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Expo West and “health food”

By Robyn Openshaw, MSW | Mar 19, 2010

So Tif and I got back this week from Expo West in Anaheim, one of the biggest trade shows in the U.S. After three days, we were still seeing booths we hadn’t been to before. Everything and anything you can find in a health food store. A lot of stuff you’d find in the “organic” or “natural” section of a regular grocery store, or Costco, too.

This is my main reaction to the show. At the risk of sounding like a snob, most of what is flying under the banner of “natural” and “organic” is just expensive junk food. A lot of refined food, soy products, stuff with a healthy ingredient or two and a bunch of bad ingredients.

Tif works for me but isn’t a foodie or a health nut. So she’d tell me something tasted wonderful (oh, the samples are endless!) and then she’d ask, “Is this good for me?”

More often than not, I’d say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, the regular stuff is a 1 and this is a 2.”

One of the worst examples: an “all-natural” cake mix. The dude handing out samples of the cutest little cupcakes and brownies. I said no thanks, and he protested: “But everything in this is what you’d use to make it from scratch at home!” (He obviously doesn’t know me.)

I walked over and read the ingredients on the box. The first two were: wheat flour, cane sugar.

Tif said, “But it’s WHEAT flour!” That just means white flour–bran and germ stripped away, nothing but nutrition-free endosperm (and some chemical vitamins added). If it doesn’t say “whole-wheat flour,” it’s white flour. If the box doesn’t say “100% whole grain,” it’s not (and usually the first ingredient is, in fact, white flour–because it’s people who don’t know better who buy stuff with labels that say “includes whole grains.” You can legally put a pinch of whole wheat in the recipe and tout it as INCLUDING whole grains.)

This is what I call “feel good” health food. It’s not good for you. It just makes you feel better about your food dollars. At the end of the day, it’s still just a bunch of crap in boxes and cans and packages.

I have found just the very fewest of exceptions and I’ll be talking about them in the coming weeks. Seriously. Like 1 in 500 booths at that show are offering anything worth your time and money.

Just because white flour is organic doesn’t make it nutritious. Just because the sugar is organic doesn’t make it good for you. Just because it’s made of soy doesn’t make it non-fattening.

Posted in: Food Industry, Nutrition, Whole Food

16 thoughts on “Expo West and “health food””

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  1. This bugs me SO MUCH! I spent YEARS eating “healthy & organic” processed foed & thinking I was doing something good for myself and my family. Until my thyroid stopped working right because I was ingesting so much processed soy! I love your statement “at the end of the day, it’s still just a bunch of crap in boxes and cans and packages.” So true!

  2. Could not agree with you more. Those fake “health foods” are unbelievably irritating.

  3. Robyn, thanks for doing the research for us! I look forward to hearing about the few exceptions that you found at the show.

  4. Thanks for posting about this. It’s always good to hear it again and a good reminder to not get sucked in to a good marketing campaign, but to really be knowledgeable about what we put into our bodies. Looking forward to hearing about the 1 in 500 🙂

  5. This is why I love you Robyn! You are not easily fooled and you know how to read those lables. I think if we could all be better and knowing and reading ingredients a lot of our health problems would be solved! Thanks so much for keeping us informed!

  6. Oh by the way I like to call them Glorified JUNK food! But I too like your statement about “it’s still just a bunch of crap in boxes and cans and packages!”

  7. Anonymous says:

    So true. “Organic” and “all natural” on junk food labels gives me the giggles. I just try not to think about how many people actually think it IS health food. Is that bad?

  8. Anonymous says:

    I love you!!! You ARE truly my gal pal. I usually stick to the Green Star booth where they are juicing fruits and veggies, handing out samples of fresh sprouts and wheat grass. My son kept taking two cups at a time until they asked him if he wanted a big glass….of course he said, yes!

    My son tasted a few things from other booths and was exhausted. He is very sensitive to stuff but he was running from booth to booth until I caught up with you. He then just sat on the floor. I am sure it is from all that ‘crap’ he ate from the ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ booths we went to. Food was on display to eats everywhere.

