How Healthy Is Healthy Food?

We’ve often recommended to our clients and members that they should read labels on everything they buy, whether food or supplement.

Why?

Knowing exactly what’s in your food (or supplements) is important.

It’s easy to focus on what seems “healthy” or “wholesome” about a processed food product, such as:
The product’s name (e.g. “Taste of Nature”; “Mom’s Home Recipe”, “XYZ Farm”, etc.)
the product’s packaging (e.g. bright colors or an earthy-looking brown paper package)
claims made on the front of the package (e.g. “Helps lower cholesterol” or “A good source of fiber”)
where the product is shelved and sold (e.g. in the “health food” aisle or in a health food store)

But are those processed products really “healthy” and “wholesome”? Sadly, no.  Today we’ll look at why many “healthy” foods don’t count as whole foods.  In fact, plenty of “healthy” foods aren’t much better than their conventional counterparts.

Organic food
Organic food is big business.

U.S. sales of organic food and beverages grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $35.9 billion in 2014.
And most well-known “small” organic brands are actually owned by large corporations.

For instance:
ConAgra, one of the largest processed food producers in North America, produced brands such as Orville Redenbacher Organic, Hunt’s Organic, and PAM Organic.
The fabled “hippie” brand of Ben & Jerry’s is actually owned by Unilever.
Coca-Cola owns Odwalla, while Pepsi owns Naked Juice.
Kashi is owned by Kellogg; Kraft owns Back to Nature, and General Mills owns Cascadian Farm.

The same is true of personal care products, by the way. There actually was a Burt and a Tom, but now Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox, and Tom’s of Maine is owned by Colgate-Palmolive.  This isn’t to say that all product lines owned by big corporations are “bad.”  However, it’s important to realize that just because a product sounds healthy, that doesn’t mean that it is.  Or that those wacky Ben and Jerry guys are sitting in their offices thinking about how to keep you healthy and lean.

What does “organic” mean?
In the United States and Canada, “organic” covers the ways that crops, livestock, and agricultural products are raised, processed and handled.
Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed, bred naturally, and get to go outdoors. They are not given antibiotics or growth hormones.
In Canada, organic standards prohibit factory-type farming. This means that organic farmers must minimize the animals’ stress and not confine them in pens or cages that are too small.

Organic simply means that the food was grown or raised without certain chemicals like pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, or hormones.  While this is all great, and it’s definitely a good thing to support small organic farmers — especially ones in your community — this criteria doesn’t mean that “organic” automatically equals “healthy.”  Remember, an “organic” label alone doesn’t guarantee that the food is safer or healthier, especially if it’s a processed food product.

What do the labels mean?
100% Organic or Organic: Contains 95% or more organic ingredients
Made With Organic Ingredients: Contains at least 70% organic ingredients
If the product has less than 70% organic ingredients, then only the ingredients that are organic can be called “organic”.

An organic label was never intended to mean “healthy”.  It just means that what’s inside was grown totally, or in some small part, according to a specific set of chemical standards (see above).  Oh, and by the way, the term “natural” is meaningless so don’t be fooled by “organic” and “natural” labels.  You won’t be healthier, leaner, or a better athlete from impulse buys based on this labeling.

The health food hustle
Like organic food, “health food” and “natural products” are also big business.  Indeed, health food stores have come a long way since their humble beginnings as weird-smelling, cramped hippie outposts.

For instance:
The “natural foods” grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s earned $15.4 billion and $30.6 billion USD in sales in 2015. They made substantial profits and opened new superstores while many other grocery chains (such as Safeway) lost money and/or had to close up shop.

In some ways, this is a good thing.  Now it’s a lot easier for consumers to buy healthier, organic, minimally processed foods.  On the other hand, this also means that there are a lot of companies introducing foods to “compete” in the natural and organic food space.  And, as each company adds their unique processing twist, we end up with a bunch of distracting processed foods that seem healthy… but aren’t much better than any other processed food out there.  Be a critical consumer.

The easiest way to do that:

Buy unprocessed or minimally processed foods that don’t have much packaging to distract you from what’s important.

When is organic better?
Organic is better when the food is a whole, relatively unprocessed food, such as:
vegetables
fruits
meats and poultry
fish and seafood
nuts and seeds
beans and lentils
whole, intact grains
minimally processed dairy (e.g. fresh plain yogurt)
cold-pressed, virgin oils

Organic food is even more awesome when it’s local and raised sustainably on a small farm (or wild-caught). Animals should be fed their natural diet (e.g. grass for cows) and be raised in their natural surroundings.

Trust us, when you have a steak from an organic, free-roaming, lovingly pasture-raised cow, or a fresh-picked, in-season peach — you’ll taste what we’re talking about (and you’ll feel good about your choices too).

However, organic food may not be the best choice when it means processed, refined food products, or products that had to travel thousands of miles to get to you.

Of course, if you’re confused, don’t hesitate to ask your grocer or butcher where the food came from. Ask your farmers at the market how their animals are raised and treated (or even visit the farm — it’s a great family field trip for city slickers).

Be a smart — and skeptical — health food shopper! And when in doubt, go minimally processed. It’s usually the safest bet.

What to do today
1) Eat whole foods.
Remember, processed “health foods” or organic foods are still processed foods. So go with minimally processed instead.
2) Understand that “health food” and organic food is big business.
The companies involved know that most people are easily duped. So be a smart, skeptical consumer.
Read labels critically and thoughtfully. Don’t be fooled by front-of-package claims such as “wholesome” or “natural ingredients”. And hey… why are you buying stuff with labels anyway?
3) Find whole foods that are in season, fresh, local, and organic… and enjoy.
Sure, this can be trickier in the winter in a cold climate. But the challenge is half the fun.