthy” alternative to meat, and it’s made serious inroads into the mainstream. It goes beyond the vegetarian standards of tofu and tempeh. Soy “milk” is stocked alongside the real thing. We have soy cheese, soy burgers, even soy flour. But is soy really as “healthy” as we’re told?
Hardly. Almost all the soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. It’s a “Roundup-ready” frankenfood, designed to withstand massive doses of herbicide that will kill any other plant. And if that’s not enough to steer you away from soy, regular soy consumption has also been linked to breast, endometrial, and bladder cancers.
Yogurt is one of those foods that can be good for you, but usually isn’t. Most commercial yogurt is about as far from “healthy” as it’s possible to be. There are several reasons for this. First, most of the yogurt on the market is “low fat.” If you’re a regular reader you already know all the problems with taking the natural fat out of foods. What does the fat get replaced with? Sugar, of course. Most yogurt on the market is chock-full of sugar. Some even combine sugar and artificial sweeteners for a double punch in the metabolism.
Many brands also contain thickeners like carrageenan, which present their own health dangers. And of course artificial colors and flavorings are everywhere, even in many brands that contain real fruit. On the other hand, yogurt can be a source of beneficial gut bacteria if you choose the right variety. Yogurt is also a good source of many vitamins and minerals, and is high in protein.
Your best bet? Choose plain Greek yogurt that contains active bacterial cultures and add your own fresh fruit. Look for a brand that says “contains active cultures.” The ingredient list shouldn’t contain anything other than these and milk, preferably whole milk.
Big Ag has a Big Stake in promoting vegetable oils, and what better way to do that than to label them “healthy?” While they’re pushed on us as being “heart-healthy,” the fact is that most vegetable oils are anything but. Why do I say this?
First of all, most of the vegetable oil you’ll find on supermarket shelves comes—you guessed it—from genetically modified crops. The most common oils are rapeseed (canola), corn, and soybean. All are primarily GM crops. Most vegetable oils are also highly refined, and the chemicals used to extract them from their parent crops can leave toxic traces in the finished product. Last but not least, vegetable oils tend to be high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are “healthy” but which we already consume far too much of.
If you’re going to use oils, I recommend keeping two on hand. Use olive oil for low-temperature cooking or uncooked foods, and coconut oil for high-temp cooking. Choose organics if possible, and stick to whole coconut oil that’s solid at room temperature. Liquid coconut oil—or “fractionated” coconut oil—is just more processed junk.
Agave nectar/agave syrup/agave sugar
If you’re looking for a “healthy sugar substitute” this isn’t it, no matter what the health food crowd may say. In fact, this stuff makes high fructose corn syrup look downright…well…healthy.
I’ve talked a lot about the dangers of fructose, and you already know high fructose corn syrup can have a huge impact on your health. So consider this: HFCS is supposed to be no more than 55% fructose. Agave nectar, on the other hand, is 70% to 90% fructose. Here’s the truth: there IS no “healthy” substitute for sugar. So ahead and use the real thing, just use it sparingly. And if you care about your health, avoid agave sweeteners.
“Heart-healthy” whole wheat
For 30 years, we were told to base our diets on “healthy whole grains.” What happened? We got fat. We’re still told to make whole grains a big part of our diet, in spite of all the evidence that this is one of the key drivers of the diabetes/obesity trend. Here’s what you need to know:
Most “whole wheat” product aren’t really whole wheat. Most “whole wheat” flour is just white flour with wheat germ added back to it after it’s been processed. It’s just as refined, and it’s almost as nutritionally deficient as white flour. That’s why it has to be “enriched” with a handful of the vitamins that have been removed. And though it’s not quite as problematic as white flour, anything made with whole wheat is high-carb—which is definitely not heart-healthy.
“Healthy” at best a weasel word and at worst a marketing term. So the next time you see a food that claims to be “healthy,” do two things: ask yourself why the manufacturer felt they had to stick this description on the product. And read the label carefully. You might find that it’s not so “healthy” after all.