Are our health foods healthy?

For everyone trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, you will understand the struggle of identifying what is healthy and what isn’t. For every claim to be good for you, you will undoubtedly find a counter-claim beseeching you to eliminate that food from your diet due to its detrimental effects. And if we take a step back, it’s not surprising, considering when it comes to healthy eating there really is no “one-size fits all” approach. Every “body” is different, so while a plant based high protein diet works for Jenny, there’s a chance this will not work at all for her colleague John. 

I’m not a health professional. Nor do I claim to be. And this blog will not be exploring what is and isn’t deemed as healthy to put into your body – if you want some advice on this I recommend a Google search and a good five hours of your time to trawl through the endless advice you’ll find. What I’m going to explore in this blog, is the marketing around packaged foods and how supermarkets are capitalising gains by selling these staple products as “health foods”.

I first really noticed how much this trend has taken flight, when I was in my local corner shop a few weeks back, and displayed prominently on the counter was a large box of Snickers bars. But these were no ordinary Snickers bars, no-no, they had the added benefit of protein, 18g to be exact. Now, while I’m sure they’re very tasty, my slight problem with these bars is as follows. Snickers is a confectionary item; it’s a chocolate bar. We know that chocolate is not good for us. And while this bar may be better for us than a regular old Snickers bar, it’s still not healthy. But with the added “benefit” of protein it is giving us the illusion of being a healthy option. And it’s not only Snickers bars, protein is fast becoming a popular additive to a host of different foods on the market, due to the surge of muscularly defined celebrities and fitness-gurus flooding the media, touting a high-protein diet as the key to their success.

Originally, adding protein to your diet other than scoffing down on natures protein (chicken and spinach etc.) was limited to the body builder community who wanted to grow their muscles. But today consumer trends are showing more regular shoppers reaching for protein injected products to assist with their own goals – be it weight loss, muscle definition, sculpting that Kim K-esque booty or simply adopting a healthier lifestyle. And we’re talking pantry staples, nothing outlandish. You can pick up a loaf of Warburtons High Protein bread, Weetabix Protein cereal (or for those on the go a Weetabix High Protein Drink) or a block of EatLean Protein Cheese. The list is endless! 

warburtons breadEatLean cheese Weetabix crunch

If I had the time and resource to commit the next six months to this piece, I could review every single item on the shelves with protein being added and look at their nutritional value, but I don’t. So instead I’m just going to have a closer look at our “healthy” Snickers bar. While it may be nutritionally better for you than a regular chocolate bar, it's still got 271 calories and 29 grams of sugar, making it not your best option. I’m not saying these aren’t fine as part of a balanced diet or if you’re looking for a healthier alternative to a chocolate bar. The issue lies in, that we as consumers are buying in to the idea that anything with added protein is “good for us”. And it doesn’t stop at protein being added to regular foods. Health foods are exploding into the aisles and our baskets; even though (and I hate to break it to you) a lot of them are not remotely healthy.

So are we being tricked into eating what we believe is a healthy diet, but in fact may not be any better for us than our diets of yesteryear? A study conducted by the RSPH and Slimming World has raised this same issue, not only with products on supermarket shelves but also meals served to us in restaurants.

The health-food aisle of supermarkets is littered with foods promising to boost your health. But food manufacturers end goal is not to make us healthy, it’s to make money. By packaging foods with buzz words like “nutritious” “healthy” “wholesome” “protein” “natural” (just to name a few), we are literally buying into this, putting our trust completely in what the label says. Besides buying these foods a Penn State study conducted in 2015, found that dieters are more likely to overindulge on their health foods, leading them to gain weight; in essence helping fuel the obesity epidemic. As well as many of these products being loaded with sugar, the calorie count quickly racks up on many of our favourites. Let’s have a look at another example …

Healthy cereals. How often have you reached for a box with a depiction of a wholegrain stem blowing in the breeze set to a green back-drop touting all kind of healthy ingredients? Sat on the shelf next to a grinning monkey diving into a bowl of chocolate milky pebbles it’s not hard to conclude that you’re making a healthier choice reaching for the wholegrain option.  However far too often these “smart” choice cereals aren’t any better than the chocolate option. I’ve included a very high-level comparison below:

Coco Pops

Per 45g serving, Calories: 173, Carbohydrates: 40g, Sugar: 16g

Almond oats

Per 40g serving, Calories: 165, Carbohydrates: 33g, Sugar: 17g

My intention is not to call out any particular food or brand – but rather to try and highlight that packaging may mislead us, and what’s on the back of the box is really the most important side to read. 

With the obesity epidemic gathering more coverage every day in the UK, health officials are calling for calories to be cut in popular foods, with targets expected to be set by Public Health England within a year. While current reports do not highlight specifically if foods marketed as healthy will be targeted, as a consumer myself I can only hope and assume that this initiative will include cutting calories in all foods, not just those which clearly fall into the junk food pile.

Tags: Food trends, Consumer trust

Josie Burt

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