Cara Rosenbloom is trying to educate people about nutrition. In 2016, she co-authored the cookbook Nourish. (photo from Cara Rosenbloom)
When grocery shopping, how do you decide what to get when you are looking at items not familiar to you? Do you look at the ingredients? Are you drawn to packages that claim to be natural, whole food, organic?
Marketing and manipulation often go hand in hand. And it can be challenging to differentiate between products that actually offer added value and those that just say they do.
For the past 10 years, dietician Cara Rosenbloom has been running Words to Eat By, which provides nutrition education. For example, what does organic really mean in terms of food and nutrition?
When it comes to a product’s organic claims, Rosenbloom said, “I think the most important thing that people need to know about organic is that the word has nothing to do with health. An organic claim on a food does not mean it’s healthier for you. Organic is a method of farming.
“The use of the term ‘organic’ is regulated in Canada and has very clear guidelines about which foods can have that term stamped on it. It has to do with how that product – if it’s an animal, how it was raised … or, if a plant, how it was grown. But, once that organic product is used in a food product, the resulting food may not be a health food. Perfect examples are Kraft Dinner and Doritos. They now have organic versions. Those are not health foods.”
Rosenbloom said claims that organically grown foods contain fewer chemicals are misleading. “Even foods that are grown organically still use pesticides and fertilizers. They’re just organic versions of it,” she said. “The word ‘chemical’ is not used appropriately in nutrition literature, in the way the media describes food. Many things are chemicals and aren’t bad for you. Water is a chemical! You need a degree in chemistry almost to understand how molecules are put together…. If you think organic food is just grown naturally in the sunshine, you’re wrong. Organic farmers use natural pesticides and herbicides. If you want to call those chemicals, too, then that’s fine.”
Rosenbloom writes a monthly column in the Washington Post, where she focuses on debunking myths and educating the readers about wellness, so people can make informed decisions about their nutrition.
In her interview with the Independent, she touched on how people get scared off by the “dirty dozen,” a list of fruits and vegetables believed to contain the highest amount of pesticides. In 2017, the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen were strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes.
Rosenbloom explained that, too often, consumers avoid buying produce altogether if they can’t find organic versions. “That’s obviously the wrong message, and not what any dietician would recommend,” she said. “I wrote an article about how the dirty dozen list doesn’t hold weight in terms of pesticides. It’s a flawed list and has no scientific credibility. I educate people that organic is fine if you choose that, but not to fear fruits and veggies that are conventionally grown. The bottom line is that you need to eat fruits and veggies, whether you choose to eat organic or not, because they’re just a healthy thing in the diet.”
In that Jan. 18, 2017, Post article, Rosenbloom interviewed food toxicologist Carl K. Winter about the dirty dozen list, which, he said, “failed to consider the three most important factors used in authentic risk assessments – the amounts of pesticides found, the amounts of the foods consumed and the toxicity of the pesticides.” And, she notes, “Even the Environmental Working Group doesn’t recommend avoiding the items on its own dirty dozen list. Their website says ‘the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables.’”
As for the claim that a product is natural, Rosenbloom explained that, while the organic label is closely regulated, the natural label is not. “Anything can be deemed natural,” she said. “So, it’s not something you want to count on. A lot of foods that are high in sugar, let’s say, can still say they are natural, because sugar comes from plants and that’s natural.
“The word natural doesn’t have a base definition that companies must satisfy in order to use that term on their foods,” she continued. “So, if you look at a product that says it’s natural, it doesn’t really tell you what that means. It lets you figure it out.
“We’re seeing more big companies that make processed food use the word natural – and misuse it. And this is leading to fewer consumers having any trust in the label natural.”
When it comes to vitamin supplements, Rosenbloom said more is not better. “There are certainly times when your body does need certain vitamins, but a lot of people are spending a lot of money on vitamins they just don’t need,” she said. “Then there are false promises made with things like vitamin IV drips and other popular myths.”
Rosenbloom has written about how to tell the difference between processed, ultra-processed and whole foods, as well as how to buy seafood that is produced in a safe, sustainable way, and much more. In 2016, she co-authored a cookbook with Chef Nettie Cronish, called Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans. It features 100 recipes, all of which are original and co-developed by the authors.
“We focused on beans, nuts and seeds in the book because these are nice sources of protein,” said Rosenbloom. “And nuts and seeds are healthy fats that are underutilized by most people in the diet, with most people relying mainly on animal-based foods for their protein. We wanted to explain that you can include seeds, nuts and beans in everyday recipes, and these 100 recipes show them how.
“It’s not solely a vegetarian cookbook,” she added. “It encourages people – wherever they are at, vegetarian or not, whoever wants to buy the book – to try out the recipes, which include meat, chicken, fish, seafood and vegetarian.
“The idea was to say, ‘Whatever you’re eating, here’s a way to add seeds, nuts and beans, to get more of those healthy ingredients into your diet.’ Take salmon, for example. It might be crusted with sesame seeds, or oatmeal might have some hemp seeds or flax seeds in it. So, we just enrich foods you eat anyway with the goodness of seeds, nuts and beans.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.