Non-food versus real food

by Judith A. DeCava, C.N.C., L.N.C.

Each year Americans eat 800 million frozen pizzas, 10 billion doughnuts, and 12.3 billion burgers. Enough candy was produced in 2004 to circle the moon four times if laid end to end. Children obtain most of their “vitamins and nutrients” from denatured, over-sweetened, chemically-fortified breakfast cereals and fruit drinks. 1 in 5 toddlers eats French fries each day.

Compared to the 1970s, Americans now consume 50% more grain products, mostly as white breads, refined-flour pastas, and corn as snack chips. About 75% more cheese and 22% less milk is consumed. Pasteurized and processed cheeses appear, not only in old standbys like pizza and cheeseburgers, but in just about everything – tacos and nachos, soups and salads, rice and potatoes, chicken and fish. Technically, more vegetables are being eaten, but over half are potatoes – most as French fries or chips. 75% more vegetable oil (highly refined, altered) and 25% more shortening (hydrogenated) is used, but 25% less margarine. 30% more added sugars are being eaten (on average, the equivalent of 34 teaspoons of added refined sugars a day) as well as 65% more non-diet sodas. The US now produces 152 pounds of added refined sugars annually for every man, woman, and child. That’s 25% more than in 1970. Americans drink roughly 50 gallons of soda per person per year, not including the 8 gallons of uncarbonated soda that masquerades as fruit drinks.

Nearly 25% of the calories consumed by Americans come from soda, cakes, sweet rolls, doughnuts, pastries, cookies, pies, ice cream, puddings, refined sugars, candy, syrup, beer, wine, and hard liquor. When salty or savory snacks (potato chips, cheese curls, crackers, corn chips, pretzels, etc.) and fruit-flavored drinks (but not actual fruit juice) are figured in, AT LEAST 30% of calories come from these “foods” that contain very few nutrients for the calories they provide. One in three people averages 45% of calories from such items — almost half the diet! These products may be called “nonfoods” since they do not really nurture or feed the body. As the number of nonfood items in the diet goes up, ingestion of nutrients goes down.

The food industry does not want to be associated with the nation’s poor health and growing girth, so it offers low-fat, non-fat, low-carb, reduced sugar, herb-boosted, synthetically-fortified everything. Potato chips with no trans fatty acids, soy boosted low-carb pizza, and chocolate bars with no sugar may sound like healthier alternatives, but such non-foods remain non-foods, often substituting one unhealthy ingredient for another, sometimes using ingredients that are even worse, and doing nothing to encourage healthful, wholesome diets. Using deceptive semantics, the industry is concerned with “safety in fresh produce” (how to make foods last longer but appear fresh through chemical sprays and irradiation); “nutraceuticals” (how to make more money by selling products spiked with skeletonized components, traces of herbs, or manufactured hype); “home meal replacements” (how to increase sales of frozen, prepared, ready-to-eat convenience items); and “emerging pathogens” (how to frighten people away from unprocessed foods).

Since one-third or MORE of the typical American diet consists of nonfoods, people must depend on only two-thirds or LESS of their diet to obtain 100% of the nutrients they need to obtain or maintain some semblance of health. Further, non-foods can deplete the body of nutrients. On average, Americans ate 140 MORE pounds of food in 2000 than in 1990. They eat MORE of what they DON’T need (nonfood) in an attempt to obtain what they DO need (nutrients as real food). More altered fats, more refined carbohydrates, less nutrients, less fiber, bigger portions, fewer vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Taken together, American eating habits mean increased risk of arthritis, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic ills.

Due in part to conflicting reports from scientific studies, in part to the addictive compulsion to eat what “tastes” good because of loosing touch with natural body indicators, in part to the desire for cheap and quick food that won’t kill immediately from food poisoning, and in part to the “toxic food environment” in which we now live, people are generally less concerned about nutrition than they were in the past. Despite a decreasing interest in healthy diets, Americans are using more supplements. Two-thirds of people take them to increase energy, enhance appearance, lose weight, reduce stress, improve fitness, and prevent disease. In other words, supplements are being used to take the place of a high-quality, whole foods diet and healthy lifestyle. They should ‘supplement’ a good diet, not take the place of it! Diet should be the foundation upon which supplements can be added to assist deficiencies, imbalances, history, circumstances.

