Two years ago, I began having health problems at the ripe age of 21. One potential cause was that I ate the last-day-on-earth diet of an overworked student, so on the advice of a nutritionist, I looked to Canada’s food pyramid for help with balancing my diet.
When religiously following the guide my health declined further, leaving me flummoxed. I was following conventional nutritional wisdom! My diet looked almost exactly like the rainbow chart in my nutritionist’s office.
Unfortunately, our understanding of nutrition had led me astray. Moreover, with a country plagued by a host of chronic diet-related health issues, the food pyramid doesn’t seem to have the impact it should. So where are we going wrong?
The answer may lie in Brazil’s 2014 food guide. Unlike its Canadian counterpart, Brazil’s nutritional advice focuses on reducing the amount of processed food in the diet instead of acquiring individual nutrients in food such as protein, fiber or omega-3s. The guide urges Brazilians to make whole, unprocessed food the basis of their diet and limit the consumption of lightly processed foods, such as pickles, cheeses and breads. It goes so far as to urge the complete avoidance of “ultra-processed foods,” such as sweetened breakfast cereals and yogurts, or instant noodles—foods that Canada’s guide does not scrutinize nearly as closely.
Ultra-processed foods are items that generally include five ingredients or more, including things that are not easily recognizable or part of traditional diets, such as high fructose corn syrup or colorants. Generally found in the center aisles of the grocery store, these products include excessive amounts of unhealthy salt, sugar, and fat, along with additives that distort colour, taste, and shelf life. These foods are at best benign, and at worst nutritional landmines. They deprive our bodies of the nutritional complexity of unprocessed food, making them the antithesis of the varied and nutritious diet that Brazil’s guide is attempting to cultivate.
So how is it that our food guide can claim that Gogurt, Shredded Wheat, and fruit cocktail—all ultra processed foods—can be part of a healthy diet? The answer comes down to money. It is, simply put, more profitable to sell you highly processed foods. A company can manipulate their product to make cheap, processed and unappealing ingredients taste great, thus justifying selling it to you for much more than the sum of its parts. The use of synthetic food additives can also enhance the flavor of less appealing ingredients, such as tasteless produce or low-grade meats, further widening profit margins and reducing nutritional content.
The problem is that our food guide does not distinguish between highly processed “franken-foods” and more wholesome meals. This is in part because it was written by those who wish to sell you processed food. One quarter of the 12-member Food Advisory Committee who composed Canada’s food guide were working for corporations that produce and sell processed food. Instead of investigating a holistic concept of health, the authors of our guide focused on individual nutrients.
This means that Captain Crunch can tout its fiber content, while Kraft Singles can boast being a source of calcium. Both of those “foods” are ultra-processed, but suddenly they become part of food groups that we are supposed to consume every day. This vastly distorts what we can consider healthy.
Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect, compared this to cutting pharmaceutical-grade cocaine with tea. You could conceivably claim that it was healthier for you, less addictive, and “now with chai!”—but would you actually say that it was good for you? Probably not.
So what should your diet actually look like? The short answer is to avoid processed foods, but that is not always possible, especially for those with limited time, cooking skills or access to affordable quality ingredients. Instead, my answer is that you should be skeptical. Is a company trying to sell you highly processed food based on one or two nutrients? What exactly is “natural” or artificial flavouring, and how is it affecting your diet? Just how much sugar has gone into your yogurt? At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, do not trust Canada’s food pyramid, because Brazil’s ended up being the key to regaining my health.