Pejorative food buzzwords and the message that they send  

In a recent article Giselle Castro-Sloboda urged us to purge eight health buzzwords from our vocabulary. Turns out that I have mentioned seven of the eight buzzwords on this site. To users of these buzzwords I have some questions:

  1. To stay healthy do we need to rely on superfoods, or would it be better to eat a balanced diet?
  1. Should we eat clean and live dirty?
  1. Is the secret to health and wellbeing to avoid processed foods?
  1. Can we overcome the hazards of eating processed foods with a detox and a cleanse?
  1. Is it as easy as identifying ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, eating the former and eliminating the latter?
  1. Can I exist on all-natural foods without succumbing to food poisoning? and
  1. What does it mean to eat chemical-free?
box of fresh lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and greens
Are fresh, organic vegetables chemical free?

The only buzzword I missed was “cheat day or cheat meal,” but the concept appears in the posts on Intuitive Eating.

I consider these buzzwords as pejorative aimed at the consumption of processed foods. Their use is primarily for propaganda purposes. For the rest of the year, I plan to report on authors’ use of these words in the books I review. Food Routes refers to the ‘natural food movement’ and ‘synthetic chemicals’. The author, Robyn Metcalfe, advocates decreasing ‘processed foods’ in American diets. Arriving Today is about supply chains but not about food. These buzzwords do not apply. Pandora’s Lunchbox uses many of these buzzwords. Melanie Warner’s main focus is to get the reader to eat less, if not avoid, processed foods.

What are some other health buzzwords I would like to see retired?

Food addiction operates on two levels, and neither one is accurate. In popular terms like “I’m addicted to chocolate,” or “I am a chocoholic,” serves as a partial joke or a partial apology. In a sense it is a terrible analogy to those afflicted with a heroin addiction or alcoholism. Anyone who has seen either of these conditions in a friend or relative resents this loose talk. Joan Ifland associates processed food addiction with clinical substance addictions. All substance addictions link to a single chemical or class of chemicals. Processed foods contain many chemicals. The association does not fit.

Food swamp is a term that describes locations with too much temptation from fast food and junk foods. The more accurate term is a food desert where residents do not have access to fresh foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are of particular concern. Presence of a supermarket in the area helps provide an oasis in the desert. Not all supermarkets are equal in understanding the needs of their customers. Access can remain a problem. The use of food swamp is demeaning to residents. It suggests that they are not capable of distinguishing healthy from unhealthy offerings.

Food system sounds good, but what does it mean? We hear that it is broken. What that seems to mean is the writer doesn’t like what’s going on with food. Not how it is grown, transported, processed, or eaten. Critics propose no systematic solutions. We receive only specific complaints and few meaningful suggestions for improvement.

Real food implies that most of what Americans eat is fake food. Who is smart enough to distinguish real from fake food? Again, the term represents a complaint rather than insight. If we would only avoid fake food and eat only real food, can we stay healthy? Sounds like a different way of saying good food and bad food.

package of sushi and sashimi including salmon and tuna
Are sushi and sashimi real foods?

Trans fatty acids also should not be a part of a healthy diet. Even my physician has trouble with this one. Trans fatty acids form during hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fatty acids. The FDA discontinued approval of these oils as ingredients in 2018. Eliminating these oils means little or no trans fats are present in processed products. Processed foods sound scarier if we mention trans fats even if they are no longer there.

While we are at it, here are some terms I would like to see added to food discussions.

Balanced diets incorporate a wide range of foods over an extended period of time. They deliver vitamins, minerals, protein, dietary fiber in appropriate amounts. Balanced diets limit amounts of foods that are high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat. Some junk food is permissible, but it should be a minor component of the diet. The emphasis is on diet and not on good or bad foods. Balanced diets contain both whole and processed foods. Restrictive diets may limit some essential nutrients leading to adverse health effects.

dinner plate of chicken squash casserole and salsa
Can this meal be part of a balanced diet?

Bioavailability of nutrients describes their usefulness in our body. The form of a nutrient affects transport across the intestine into the bloodstream. Molecular form can also affect the usefulness of the nutrient in the cell. Certain compounds in fresh foods enhance absorption of nutrients in the body. Other natural compounds inhibit absorption or effectiveness of nutrients. It is not the amount of a nutrient, but its bioavailability, that determines how useful a nutrient will be to us.

Food access is shorthand for the availability of healthy, affordable food for families. Food insecurity is a problem for residents of inner cities and rural areas. A supermarket nearby helps decrease food deserts, but it is not a complete solution. Food stamps (SNAP) and food pantries help supplement needs of these families. Reliance on such programs can perpetuate societal gaps in in nutrition and income.