Should people rely on the USDA’s food pyramid to guide them in dietary choices? The panel of nutritionists appointed to create the pyramid often “takes nutrition research out of context or allows financial interests to taint its decisions.” Fed up with misinformation, many researchers and professional groups have created their own pyramids, further confusing the public. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report includes such vague and unhelpful advice as: “Consume a variety of foods within and among the basic food groups while staying within energy levels.” “Choose fats wisely for good health.” “Choose carbohydrates wisely for good health.” Clear as mud. It falls upon clinicians to assist clients and patients in understanding and putting into practice the tenets of good, healthful eating. [i]


The food industry is more interested in sales than in the health of consumers. Ads for a brand of oatmeal bragged about drastic reductions in blood cholesterol levels of participants in their “Smart Heart Challenge,” but did not reveal that reducing dietary fat, increasing whole grains, and regular exercise were also part of the program. A toaster strudel is promoted for its “delicious juicy fruit filling,” but the strawberry filling contains only about 1/7 of a strawberry plus “artificial strawberry flavor.” A “fruit and grain” cereal bar consists of refined white flour and much more sugar, corn syrup, and dextrose than fruit.

People associate the “heart smart” logo of the American Heart Association with healthy food. To qualify, a food must be low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. So the AHA’s seal of approval appears on Cocoa Frosted Flakes, Fruity Marshmallow Crispies, Belgian Crème Cappuccino, and similar products. Items high in refined sugars, refined flours, and chemical additives do not support health, yet they qualify as “heart smart.” The quality of a food cannot be determined merely by fat and cholesterol content, or by the number of carbs, amount of protein, chemical fortifiers, or so-called magic bullets.

The FDA has approved many health claims such as: folic acid to reduce risk of birth defects, calcium to lower risk of osteoporosis, potassium to reduce risk of high blood pressure and stroke, psyllium to help prevent coronary heart disease, soy protein to lower risk of heart disease, plant sterol/stanol esters and omega-3 fatty acids to reduce heart disease. All such nutrients and products are fine; BUT separated, isolated substances are never THE cure or preventive for ANY disease or illness. Time and again studies point to whole foods and whole diets as the superior health promoters. REAL food contains hundreds, even thousands of interdependent, interactive, indispensable, symbiotic ingredients.

“Functional foods” are “foods with [added] ingredients that provide benefits above and beyond basic nutrition, such as reducing the risk of disease…” WHOA! Evidence weighs heavily on the side of REAL, WHOLE foods – nothing added — that have ALWAYS been “functional” in promoting health, reducing disease risk, and improving quality of life. Yet, reductionist thinking and economic profits spur desires to tinker with Nature’s foods, making them convenient vehicles for pharmacological or mythological spiking in order to increase demand from the public.

Use of “scientific information” quoted or cited from a study can boost sales. Thus, one month Bran Flakes was just an ordinary breakfast cereal and the next month, it could “refresh and re-energize your MIND and BODY within just 2 weeks.” Who wouldn’t want that? Though legitimate claims can be made for real foods, it is the fabricated “fortified functional foods” that are flooding the market. Soups spiked with herbs. Cereals with added whey and soy protein. Breads stuffed with extra minerals. “Functional food” components have been introduced into every conceivable product from biscuits, cooking oil, and hamburger patties to vinegar, chocolate, and chewing gum. There is even a “functional” carbonated beverage: 7-UP Plus, fortified with calcium and ascorbic acid. Although standards for health claims are the subject of ongoing controversy, “the trend appears to be in favor of more health claims, possibly with qualifying or disclaimer language.”

