Last week the New York Times ran a really interesting article about the surge of everyday processed foods claiming to improve our overall health. I have noticed more commercials. Just the other day, I saw a commercial for some sugary kids' breakfast strudel that said that kids who have breakfast cereals such as their product are more likely to perform better and be more alert during the day.
But to see if the Times' claims had any legs, I wanted to see for myself. So I took a stroll down the aisles of my local Brooklyn grocery story, C-Town. I have to admit, I was shocked by what I saw.
There were juices claiming to be high in antioxidants that can reduce your risk of prostate cancer; a yogurt that said in two weeks it could regulate your digestive system, and in one month if you are really lucky. By eating one brand of oatmeal your cholesterol could lower itself by 15 points, and there was some orange juice brand that claims to have omega-3s which can improve your heart health.
But does it really do what it says it does?
Unfortunately, the Times along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say "not really." Yes folks, Food Inc. is bamboozling us with their "functional foods."
“Functional foods, they are not about health,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told the Times. “They are about marketing.”
The FDA and other regulators are calling these companies out, but for the most part, they are getting away with it. The Times reported that it's all in the wording:
"Food giants like Dannon, Kelloggs and General Mills don’t claim these products actually prevent or cure diseases. Such declarations would run afoul of federal regulations. Nor do they sell them as medical foods, which are intended to be consumed under a doctor’s supervision.
"Rather, food companies market functional foods with health-promoting or wellness-maintaining properties. Such claims are perfectly legal, provided that they are backed up by some credible science."
What's scary is that a lot of times, people who are trying to be more health conscious just see a "healthy" product and throw it in their carts, without looking at the food labels to check for sodium, calories, fats and sugar content. Monitoring those factors is more important that a bread that claims to trim your tummy.
And while some foods' content does have science on its side, the companies are still fooling you. The Times writes:
"The front of the box, in large white print, proclaims: “Oatmeal helps reduce cholesterol!” Scientists generally agree that fiber can be good for your heart. But read the adjacent smaller print, which the Food and Drug Administration requires, and you’ll find that one serving of Quaker Oatmeal Squares contains only a third of the amount of soluble fiber needed daily to help reduce the risk of heart disease. In other words, you may have to eat three bowls of cereal daily—630 calories’ worth, without milk—to benefit."
What's frustrating is that we are told everyday that our health is failing and that we are disproportionately impacted by a range of diseases. And as a result, some of us are rethinking what we eat, but in those efforts to make lifestyle changes, we are falling for the nonsense.
And it's sad, because if we can't trust these companies, who can we trust?
In the end, I advise to not let Food Inc.'s lies discourage you from believing that making better food choices is crucial to living longer and being healthier. Eating less processed foods and incorporating more real foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish—and exercising can transform our lives and prevent us from developing diseases.
So the next time you are walking down the aisle looking at the cereal that claims it can save your life, tell yourself, "If a cereal could really do that, we would all be healthy by now."
(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)