When is “super” not so super-duper and “natural” not the natural choice? It’s hard enough deciding which foods to throw in the grocery cart or pick from restaurant menus. Now health experts warn that common nutrition definitions can be exaggerated, misleading or false.
Called “leanwashing” by Austin-based EnviroMedia Social Marketing with input from public health and food professionals, their list of words to watch out for include “made with” and “natural.” Dr. Stephen Pont of the Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity, an adviser for the Leanwashing Index, says, “When it comes to ‘natural,’ don’t forget ‘all-natural sugar’ and cane sugar are added sugars that add empty calories to whatever you, or your kids, are eating.”
The group doesn’t like “made with” because it doesn’t tell the consumer if there’s enough of a healthy ingredient in a product to contribute a significant concentration of nutrients.
“Super food” may be a super popular marketing term, but there is no legal definition. It usually refers to foods that contain an impressive concentration of a nutrient such as omega-3 fatty acids in salmon or a food that’s one-stop shopping for a number of nutrients such as kale’s combination of vitamins and minerals. But be super careful about succumbing to “super food” claims.
Nutrition experts are all for portion control, but the Leanwashing Index warns against grabbing 100-calorie packs of snack foods without considering, for instance, a 100-calorie pack of baby carrots serves up more nutrition than 100-calorie packs of cookies.
The phrase “whole grain” continues to be wholly misunderstood by many.
Should you hold out for foods made with 100 percent whole grain?
No, says Cynthia Harriman of the Whole Grains Council. “The tricky part is most people get the majority of their whole grains by eating foods made with a mix of whole and refined grains.”
The Whole Grain Stamp logo, developed by the council, identifies food products with a minimum of 8 grams of whole-grain ingredients per serving. Harriman says, “If we tell people to be perfect, how can we encourage them to move closer to eating a healthier diet?”
Another good point is high-fiber bran cereals are healthy but cannot be classified whole grain because they contain just the bran layer of the cereal.
“We used to say that fiber was the big benefit when eating whole grains,” Harriman adds. “Now we know that the rest of the grain provides all kinds of phytonutrients to reduce inflammation and improve blood vessel health.”
Paying attention to vocabulary is important, but doing the math is what really makes the difference when improving eating habits.
For instance, aim for three servings of whole grains totaling about 50 grams per day. That’s as easy as eating one half of a whole-grain English muffin, a slice of whole-grain bread and 1/3 cup of brown rice or whole-wheat pasta.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian.