Four of the biggest food industries — dairy, beef, soda, and cereal — will stop at nothing to sell their products, whether by downplaying negative health effects, making misleading claims, or simply stating false facts.
What follows is a cornucopia of misleading and untruthful statements I have encountered.
The dairy industry loves to make exaggerated claims and bold statements that, when researched, don’t turn out to be quite as “undeniable” as they want you to think. Some of my favorite examples:
“All African-Americans should increase dairy consumption to three to four servings of dairy foods a day to reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases, including hypertension (high blood pressure) and obesity.”
This claim comes from a study which — surprise! — was funded by the dairy industry. While industry funding does not necessarily invalidate science, it certainly sets up the perfect storm for spin, bias, and myopic statements. This study, like many others funded by the dairy industry, conveniently forgets to mention that dairy is but one of many sources of calcium (and, as I explained in this post, dairy does not provide all the nutrients we know play a crucial role in bone health and development).
The claim that an increase in dairy intake reduces obesity risk is questionable. A substantial 2008 meta-analysis of studies concluded that the link between calcium intake and weight management is weak at best. Furthermore, this is a prime example of the food industry’s hypocrisy; whenever rising obesity rates are addressed, they are quick to point out that genetics and physical activity can not be ignored. Yet, when it comes to weight loss or muscle-building, suddenly it’s solely about food — their food.
A little? Eight ounces (1 cup) of flavored milk contain a little over 3 teaspoons of added sugar, equivalent to three Oreo cookies, or four Dunkin’ Donuts cinnamon cake munchkins.
Now, get this. The American Heart Association’s guidelines on added sugar (released in 2009), children ages 4 to 8 should consume no more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar per day. In other words, that 8-ounce carton of chocolate milk delivers a day’s worth of added sugar. PS: The average 4 to 8-year old child in the United States takes in 21 teaspoons of added sugar on a daily basis. The last thing they need is chocolate milk.
“There is overwhelming scientific evidence that consuming adequate amounts of calcium or foods naturally rich in calcium such as milk, cheese and yogurt throughout life may delay or minimize age-related bone loss and thereby decrease the risk for osteoporosis.”
Once again, the dairy industry conveniently forgets to mention that many other vitamins and minerals — many of which are not found in dairy — are also crucial for healthy bones. More deceitfully, though, the above statement contradicts research which shows that high dairy intake does not correlate with lower risks of bone fractures, as well as studies which show that high intakes of animal protein (i.e.: dairy products) hinder calcium metabolism (see this study and this study).
That statement is attributed to the United States Department of Agriculture, which certainly has a vested interest in promoting dairy consumption. Alas, a 2005 meta-analysis of studies conducted by researchers without ties to the USDA or the dairy industry concluded that “scant evidence supports nutrition guidelines focused specifically on increasing milk or other dairy product intake for promoting child and adolescent bone mineralization.”
The average American equates the word “protein” with meat (and, in many cases, only meat). It has been my experience that many people are unaware that a cup of cooked oatmeal has 6 grams of protein, or that a serving of whole wheat pasta (which is very small) provides 8 grams of protein. This is in large part due to the beef industry’s relentless multi-million dollar campaigning efforts, which like to take sole proprietorship of nutrients — especially protein. Let’s take a look at some claims:
Beef and osteoporosis prevention? What’s next — Starburst candies reduce cavity risk? If anything, fruit and vegetable intake has been positively linked to bone health (which makes sense, given that fruits and vegetables provide many nutrients required for bone health that are missing from meat and dairy). Additionally, there is research demonstrating that diets high in animal protein are associated with faster bone loss and higher risks of fractures.
As for type 2 diabetes, the biggest risk factor is excess weight, which is a result of consuming excessive calories from any food source. Which brings us to:
“Lean meats, eggs and dairy products are considered complete high-quality sources of protein that provide the full package of essential amino acids needed to stimulate muscle growth and improve weight management. Plant proteins such as grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are incomplete proteins in that they do not provide sufficient amounts of essential amino acids.”
Sigh. While it is true that protein promotes satiety, it is far from a magic bullet for weight management. The average American consumes anywhere from 150 to 200 percent of their daily protein requirement. If protein consumption was the key to obesity prevention, wouldn’t obesity rates be significantly lower?
Yes, meats, eggs, and dairy products are complete sources of protein. So, however, are soybeans, hemp seeds, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. The concept of “complete” (all essential amino acids present in one food) and “incomplete” (i.e.: the essential amino acids absent in beans are present in grains, and vice versa) proteins is a moot point anyhow; we now know that as long as all essential amino acids are consumed in the same day (not just the same meal), there are no deficiency concerns. A lack of essential amino acids is only a concern in situations where someone exclusively eats one food group (i.e.: only vegetables or only fruits).
As far as muscle growth stimulation: despite the meat industry’s (and most male fitness magazines’) claims, protein is a small part of that equation. The two biggest factors for muscle growth are: 1) weight-bearing exercises that slightly tear muscle fibers and 2) caloric surplus. Yes, part of that caloric surplus will come from protein, but without those two key steps, muscle growth will not be stimulated, no matter how many rib-eye steaks you eat.
Fair enough, but so what? Americans already consume enough protein; they don’t need more. The average American is, however, in need of more dietary fiber, which is not present in beef.
