The kidnapping of words in nutrition

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It is undeniable that, when we purchase products, we are greatly influenced by advertising, presentation, and the terminology used in the packaging.

Within this trend, it should be noted that all these years, supermarkets and advertising spots have been flooded with striking claims such as «without preservatives», «100 % natural», «homemade» or «exclusive recipe». These terms rouse a positive connotation in the consumers, who perceive them as «better». Our very lenient legislation with labeling and the advertiser’s creativity often leave the consumer helpless against these hoaxes.

«Without chemicals» or «without E additives» as a claim is more than usual in some food products. Apart from the obvious dodging of legislation that these mentions represent, they launch an incorrect message to society, who can understand that additives are dangerous or that food has «chemicals».

It is quite ironic to discuss term chemical in food, the molecules of which we incorporate to our structure or we use to get energy. Everything is chemistry, we could say. But such use of the term points to the negative connotation of chemicals understood as «toxic».

Additives often have desirable functions from the point of view of food safety and can extend the useful life of food items. It is true that some additives are more superfluous, with functions related to improving organoleptic properties only, but that is not enough to put them all in the same bag.

We can confidently claim that they are safe, and that the doubts about their alleged «risks» are not substantiated, even though they are not innocuous either. This does not mean we have to be afraid of their presence, but we must be aware of their role and when they can be more or less appropriate.

«We should ask ourselves: what is natural in food nowadays? And besides: what is the problem with an artificial product?»

Those food items that do not contain E additives will, very probably, be healthier, not because the additives are harmful themselves, but because healthy eating has to be based on fresh products. This can be easily understood with an example: fruit is healthier a juice, as well as whole grain cereal is preferable to cookies, for the same reason that fresh fish is preferable to fish fingers. The concern should be directed against processed products, not against additives.

Conversely, and in the face of the negative connotations that the terms chemical or artificial are regularly associated to, the tendency to apply the term natural to different products emerges.

From the point of view of legislation this term tends to mean nothing, because a legal gap protects what is 100 % natural. However, we should ask ourselves: what is natural in food nowadays? And besides: what is the problem with an artificial product?

It does not matter whether a salty broth or a refined loaf of bread are called «natural». Can a natural yogurt be «natural»? Is it natural to use a controlled fermentation process to turn milk into this product?

These terms have been in labels, in the food industry, for a long time. People who work every day with these tools suffer seeing that their patients resort to a confusing environment in order to buy their food products. Food industry has kidnapped terms like natural. We have to resort to less comfortable and more tangled phrases such as raw material or unprocessed product, because we run the risk that the next time we tell our patients to eat «natural products», they end up buying broth, refined bread or juice; those foods that have taken over the term – but not the properties – of unprocessed food.

© Mètode 2017 - 95. Online only. The scam of pseudoscience - Autumn 2017

Dietician-nutritionist, food technologist and author of the nutrition blog Mi dieta cojea, Madrid (Spain).