Institutionalized food fabrications are even found in health food stores with products containing hydrogenated oils; pasteurized, homogenized milks; refined flours, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, refined oils, and other non-foods. There is usually an abundance of “functional foods” from juices decorated with traces of St. John’s Wort or echinacea and cereals with a dash of green tea and ginkgo, to tortilla chips fortified with a smattering of ginseng and cookies augmented with a tad of fiber or evening primrose. Soy sells, so any conceivable way to imitate other foods like burgers, cheese, and milk with by-products of soy-oil production are created. This is BIG business! Larger corporations are buying up many smaller health-food companies. Kraft, Kellogg, and General Mills are among the conglomerates gobbling up the small conscience-driven, higher-standard businesses. True, the foods do find their way into mainstream markets, making them more available, but the quality of the products often deteriorates in time. Compromises on quality, sources, and processes are made.

Just slap some “green” on a label and health-conscious consumers will bite, thinking it is good for them. Terms such as “wholesome” can be deceptive. According to FDA rules, “wholesome” means only ‘fit for human consumption.’ “All-natural” refers to how a food was processed (no “artificial” ingredient administered in processing), not to how it was raised, fed, medicated, or sprayed. The term “natural” has NO regulation or meaning in law; there is no requirement of only natural ingredients. This can be misleading if one thinks the item is free of chemical additives (often not the case). Advertisers can make virtually any claim they want about how “natural” their products are, with two exceptions: 1) when the word is used in connection with flavors (a “natural” flavor is one derived “from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf” or similar material); and 2) when the word is used in meat and poultry products, it is allowed on minimally processed meat and poultry products with no artificial ingredients or added colors (though it has nothing to do with how the animals were raised). “Organic” refers to the methods by which food is grown, handled, and processed, but provides no assurance that the food meets USDA or other organizational standards. “Certified organic” guarantees that the food has been grown or raised without conventional pesticides, fertilizers, or drugs, and was not developed with genetic engineering. Products with more than one ingredient can carry “certified organic” labels if they contain at least 70% organic ingredients. If they contain less than 70% organic ingredients, “organic” cannot be used on the front label, though the word may be used before the name of a specific item in the ingredients list.

Research indicates that the nutritional value of certified organic foods is often higher, sometimes much higher. Conversely, studies show that food refining, processing, canning, and storage results in a significant depletion of nutrient content – 36% to 94% less of specific nutrients. The nutrition, the essence, of overly-processed nonfoods is basically gone. Just as ads and commercials deceive by associating happiness, importance, or attractiveness to a brand of car, clothing, or beer, so too, the exciting, stimulating, convenient, (often artificial) flavor and color and texture of nonfoods deceive the body, fooling it temporarily. The constellations of nutrients and natural compounds that the body understands as food are not there. Tastes can be recovered and re-educated to Nature’s rather than the food industry’s way.

Can’t afford a healthy diet? One study found that when families switched to “a balanced, nutrient-dense diet,” overall costs did not go up. After a year, the families were actually spending much less on food than they did before the study started. Other studies show that switching from nonfoods to real foods can shave money off the grocery bill. Americans spend about 15¢ out of every food dollar on fruits and vegetables, but almost 19¢ on bakery items soda, candy, gum, and mints. Make the switch, forget the pitch! [ii]


There are “folklore beliefs” from peoples around the globe and throughout history relating to the use and benefits of foods to remedy ill health and promote long, robust lives. Many of these beliefs and practices as well as more recent, common-sense “mother’s views of health” are being recognized for their “basic soundness” since they are in harmony with what science is “discovering” to be therapeutic and prudent.

