A Not-So-Brilliant Disguise (April 12, 2016)
Particularly if there isn't a lot going on in your life right now, you may remember my newsletter from a couple of weeks ago. I repeated Michael Pollan’s brilliant summary of how to eat (“Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants”) and pointed out that over half of the American diet consists of items that don’t really qualify as food at all. Based on all that, I speculated that the everyday diets of many of us could be painlessly improved by removing one regularly-consumed, overprocessed item and substituting a Real Food for it.
I’m not the first person to think about doing this in one form or another, of course. Although I may be the first one to manage to write about it without a lot of nasty little ads autoplaying right next to it. I AM sure that I am not the first person to manage to substitute string cheese and dates for a packet of cracker thingies, for sometimes a week at a time before falling off that particular nutritional horse, then getting back on -- repeatedly. So I get that there are many reasons why this is not nearly as simple to do as it sounds.
Ultra-processed food thingies are cheap, but more significantly, they are easy to find (everywhere, it sometimes seems) and carry with you, and then eat anywhere at any time. Even if you have managed to find a fairly healthy breakfast cereal, you have to buy it at a grocery store ahead of time and then get up earlier than usual, fix it and eat it at home and clean up afterwards. It can be much easier to sleep a little later and just pick up a couple of granola bars while you are gassing up the car.
When you go with the Granola Bar Solution, though, you know afterwards that you did a Bad Thing and you resolve to do better in the future. And you know this even if some slimy PR guy labeled the bars with guilt-allaying nonsense like “contains protein” (probably from the roaches that accidentally fell onto the assembly line during packaging) or “natural ingredients” (ditto). Because after a couple of centuries of that kind of nonsense, most of us are on to that little game.
It happens, though, that there’s an ultra-processed fraud out there AS WE SPEAK that’s going great guns and may be fooling even a lot of otherwise nutrition-savvy people. This is the thing deceptively described by its canny pushers as the "meal bar".
“Meal bars”, you see, are promoted as being Real Food. Heck, it says they are a meal and not candy, right there in the description of the thing, and would a food manufacturer lie to you? Plus, you paid about as much for it as you would for a couple of McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches which when you think about it are PRACTICALLY real food. These bars have at least a few recognizable ingredients and some other healthy selling point or two. None of that matters. They are, each and every one of them, tarted-up overpriced candy.
Here is what I mean. If you google “meal bars” (or was it “food bars”… never mind, just work with me on this) one of the first hits you get is “PROBARS”. The PROBAR people start right out on the results page telling you that their things are “Real Food”. And just in case you still aren’t sure, when you go to the website you'll find a picture of broccoli. Plus their site has tabs like “Mission” and “Core Values”, and you KNOW that no one who uses those phrases would ever compromise their integrity by selling you junk.
Now, I know that a person could rag on websites all day long, so I won’t take any more cheap shots at theirs. Let’s just look at their product. Let's look at these PROBAR things.
The feds insist that processed foods list their ingredients on a label in order of weight. So the heaviest (and thus the most predominant) ingredient is always first. The ingredient list for the Original Blend PROBAR (which is shamelessly described as “a delectable combination of whole grain goodness, chunky nuts, and moist, delicious fruits” which sounds more like something you'd buy at Whole Body to smear on yourself after a sauna) lists as the first ingredient “brown rice syrup”. You know what “brown rice syrup” is? SUGAR.
Next I found the nutrition label. You should always read these things and compare them to the ingredients list to get a picture of what is actually going on in whatever it is that you are proposing to eat. This three-dollar, three-ounce bar (which means also about three bites) has 360 calories, 150 of them from fat. (Even though almost half the calories in this thing are from fat, “canola oil” is like #15 on the list of 28 ingredients. Twenty-eight. Each one of them organic, vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO and most likely voting for Bernie Sanders as well.)
So the first ingredient is sugar and almost half the calories are from canola oil? That sounds like a candy bar to me. These things ARE NOT FOOD. I don’t care how much they cost or how many individual vitamins and minerals they smugly list.They. Are. NOT. Food.
But if you thought that they were, that is not your fault. Neither is it fully the fault of the food manufacturers. The error that makes it possible for junk to pose as real food originates with respectable nutritionists and food scientists refusing to stop doing a stupid thing that they have done for many many years. That stupid thing is to talk and think about the different components of food as though, when isolated, these components were food in themselves..
For hundreds of years “science” has meant breaking things down into individual parts, identifying the parts and then teasing out what each part does. But this practice quickly becomes worthless when you are talking about food. Any single food is composed of hundreds of different chemicals, and if you dig one of them out and set it apart from the others, it doesn't do what it did before.
If you are old enough to remember the beta carotene fiasco, you know what I am talking about. Nutritional science has repeated that error over and over again, "isolating" the "active ingredient" from a food or herb, only to find out that this miracle medicine or nutrient is a total dud without its fellow travelers.
Eating a bar with processed and purified soy and whey protein, for example, is NOT the same as eating an equivalent amount of protein in beans or cheese. The former is an artificially isolated single nutrient (if even that), and the latter is food. Those are very different things.
Larabars and many of the Kind bars are the least obnoxious of the meal bars I looked at. But even the saintly Larabar contains close to the amount of sugar the average person is supposed to have in his/her diet in an entire day. Kind bars as well have no lack of sugar and calories in what amounts to only a couple of bites. Even when a bar makes a valiant effort to do otherwise, it fails because most of it is made up of processed ingredients gluing together the few bits of real food that are present.
So don’t eat a bar because it has a few nuts, seeds and fruit in it. Just eat the nuts, seeds and fruit themselves instead, instead of one snack per day, to start with. It takes some extra time in thinking, planning and preparation, AND most likely enduring a few temporary withdrawal symptoms on the way to get there. But it will be well worth it.
--dr. diane holmes
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