On “Healthy” Food

shopping cart filled with produceThere was an interesting read in the New York Times last week on beliefs about “healthy” foods, based on a survey inspired by the FDA’s reconsideration of what kinds of foods can be called “healthy.” (Earlier this year, the agency also invited public comments on showed the use of the term “natural” on food labels. The comment period is closed now, but you can view the comments here.)

And it’s about time they do. It’s been more than 20 years since they last looked at those rules. And as ThinkProgress reported back in May,

Under the FDA’s current rule, food can only be labeled as healthy if it’s below a certain threshold in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Meanwhile, any regulation on sugar content is conspicuously absent. Although excess added sugar is now blamed as a contributor to major health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, that wasn’t much of a concern in the 1980s and 1990s.

In practice, that means that breakfast foods like Pop-Tarts and cereals, which are heavily processed and high in sugar — but also fortified with added nutrients — have an easier time passing the threshold as “healthy” than a one-ingredient, high-fat food like salmon filet.

So the Times surveyed consumers and nutritionists to get an idea of what they think “healthy” means. There were the usual discrepancies, to be sure – consumers think granola bars and frozen yogurt are a lot more healthy than nutritionists do – as well as the usual undecidedness on foods such as butter, cheese, and whole milk. Still, it’s kind of interesting to see how ideas come together and diverge on what kind of nutrition folks think our bodies need.

Yet to get caught up in the debate between “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods kind of misses the point.

After all, it’s the whole diet that matters. And food is just one factor that affects health. To reduce matters to “eat this and you’ll be healthy” or “avoid that and you’ll be healthy” is a major oversimplification.

But more, the foods that most often come with health claims slapped on them are not whole foods but food products. At best, they may be whole foods fortified or otherwise manipulated in some way as to merit some kind of health claim. At worst, they’re things like Pop-Tarts – engineered, fabricated products made with food derivatives and synthetic chemicals that our bodies were never designed to consume.

We don’t need products. We need food. Real food. That’s the foundation of a healthful diet, however else it might be configured.

Real food doesn’t need labels.

Of course, all of us turn to products from time to time. Some common foods take more time to make than we can give in the modern world – foods like bread or cheese. Sometimes, it’s just easier to rely on a product to impart extra flavor, say, or speed up preparation. That’s fine.

But if you’re eating for healthfulness, real food, not product, makes up the bulk of your diet.

Image by greggavedon.com, via Flickr

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Originally from Gary M. Verigin, DDS, inc.

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