As a response to health concerns and cost, the food industry has come up with a bevy of substitute food products. Through modern chemistry, we’ve been able to substitute our way out of fat, sugar, carbohydrates, costly ingredients, and short shelf lives. But when it comes to nutritional value and taste, which is better?
Butter vs. Margarine
Perhaps the best example of a “health” message having to eat its own words was the margarine-instead-of-butter campaign, championed by well-intentioned researchers and nutritionists. Their logic was that butter, which is high in saturated fat, contributes to heart disease, whereas margarine, low in saturated fat, provided a good substitute. However, it was then discovered that margarine contains the heart-sabotaging trans fats, which have been shown to raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the good kind (HDL). Whoops.
With the dangers of trans fats coming to light, many food products now have trans fat-free alternatives. But are these any better? A small study in Nutrition and Metabolism indicates they may not be. Compared to a diet of palm oil (a natural source of saturated fat), a diet containing partially-hydrogenated soybean oil (which has trans fat) or soybean oil that was interesterified (the trans fat alternative) raised levels of LDL, lowered those of HDL, and elevated glucose levels.
The issue surrounding trans fat-free margarines containing alternatives (which are usually labeled as fully hydrogenated oils) is still unclear and needs more research. A better alternative to butter and margarine seems to be olive, canola, and other vegetable oils, which are naturally low in saturated fats, and high in mono and poly unsaturated fats. (Some margarine-like spreads are made from these, so check labels.)
And, when used sparingly, butter doesn’t have to be a villain. Its pros include a simple, natural list of ingredients (cream, salt); it tastes better than the fabricated stuff (I think); and a little goes a long way. Yes, it’s high in saturated fat and cholesterol, but compared with the trans fat problem and the yet-to-be-fully-researched alternatives that the food chemists might come up with, it might still have its place in our diet.
Sugars vs. Artificial Sweeteners
Is it better to drink a diet Coke, a regular Coke (which contains high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS), or a Coke in a bottle from abroad, where they use cane sugar?
From a calorie perspective, the choice (diet) is clear. But while artificial sweeteners are generally considered safe (save for saccharin, which has a “has been shown to cause cancer in lab rats” warning), two studies indicate they may not exactly be as guilt-free as once imagined.
The first study showed that, compared with those who drank no soda, people who consumed one or more sodas a day—diet or regular—had a 50 percent higher risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors characterized by excessive abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and high glucose. Another study showed that rats fed with foods containing artificial sweeteners were more likely to overeat compared with the rats that were fed food containing real sugar. Reason? Sugar triggers our innate system to recognize sweet calories and restrict further food consumption; fake chemicals don’t trigger the “eat less” mechanism.
And what about HFCS, which is ubiquitous in our food and has been vilified as a major contributor of obesity, versus sugar? Recently, the American Medical Association concluded that, based on current evidence, high fructose syrups do not contribute more to obesity than other caloric sweeteners, including sugar. Other researchers maintain that HFCS is metabolized differently by our bodies and may lead to compounds that contribute to diabetes and other health problems. One thing is for certain: both are sources of empty calories, which lead to weight gain.
And the reason why HFCS has been put on trial may have less to do with its metabolic differences from other sugars and more to do with its abundance and cost. It’s in everything from soda to soups and because it’s cheap, food manufacturers have been able to increase portion sizes at a fraction of the cost; thirty years ago the idea of something as large (and larger) as a Big Gulp would have been laughable.
The nutritionist might tell you to avoid all three of the above: drink sparkling water instead.
Natural Peanut Butter vs. Low-Fat Peanut Butter
Peanut butter has good fat, and is made simply from peanuts and occasionally salt. However, the low-fat version puts hydrogenated oils and sugar in place of the fat. Jiffy’s low-fat “spread” contains only 60 percent peanuts (real peanut butter has to contain 90 percent); the rest is corn syrup solids, soy protein sugar, and some fully hydrogenated oils. This is one of those instances where being blinded by the idea that fat is bad leads one to eat much worse. Jiffy also has “natural” peanut butter, which includes palm oil so you don’t have to stir it (wouldn’t want anyone to over exert themselves). Thanks, I’ll take the natural stuff and a spoon.
Fat vs. Olestra
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: it’s crazy that Olestra, with such terrible side effects, is still on the market. We really are fat-phobic and are willing to eat just about anything to avoid the stuff.
And despite its claims as a diet food, Olestra, like artificial sweeteners, is a chemical that may actually trigger greater consumption of food, not less. Researchers at Purdue University fed rats either full-fat potato chips or a mix of regular chips and chips containing Olestra. When confronted later on with a high-fat snack, the rats that had eaten the Olestra chips overate and were not able to alter their intake based on previous food consumption.
Naturally-occurring fat, in moderation, is better than Olestra.
Whipped Cream versus Cool Whip
I loved Cool Whip as a child, almost as much as I love whipped cream (made from whipping cream and sugar) now. So which is better for you? Cool Whip wins on the calorie/fat scale but loses big time on the ingredient list, which includes hydrogenated vegetable oils, HFCS, artificial flavors, guar gums, etc. Taste wise, I’d take the real stuff any day. Plus, because cream has naturally-occurring sugars, homemade whipped cream requires very little additional sweeteners.
Cheese vs. Cheez Whiz and Velveeta Slices
Velveeta, another product I loved as a kid, now seems like one of the strangest products on the market. The consistency, taste, and color are like nothing found in nature. Besides trying to decipher what’s listed on the side of these bright orange Kraft products (alginate, sodium phosphate), real cheese is more satisfying and certainly more natural. Of course, it’s much harder to cut in such a perfect square …
Real Maple Syrup vs. Syrup
The sad fact is that very few of the syrups on the market are really from a maple tree, and the ones that are tend to be quite expensive. Of course, most of us would prefer maple syrup, but the cheap stuff is well, cheaper, and not surprisingly, made out of high fructose corn syrup. They’re about equal on a calorie basis, but the real stuff would win any taste competition.
There are many more examples of “fake foods”: real chocolate versus the stuff made from vegetable fat, Crisco versus lard, foie gras versus faux gras, fruit juice versus water and HFC, butter versus fake butter flavor. But some people just really don’t care that food is fake, that what they’re eating comes from a bevy of chemicals, not the earth, and that it may someday lead to their demise. In that case, let them eat—high fructose, partially-hydrogenated soybean oil, sodium benzoate—cake!