IN SEPTEMBER, the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine publication revealed that many of Americans’ most prevalent beliefs about nutrition might be bunk.
The sugar industry financed nutritional studies, released in 1967, that downplayed the sweetener’s relation to heart disease, placing the blame on saturated fats instead. Those highly influenced findings have stuck for five decades.
One of the scientists involved even helped develop the government-issued nutrition guidelines which contained cautions on the evils of red meat while scarcely mentioning the dangers of sugar, if at all.
These revelations make the release of a new book by food-industry expert Jeff Scot Philips, Big Fat Food Fraud: Confessions of a Health-Food Hustler (Regan Arts), well-timed. Philips was a personal trainer who founded a health-food manufacturing company that prepackaged healthy meals. He is now reformed from that industry, and spends his time educating people on how almost everything we hear about nutrition — including from medical experts — may be false. Much of it, he says, is specially designed not to improve our health, but to separate us from our money.
In the book, Philips outlines a slew of ways we have been — and are still being — conned by the food industry. Here are just a few.
The yolk’s on eggs
If you want to see how long inaccurate nutritional information can persevere, just take a look at eggs.
When Kellogg marketed its first food product, Cornflakes, in 1906, Philips writes that the company “mounted a vicious marketing campaign against the egg industry … claim[ing eggs] led to heart attacks.” The information was baseless fiction designed to sell cereal, but fear of eggs continues to this day.
“Are eggs healthy” and “Are eggs bad for you” are two of the top Google searches for this breakfast staple, despite the American Heart Association declaring eggs healthy in 2000, a finding reaffirmed by the government, in even stronger language, earlier this year.
Sometimes the food regulators are complicit
Philips shows that in some cases the food regulators may actively be making our food less healthful. A USDA (US Department of Agriculture) agent who worked with Philips’s company said he couldn’t approve calling a salmon dish “healthy” because the fat content was too high. The agent offered a solution: not to lower the fat content, but rather to add sugar or carbs to the meal.
“It’s the nutrition label,” the agent told him. “The guideline is about the ratio of fat grams to total grams in a serving.”
“That has nothing to do with health!” Philips said.
“Have you ever seen a Lean Cuisine meal without some bread or pasta in it?” the agent said, explaining, “The total grams of food go up while the fat grams stay the same; this evens out the ratio.”
It’s a numbers game
Given the growing interest in eating healthfully, finding trans fat-free and sugar-free food is a top concern for many people. But the sad fact is that many foods marketed as trans fat-free or sugar-free might actually be loaded with them.
“Legally, as long as the trans fats-per-serving is equal to or less than 0.5 grams, we were allowed to list them as zero on the label,” Philips writes of his former company. But he also notes that brands are legally allowed to set the serving sizes on their packaging (1 serving, 3½ servings per bag, etc.) however they want.
So if a food contains too much trans fat or sugar to be considered healthy, a marketer can make it seem like far less by creating smaller portion sizes.
“If one of our meals contained 20 grams of sugar, we simply chopped the serving size down to four per container, and listed five grams of sugar on the nutrition label,” Philips writes.
Since health-food marketers need to be able to claim their foods are trans fat-free, they simply play with portion sizes until the math works.
“Nobody could stop us from marking a food that actually had 5 grams of trans fats at zero grams,” he writes, “simply by listing the servings-per-container at 10.”
Doctors drink the Kool-Aid
Even the nutrition information you get from your physician might be false — because the doctor might be getting that information from marketers like Philips.
In the book, he mentions a computer program called Infusionsoft that handles all ends of the consumer-marketing process in order to target local health and nutrition pros with the newest findings — which are typically sponsored, created or manipulated by marketers — so that these experts can then promote these findings to their patients and clients.
Philips cites an example of a marketing campaign he used to sell more smoothies and protein bars. He knew of one doctor in particular who prided herself on knowing all the new info; one of her patients was also a Philips customer. Philips bombarded the doctor with messages about “new research” that found calorie counting was paramount to weight loss, and therefore, supplements like smoothies and protein bars could be more effective than “real” food if they had fewer calories.
He saw the success in his campaign via his customer, who, based on her doctor’s advice, started buying more of his smoothies and protein bars — and gained 23 pounds in the process.
Given all he knows about the industry, Philips’s own philosophy on food is to stick to the basics: eat more protein and less sugar, avoid processed food or anything that comes in a box, and, most of all, ignore marketing terms and nutrition labels, because they aren’t educating us the way we think they are.
“The cold truth is: Food labels aren’t there to educate you,” he writes. “They’re there to help market to you.”