While that particular one is true, here are some others the beef industry conveniently left out, using a 3-ounce, 162-calorie portion of lean beef (which provides 0.2 mg of vitamin B6) as the reference point:
- 1 medium banana: 106 calories, 0.4 mg vitamin B6
- 1/2 cup broccoli, cooked: 27 calories, 0.2 mg vitamin B6
- 1 medium potato: 161 calories, 0.7 mg vitamin B6
- 1 cup spinach, cooked: 42 calories, 0.4 mg vitamin B6
The soft drink industry is largely represented by the American Beverage Association, which apparently does not keep up with health research. Behold:
“The beverage industry makes a wide variety of beverages that can help contribute to good health, such as bottled waters, 100 percent juice, sports drinks, ready-to-drink teas and no- and low-calorie soft drinks.”
A 12-ounce bottle of Powerade that contain 5 teaspoons of added sugar contributes to good health? And so do the many Snapple teas that pack in eight teaspoons of added sugar in a single 8-ounce serving? I can’t even begin to comprehend how beverages made with gut flora-annihilating Splenda or carcinogenic aspartame or caramel color can possibly be linked to “good health”.
Sure, if HFCS is composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. However, recent studies have found that may not be the case, which could very well mean that HFCS and table sugar are not metabolic twins. Recently, Dr. Robert Lustig conducted a fascinating talk on how fructose adversely affects liver health in the absence of fiber (AKA: high-fructose syrup is bad news, eating an apple is not). To hear the part on liver metabolism of fructose, go to minute 57 of the talk.
Q: Do diet soft drinks and other foods containing sugar substitutes help people control their weight?
A: The American Diabetes Association says choosing diet drinks is a useful way to make healthful food choices for your family. Low-calorie sweeteners can be found in a variety of food and beverage products including yogurt, gum, baked goods and breakfast bars. It comes down to balancing calories consumed with calories burned, and low-calorie sweeteners can be an aid to controlling calories consumed.
This is controversial, to say the least. Take a look at this study which concluded that “consumption of products containing artificial sweeteners may lead to increased body weight and obesity by interfering with fundamental homeostatic, physiological processes.”. Then there is this 2010 mini-review published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine which notes that “[the] consensus from interventional studies suggests that artificial sweeteners do not help reduce weight when used alone”, and that artificial sweeteners do not trigger “food reward pathways”.
Really? Because this 2009 human study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, titled “Reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with weight loss” references four human studies which support the idea that”calories consumed in liquid form (ie, liquid calories) have weak satiety properties and elicit poor energy compensation compared with calories from solid foods (ie, solid calories).”
Yes, but those foods balance out their phosphorus content with calcium. The problem occurs when phosphorus is consumed without calcium. Calcium and phosphorus like to be together. When we take in phosphorus without calcium (i.e.: drinking a soda in the afternoon), our body starts looking for calcium wherever it can find it (i.e.: leaching it from our bones).
And so we come to the last stop of the “food industry dishonesty” tour. Let’s see what the cereal industry folks are trying to convince us of:
[Cereal] is nutrient-dense, with most cereals delivering at least 10 key nutrients and 100 to 130 calories per serving. In fact, cereal is the number one source of whole grain in American diets.” [Click on "A letter from General Mills about Cereal Nutrition"]
Some cereals can certainly be nutrient dense, but they are the exception, not the norm. The majority of cereals — especially those heavily marketed to children — are the nutritional equivalent of a piece of candy, a multivitamin, and some corn dust. It is always better to get nutrients from foods that inherently offer them, as they also usually come along with antioxidants, flavonoids, and phytonutrients that confer their own share of health benefits.
Additionally, those 100 to 130 calories are not very satiating due to the minimal amounts of fat, fiber, and protein. As for cereal being the number one source of whole grain in American diets — that is simply a reflection of how much cereal is consumed. Note that the statistic is not that cereal offers the most whole grain, but rather that it is the number one source (in other words, we eat more sugar-laden whole grain cereal than we do brown rice or whole wheat pasta — hardly something to brag about!).
“Studies show whole grains may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
Yes, this is absolutely true. However, studies also show that added sugar increases the risk of coronary heart disease. This is it’s not good news that (mostly sweetened) cereals are the number one source of whole grains in the United States. For maximum health benefits, whole grains should be consumed without added sweeteners. This is why the cereal industry is dead wrong with its claim that a 150-calorie bowl of cereal with skim milk is nutritionally superior to a 170-calorie bowl oatmeal made with skim milk. Plain oatmeal delivers fiber, antioxidants, and a variety of nutrients without added sugars.
The cereal industry also loves to make unfair comparisons, as with this infamous Frosted Mini Wheats “study” conducted by Kellogg’s, which concluded that children who started their day with the sugary cereal had better attentiveness than — wait for it — children who skipped breakfast.
It should not come as a surprise that four of the most aggressively-marketed industries are also the same ones that rely on agricultural subsidies to thrive. The vast majority of cows subsist on corn and wheat, sodas are basically bubbly high fructose corn syrup, and many cereals are a variety of crop subsidies in a box (corn, wheat, soy, and even cottonseed sometimes).
I have always been a fan of quiet confidence when it comes to people, and the same applies to food. Usually, if a food needs a dozen fact sheets and a long “myth-busting” document regarding its possible negative health effects, well… let’s just say “the Frankenfood doth protest too much.”
At the very least, many of these “truths” are heavily questioned in reputable scientific journals. Contrary to what these industries want us to believe, their foods are not essential. This is not to say that a cup of Greek yogurt for breakfast each morning or the occasional beef kebab are health hazards. However, these industries are notorious for taking credit for nutrients that are not exclusive, and usually better sourced from other foods.
One thing that is impossible to refute? Prioritize whole, plant-based foods is a recipe for good health.