    People kept handing him bottled waters and ‘natural’ french fries in a bag and I would have to look at the labels and tell him, “It has ‘natural flavorings’ in it. Put it down.” So, he did. I had to tell him that natural flavorings means the same as artifiical and it wasn’t good for him.

    I agree 100% with you. I rarely buy packaged foods and since working some things have entered my home out of convenience of having to work full time….but I am like you, absolutely no soy is in my house or anything that says natural flavorings. A lot of mainstream companies are buying out the mom and pop organic companies, and slowly changing the ingredients and then eventually you’ll see the good for you ingredients and then the organic label disappear….

  9. Yes I love it that people think if it comes from Whole Foods or something, it’s healthy. Guilt-free, right? I still would have loved to see it all though. It sounds like you had a good time, and I’m still retelling your airport story and laughing just as hard as I did the first time I read it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been telling your airport story!!! People are like, what???

  11. Anonymous says:

    I agree and I DISAGREE as well. While you may argue that these products are NOT health foods in that they are making us WELL, they are certainly better than most of the packaged food that is already cluttering supermarket shelves. To find a cake mix with ingredients that don’t differ from what “one” might add at home is MUCH BETTER than one laden with chemicals, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, colors, gums etc. And a step in the right direction. If people take baby steps, they will at least be moving in the right direction. AND if there is a market for recognizable ingredient packaged foods, it helps drive the mainstream market in the right direction too!

    I have 3 little kiddies, and little time to cook and test out recipes that they may or may not like, if I’m making something I need to know someone will eat it, and not just me! I read labels LIKE crazy and while I’d love to get them to eat better, I am THRILLED to offer them (even packaged) foods with recognizable ingredients (like I would use at home) and a green/smoothie to go with. This is the best I can do now, and just finding something like that makes my day – it is THAT hard. So, yeah, it’s great to make cookies with almond pulp and coconut oil etc, or homemade sprouted tortillas, but in a pinch, I’m glad to know I can find something other than chemical cr*p to feed them if I need to. Baby steps are better than the status quo.

    1. Robyn Openshaw, MSW says:

      Well, see if you can find packaged foods, then, with whole-food ingredients at least. 100% whole-wheat flour, unprocessed cane juice as sugar. It’s a small step up. But please don’t fall for white flour and “organic” corn syrup or processed sugar products in your “health food.”

  12. At our Sat Market, there are a couple of baked goodie booths – the last time I accidentally made eye contact with the scone lady, & she offered me some – “Sorry, they look great, but they’re probably not gluten free?” . . . “No – & I just found out I’m allergic to wheat myself – but I haven’t done anything about it yet . . . ” (Except coat her hands in WHEAT FLOUR daily! Ha – yes, she’s ‘doing something about it’ . . . . making it worse)

    Wheat currently contains about twice the gluten it did in the 50s & 60s – more protein, more $$ for the farmers, & has moved onto the GMO table – so I predict we’ll see more & more ‘wheat sensitivity/coeliac/ wheat allergies over the next few years.

    & since shifting to ‘gluten free’ at my granddaughter’s play school, the snacks are great!! Rice crackers usually have 2 – 4 ingredients – rice, water, salt, maybe sesame seeds! Other snack items are veggies, fruit (sometimes dried) nuts . . . sometimes cheese etc. & I’ve noticed an improvement in day to day behavior – gluten free for me!!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Of course the healthier the ingredient list the better, but honestly, why would evaporated cane juice be better than sugar if the rest of the ingredient list is non-chemical? One could say that a company already going to the length of using cane juice is making changes to all ingredients and so is better – fine, but I’m still glad to just find things with even sugar if the gums, corn starches, artificial colors/flavors etc are gone… Well, can’t wait to here about the winners you found – I wonder if the mainstream public would find them palatable or just people who believe they are healthy.

    1. Robyn Openshaw, MSW says:

      Yep, it’s better. Very slightly.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Hi there,

    Just read Dr. Mercola’s article on the hazards of using agave–insulin resistance, etc. What are your feelings on this?

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