Not long ago, I watched a woman set a carton of Land O’ Lakes Fat-Free Half-and-Half on the conveyor belt at a supermarket.
“Can I ask you why you’re buying fat-free half-and-half?” I said. Half-and-half is defined by its fat content: about 10 percent, more than milk, less than cream.
“Because it’s fat-free?” she responded.
“Do you know what they replace the fat with?” I asked.
“Hmm,” she said, then lifted the carton and read the second ingredient on the label after skim milk: “Corn syrup.” She frowned at me. Then she set the carton back on the conveyor belt to be scanned along with the rest of her groceries.
The woman apparently hadn’t even thought to ask herself that question but had instead accepted the common belief that fat, an essential part of our diet, should be avoided whenever possible.
Then again, why should she question it, given that we allow food companies, advertisers and food researchers to do our thinking for us? In the 1970s, no one questioned whether eggs really were the heart-attack risk nutritionists warned us about. Now, of course, eggs have become such a cherished food that many people raise their own laying hens. Such examples of food confusion and misinformation abound.
“This country will never have a healthy food supply,” said Harry Balzer, an NPD Group analyst and a gleeful cynic when it comes to the American food shopper. “Never. Because the moment something becomes popular, someone will find a reason why it’s not healthy.”
Here, Balzer used the most dangerous term of all: “healthy.”
We are told by everyone, from doctors and nutritionists to food magazines and newspapers, to eat healthy food. We take for granted that a kale salad is healthy and that a Big Mac with fries is not.
I submit to you that our beloved kale salads are not “healthy.” And we are confusing ourselves by believing that they are. They are not healthy; they are nutritious. They may be delicious when prepared well, and the kale itself, while in the ground, may have been a healthy crop. But the kale on your plate is not healthy, and to describe it as such obscures what is most important about that kale salad: that it’s packed with nutrients your body needs. But this is not strictly about nomenclature. If all you ate was kale, you would become sick. Nomenclature rather shows us where to begin.
“ ‘Healthy’ is a bankrupt word,” Roxanne Sukol, preventive medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, medical director of its Wellness Enterprise and a nutrition autodidact (“They didn’t teach us anything about nutrition in medical school”), told me as we strolled the aisles of a grocery store. “Our food isn’t healthy. We are healthy. Our food is nutritious. I’m all about the words. Words are the key to giving people the tools they need to figure out what to eat. Everyone’s so confused.”
Last March, the Food and Drug Administration sent the nut-bar maker Kind a letter saying their use of the word “healthy” on their packaging was a violation (too much fat in the almonds). Kind responded with a citizens’ petition asking the FDA to reevaluate its definition of the word.
If I may rephrase the doctor’s words: Our food is not healthy; we will be healthy if we eat nutritious food. Words matter. And those that we apply to food matter more than ever.
Kraft cheese slices cannot be called cheese but must be labeled “cheese food” or a “cheese product.” Pringles cannot be called “chips” but rather “crisps.” Yet packaged foods can be labeled “natural” or “all-natural” — what exactly is the difference between the two, anyway? — with little regulation.
Here is a word we think we understand: protein. Protein is good, yes? Builds strong muscles, has positive health connotations. That’s why “protein shakes” are a multibillion-dollar business. Pork cracklings do not have positive health connotations because we think of them as having a high fat content. But pork cracklings are little more than strips of fried pig skin. Skin is one of the many forms of connective tissue in all animal bodies and is composed almost entirely of protein, typically undergirded by a layer of fat. When these strips of pig skin are fried, most of the fat is rendered out and the connective tissue puffs, resulting in a delectable, crunchy, salty crackling. I therefore recommend them to you as a “protein snack” during your on-the-go day.
Given the infinitely malleable language of food, it’s no wonder American food shoppers are confused.
What is “mechanically separated meat,” a standard ingredient in the turkey bacon and chicken sausages popularized because of our low-fat love? “Do you know what that is?” a grocery store owner asked me. “They basically put poultry carcasses in a giant salad spinner.” Whatever winds up on the walls of the spinner in addition to meat — bits of cartilage (protein!), nerves (I have enough of my own, thank you), vessels, bone fragments — is scraped off and added to the mixing bowl. “Mechanically separated meat” engages our imagination only when someone attaches new words to it, such as “pink slime.”
“Refined” is another critical food word. Generally, refined means elegant and cultured in appearance, manner or taste, or with impurities removed. Yet that is what food companies have been calling wheat from which the germ and bran have been removed, leaving what is in effect pure starch, devoid of the fiber, oils, iron and vitamins that make wheat nutritious.
That’s not refined, Sukol said, “that’s stripped.” Flour stripped of the nutrition that makes it valuable to our bodies but reduces shelf life.
Because it has been stripped, we must “enrich” it. “Enriched.” “Fortified.” Good, yes? To make rich, to make strong. Food companies added the iron they took out during the refining process, but not enough of what we need. “Refined flour — this resulted in B vitamin and iron deficiencies,” Sukol said, “so they added vitamins and iron. And what do they call that? Enriched and fortified. But they forgot to add folate, vitamin B9, until the 1990s.”
What we don’t know, Sukol said, is how those additions, not to mention the diglycerides and sulphates, combined with the lack of fiber, will affect our metabolism in the long run. So far, she said, “it has resulted in diabetes and metabolic syndrome.”
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/19 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
2/19 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
3/19 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
4/19 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
5/19 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
6/19 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
7/19 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
8/19 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
9/19 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
10/19 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
11/19 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
12/19 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
13/19 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
14/19 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
15/19 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
16/19 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
17/19 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
18/19 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
19/19 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
We will be healthy if we eat nutritious food. Our food is either nutritious or not. We are healthy or we are not. If we eat nutritious food, we may enhance what health we possess.
This is not a judgment on what you choose to eat. If you hunger for a cheese product grilled between bread that’s been stripped of its nutrition, along with a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup (made with tomato paste, corn syrup and potassium chloride), fine. It was one of my favorite childhood meals. Just be aware. Buy fat-free half-and-half if that’s what you like; just know what it is you’re putting in your body and why.
Because, and this is the judgment call, fat isn’t bad; stupid is bad. And until we have better information and clearer shared language defining our food, smart choices will be ever harder to make.
Ruhlman is the author of many books, including “Ruhlman’s How to Roast” and the recent collection of novellas “In Short Measure.” He blogs and can be reached at ruhlman.com. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.
The Washington Post