"Simple Ingredients May Be Trendy, but Not Necessarily Healthy
Why it’s necessary to look beyond the bold type on the package and go straight to the Nutrition Facts panel.
By Julie Upton, RD
There is a hot new marketing trend in the food industry: simplicity. A slew of products in grocery stores are boasting that they contain just a few simple, all-natural ingredients. Problem is, those "simple, all-natural" ingredients are generally things that provide little nutritional value for their number of calories—and they include sugar, cream, flour, salt, oils, and butter.
I figure anytime a processed packaged food product markets the brand with squishy terms like simple, all-natural, naturally sourced, or wholesome, it’s necessary to look beyond the bold type on the package and go straight to the Nutrition Facts panel.
After all, if the product was qualified to make any real Food and Drug Administration–approved nutrient claims (such as, it's rich in calcium, low in sugar, or high in fiber), then it would. Instead, many are using feel-good marketing terms that may make unsuspecting consumers think that the products might, well, be good for them.
This is where simple turns complex. Many of these foods are calorie- and fat-rich, sugar-filled snack foods, desserts, or other treats that should only be eaten on occasion. Remember, the fact that a food is made from simple ingredients that you can recognize doesn’t mean much nutritionally. (We all recognize sugar, lard, and salt, but we don’t want them to be the mainstays of our diet!)
And it's not like I have a personal vendetta against simple foods; most things I eat are whole foods with few artificial ingredients. But that doesn't mean that anything without chemicals or hard-to-pronounce additives makes my list.
And most of my colleagues feel exactly the same way I do. According to Dallas-based nutritionist Jennifer Neily, RD, “Even though a product may only have a few ingredients, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. A five-ingredient ice cream may still be loaded with calories and artery-clogging saturated fat, so you have to read the labels for the whole story.”
Here are three of the best examples of “simple” marketing that reveal a more complex nutritional picture.
This new ice cream brags that it's "crafted with only five ingredients for incredibly pure, balanced flavor…and surprisingly less fat!” The ingredients for the ginger flavor include: skim milk (good), cream (not so good), sugar (eek!), and egg yolks (not great). A half-cup serving has 230 calories, 12 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat (that's more than one-third of your daily limit), one-fourth of your daily cholesterol allotment, and 5 1/2 teaspoons of sugar.
According to the brand marketers, these refrigerated gems “are made with the simple, wholesome ingredients you and your family know and love.” These ingredients are well known, yes, but not for being nutritional all-stars; they include refined wheat flour, sugar, eggs, chocolate chips, and peanut butter.
I love a good cookie, but I don’t try to pass my homemade creations off as something nutritionally superior that I can feel good about eating. A puny 1-ounce serving of the Simply…Chocolate Chip variety will set you back 150 calories, and it has 8 grams of fat (3.5 grams of saturated fat) and 3 teaspoons of sugar. But there's no appreciable fiber, whole grains, vitamins, or minerals, and that’s no nutritional bargain compared to other chocolate chip cookies.
Sara Lee Simple Sweets
At least frozen desserts don’t give any aura of health and wellness, so I’m going to give them a break. Anyone buying a frozen apple or cherry pie isn't thinking about diet quality or calories. In fairness, what’s so simple about these desserts is that they go from freezer to perfect-pie-on-your-plate in five minutes. But a slice of cherry will still deduct 330 calories from your bank, not to mention the 16 grams of fat (about one-fourth of what you should have in a day) and 6 teaspoons of sugar.
Simple and smart for your health
How about including more truly natural, single-ingredient foods in your shopping cart the next time you visit your local retailer? Here is what's on my shopping list today.
- Wheat germ
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Skim milk
- Coffee and tea
- Brown rice, couscous, and bulgur
- Ground turkey breast