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The Lesser of Two Evils – How the Food Industry Wins

Granola Bar

Granola Bar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop given by a registered dietitian of many year’s experience on the topic of healthy eating.

Her talk began with some good advice on shopping for food, meal planning, making ahead and freezing, etc. So far, so good.

But it was when she started talking about what we should actually be eating that I started feeling stabby.

First, the example of the Fibre One granola bars – brought to the workshop as a ‘healthy snack’ option.

Let’s check out the ingredients for the 90 Calorie Chocolate & Caramel Pretzel bar:

Chicory Root Extract, Rice Flour, Sugar, Whole Wheat Flour, high Maltose Corn Syrup, Whole Grain Oats, Vegetable Oil (palm kernel, canola, corn and/or soybean), Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips (sugar, chocolate liquor processed with alkali, cocoa butter, milkfat, soy lecithin, natural flavour), Puffed Wheat, Glycerin, honey, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Maltodextrin, Soy Lecithin, Salt, Malt Extract, Cellulose Gum, Reduced Minerals Whey, Milk, Fructose, Nonfat Milk, Baking Soda, Natural Flavour, Yeast, Ammonium Bicarbonate, Colour (yellows 5 & 6 lake, red 40 lake, blue 1 lake and other colour added). Mixed Tocopherols Added to Retain Freshness.

That’s about 39 ingredients in one little granola bar, not counting the twice listed ‘natural flavours’, which could potentially include hundreds more ingredients.

There was talk of eating more veggies, fish, fruits – but a lot more emphasis was placed on counting calories, avoiding fats and piling on the healthy whole grains encouraged by the Canada Food Guide. Fat was vilified over and over again – butter and whole milk in particular – at one point grave surprise was expressed at the idea that anyone even still drank whole milk.

She did admit though that eggs are now actually considered to be good for you (shocker), but overall processed, low fat ‘foods’ were touted as the most reasonable options.

If you’re into real food, you’re probably feeling a bit stabby by now too. If you’re not into real food, you may find my frustration confusing. But as someone who has finally discovered the importance of eating real food after a lifetime of filling my body with processed crap (much of which I believed was good for me and all of which has affected my body in terrible ways), I couldn’t in good conscience keep quiet.

I approached the dietitian after the workshop and very politely presented evidence that fat is actually not the demon it has been made out to be for too many years. Immediately on the defensive, she at first disagreed with me, claiming her education and ‘A-level evidence’ must trump my obvious sensational ‘from the internet’ opinion.

I found it to be a very rude assumption that I simply Googled for the information I was discussing (particularly as I was showing her pages from a book written by another registered dietician of many year’s experience) but I pressed on, again, very nicely - this time challenging the actual health merits of something like the Fibre One bar she was presenting as a good snack. The convo went something like this:

Me: Most of the ingredients in that bar are chemicals and not actual food.

Her: Yes, but because our bodies don’t recognize those things as food they will get filtered out by our livers.

Me: Isn’t that a little hard on our livers?

Her: Well yes, but we’re all going to die somehow whether it’s heart disease or liver disease or whatever!

(that struck me as rather cynical, but it was nothing compared to the eye opener she dropped on me then)

Her: Listen, we have to be realistic about what people without a lot of money or options can afford. That Fibre One bar is $2 for a box of 5 granola bars. If I tell people they should be buying some gluten free, quinoa, organic healthy bar that costs $10 or more they’re just not going to do it.

Me: OK sure – but you can get like, 10 apples for $2 too.

Her: That’s true, but people won’t do that! We always emphasize whole foods first, but most people won’t eat them so we have to teach them how to look for the best among what they will eat.

And that is what floored me. A dietitian who makes her living advising people on what is healthy for them is so convinced that people will not actually eat health foods (and are basically too stupid to be taught how important real food is) that she will only give real food an honourable mention before moving on to recommend the processed stuff.

It was kind of a revelation to me about how exactly the food industry is so good at winning this game.

They’ve got us with the junk food already – most of us so enjoy the way their crap tastes (I’m one of them – I’ll admit it) as well as the convenience it offers along with the low up front costs enough that it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. But for those of us who do start to get a little worried about all that stuff maybe not being so great for us, we are taught and encouraged to simply to substitute the obvious crap for the more subtle crap – the things that are touted as healthy but in reality still filled with processed junk.

And health professionals are fully willing to admit that this is their strategy!

The idea of ‘Just Eat Real Food’ of course, being much too difficult for the ignorant masses to actually grasp or ever do.

