Do Food Mantras Always Translate to Healthy Choices?

by Danielle Penick

Eggs on a counter, with child and adult cooking. There are many food mantras about eggs.

Food shopping can be an overwhelming experience even for me — and I’ve been a registered dietitian for over a decade and have a Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition. During undergraduate school I worked at a health food co-op, where I often heard how most of the food industry was trying to kill me. Food can be overwhelming for anyone, let alone non-experts, and simple food mantras can make healthy choices seem easier.

New food products hit the market every day. Many proudly display labels like all natural, non-GMO, gluten free, or no hormones added to convince you to buy their item. Food mantras and slogans can be found all over social media, with popular TV doctors, celebrities, food writers, and “nutrition gurus” ensuring the slogans gain traction. Catch phrases like popular food journalist Michael Pollan’s “if you can’t say it, don’t eat it” and “you shouldn’t ingest any chemicals or anything unnatural” seem like straightforward ways to determine if a food is healthy because if something is natural, it shouldn’t have an unwieldy chemical name, right?

Food Mantras Aren’t all Wrong

Many food mantras come from a good place—the goal is to encourage people make healthy choices and reduce intake of highly processed foods with high amounts of added sugars or empty calories. In other words, if you’re avoiding hard-to-pronounce ingredients, you’re more likely to eat more produce and nutrient dense foods, which, in theory at least, displace some less nutritious choices, like the Twinkie you might grab for an afternoon snack.

However, these mantras can be misleading, especially when applied as absolutes. Take Michael Pollan again, who proclaimed that we should “shop the periphery of the store and avoid the center aisles laden with processed foods.” If taken too literally, you might miss out on healthy foods like steel cut oatmeal, whole grain bread, nuts, beans, brown rice, spices and seasonings, and frozen produce.

These mantras are almost deceptively simple—it’s part of the reason they’re so popular! But do fewer syllables or familiar sounding names really translate to healthier food?

Chemicals aren’t (always) the enemy

What if I told you about a chemical that is used as a disinfectant, is used in labs for chemical reactions, can cause chemical burns, and can be found in (gasp) your salad dressing? Would you worry that you would get cancer or be poisoning your family? This chemical is called acetic acid, but you probably know it by its common name: vinegar. While it may sound awful,when you hear the full context, you begin to realize that ingredients can serve many purposes and still be safe to eat.

Avoiding ingredients you cannot pronounce can fuel chemophobia—a blanket fear of chemicals. But some of the most common elements essential to health have some of the hardest to pronounce names. Names like retinyl palmitate and pyridoxine hydrochloride may sound like poison to some, but these are just the scientific names for vitamin A and vitamin B6. Ascorbic acid may make you reconsider buying a package of sliced apples. However ascorbic acid is also known as vitamin C, an antioxidant, and it’s used to prevent browning once the apples are cut. Other antioxidants like alpha tocopherol (vitamin E) are used to prevent fats from going rancid.  

child's lunch - peas, french fries, nuggets, plated

Does natural mean better?

The “natural is better” food mantra suggests that natural chemicals are safer and healthier than synthetic versions of the same chemical produced in a lab. But a chemical, whether made from a natural or a synthetic source, will result in the same or nearly identical molecule in the end. For example, the chemical structure of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is identical to the synthetic version and it will function the exact same way in your body. The only difference is how it’s made. The perception that natural chemicals are better is a myth, but marketers greatly benefit from the idea that man made chemicals are inherently harmful. For example, natural vanilla extract contains vanillin and hundreds of other compounds that make up it’s flavor. While imitation vanilla extract contains only synthetic vanillin, but chemically it is an identical compound.

So why use synthetic chemicals at all? For starters, it generally costs less to produce a chemical than to harvest it from its natural source. Synthetic chemicals are often more sustainable and ecologically friendly than compounds extracted from nature. Synthetic compounds can also be safer. Natural compounds can evolve in far more unpredictable and complicated ways than synthetic compounds that we produce in a lab.

For example, natural almond extract is made from almonds that aren’t edible. These bitter almonds contain hydrogen cyanide, which is toxic to humans and is a defense mechanism for the almond against being eaten. Synthetic almond extract allows us to produce the flavor without the difficulty of processing to remove cyanide. From a manufacturing perspective, making something in a lab can be much more reproducible and uniform, with more control over the process and the same outcome every time.

Being able to pronounce all ingredients in a food item has no bearing on whether it’s a healthy choice or not. For example, there is a chocolate syrup on the market with ingredients, which are all easy to pronounce, but the product is still full of sugar. Most people would agree that this is not considered to be a health food. And the same with a bag of Kettle potato chips. It may contain potatoes, oil, and salt, but it’s certainly not a food you want to overindulge in.

Food mantras: Fear in marketing

Today’s consumers are much more label-conscious than prior generations. That’s a good thing because it shows people are interested in making positive changes to their health. But the overwhelming number of messages from the wellness industry can feel paralyzing to us as consumers. If we’re told to fear long ingredient names as a blanket rule, for example, we might make our purchases out of unfounded fears of long words rather than something that’s actually unhealthy. Fear can sometimes be a helpful motivator, but not when it persuades us to pay more for food just because the label’s jargon makes it sounds like it might be better for us than it really is.

Food companies sometimes add these synthetic ingredients and substances to serve a functional purpose in production or for the appeal of the product. Many of these ingredients enhance or maintain nutritional value, improve freshness, maintain quality, or even help reduce food waste. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question whether a food or ingredient is healthy. It wasn’t until very recently that we learned eating trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) in any amount is not advisable. Now, many food companies are removing these sources from their products in response to consumer outcry and FDA regulations. Scientists knew in the 50s that those who consumed higher amounts of fat were at higher risk for heart disease, but they didn’t realize that it was actually a specific type of fat causing this. It took decades of research to figure out the differences between unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.

We know that today’s consumers desire and enjoy a food supply that is safe, convenient, visually appealing, tasty, nutritious, and affordable. How lucky are we to live in a time where advances in food technology have made all of this possible? Without it, we would have to grow our own food, harvest it, and prepare it for storage using methods such as canning or fermenting to prevent spoilage. We now have the ability to improve food safety by reducing spoilage caused by fungi, bacteria, yeast, and mold to help prevent food borne illnesses. These advances have helped give us one of the safest food supplies in the world.

As a dietitian, I advise taking food mantras with a grain of salt. When making a purchase, forget the food label jargon on the package and instead look for nutrient-rich foods that are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and lower in calories and total sugars. Load up on fruits, veggies and whole grains, and avoid excess empty calories from sodas, baked goods, chips, fried foods, candies, and other deserts. Maybe next time we look at a food label, we can feel more relaxed and at ease that technology allows us a safe food supply with so many options.

Danielle Penick

This guest post was written by Danielle Penick, RD.
Danielle is a writer and registered dietitian who connects cancer survivors with evidence based research on nutrition and health. She is the creator of Survivors’ Table, an online resource for cancer survivors, and she is a practicing dietitian in Phoenix, AZ. For updates, you can follow Survivors’ Table on Facebook.