You are what you eat, the old chestnut goes — but what you eat may not be what you think it is. Supermarket shelves are crammed with foods proclaiming their apparently healthy credentials with labels such as fat-free, natural or sugar-free — but while these claims may offer a sense of confidence, they rarely reflect the actual nutritional quality of the food.
Reduced doesn’t mean a healthier product, say researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, after studying data that included more than 80 million food and beverage purchases from over 40,000 households from 2008 to 2012. “In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” wrote lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims.”
For example, chocolate low-fat milk may contain less fat, but is higher in sugar relative to plain milk and higher in sugar and fat relative to other beverages, the researchers said. In part, the issue comes down to guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration, which are followed around the world. The authority allows packaged food and beverage manufacturers to assign labels in different ways for different foods. “Essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient,” Taillie wrote.
But what do UAE medical experts think? Better Health asked UAE nutritionists to pick the most common terms they come across in their practice, and discuss the truth behind them. Here’s what they had to say.
“Just because a food is fresh doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always more nutritious. The way the food is cooked can affect its nutrient qualities and their bioavailability,” says Mehfuza Haffiz, Senior Clinical Dietitian at DHA. For example, deep-frying, heating oil to its smoking point or overcooking meat can all change a food’s nutrient profile. In addition, processing, storage and shipping all play their part.
Frozen or canned foods — even fruits and vegetables — may often be better quality than fresh — particularly fresh produce purchased out of season far away from its point of origin. This is because such produce is usually picked out of season, allowing it time to ripen on its journey to the supermarket, during which time it may be pumped with appearance-enhancing chemicals. On the other hand, canning and freezing generally slow nutrient loss. “A big issue with canned foods is maybe they use sugar or salt as a preservative, hence we need to read labels before buying,” Mehfuza says.
“In general, fresh and frozen produce might be more nutritious than canned produce, but eating enough wholefood fruits and vegetables is more important than how they were processed.”
Dr Remy Shanker, a UAE-based medical practitioner and nutrition advisor who is Wellness Programme Specialist at New York University Abu Dhabi, says, “The word superfood is nothing but a marketing term introduced in the early 2000s that still lacks credibility amongst the scientific community.” She explains how it works: exotic, expensive foods are marketed as the latest superfood, leading to a surge in sales — precisely why the term was coined. “The downside, though, is that the use of the term causes people to focus on a few specific foods, blinding them to other equally nutritious options that aren’t as hyped, as well as to how the foods work,” she adds.
Curcumin, for example, is the functional component of turmeric. Its anti-inflammatory properties work best alongside a bit of fat, so stir-frying vegetables or lean protein in half a teaspoon of turmeric every day has greater benefits than spending Dh100 on a bottle of curcumin pills, she explains.
Jasna Kizhakkevetil, Dietitian at Aster Medical Centre in Dubai’s Qusais area, takes issue with the use of the word natural, another term adopted by clever marketing folk to sell more packaged foods. “It’s a misleading term,” she says. “The words natural or herbal don’t necessarily mean that all ingredients in a package are indeed natural, rather that some ingredients are derived from direct sources.” Be wary of any processed foods labelled natural. These may well be junk foods in disguise, because of the other ingredients, such as added sugars in fruit juice, wholegrain cereals or low-fat yoghurts and other additives such as carcinogenic acrylamides in fried foods.
Used on products that cater to diabetics and other people trying to reduce the amount of sugar in their diet, sugar-free products are misleadingly labelled, says Dr Dana Al Hamwi, Nutritionist at India Gate KRBL. “The term sugar-free is a complete myth as there is nothing that is sweet without sugar content,” she says. “Sugar-free drops or tablets are basically products that contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar in line with requirements by the US Food and Drug Administration. The problem here is that when most people read sugar-free on a product or dish they think it is free from sugar and therefore go to extremes, consuming large amounts of the dish. They unknowingly end up increasing their calorie intake not only from the sugar but also other ingredients in the dish. This also makes them more susceptible to chronic diseases such as heart diseases, high blood pressure, cholesterol, high uric acid, diabetes and more.”
Don’t be conned by anything labelled fat-free, says Lea Debian, Nutritionist at CosmeSurge Clinics in Dubai. “Terms such as light or fat-free on packs of processed foods give the impression that they offer a healthier alternative. Hidden in the small print are health-affecting ingredients: high amounts of sugar, and artificial additives and chemicals,” she says. Fat serves as a flavour carrier that enhances the taste and aromas of a food’s different elements, while providing texture and what the food industry calls mouth feel in foods. Fat-free is often therefore taste-free, and manufacturers will add in flour, sugar, thickeners and salt to compensate. In addition, some amount of fat — about 20 to 30 per cent of your total calorie intake, depending on your age — is actually essential to overall health, especially when they come from healthy sources such as nuts, oil and fish.