There is now good reason to believe that spinach or lettuce will help protect against megaloblastic anemia and neural tube defects; that legumes and whole grains will help normalize blood sugar levels; that oats and tree nuts may promote a reduction of serum cholesterol; that garlic promotes balanced blood clotting; that grapefruit can reduce an elevated hematocrit; that cabbage and Brussels sprouts may help prevent cancer; that olive oil may help protect against cancers of the breast and colon as well as heart disease; that cranberries may aid in urinary tract inflammation; that broccoli is good for almost everything; that an apple a day reflects a growing health philosophy. Despite searches to find “the” magic bullet in foods, study after study shows that whole food diets – not an isolated ingredient within a food and not a single food – are what work and that we need a varied, balanced diet of REAL foods.

In a study with 1300 elderly participants, those with the highest consumption of dark-green and yellow vegetables were half as likely to die from heart disease within the next five years and one-third as likely to succumb to cancer as those who had the lowest intakes. In another study, daily consumption of three particular vegetables was shown to dramatically change tissue levels of carotenes: kale for its high lutein, tomato for its lycopene, and sweet potato for its beta-carotene. In only three weeks, blood plasma levels of beta-carotene increased 116%, lutein levels 67%, and lycopene levels 26%. Tissue levels increased even more: lycopene by 100% and beta-carotene by 4,000%. Significant increases in T-cell counts by a third implied immune system improvements.

Rather than focusing on the role of single nutrients, foods, or food groups, a recent study addressed the health effects of dietary PATTERNS, including complex mixtures of foods containing multiple nutrients and other natural ingredients. Those who consumed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy were 30% less likely to die from all causes (including cancer, heart disease, and stroke) than those who did not eat such a diet. The authors of the study advised: “It’s not essential to wait for elucidation of every mechanism underlying health promoting activities and interventions.” Future studies, they said, should focus more on overall nutrition than on individual food items. No need to count calories; figure out serving sizes; ascertain which specific nutrients or phytochemicals are present in a food; or become confused by the flip-flop contradictory research on particular food components or on separated (often synthetic) nutrients. Just choose a variety of real, whole, organically-raised foods. It’s the WHOLE diet and lifestyle that count.

Heart disease researcher, Jeremiah Stamler, says: “We’ve known that severe atherosclerosis – the underlying disease – is a reflection of the Western lifestyle in the 20th century.” More than 80% of diabetes is due to overweight and obesity which, in turn, are attributable to eating a diet of refined, over-processed, altered, nutrient-poor nonfoods plus a sedentary lifestyle. Consuming real foods like fruits and vegetables, avoiding excess weight, and increasing physical activity are factors that provide a “fairly substantial” reduction” in risk for colon and rectal cancer. Diet is being linked to breast cancer, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, asthma, lowered immunity, and every other degenerative and chronic disease or condition around. [iii]


Real whole foods “may prove to be the essentials for physical well-being and strong defenses against disease.” Any REAL food is an incredibly complex and synergistic mix of various natural nutrients and other components. Nonfoods are more “simple” than the full-bodied, harmonious, intricate complex of real foods. Processing strips foods down to their simplest components, removing a vast array of nutrients, fiber, phytochemicals, and other valuable ingredients that work synergistically in whole foods. The food industry claims that the removal of nutrients is rectified through “enrichment” or “fortification” by adding a few chemical vitamins and inorganic minerals. Not only is this a pittance compared to what was lost, but the additives are poor substitutes for the real nutrient complexes that were obliterated by processing. They can cause imbalances (worse than deficiencies) with adverse effects. Such surrogates can actually cause problems that the real, natural nutrient complexes would prevent. It is the synergistic effect of innumerable factors working together in a real food that confers protection and health, not an isolated or separated ingredient, and not a manufactured substitute. Food constituents only “work” in their natural form. The higher, richer complexity of real food is an indication of increased viability, higher stability in response to the stresses of a natural environment.

