It took me a while, but I now realize that a small plastic bag labeled Men’s Health symbolizes a lot about how we Americans are struggling with a devastating obesity epidemic even when we try to eat healthier.
Immediately when I saw the bag I figured it was my kind of snack. Men’s Health was in big red letters. Manly! Healthy! In smaller red letters, it offered “9 grams of PROTEIN.” Hey, great! Not some effete veggie snack. Plus 9 vitamins and minerals. A “good source” of fiber. And since the bag was small, it couldn’t be many calories, right?
I tried a pack. Loved ‘em. Tasty, nutritious. Why? They’re nuts, pure and simple: almonds, peanuts and pistachios. But I felt a lot better about them since they were packaged as healthy.
So it goes. As we Americans continue to get fatter, we turn toward healthy foods. Or rather, foods labeled healthy. The average American consumes daily 2.6 items that are labeled healthy, says Harry Balzer, a longtime food industry analyst who creates the annual report Eating Patterns in America.
Note he didn’t say healthy foods. Raw fruits and vegetables don’t count. The 2.6 are items branded healthy: Low-fat, low-sodium, heart-friendly, low-cholesterol, “high in antioxidants” or best of all “diet.”
So why aren’t Americans getting skinnier? For one thing, we don’t get too carried away. But we don’t get too carried away. Lisa Katic, a food industry consultant, said last spring at a University of Colorado obesity conference that Kraft tried marketing “low-sodium” Triscuits. Didn’t sell well. Now Kraft sells “Triscuits with a Hint of Salt.” They sell much better, though they contain the same amount of salt as the “low-sodium” crackers.
“This has been an issue for 20 years,” Katic told me last month. “The industry wants to make changes to make food healthier, but they don’t want customers saying, ‘Oh oh, it’s not going to taste good.’ The number one reason they buy food is taste.”
Many consumers see low-something and think “you’re taking away something from me. That’s why a ‘hint of salt’ sounds more positive,” said Katic. “With some nutrients, lower is good. I don’t think ‘hint of fat’ would work.”
For all the attention we pay to healthy foods, our waistlines keep expanding. More than a third of Americans are now obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the trend continues upward.
In some ways, we’re getting better, says Balzar, the analyst. Consumption of some sugar-laden offerings, such as carbonated drinks, has declined in recent years. Cookies are also trending down.
Katic credits Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign with helping trigger Americans into eating better. “The industry has been working on this for 10 years before she came in, but she was able to kind of step in and move the needle a little bit further.”
But only a bit. Balzer says sales of “reduced fat” products have been declining in recent years. Americans instead rush toward “what’s new. The big issue today is the growing sales of ‘gluten-free.’”
People see “gluten-free pizza” in the supermarket and think, well, hey, I like pizza, and here’s a healthier pizza, so why not give it a try. “The key word is pizza,” says Balzer. “Let me try the new version of it. Let me try the new flavored water. It’s just a new version of the old.”
Sheah Rarback, a University of Miami nutritionist, says that, for a small percentage of Americans with a certain autoimmune disorder, gluten can damage intestines and have other “really frightening” consequences. But for most folks, gluten-free “is a bit of a fad right now,” she says.
Glutens are found in wheats, barley and rye. Rarback says some people find they lose weight on gluten-free diets, but that’s because they’re avoiding fattening products like bread and pasta. The word “gluten-free” does not automatically mean lower calorie, or lower fat or lower cholesterol. “In fact, some gluten-free products are more calories.”
But America’s food industry certainly knows how to jump on a band wagon. The Winn-Dixie grocery chain recently sent me an email listing all the gluten-free foods it offers, including 30 types of cheese. Since gluten is not generally found in dairy products, the real news would be if the chain sold a cheese that somehow contained gluten.
The food that’s fastest growing in popularity, percentagewise, is hummus, the ancient Arab staple that blends chickpeas and spices. “But it’s leading only because it started with such low sales,” says Balzer. In fact, hummus is now -- and always has been -- a healthy food. A good source of protein and fiber, high in iron and vitamin C. It has never contained glutens. So why is hummus suddenly popular? Look at the packaging. Some brands boast they’re “gluten-free.”
Just to prove that Americans still embrace the Emersonian concept that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Balzer reports major increases in sales of yogurt, a healthy snack, and chips, a notorious source of empty calories.
In a way, these conflicting trends make sense, says Balzer. “The driving force is time and money.” Spoon the yogurt out of the cup. As for chips: “I don’t think you’ll find an easier side dish in America.”
“It’s not really true that you are what you eat,” Balzer maintains for our image-conscious country. “You are what people think you eat.” So have that healthy yogurt as a snack at your desk at work, and those chips at night when no one’s looking.
Here’s a perfect example of the secret side: About 6:30 one evening, I tracked down a healthcare source on her cell phone. She’s the type that has attended a ton of panel discussions on how to get Americans to eat healthier.
She answered a couple questions, then said, “Just a minute.” I heard her muffled voice barking out something about food. I had reached her in a drive-through. I didn’t hear what she ordered, just the last bit: “And super-size it.”
Well, I can’t get too self-righteous. A while back, I worked on an anti-obesity article during the day, then raced off to an evening event. With no time to stop and eat, I too went to a drive-through, eating and burger and fries as I drove to my destination.
Now getting back to my Men’s Health snack -- those wonderful nuts. I could have snacked on a banana my wife packed me -- about 100 calories. I could reached into my desk drawer and pulled out a Quaker Chewy Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip granola bar. That tastes good and is also a mere 100 calories. But granola bars -- well, I’ve been eating them quite a while.
So I went for the new: Men’s Health. They were so good I had three packs. Total calories: 750. Still, I washed them down with a Diet Mountain Dew: Zero calories. So I felt pretty good about myself.