Market View: Food Should Not Be Medicine

Follow only sound research, stop promoting what's not in your food and remind consumers of the joy of eating.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

I don’t enjoy the things associated with aging, with one exception: perspective. Being able to look back helps me make meaning of the current situation. As Winston Churchill said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” I am now able to look pretty far back.

I've witnessed the movement of food from delicious, wonderful and tasty enjoyment to the current medicinal approach to eternal life. Ponce de Leon would be happy today, as every week a new fountain of youth is discovered.

In the early 1970s, USDA's eating guidelines focused on eating styles more than food itself. The agency's guideline said, “Eat a variety of foods,” and “Maintain your ideal body weight.” It suggested reducing salt intake, with emphasis on eating items from the four food groups. Wow, did these ever make sense! It wasn’t until the late '70s that the shift from food to nutrients took place.

"Dietary Goals for the United States," issued in 1977 by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, reflected a shift in focus. These goals -- from obtaining adequate nutrients to food and nutrient avoidance -- were controversial among some nutritionists and others concerned with food, nutrition and health.

While consulting at Campbell Soup Co., we started with the hypothesis that it was not what you ate but eating patterns that influenced health. This work was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and became a short advertising theme, “Soup is Good Food.” However, top Campbell management at the time really didn’t believe this hypothesis. They thought there was little or no evidence to relate eating patterns to health. It wasn’t until ConAgra came out with Healthy Choice that the “food for health” trend got traction.

In my opinion, food today is more about medicine than about taste. Almost everything that tastes good has been labeled bad for your heart or causes cancer. It's amazing that people still pay attention to all the news about food, given that nutritionists have changed their opinions on virtually every bit of eating advice they have given us over the years.

Remember when eating cholesterol would kill you, when eggs were a health villain? Now eggs are OK. Dietary cholesterol does not create serum cholesterol – but do cut back on fats. Wait, it’s not all fats, just some fats, as some fats are actually good for you. The fat in whole milk will kill you just as quickly, so drink skim milk or avoid dairy milk and drink soy milk. Not quite -- young kids need the fat in milk to develop, and “soy milk” may not be good for some women. Remember killer salt? Most researchers now agree moderate salt intake is not bad unless you already are hypertensive.

Most recently, researchers have said coffee may cause cancer; so can chicken nuggets, soda and even cake. Add to that list bacon, Nutella and -- you might not believe it -- also asparagus. All of these “killers” were stories in USA Today.

My age and my professional work as a nutritional epidemiologist lead me to believe that this is just an over-complication of the very first USDA guidelines: Eat a variety of foods and maintain your ideal body weight.

You may argue that is not enough detail for the average consumer. Well, how have the complicated guidelines been working? Americans still are getting fat, not eating vegetables and basically not following the new guidelines that are represented by pyramids and plates -- and next I expect a dodecahedron to "simplify" the message.

What role has the food industry played in this conversion to “medicinal eating?” The industry encourages it by labeling that food does not contain this or that. It is "all natural," even though no one actually knows what is natural. Strychnine is natural, it can be eaten with virtually no adulteration.

We see certain members of the poultry industry claiming no antibiotics, but no chicken in the food supply has antibiotics in the meat. We see the dairy industry rush to no hormones, but all dairy milk has naturally occurring hormones, and the USDA requires a statement on the label explaining there is no difference between milk from cows treated with rBST and those not treated with the hormone.

My own research has examined the types of claims made on labels of thousands of new foods and how they have changed over time. In the early '90s, most claims on labels were positive -- such as high in vitamins or rich in calcium. Today the negative claims have increased by thousands of percent and of course the positive things we say about our food have declined.

From my perspective, the food industry has to stop catering to those that make claims based on one or two studies. The industry must demand that good science is the source of our changes.

Above all, let’s again start telling consumers how our food is wonderful and tastes great.

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