Having spent three years now starting and running an organic food company and an organic food blog and, along the way, learning everything I could about food and nutrition, I have a hard time accepting the way we talk about food, health and nutrition.
Almost inevitably we talk about making sure we get “enough.” Enough magnesium, enough calcium, enough omega-3, enough protein, enough fruits, enough vegetables.
But I think we’re going about things horribly wrong. Because after everything I’ve read, all the questions I’ve asked, all the studies, theories, articles and debates I’ve come across, it’s clear to me that getting proper nutrition isn’t a matter of being sure you get enough of all the nutrients we supposedly need to function.
It’s a matter of not eating foods that sabotage our nutrition.
What’s the difference?
Take one of our industry’s latest fads, functional beverages. I’ll use a specific product, Sneaky Pete’s Oatstanding Beverage Mango Mystique, as an example. But I’m not singling it out–pretty much all functional beverages, all functional foods, and basically all heavily processed foods of any sort, suffer the same problems I’ll describe here.
Sneaky’s Pete’s is called “functional” because it offers us fiber. 5 grams in a 12 ounce serving, to be precise. They do this by culling fiber from oats, where it naturally resides, and transforming it, along with water and other ingredients, into a beverage. Trying to get more fiber into your diet? This is one way. But there are several problems with drinking this beverage to up your fiber intake.
(1) Who says you need fiber? I’ve found plenty of studies showing that fiber consumption is correlated to certain positive health outcomes. But these studies almost invariably talk about fiber consumed as part of a fruit, vegetable or whole grain. Sure, fruits, vegetables and whole grains have fiber. But why do we think it’s the fiber in those fruits and vegetables that’s making us healthy? It could be any number of other things. An oat, or an apple, is hardly just a big ball of fiber.
What’s more, traditional indigenous tribes like the Inuit, which live or lived exclusively off fish and some land animals, or the Masai, who live or lived exclusively off of cow, cow’s blood, and cow’s milk, see many of the same positive health outcomes we see from our fiber-eating friends. And they’re not getting very much fiber.
(2) If you need fiber, why are you getting it from a beverage? And what makes you sure that fiber, when extracted from whatever matter it was naturally found in (A fruit? A vegetable? Where’d they get that fiber from anyway?) and left to float around in sugar water, will have the same positive impact on your body that it had (if it had one) when it was part of a whole food and consumed along with the other parts of the whole food with which humans have always consumed that fiber? Why don’t you just eat a fruit or a vegetable if you’re so sure you need fiber?
What’s more, by drinking this beverage, you’re also drinking “evaporated cane syrup,” which is also known as sugar. Added sugar. Which pretty much everyone today agrees is horrible for us.
So, is this beverage healthy?
It depends on how we look at nutrition. If you look at nutrition as needing to get certain nutrients, then, hey, this drink gets you fiber. Great. Let’s drink it.
But if you look at proper nutrition as avoiding foods that sabotage our nutrition, then get this out of your pantry. Everything you eat either is wholly and perfectly nutritious–like an apple, or an orange, or lettuce, or raw milk–or imperfectly nutritious, like any beverage that includes added sugar (whether or not that sugar is called “evaporated cane juice”), white flour, white rice, chemicals, heavily heated or heavily processed ingredients (like sunflower oil and soybean oil, which can only be extracted with high heat and chemicals that warp the nutritional content of your food).
Every little bit of “imperfect” ingredient that you eat is starving your body of its necessary nutrition.
So, don’t look at the 5 grams of fiber as a “plus” in your body’s nutritional bank account. Look at the added sugar as a “minus.” If you’re eating a whole food like an apple or a pear or a watermelon, there’s no “minus.” You’re fine. That food will not give you diabetes, will not cause your hair to fall out, will not age you prematurely, will not make you gain weight, will not contribute to Alzheimer’s (unless perhaps if it’s sprayed with chemicals), will not contribute to cancer (with the same caveat).
But if you’re eating something with added sugar, with white flour, with added oils that were extracted with high heat and chemicals, there’s a minus. There’s some lost nutrition you’re not going to get back. It’s something your body didn’t evolve to learn how to process, and isn’t going to figure out how to process during your lifetime.
The added fiber may be OK, but you can and should get that fiber from other places. In any event, if you don’t put “minuses” into your body, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting enough pluses. Whole, natural foods should give you everything you need. I have yet to find any instance of anyone eating exclusively whole, natural foods in any remote sort of variety and having vitamin deficiencies. ”Primitive” tribes that eat whole, natural foods rank far higher than we do in all sorts of health exams, outside of ailments like external trauma and infectious diseases that their primitive lifestyles and forms of medicine, rather than their diets, expose them to more than do our own.
So, will Sneaky Pete’s kill you? Not today, that’s for sure. There are worse foods out there. (And again, I’m not singling out Sneaky Pete’s; all other sugared beverages are at least as bad.) I’d probably rather have sugar plus fiber than sugar alone. But the sugar’s a problem. If you drink sugary beverages, and want to swap out your Pepsi for some Sneaky Pete’s, be my guest. But remember that you’re still drinking a sugary beverage. That’s a snack, a dessert, a dietary lapse, a health negative. Don’t kid yourself that this beverage is making you healthier. It’s a momentary pleasure somewhat less harmful than Pepsi, but it’s not a substitute for real food, for a real meal or even a real snack.