Reader-Submitted Question – Under the Hood of “Health Foods”

Today’s post was inspired by a reader-submitted question. You can submit questions to me at:  topics@freefitguy.com.

Linda in Indiana asks:

“I wonder what you think of these items.  Which would you consider meeting Paleo guidelines? http://www.wholefoodfarmacy.com/2005/CAT2.aspThis link goes to Dr. Mercola’s site, promoting these products as the “healthiest whole foods on the planet”

Response:

First of all, thanks so much for your question!  It’s certainly an interesting topic. There are a lot of “health-food” websites on the web selling the latest and greatest superfoods – items that your diet needs in order to succeed at losing weight and be healthy.  Unfortunately, this is part of a larger trend of “selling through fear” in the health-food world at large. If we scare you into thinking you MUST have this one product, then most people will be compelled to buy it.  After all, who doesn’t want to be healthy?  But when we take a closer look, we see that these products are not all that they are made out to be.  I’ve looked over the site in detail, and will do my best to give you a review of each item listed – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Phi Plus


There are several things that jump out at me right away – seeds, nuts, and fruit are okay in their own right, but in large doses can have some nasty side effects (lectin load from seeds/nuts, high omega-6 content, and high fructose load). It’s all about moderation with these items. If you are trying to loose a lot of weight, they can definitely handicap your best efforts.

Fruit, especially dried fruit, is much like concentrated sugar – it’s why they taste so good.  While I don’t have a problem with fruit in general, I DO think it is important to balance the glucose/fructose content.  Fructose is especially problematic in that it can only be processed by the liver and starts a whole bunch of processes that lead to increased fat production.  A little bit of fructose isn’t a problem, but a high dose can be.  That is why I recommend sticking to berries and other seasonal, local fruits.  They have a better fructose/glucose ratio.  Mango/papaya/bananas, etc. have a LOT of fructose – and there are a ton of them in this product, which is worrisome.

Here is a link to a nice resource comparing the fructose/glucose contents of different fruits. I recommend sticking to fruits that have more glucose than fructose.

Another ingredient I’m not too keen on is the Brown Rice flour. As many health-food sites will be quick to tell you, brown rice, as opposed to white rice, DOES have more nutrients. However, they often neglect to point out that in it’s unpolished form (brown), rice also contains ANTI-NUTRIENTS that prevent our absorption of nutrients.  Basically, it’s a wash.  (For a detailed look at the different types of rice, check out MDA’s article here.)

Then there’s the ‘organic’ rye, barely, and millet – all of which contain proteins similar to gluten which are suspected to affect gut health/integrity, which we know is REALLY important for our overall health. (In fact, the Wall Street Journal published an article this week stating that at least 6% of Americans suffer from a gluten intolerance, separate from Celiac disease. The only known cure? A gluten-free diet. Hmm…sounds a lot like Paleo, right?)

Finally, the majority of the oils contained in this product are nut/seed oils, which have notoriously high Omega-6 doses. In order to be both physically and mentally healthy, it is important to move towards a more balanced Omega 3/6 ratio (1:1 or 2:1), and eating nuts (oils or otherwise) can make this difficult.  For example, walnuts have the best omega 3/6 ratio of any nut (3:1), but if you were to eat a mere 100g per day for a week (not unreasonable), to balance that with omega 3s you would need to eat 34 lbs of salmon!  That’s a lot of fish!

So all in all, I can’t recommend the “healthiest food in the world”. I have to admit that I was immediately put on guard by it’s claiming to be so, and true to form the evidence just doesn’t back that up.  A small dose (57g serving size) of this still has 33g of carbohydrates, many of them high GI foods because they are dried fruit.  High GI means high potential to spike insulin. This of course is suspected as the root to metabolic syndrome.

And I digress:

To give you an idea of what a ‘good’ daily carb-load looks like, Mark Sission’s Primal Blueprint recommends staying around 100g per day for weight loss.  Now obviously, this number is going to be different for different individuals and their needs. However, even taking this as a sample standard, getting a 1/3 of your daily value of carbohydrates from a handful of nuts/berries/seeds just doesn’t seem worth it.

One example substitution: I really like having a bowl of frozen blueberries with dinner some nights.  It’s delicious, has a higher nutrient density value and a lower GI (and therefore, less of an insulin spike), and in total only comes to 26 g of carbs for 200 g of berries.  So basically, I get to eat 4 times as much, have better nutrition, and still have lower carb intake.  And they are delicious.  Just a thought!

Cranberry Phi

Same issues as above, just with more dried fruit (i.e. sugar).

Tropiphi


 

I like this mix much better, but it still contains high-sugar fruits and brown rice flour. Nuts, again, can hinder weight loss and provide some gut irritation.

Apple Cinammon Phi

This one is about the same as the Tropiphi mix, though with actual rolled oats. Some people do ‘fine’ on steel-cut oats, but others experience similar issues as with gluten intolerance. The best thing to do is to pull it out of the diet for 30 days, add it back in, and see how you feel.

Organic Coco Cherry Phi

Same problems as the rest – ton of nuts – seeds + oats and brown rice flour.

