Token "Healthy" Additives in Processed Foods

Big food manufacturers are clamoring to make their products mildly healthier with things like added fiber, reduced (but still high) fat, and omega-3s. Melanie Warner has a fascinating writeup of the trend in The New York Times of August 11, 2005.

Food manufacturers are operating under the false assumption that nothing can be done to stop Americans eating unhealthy packaged foods, so those foods might as well be tweaked this way and that to improve the health profile a little--or at least profits.

After introducing us to Frankenfoods like chicken with high-tech fat-resistant coatings, tiny omega-3 capsules in bread, flour manipulated to be low-carb, and specially modified starch that mimics fiber in the gut, Warner concludes with some wisdom from Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at NYU.

The problem, Professor Nestle said, is that ingredients that are extracted from their natural sources are never as good as the real thing. She cited plant sterols, another seemingly healthy ingredient popping up in various foods. Extracted from soybeans using a chemical solvent, plant sterols are promoted for their cholesterol-reducing benefits and have been added to yogurt, orange juice and cereal.

But, Professor Nestle said: "No way do plant sterols replace whole fruits or vegetables, or even beans for that matter. The evidence is pretty clear that foods work, but single nutrients don't."

Food companies insist that, unlike their critics, they are pragmatists. They say their consumer research shows that convenience and taste still outrank nutrition as the top priority for most people and that consumers have no intention of giving up their favorite foods.

That is good news for the industry. If Americans stopped eating large quantities of fried chicken, sweetened breakfast cereal, cookies and snack chips, the financial health of many companies would suffer.