Focus on Real Food Instead of Trendy Imitation Food Products

Eat real food kind of goes without saying. But we need to get back to that and steer away from thinking of foods as carriers of nutrients that manufacturers can manipulate for the better for our health, keynote speaker and The New York Times best-selling author Michael Pollan told a capacity crowd at Natural Products Expo West last week.

Natural Products Expo West is the country’s largest natural, organic, and healthy products trade show. It was larger than ever this year: More than 52,000 retailers, manufacturers and industry professionals attended the show to see a record 3,392 exhibits in the Anaheim Convention Center. “Gluten-Free” was an extremely popular category of products – even hotter than it has been the past few years. There were a number of healthful, whole-food, gluten-free products at the convention. However, it is amazing how many companies offer highly refined gluten-free products that people think are healthy just because they’re gluten free. Pollan’s comments on the changes that have taken place with our food and the way we look at food offers some much-needed perspective so we can make smarter choices in the foods we buy.

Starting back in 1938, the United States developed strict rules that the word “imitation” had to appear on any food product that was not a recognized food (think margarine as a substitute for butter). After decades of fighting the imitation rule, the food industry got the Food and Drug Administration to reverse the imitation rule in 1973. That opened the door to the production of an endless variety of fake food products that people didn’t recognize as fake anymore because they were no longer labeled “imitation.”

Coupled with that, society started to develop a reductionist way of thinking about food: that foods are essentially the sum of their parts – carriers of good and bad nutrients and nothing else. Food manufacturers loved this new way of thinking. It meant they could make highly processed, imitation food products, add a few nutrients to conform to the latest recommendations of the day, and market the product as “better” or “healthier” than the real food. This development was very profitable for food companies.

The only problem is that heavily tinkered fake food over real food is hazardous to our health. Our population has become fatter and sicker since it has been eating industrially produced food products and at the same time been obsessed with the nutrients in, and biochemical details of, food. We’ve taken our focus off the real problem, which is the “Western Diet” – a diet made up of lots of refined grains, refined sugars, refined oils and refined meats. The Western Diet – not just in the United States but wherever else it is eaten – makes people sick, promoting the development of Western diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“We are normalizing (modern) diseases so much that everyone takes drugs to deal with disease caused by the food we eat,” Pollan said. “The alternative path is to eat in a different way.”

Societies that didn’t eat the Western diet stayed healthy. We who have become sick eating the Western diet can go off the diet to “turn back the clock” and reverse disease processes, Pollan said.

To do that, we have to pay more attention to real foods, not just the nutrients in them. That means getting back to not eating anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Avoid refined ingredients and products with long lists of ingredients you can’t pronounce. Remember that the healthiest foods (such as fruits and vegetables) have no labels with health claims on them.

Our ancestors ate food and stayed healthy. We can do it again. But the key thing is we have to sit down and eat real food, not edible, food-like substances made to look like food. We don’t understand all the complexities of what’s in food and how it works, and the sooner we understand that and honor that, the better off we’ll be.

Melissa’s comments:

I have been attending Natural Products Expo West for fourteen straight years. In that time, I have seen food companies make all kinds of food concoctions, jumping from one nutritional fad to another and making one mistake or another with our food. Some examples: Making an “organic” product very high in organic sugar. Isolating soy protein and adding it to all kinds of things, including a shake-like drink that had 72 grams of carbohydrates! Taking most of the carbs out of wheat flour and concentrating the protein – which is the gluten (yikes!) – to make low-carb breads and pastas. Using refined, high-glycemic, gluten-free ingredients – such as white rice flour, potato and tapioca starch, and evaporated cane juice (a fancy term for sugar) – to make gluten-free food products that are somehow supposedly healthy for people. Gluten-free products like these are of course not healthy and people find that out all too well when they begin a gluten-free diet and start eating these products in droves. (Say weight gain and blood sugar problems anyone? See this related story for more information.)

“Low fat,” “low carb” and other popular buzz terms have come into vogue at various times and food manufacturers used these trendy labels to make non-nutritious fake foods that made us sick.

Today “organic” and “gluten-free” are top-selling categories and food trends. They should be; they shouldn’t be just another passing fancy. If you think about it, the food in the nonindustrialized diets that kept our ancestors healthy was organic (free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, genetic modification and irradiation). And the food was gluten free, too. Before the advent of agriculture, no one ate gluten-containing grains, and even after the development of agriculture, most of the world’s population did not eat gluten.

However, there’s a big difference between food that is naturally gluten free and organically grown, and most of the food products that have “organic” or “gluten free” on their label today. Foods made with rice flour, potato starch, corn starch, tapioca starch, sugar and a variety of gums do not promote health, whether they’re gluten free (or organic) or not. There are more companies than ever making refined foods like these. Many of these companies are well meaning in their intention to offer gluten-free foods that can help people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, but they don’t realize that gluten isn’t the only food component that can make us sick. Refined grains and sugars that spike blood sugar and insulin levels make us sick, too. Offering gluten-free versions of refined grain products that make up the Western diet is another mistake food manufacturers are making. That’s why so many gluten-sensitive people are becoming overweight and developing other Western-type-diet health problems.

Pollan’s keynote address hopefully will inspire food manufacturers and us as consumers to get back to what really matters: real food. Don’t allow “gluten free” and “organic” to be passing fancies that go by the wayside. Vote with the dollars you spend by giving up refined gluten-free junk food and buying gluten-free food products made out of real food. True, real-food products may cost a little more but cheaper refined foods pose outrageous hidden costs to your health. (If you need additional help finding specific healthy, helpful, gluten-free food products, consider joining my Going Against the Grain Group where we will cover the this topic in depth.) And of course remember that the best gluten-free food is food that doesn’t have a label – vegetables, fruits, nuts poultry, fish, and grass-fed meats.

© 2008 Melissa Diane Smith

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