Everyone wants to be healthy, but it’s hard to know what things are good for us in the convoluted business-and-marketing metropolis that we live in. Large corporations that sell sugary cereals claim that their products make your heart healthy, and some brands even claim to help you sleep or boost mental and physical performance.
Senseless health claims are easier to make in the United States than in the European Union. Over the past several years the European Food Safety Authority has rejected more than 80 percent of proposed health claims because the products lack strong evidence. The judges aren’t so strict in America.
In contrast, the Food and Drug Administration’s current stance on food claims is that, as long as they do not claim to actually treat disease, the foods are allowed to claim to change the “structure and function” of the body. In addition, the FDA allows products to be labeled as something they’re not, as long as it’s partially true. That’s how McDonald’s can get away with calling their chicken nuggets, Chicken McNuggets. In reality, the golden grease balls contain only 45 percent of actual chicken meat.
The food industry extends beyond our everyday Bare Bowls and organic kale, into the billion dollar realm of supplements and weight loss products. Since we’re not getting all of our necessary vitamins and minerals in our everyday diets, businesses have taken it upon themselves to sell expensive little pills to fill in the gaps.
It’s difficult to understand why the root of the problem—the everyday American diet itself—isn’t what we’re trying to fix. According to the US Department of Agriculture, meat and processed foods make up almost 90 percent of the average American diet. Rates of obesity and disease have increased in the past century, and pills and supplements appear to solve the problem. When you realize that the supplement industry made more than $32 billion back in 2012, the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place. If our society was fit and healthy, it would be much harder for the vitamin and supplement industries to make the same profits.
The general American understanding of a ‘healthy diet’ has a historical beginning with the American food pyramid in 1992. Refined carbohydrates like white bread and corn made up the large base of the pyramid, with guidelines of six to 11 servings a day. These suggestions weren’t even backed by the nutritional and scientific research at the time.
There have been multiple criticisms about potential corruption with large food industries’ influence on the Department of Agriculture. For example, the milk industry: the addition of a more prominent area for serving sizes of dairy on the American nutritional guidelines makes people think that they should be consuming more dairy than nutritionally necessary, or beneficial.
As a response to the rise in disease and obesity in the United States, there’s been a new rise in health conscious eating over the past few years. Plant-based diets, veganism, organic and superfood—there’s a plethora of buzzwords that make it on to labels and small talk around various communities. Even on Netflix, health-related and food-related documentaries, like “What The Health” and “Food, Inc” have become increasingly popular in the last decade.
This growth in health-consciousness also comes with a catch. Labeling products as ‘organic’ or ‘gluten free’ often comes associated with higher prices and a luxurious air. It’s become trendy to eat healthy. Products that never had meat in them in the first place are now labeled as ‘vegan.’ Sugary children’s cereals disguise themselves as rich in (non-naturally occurring) vitamins and minerals, and full of ‘whole grains.’
Through the confusion, marketing and red herrings, it may be best practice to get back to basics. The baseline is boring, but simple, and it’s something we’ve all heard for a long time. One thing that all of the trends have maintained is the healthfulness of eating real, unprocessed food and lots and lots of vegetables.
Spinach may not be that cheesy slice of pizza or creamy scoop of ice cream (products that have been experimentally altered to make them as pleasurable and addicting as possible), but our old friend the vegetable may be all we can rely on in the current state of the industry. More plant, less of the other stuff, and we may be doing the best we can with the information we have.
Contact Maika Isogawa at misogawa ‘at’ stanford.edu.