Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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Focus On So-Called ‘Healthy’ Foods Is Kind Of Sickening

It’s difficult if not impossible in the food business these days to avoid hearing or reading about “healthy” foods and “healthy” diets. Frankly, it’s kind of sickening.

Not that we have anything against healthy foods and healthy diets. It’s just that what passes for a definition of the term “healthy” is, well, it’s a bit unappetizing.

The so-called “health food” movement has been around for years now, but the term “healthy” has really gained attention and consumer interest just in the last few years. Perhaps that stems from a piece of legislation Congress passed back in 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
If the law has the word “healthy” in the title, the foods mandated by the law itself must be healthy, right?

Well, maybe, or maybe not. The final rule updating meal patterns and nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs (as required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) allows flavor (such as chocolate) in fat-free milk only, and fat-free and lowfat (1 percent) milk choices only.

Therefore, what USDA has concluded in this final rule is that fat-free milk is “healthy,” lowfat milk is “healthy,” and fat-free chocolate or other flavored milk is “healthy,” but reduced-fat milk, whole milk, or any flavored milk with any fat at all is considered “unhealthy.”

That’s an interesting conclusion considering that, back in the era when school meal programs offered nothing but whole milk (both plain and, at least occasionally, chocolate), there wasn’t really much of a problem with childhood obesity.

The problem with labeling lowfat and fat-free dairy products with the term “healthy” is that the research continues to indicate that saturated fat isn’t nearly the villain it’s been portrayed as for many years. Indeed, stories such as the recent Time magazine cover story and the new Nina Teicholz book, The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, are completely refuting longstanding advice about saturated fat in the diet. Teicholz understands what a “healthy diet” is.

Part of the problem here isn’t just that dairy products containing saturated fat aren’t nearly as “bad for you” as we’ve been lead to believe all these years, it’s also that more and more research is finding health benefits from certain components of saturated fats.

These research has been ongoing for decades now. Back in 1997, for example, we ran a story with the following headline: “Research: Milkfat Contains Several Potential Anticarcinogenic Agents.” These potential anticarcinogenic agents include conjugated linoleic acid, sphingomyelin, butyric acid and ether lipids.

These “pro-milkfat” findings are becoming more and more common. Just a few weeks ago, we were skimming through a recently awarded patent for a method of selectively separating milkfat globule membrane fragments and milkfat globules from whey (for more details, please see the story on page 13 of our July 11th issue) and were somewhat surprised to see some pretty positive things being said about milkfat.

More specifically, while the patent summary notes that the presence of milkfat globule membrane (MFGM) fragments in cheese whey adversely impacts the quality of whey protein concentrate, “it has been shown that the MFGM contains several bioactive lipids and protein components,” and also that MFGM “contains several bioactive phospholipids.”

The problem is, if we take all the fat out of dairy products served to kids, we’re denying them the potential benefits of some of these milkfat components.

The federal government is hardly alone in pushing the theme that foods containing little or no saturated fat are “healthy” while those containing more than a little saturated fat are “unhealthy.” However, it seems that everybody else who’s demonizing saturated fat is simply following the government’s lead.

For example, Guiding Stars is a nutrition guidance program that rates the nutritional quality of food using information from the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list. Foods are rated and receive a score based on the assignment of credits and debits.

Guiding Stars rates items with one, two or three stars, if they have more vitamins, minerals, fiber and whole grains and less saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sodium and added sugars. No stars means the food item does not meet the program’s standards.

So guess how cheese stacks up under the Guiding Stars program? Not very well. A quick check of the program’s website (www.guidingstars.com) shows some cheese products with two or three stars, and these cheese products are actually fat-free.

It appears that any cheese that isn’t either fat-free or very low in fat gets zero stars under the Guiding Stars program. And the inference is that only cheeses with very little or no fat are “healthy” (because one star means good nutritional value, two stars means better nutritional value and three stars means best nutritional value).

Another example of the federal government driving wrong-headed “healthy” food efforts is the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, which aims to help parents and children select “healthful” menu options when dining out. This program emphasizes lower-fat dairy products (1 percent or skim milk and other dairy products).

All of this talk about “healthy” (and, by inference, “unhealthy”) foods and beverages reminds us of the well-regarded observation that there are no healthy foods, only healthy diets. And because the definition of “healthy” keeps changing, it’s meaningless. DG

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