‘Healthier’ Junk Food - The Search
More than ever before, the difference between the ‘good’ foodstuff and the ‘bad’ foodstuff is a minefield of contradictory claims. We all know the basics; load up on greens, eat a rainbow, sweet stuff in moderation, and so on. But when food fads are rising and flopping faster than X Factor winners, it’s hard to discern what foods are healthy, and equally those we should be avoiding.
In 2018, the Millennial generation is the largest in US history – they make up a whopping 25% of the consumer base and they are demanding healthier, fresher food. For Millennials, ‘healthy’ isn’t merely the opposite of being ‘sick,’ it is an active, daily pursuit of eating right and exercising regularly. According to the Organic Trade Association, 52% of organic consumers are millennials and the same generation also eat 52% more vegetables than their older counterparts.
Food manufacturers are watching closely: we see more and more ‘healthier’ substitutes for traditionally unhealthy food products.
Bacon, burgers, brownies, ice cream and sweet treats are some of the contenders in the vast new market providing the - largely younger - generations with healthier options for usually bad-for-you foods. But are these new products really any healthier for us, or is the industry merely placating a market that is shouting for more organic, better-for-you food products with misleading marketing claims?
Northern Irish food manufacturer Finnebrogue recently launched the UK’s first big-brand nitrate-free bacon - Naked bacon. The product comes in response to the World Health Organisation (WHO) announcing in 2015 that the nitrates found in various processed meats, including bacon, were as dangerous as asbestos and smoking – information brought into the mainstream media by the popular Netflix documentary What The Health.
Finnebrogue has replaced the cancer-causing chemicals used in the manufacture of traditional bacon with Mediterranean fruit and spice extracts – technology already used in continental style hams, particularly in Europe, but never in the production of British bacon.
While this new style of bacon provides a healthier alternative to those traditionally manufactured with nitrates, it does not make Naked Bacon a healthy food product – a distinction commonly missed by consumers, and purposely muddled by marketers. The presence of salt in the Naked Bacon and the fact that bacon is naturally high in saturated fats and usually fried in oils also high in saturated fats means that bacon, nitrate-free or not, is a food to be enjoyed in moderation, and not as part of your daily diet.
The story is a similar one with many of the meat-alternative products that have come under the spotlight recently.
Finding healthier alternatives to processed meats is a trend that has particularly taken off during recent years, due to several high-profile meat scandals across the globe and widely-watched documentaries including Cowspiracy and What the Health, which revealed the detrimental health benefits of regularly consuming meat.
Companies committed to producing meatless and more environmentally friendly food products, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have popped up in response to said scandals, and also as an answer to studies such as this one, which found that 81 percent of meat-eaters are put off veganism because they “like the taste of meat too much.” Veganism may be the fastest growing lifestyle movement of all time, but people still want to eat burgers.
The Bill Gates-backed company, Beyond Meat, have created a veggie burger that mimics the look and texture of a traditional patty, and even ‘bleeds’ like real beef. While the company is not claiming any health benefits by eating their burger, there is a common belief that avoiding meat equals a healthier lifestyle.
Unfortunately, many of these products use highly processed and chemically treated ingredients, proving that Veganism isn’t always the healthiest option: The Beyond Burger contains Maltodextrin (known for spiking blood sugar), refined coconut oil (which has recently taken some heat by American Heart Association as a possible risk factor to heart disease) and pressed canola oil (which several studies have shown can cause heart issues, inflammation and lower vitamin E which is an effective antioxidant), among a long list of other ingredients, which are effectively nutrient-less due to them being highly processed. It also contains more than five times as much sodium as an unseasoned beef patty for preservation and flavour, and we all know that too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risks of heart disease and stroke.
The biggest health advantage of The Beyond Burger - and any other meatless burger - is reducing red meat intake. But with that said, if you’re already following a healthy lifestyle, eating a real burger - occasionally - shouldn’t be a problem. Equally, if you’re avoiding meat for moral or environmental reasons, The Beyond Burger, like any other, should be consumed in moderation.
The meat industry isn’t alone in taking a hit for being unhealthy, the dairy industry has also suffered from recent media interest in the negative health consequences of consuming dairy regularly.
As with meat-alternatives, non-dairy products are popping up everywhere. But the same story applies more often than not. Ben and Jerry’s non-dairy offerings caused quite a stir when they were released last year, but the buzz was quickly squashed by anyone who took a closer look at the ingredient list. Sugar, sugar and more sugar was the ingredient that replaced the original dairy-full version - hardly a healthy alternative.
Of course, there are brands out there providing somewhat healthier alternatives to some bad-for-you foods, but it is often the ones offered at big-brand supermarkets, with large marketing budgets that prove to be a disappointing reality. And naturally, the ones that really are healthier, don't taste much like the original. Cauliflower 'steak' anyone...?
It's more important than ever to familiarise yourself with ingredient lists - being aware of what you're putting in your body in a time when we are being pushed and pulled in all directions about what is healthy and what is not has never been more important, or more necessary.
Our advice? There's no such thing as healthy junk food. Cutting back on dairy and meat is a step in the right direction for a healthier you and a healthier planet, but it's not the only thing you should be eating in moderation - avoiding sugar, processed foods and cutting back on the saturated fats is also very important.
There simply isn't a miracle food product that lets you have it all, and we doubt there ever will be.