My Beef with 8 Deceptive Food Terms

A bit of a rant today, because I’m simply tired of reading through articles, blogs, and books that tout special properties of different foods and recipes. Really, figuring out what to eat shouldn’t be that difficult, even if you are trying to be healthy. As Michael Pollan says in his book In Defense of Food, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s it.

Things get more complicated when you try to figure out calories and cravings, portion sizes and protein intake, taste preferences and temptations, but really, these things are secondary. For all of the hype about different diets that roar in and slowly lose their popularity over time, the truth remains that you’re pretty good if you can eat  moderate portions of healthy foods, small treats upon occasion, and get some exercise routines built into your day to day habits.

Putting the terms on a label is a clever marketing tactic to make you buy more of it, which might make you eat more of it…which might make your eating habits worse off in the long run, as you try to tell yourself that you’ve made good choices, when in fact, you’ve convinced yourself that you can eat more of a food just because you think it has magical health properties. These 8 terms really rub against the grain for me, mostly because they’re used to manipulate and complicate the food choices people make. Don’t be deceived, and don’t buy the hype.

1. Diet – If a recipe or ingredient claims it is “diet” food, realize that it really means nothing. The best diet is one comprised of the healthy eating habits above. Make a lifetime commitment to them, don’t just periodically decide to “eat healthy” in order to accomplish a short term health or weight goal.

2. Gluten Free – One of the biggest fad terms right now. I’ve seen it applied to oatmeal, peanut butter, fruits, and all kinds of recipes for baked goods. It is rare for people to actually be allergic to gluten, and while there is truth in the fact that the gluten content of a specific food will affect how full it keeps you, food being gluten free isn’t an automatic key to the food being healthy or not.

3. Vegan – The easiest way to read this for health terms could be to simply eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and grains. There exists a bigger argument for animal-rights activists about why one should adopt a vegan lifestyle, but from a health stand point, it’s the foods and not the term that makes the difference. One can be vegan and eat a lot of processed sugars, so long as they avoid animal products.

4. Organic – This term can mean two different things. When it is referring to the process of growing food that is “certified organic”, it means that the people who grew the food followed a lot of regulations and grew their food without synthetic products like pesticides. It can also be tagged on to foods and recipes the way “vegan” and “gluten free” are. Go ahead, eat the fruits and veggies, but buy them because you believe in working to do what’s best for the environment, not because of a sticker slapped on a package.

5. Locally grown – Local is a relative term. While it’s great to keep money circulating locally and to support farmers who are trying to maintain their farm without succumbing to large scale take-overs, sometimes “local” means that a food was grown a raised fifteen minutes down the road, and sometimes it’s still several hundred miles away. If it’s important to you, ask. You might be surprised at how far away a “locally grown/raised” fruit or pound of beef is from.

6. Sugar-Free – If it’s got sugar alternatives in it, that doesn’t make it healthy. Artificial sweeteners have proven to host a whole slew of negative health effects. Your body cannot process them all well, so it does funny things with them that we do not entirely understand. Agave, honey, and other substitutions may be slightly better than the white crystalline stuff, but if you’re trying to keep a healthy diet, you’re better off with scant amounts of any of these items in your diet.

7. Low-Fat – Eating food that has naturally occurring fat in it isn’t bad for you. Like with sugar, the alternatives might end up with you worse off than before. Look at the ingredients, nutrients, type of fat, and calorie content of a food, not just this little label. If there are lots of ingredient names you don’t recognize on a product labeled low-fat, think twice about what you’re putting in your body, and what they’re trying to get you to buy.

8. Contains Nutrients – Most foods contain nutrients, and while it’s true that foods like red bell peppers, mangoes, and spinach all have concentrated amounts of them, following the idea of “eat[ing] the rainbow” is the best way to go.

Phew. Ranting over. And yet these fad terms will probably extend for several more months or years yet.