Food network is a more appropriate term for how food gets from the farm to the processor or retail outlet. Networks rely on smooth operations of supply chains. Disruptions in chains prevent on-time delivery of ingredients, fresh foods, and finished products. Supermarkets, foodservice locations, and consumers suffer the consequences. Critical points in networks control the availability and flow from grower to consumer.

Intuitive eating is a movement to end our obsession with food. Achieving perfection in the food we eat and the everyday diets that we consume is not a priority. It attempts to break the cycle of dieting. Intuitive eating seeks to make daily food selections more mindful and less stressful.

Like many old codgers, I have fond memories of my grad school days. I enjoyed studying in two departments that married food science and human nutrition. Nutrition students attended many of the same classes I took. We talked about food issues with each other. We disagreed, but we talked. A recent visit to an alma mater suggests that such discussions are now rare. Food scientists, dietitians, and nutritionists are all food professionals. The gaps in perspective and understanding are wide in some cases. Dialogue can help to narrow that distance between us.

Nest week: Free foods

5 thoughts on “Pejorative food buzzwords and the message that they send  

  1. In defense of REAL food and eating CLEAN. We bring meaning to words. And I’ve used these two words a long time. Being stubborn and opinionated, I’m not ready to give them up just because someone decides to send them buzzing about in the stratosphere. Real is for me authentic, as found in nature, as well as whole, having substance, and intactness. Real food is to be cherished and appreciated and savored. Is the rest of the food out there fake? I don’t know and I’m not sure I care. As for clean eating, I’ve used the phrase since my college days at Berkeley. The best food is simple and straightforward. A perfect peach. That loaf of freshly baked bread. A plate of steamed mussels. Those first green shoots of asparagus to celebrate the arrival of spring. Clean food is un-trafficked, un-shelf stable, inconvenient, and ephemeral. I’m a libertarian and if others choose not to eat clean that’s okay with me. It’s a hard position to take however because we are living in adversarial times.


    1. There’s an ingredient in food decisions you didn’t mention: money. Some of us grew up conserving and got used to it, many others see it as still necessary. The shelf stability you reject means lower prices and less spoilage loss for consumers.
      Biology doesn’t understand image but the brain does. Example: we have more trouble using the proteins in real bean-shaped edamame soybeans than with highly processed tofu.
      Clean and real are personal images that may govern what you eat, much like traditions and religious rules, which I can respect, especially when they reinforce beneficial belonging, but oppose their sanctification for the rest of us.


    2. I expected that you would defend REAL food. I was taken aback at your defense of eating CLEAN. Our disagreements on these two terms reveal some fault lines in our perspectives. I actually have no problem with the use of these terms as you define them. That is not how I interpret the way that they are used pejoratively on the net or in marketing pitches by Big Food.
      Let’s get REAL first. Too often it is used to contrast with unreal foods and implies that anyone who consumes the latter is not eating right. Real becomes synonymous with good or healthy. Unreal, then, must be bad or unhealthy. I confess to being overly sensitive to the term. Context is everything. Rereading Julie Carlson’s post on this site last month, it is hard to know her context for “real food.” I read it one way. You read it the other way. Does Chipotle only serve REAL food? Now we have REAL cheese and REAL meat dog treats.
      Now to eating CLEAN. As with REAL food your description is very restrictive. When I see the phrase, it is linked with clean labels which hearkens back to the no-more-than-five-ingredient rule. How far do we stretch the “found in nature” point that you make? Do we need to venture out to the hinterlands to shoot our own game like Michael Pollan did in The Omnivore’s Dilemma? I know that table sugar would not be a permissible as a REAL or CLEAN ingredient. Maple syrup might deserve some of the same scrutiny. To make fresh-baked bread, would we need to mill our own flour?
      I realize that I extend your description beyond 21st-Century reality. I guess I am more concerned about the way the terms are used than the terms themselves. Then once the terms are used by critics of processed foods, Big Food will be there to advance their marketing campaigns.


  2. Not much to comment, as I agree with most all you said, but add that words are aimed at audiences, and these pejoratives feed the comfort people get from hearing them. That’s why I focus on where this comfort comes from (my theory that need for impossibles starts in infancy, and is threatened by logical impersonal science). I still want to know why the (insert appropriate buzzword) deny or downplay the other reasons for eating in addition to nutrition (taste, social, traditional, financial, etc).


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