Scientists have not yet identified all the ingredients in foods or learned all the health benefits of those that are known. For instance, in 2003 a new vitamin – pyrroloquinoline quinine (PQQ) – believed to belong to the B group, was discovered. Also consider that, so far, almost 2,000 known plant pigments including more than 4000 flavonoids, 450 carotenoids, and 150 anthocyanins have been identified. Countless other beneficial phytochemicals and constituents appear in foods besides pigments. Real foods are complete packages of innumerable, interrelated, interworking, inseparable components. Humans cannot isolate, duplicate, imitate, or regenerate the parts of the whole without adverse effects. This applies to supplements too. For example, separated or manufactured “vitamin E” (d-alpha tocopherol) and “vitamin C” (ascorbic acid) were found to have no effects on asthma control, no clinical benefits. Yet a high dietary (food) intake of vitamin E complex and vitamin C complex are associated with reduced asthma incidence. Studying diets, however, raises difficulties for scientists such as controlling for the full range of nutrients, attempting to understand the role of different nutrients and trying to understand the interrelationships of nutrients and other food factors. According to researchers, if diet plays an important role in health problems, then benefits will come from dietary “manipulation to increase intake of natural foods…in a balanced diet throughout life.” They conclude that “this is not only the most logical and pragmatic interpretation, it is also the strategy most likely to yield benefits in other disease areas.” Who wudda thunk it?

Rats fed a combination of tomatoes and broccoli had markedly less prostate tumor growth than rats fed diets containing either food alone AND less tumor growth than rats fed diets containing specific “cancer-fighting” substances ISOLATED from tomatoes and broccoli. This study is unique because it looked at the effect of whole foods in combination and not solely isolated substances extracted or duplicated from foods thought to be the magic bullets. According to researcher John Erdman, Ph.D., this “new” approach to nutrition science was undertaken as “a way to learn more about real diets eaten by real people.” He observed: “People don’t eat nutrients, they eat food. And they don’t eat one food, they eat many foods in combination.” He explained: “Studies that examine individual substances in isolation are simply not designed to tell us anything about the interactions that occur between those substances, much less between foods that each contain their own anti-cancer arsenals. Of course it’s important to analyze how specific food components influence our health, but such findings provide only the tools for further study. They should open the debate, not close it down.”

For example, the carotenoid lycopene (particularly from tomatoes) has received a lot of publicity as a “fighter” against prostate cancer. But rats fed isolated lycopene did not obtain significant protection from prostate cancer. Rats fed diets including freeze-dried tomato powder, however, had a much increased prostate-cancer survival. The powdered whole tomato contained the entire package of vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, phytochemicals, and other ingredients that all work together synergistically. Broccoli is another example. It is praised for its many health benefits, including cancer protection. Glucosinolates in broccoli break down into compounds that aid enzymes eliminate carcinogens from the body. Sulforaphane in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables is thought to disrupt cancer growth, so efforts were made to isolate or synthesize this substance to get the “cancer-fighting” power of 20 heads of broccoli into one pill (the drug mentality). But research has shown that these substances function far better when working in concert with all the many other natural components in broccoli. The whole food is much more protective and health-promoting than any single ingredient or subset of ingredients. Whole foods contain thousands of distinct organic molecules that interact in extremely complex and intricate ways. Separate or remove some of these parts from this incredible interdependent network and overall function begins to deteriorate. The isolated parts cannot work properly without their collaborative associates in natural union. Further, separated parts taken into the body can create deficits of their other normal synergens.

Some scientists are actually preparing papers that map the interactivity of various food substances and various foods. Studying and measuring the complex and intricate interactions that occur in the overall diet is “a new approach” that is gaining momentum. Scientists are learning that they cannot ascribe a specific health benefit to a single substance. The rat study using tomatoes and broccoli not only demonstrates the synergy among foods, but also “suggests that there is, in fact, an interactive protective effect between tomatoes and broccoli.” Separately each food has benefits. Together they enhance and maximize their good effects. “The fact that some kind of food synergy exists is something most nutrition researchers have simply taken on faith. This new experimental approach provides us with an opportunity to measure the synergy between foods.” The “phenomenon of interaction” is not unique to tomatoes and broccoli, of course. It takes place with any diet consisting of whole, natural foods. Effects are exponential: Lycopene may not harm you, but the whole tomato will help more. Eating both tomato and broccoli is even better. Consuming a medley of natural, un-adulterated, minimally-processed real foods best bolsters your health and defenses against disease. This is simple “math” that has been observed for a long time. Food works.