Veggielicious

Okay, now this one is a little interesting. The ingredients themselves aren’t all that bad – sweet corn, peas, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, green beans, green peppers, red peppers, and green onions.  Corn is one of those “once in a while won’t hurt” foods.  It is not nutritionally dense, but it is delicious (#mexicanfood), and doesn’t seem to have as many adverse side-effects as gluten-containing grains do.  However, while having corn once or twice a week shouldn’t be a problem, be careful not to let it replace more nutritious foods in your diet completely.

Green beans fall into much the same category as corn for me- “once in a while”. They are a legume, and so are normally avoided because of their lectin and anti-nutrient components.  However, they are “more pod that seed”, and seeds are where the majority of these anti-nutrients lie.  Once in a while shouldn’t be a problem.

Overall Veggielicious has to be one of the better options on here. But is it worth it?  Personally, I prefer fresh steamed veggies or putting them in the food processor to mix in with chili/soup/etc. Or even home-made veggie chips (recipe to follow next week.)

Veggielicious Spice

While the list of spices certainly look appetizing, the inclusion of Soybean Oil (gasp) is a no-go for me. Soybeans, although highly touted as a “health-food”, are chalk full of lectins (anti-nutrients) and SBA.

…soy bean agglutinin (SBA). SBA has harmful properties because they break membranes and this can induce increased intestinal permeability which is associated to certain autoimmune diseases and low-grade inflammation. SBA has also been shown to stimulate the immune system, something we don’t want in an inflammatory disease. — from Loren Cordiain’s The Paleo Diet FAQ

Note:  If you are looking for a healthy oil, look no further than coconut oil.  I’ve written about it before, and now even the NYTimes thinks it’s a pretty good idea. Yum.

Fruitalicious

Here we have a list of ingredients that I could get behind – if they weren’t dried out and super-high in sugar. One serving (a mere 27g!) yields almost as much carbs as a 200g serving of fresh blueberries!  While there isn’t anything in here that is “bad” per say, dried fruits are sneaky in their high-sugar content and how easy they are to overeat.  I’d worry that this would become a “healthy” replacement for snacks and treats, but hamstring your weight loss efforts.

Fruitalicious Plus

In case the previous option didn’t have enough sugar, let’s add in some honey oats!

Cornaborealis


Sugar+Maple Syrup+Soybean Oil.  Rating:  AVOID. While I love using Maple Syrup as a sweetener for some of my “paleo-friendly” treats, in that instance I am the one who controls the sugar content.  Normally, we only use 1 tsp. for an entire batch of coconut flour pancakes.  There is no telling how much of it is in here, though the fact that it is also paired with sugar doesn’t appear to be a good sign.

Cornucopia

Soybean Oil. – It would be so awesome if they used Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, or even Avocado Oil in these things.  Sigh.

Corn of Plenty

Other than the Soybean Oil, this actually looks pretty yummy. However, as previously mentioned, soybean oil is a definite AVOID on my list.

Cranberry Crunch

I thought they had finally seen the light and avoided the soybean oil, and then halfway down the list of ingredients it popped up again.  + sugar + maple syrup. If you are going to treat yourself to something sweet, I think they are healthier and tastier ways of doing it! Case in point  here and here.  Or even, here.

Bucky Ball Matrix


Peanuts are a legume, and so give me pause. The honey doesn’t bother me too much as a sugar alternative, but I am curious as to what “made from pure evaporated cane juice” means. (Sugar cane juice?)  And they used Olive Oil (not extra virgin, but still) instead!  Yay!  Well, at least that’s a start.

After reviewing all of the products, I think that the best options to consider are:

  1. Veggielicious
  2. Bucky Ball Matrix
  3. Fruitalicious

That being said, do you see how even products sold as the “healthiest foods in the world” can have questionable ingredients? I’m sure these all taste great (with all that sugar, why wouldn’t they?), but the question really is:  what do you want to use these snacks for? As a meal replacement, they just don’t afford the kind of nutrition that we need.  As a snack to get you between meals, they will probably hinder weight-loss and might even make you hungrier by spiking insulin.  As a mid-hike trail mix, they are probably fine.  But it’s all about what your goals are at the moment, and what you need to do to get there.

(Note:  If you are looking something healthy to “snack on” in between meals because you are getting hungry, I would highly recommend making sure you are getting plenty of protein and healthy fat during meal-time because they provide better and longer-lasting satiety than high-carb foods.)

An Alternative Solution

Rather than spend your hard-earned cash on the newest “superfood”, why not concentrate on REAL food (fresh veggies, meat, fruit, etc.) from your local providers? Calorie for calorie, they provide the BEST overall nutrition that we can get.  Plus, you can enjoy the variety of foods that come with each season. You don’t have to eat only ONE kind of superfood to get your nutrition – if that were the case, life would be pretty dull. Can you imagine eating your food in pill form? I for one like my food too much to give up all the color, flavor, and social interaction that comes along with it.

Thanks again to Linda for her question!  I hope this helps.  And remember, you can email me questions/topics you want to hear about any time at:  topics@freefitguy.com

–Stay healthy everybody.


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