We continued to converse for a while, particularly on the topic of fats and grains (she readily agreed that most people probably have issues with gluten and that the Canada Food Guide recommends way too many grains – though she wouldn’t share that among the general public).

When she continued to deride what she assumed to be my ‘internet knowledge” (to clarify, I do not get all my knowledge from the Internet and what I do I fully research source-wise; I also don’t believe something is magically more true just because it’s written in a book or even touted by a professional), I made the point to her about how often medical ‘evidence’ changes dramatically from one year to the next, with which she also agreed.

Her conclusion to the conversation was that I was obviously educated enough to make good decisions in regards to real foods, but most people are not.

Aside from being rather outraged, this mostly made me very, very sad.

My parents are very smart and educated people, and they raised me on a diet of a lot of crap because they believed and were taught by medical professionals that a lot of that stuff was good.

My mother-in-law is one of the most intelligent people I’ve met – she speaks 5 languages and continues to educate herself in new ways at the age of close to 60 (she most recently learned how to swim and is now learning the play the piano) – but she gives our 4-year-old niece skim milk and tosses out the egg yolks, trims fat from meat and feeds her highly processed granola bars, yogurts, etc., because she’s been taught those things are best for her.

There are many educated, intelligent people who have had it so hammered into them by their teachers, doctors, dietitians and all kinds of conventional wisdom that real food is no good – to the point that it has taken 30 years for someone like me to stumble across the truth (and now endure the extreme difficulty of emerging from the strong grasp of processed junk that still has a hold on me in spite of all I try to do to escape it).

Yes – the food industry has it all nicely sewn up in their camp, doesn’t it?

But here is one person who thinks we are smarter than that – and will continue to challenge information to the contrary even when it’s presented by the most educated or professional of individuals. I’m so very thankful for others who have done the same as this truth has not been easy to find.

What about you?

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7 Responses to “The Lesser of Two Evils – How the Food Industry Wins”

  • Brenna says:

    I love this post. I grew up thinking very differently about food than my children do, thank goodness, but it is so hard when what is “good for you” always seems to be a shifting line in the sand. I am lucky to know about whole/real foods, but am also not blind to the many food deserts we have in our country which contain none of those things. Fighting the food system is difficult, but something worth fighting for.
    Brenna recently posted..World Water Day 2013 – Water Is Just The Beginning

  • Kelly says:

    Thank you Brenna. It seems so shocking to me sometimes when I think about it – the simplest answer should be the most obvious (‘real food is good’) but there are so few people who even believe it! It becomes an even more uphill battle when the ‘professionals’ refuse to even consider the idea.

    I believe this dietitian does care about her clients and her work – she was just being very candid about the way she honestly sees things and has been educated to believe. That I think is one of the most difficult things to fit – but as you say, so very worth it.

  • Jennifer says:

    I hear ya! As someone who is trying to serve organic, whole foods, hopefully from scratch, I’m always picking up cookbooks for new ideas, usually second hand. The books based on the Canada Food Guide that I’ve picked up have literally horrified me with their suggestions.
    It’s important to remember that, unfortunately, a degree is an indication of so many years of being told what to believe and how to think, not to think critically (obviously some exceptions apply). Usually the ‘powers that be’ are in control of just what students are being told to believe and think. The best thing we can do is teach our children that just because someone is in a position of authority, their words are not necessarily correct.
    Jennifer recently posted..Earth Hour 2013

    • Kelly says:

      Love your comment Jennifer – absolutely agree with you! I’m glad I’ve finally learned that lesson myself and definitely hope to pass it on to my little one.

  • Melissa says:

    I love that you were bold enough to carry on that discussion! I had similar experiences sitting through presentations on nutrition that were recommended during my pregnancies. Very similar things were recommended, and it seemed like all that mattered was making the daily values on the boxes you buy at the store add up to the numbers on the handouts the dietitians gave. It really is insulting that we’re treated as though we’re too stupid to work out how to eat better than all that.

    I recently heard a piece on public radio where to nutrition experts were discussing the deceptive labeling on so-called whole grain foods. One was really trying to dispel myths, and pointed out that humans don’t actually *need* to eat any grains at all, and the other kept countering everything he said based on the assumption that everything her colleague was suggesting was simply too hard for your average person. I appreciate the awareness of the fact that eating a nutritious diet can be difficult for many based on a number of different barriers, but I don’t think that telling half-truths so that people can feel like they’re eating in the best way for their bodies when they absolutely aren’t is the solution.
    Melissa recently posted..What’s New: Spring is here!

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