The same principles apply to supplements. Isolated, separated, and certainly synthetically-manufactured substances in supplements do not offer the synergistic punch of whole food concentrates. Advances in technology have resulted in the ability to separate parts of whole foods into individual “active” components and, even worse, the ability to artificially imitate an isolated substance. Placed in a pill or powder, these are para-pharmaceuticals, not foods. Laboratory manipulation or synthetic simulation of food substances – unnatural derivatives in fake states – do not interact with the biochemistry and physiology of the body in the same way that real foods do. Administering such superfluous para-pharmaceuticals to malnourished people is tantamount to giving candy to a starving child – the body will use it as best it can, but it will not restore real vitality and wellness. It is a temporary and inadequate “fix” that can cause further imbalances and disruptions. Real whole food supplements – in addition to a real whole food diet – can supply what the body needs, what it can properly use, and what it can choose to absorb according to individuality and present needs.

Scientists and manufacturers surely like specific compounds that can be separated from foods or, better yet, synthesized in the laboratory. They like supplements that can list a certain quantity of a certain substance. They like the capacity to state how much of a substance is found in a certain food. They like chemicals that are measurable, exact, constant, and substantial – they are predictable, neat, and uncomplicated as well as pharmacologically- and manufacturer-friendly. On the other hand, nutrients and other substances in real food are unpredictable, inexact, variable, often in tiny amounts, and interactive with all the other ingredients – they are messy, complicated and more attuned to ecological balance of the human system and its environment rather than to a chemist’s laboratory.

Sadly, a static, non-interactive view of food as well as their nutrients and other components has become standard in most nutritional science — from reference books and data bases to product and supplement labeling. For example, dieticians usually refer to Bowes and Church’s Food Values of Portions Commonly Used. In this reference, raw broccoli is listed as containing 41 milligrams of vitamin C per half cup serving. But the idea that broccoli or any natural food contains a fixed and static amount of vitamin C or any other nutrient is illogical and scientifically unfounded. At least 21 studies, for instance, have shown that organically raised foods (including cruciferous vegetables like broccoli) contain significantly greater amounts of vitamin C than their non-organically grown counterparts. Also, nutrient contents of foods vary with seasonal changes, climate, soil conditions, seed stock, as well as planting, harvesting, and storage methods. Two tomatoes grown in the same garden can have slightly different quantities of some nutrients.

The benefits (including nutritional benefits) come from the FUNCTION, the interaction of the plethora of constituents, not a measured quantity of one or another ingredient. Whole food complexes have much greater function than separated portions. This illustrates the futility and deception of listing the “potency” of a specific nutrient by a fixed number of micrograms or milligrams. And none of the current references can list all of the ever-expanding everyday food components. They cannot measure the 450+ carotenoids or 4000+ flavonoids presently known to exist in foods, for example. Scientists have identified several hundred potentially nutritive components in garlic. Many of the most active constituents of plants cannot be placed within the simple categories of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fat, and carbohydrates. Some of these components are alkaloids, resins, carotenoids, coumarins, quinines, flavonoids, glycosides, iridoids, mucilages, polyphenolic acids, saponins, and terpins. One reference addresses more than 1000 unique compounds in food with documented health-related activity. And new discoveries continue to be made. The very definition of ‘nutrient’ needs to be changed! Mounting evidence shows it is the whole food package that best nourishes the body, not the individual parts.

It’s not nice to food Mother Nature. Actually, Mother Nature cannot be fooled. The body knows real food from nonfood or isolated and/or synthetic food parts. Dr. Royal Lee often said that you can’t make something from nothing. Eating ‘nothing’ does not make healthy people. A magazine

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