Market View: There Is No Such Thing as Unhealthy Foods

Make great-tasting food without trying to impress the 'healthy' people.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

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Sometimes when I order a salad at restaurant my colleague might ask, "Are you eating healthy today?" “No,” I usually reply, “I’m not eating healthy, I am eating hungry today." Generally there is nothing healthy or unhealthy about my Cobb salad dressed in blue cheese dressing, bacon and egg along with the lettuce, tomatoes, etc.

I have cautioned food companies not to get overly excited about the healthy options in their products. There are a number of reasons I besmirch "healthy" foods. But first let me provide some definitions that I work with.

I don't know if orange juice is a healthy food but I know it is loaded with vitamin C, so it is good for you and it tastes great. I know milk is loaded with essential vitamins, minerals and protein and can have low fat. I think milk tastes great, too. I don't think of these as healthy foods but rather as delicious foods that have some nutritional advantages. I also know orange juice has a high sugar content (fructose) and too much orange juice may not be especially good for you.

I have three questions. First, who says which food is healthy? Personally, I find the advice given by health professionals is usually wrong. Remember when we should eat no eggs, now eggs are OK. How about "use margarine instead of butter"? They forgot about trans fats, didn't they, so now butter is not so bad. They said “cut out foods high in cholesterol” until it was decided that dietary cholesterol had little effect on serum cholesterol. How about high fructose corn syrup? A scourge? It is being replaced by other sugars. Is fat the bad guy? But then we learn not all fats, just some fats, are bad. We should eat more fish, but not too much fish because fish has mercury and other heavy metals, and besides if we eat a lot more fish, we will deplete the fish stocks on the globe.

But my personal favorite is salt. While there is a significant amount of data that sodium is not the bad guy it is made out to be, the lay press excoriates salt as a murderer. Yet Dr. Heaney, professor of medicine at John A. Creighton University stated, “Several years ago, the editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association was quoted in an article in Science as saying 'these current recommendations go way beyond the evidence.’

Who says which food is healthy?

That was not a solitary dissent by any means, as other prestigious scientific journals have recently published editorials making the same point – namely that there was no evidence of benefit from low intakes of sodium, and, in fact, no assurance that they were not actually harmful.

Remember the Wizard of Oz, "the great and powerful wizard." He was treated as all knowledgeable until the curtain was pulled back. Are those people providing our healthy food guidance just another wizard yet to be exposed?

My second question is, if consumers want healthier foods why are we still becoming a more obese nation? My research has been consistent over the years: People don't get fat because they eat the wrong food, they get fat because they eat too much food. Years ago, working with NHANES (CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) at Campbell Soup Co., we wanted to find which consumers in America got 100 percent of all the RDAs. We found one significant point in common: most of them were obese. This research eventually led to the campaign "soup is good food" but was shortly dropped because a "Center in Somebody’s Interest" said soup had too much salt to be healthy.

You occasionally read that if you eat a McDonalds Big Mac every day you are not getting a healthy diet." If you eat a Big Mac every day YOU are not very bright; the hamburger is not at fault.

My final question is, who is your target market? I hope it's not the various public health groups that have agendas and are not representing consumers. I know there is a target market that values healthy above all else, but I am also quite sure there is a larger target audience that wants delicious food that can be good for you. Go after both if you wish, but recognize that they are different markets.

What can a food processor do? You can make great tasting food without trying to fool people. There is no such thing as unhealthy foods, just unhealthy eating habits. The food industry needs to go back and read the USDA guidelines from the 1980s. The first two guidelines were eat a variety of foods and maintain a healthy body weight. Eat potato chips, or chocolate, or a prime rib of beef ... just don't do it too often, or eat so much that you gain weight. It is really that simple.

The problem is the simple advice first given by USDA is just not sexy enough. We need pyramids, pictures of plates and stars on our food packages.

Let’s be honest, you can't get on talk shows and say “eat sensibly.” You need a gimmick.

The message of the food industry could be: “We make safe, delicious and inexpensive foods that when eaten in moderation are good for your body and mind."

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