Is granola ‘healthy’? Why everyone disagrees
Is popcorn good for you? What about pizza, orange juice or sushi? Or frozen yoghurt, pork chops or quinoa?
Which foods are healthy? In principle, it’s a simple question, and a person who wishes to eat more healthily should reasonably expect to know which foods to choose at the supermarket and which to avoid. Unfortunately, the answer is anything but simple.
The Food and Drug Administration recently agreed to review its standards for what foods can be called “healthy,” a move that highlights how much of our nutritional knowledge has changed in recent years and how much remains unknown.
With the Morning Consult, a media and polling firm, we surveyed hundreds of nutritionists, members of the American Society for Nutrition, asking them whether they thought certain food items (about 50) were healthy. The Morning Consult also surveyed a representative sample of the American electorate, asking the same thing.
The results suggest a surprising diversity of opinion, even among experts. Yes, some foods, like kale, apples and oatmeal, are considered “healthy” by nearly everyone. And some, like soda, french fries and chocolate chip cookies, are not. But in between, some foods appear to benefit from a positive public perception, while others befuddle the public and experts alike. (We’re looking at you, butter.)
“Twenty years ago, I think we knew about 10 per cent of what we need to know” about nutrition, said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “And now we know about 40 or 50 per cent.”
The granola gap
Of the 52 common foods that we asked experts and the public to rate, none had a wider gap than granola bars. More than 70 per cent of ordinary Americans we surveyed described them as healthy, but fewer than a third of nutritional experts did. A similar gap existed for granola, which less than half of nutritionists we surveyed described as healthy.
Several of the foods considered more healthful by everyday Americans than by experts including frozen yoghurt, SlimFast shakes and granola bars have something in common: They can contain a lot of added sugar. In May, the Food and Drug Administration announced a new template for nutrition labels, and one priority was to clearly distinguish between sugars that naturally occur in food and sugars that are added later to heighten flavours.
On the other end of the spectrum, several foods received a seal of approval from our expert panel but left non-experts uncertain. Most surprising was the reaction to quinoa, a “superfood” grain so often praised as healthful that it has become the subject of satire.
In addition, tofu, sushi, hummus, wine and prawns were all rated as significantly more healthful by nutritionists than by the public. Why? One reason may be that many of them are new foods in the mainstream American diet.
Others may reflect mixed messages in news coverage of the healthfulness of foods. Prawns were long maligned for their high rate of dietary cholesterol, though recent guidelines have changed. And public messages about the healthfulness of alcohol are conflicting: While moderate drinking appears to have some health benefits, more consumption can obviously have real health costs.
We were not surprised to find areas in which ordinary Americans and experts disagreed. We expect researchers to be better informed about current research, and everyday consumers to be more susceptible to the health claims of food marketers, even if the claims are somewhat dubious. But some of the foods in our survey split both the public and our panel of experts.
Several of the most controversial foods including steak, cheddar, whole milk and pork chops tend to have a lot of fat. And fat is a topic few experts can agree on. Years ago, the nutritional consensus was that fat, and particularly the saturated fat found in dairy and red meat was bad for the heart. Newer studies are less clear, and many of the fights among nutritionists tend to be about the right amount of protein and fat in a healthy diet.
The uncertainty about these foods, as expressed both by experts and ordinary Americans, reflects the haziness of the nutritional evidence about them.
It’s clear that many shoppers do want to eat healthful foods but are unsure what to choose. To gain some perspective on this, we asked Google which foods were most commonly part of a simple search: “Is [blank] healthy?” The food people were likeliest to ask about was also one nutritionists generally approve of: sushi.
Areas of consensus
Nearly everyone agreed that oranges, apples, oatmeal and chicken could safely be described as healthy, and also agreed that chocolate chip cookies, bacon, white bread and soda could not.
Where does this leave a well-meaning but occasionally confused shopper? Reassured, perhaps: Nutrition science is sometimes murky even to experts.
Your overall diet probably matters a lot more than whether you follow rigid rules or eat just one “good” or “bad” food.
We also asked our experts whether they considered their own diet healthful, and how they described it.
Ninety-nine per cent of nutritionists said their diet was very or somewhat healthy. The most popular special diet type was “Mediterranean”; 25 per cent of our nutritionists picked it. But the most common answer, even for experts, was “no special rules or restrictions.”
New York Times
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