Nancy Huang

May 25th 2022

Food Myths That Complicate Healthy Eating


Does an apple a day keep the doctor away? Advice on healthy eating and weight loss can come from healthcare professionals, well-intentioned parents, exercise fanatics, image-conscious celebrities, and the companies that sell billions of dollars of groceries and nutritional supplements each year. Some of this information is dubious, and a fraction is even harmful. Unfortunately, inaccurate food myths can continue to circulate long after they are debunked by solid science. This can lead to endless anxiety as people engage in what should be an enjoyable daily activity — eating.

Here are three common food myths that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

Myth 1: Organic Produce Is More Nutritious

Fruits and vegetables certified as “organic” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are grown without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. This decreases the impact of farming on the environment. It also makes organic food an average of 47% more expensive than conventional food, according to a 2015 study by Consumer Reports.

Some health enthusiasts will argue that organic produce tastes better and makes them feel better, but is it actually more nutritious? The research says no. A 2012 study from Stanford University published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found no significant difference in nutrition or health risks between organic produce and conventionally grown produce. Conventional produce contains the same vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, lipids and other nutrients as organic produce.

A 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that only 10% of U.S. adults eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Since a healthy diet reduces the risk of chronic disease, you should just enjoy your fruits and veggies without worrying about the “organic” label. So, does an apple a day keep the doctor away? It can certainly help, whether or not the apple is “organic.”

Myth 2: Fresh Produce Is More Nutritious Than Frozen, Canned or Cooked

A fresh salad with garden greens is often presented as an ideal way to eat veggies, while the cafeteria staples of boiled peas and canned peaches are often frowned upon as less nutritious options. So, is fresh produce actually better for you than frozen, canned or cooked produce? Often, no.

According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, fresh produce loses nutrients over time — as it travels from farm to market, and perhaps sits in the refrigerator for a few days. To survive the journey to the customer, fresh produce is frequently picked before it is fully ripe. In contrast, frozen and canned produce is often picked at the peak of ripeness and processed shortly thereafter, which locks in the nutrients.

Cooking fruits and vegetables does destroy some heat-sensitive vitamins such as folate and Vitamin C, but it can also unlock other nutrients. A 2008 study from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that cooking carrots increases their nutritional value. In addition, cooking vegetables can often allow you to eat more. A giant bowl of baby spinach can be sauteed into a tasty side dish that is easy to eat and digest.

Perhaps most importantly, fresh fruits and veggies aren’t always available at an affordable price. They can also go bad in a few days or weeks, and people don’t always have time to prepare them. Frozen and canned produce provides a convenient, cost-effective, and reliable way to incorporate fruits and veggies into every meal.

Myth 3: Low-Fat or Fat-Free Is Always Healthier

Fat has been unfairly maligned. We now know that there are “good fats” and “bad fats,” but many people still associate eating fats with weight gain. When faced with a crowded grocery store shelf, many consumers reach for the packages labeled “low-fat” or “fat-free,” but these aren’t always the healthiest options.

There are three basic kinds of fats: unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are abundant in olive oil, canola oil, avocados, nuts and fish. Unsaturated fats are beneficial fats that can improve cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. In the U.S., common sources of saturated fat are cheese, milk, butter, dairy desserts and meat products including sausage, bacon and beef. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 10% of your daily calories from saturated fats.

Trans fats are artificially manufactured from vegetable oils and are used in margarine, shortening and fry oil. It was once thought that trans fats were healthier than saturated animal fats. However, because trans fats rarely occur in nature, the human body is poorly equipped to digest them. Trans fats can build up in the arteries and contribute to heart disease, so the current recommendation is to avoid trans fats as much as possible.

As you can see, scientists and medical professionals have an incomplete understanding of how the body responds to different diets, which is an extraordinarily complex topic. New research occasionally changes our understanding and leads to altered guidelines. We now have a better understanding of the benefits of unsaturated fats, but we don’t fully understand the benefits and risks associated with saturated fats.

Low-fat and fat-free foods are not always the healthier choice. Some foods are naturally fat-free and healthy, including most fruits and vegetables. In other cases, saturated fat can easily be reduced to make food healthier, such as by choosing lean cuts of meat. Surprisingly, the benefits of low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt are now being reconsidered, as Healthline explains.

Other foods must be heavily modified in order to reduce fat. In many cases, additional sugar is added to compensate for the flavor of the missing fat. A 2015 study in the journal Appetite found that most “low-fat” food products contain the same number of calories as “regular-fat” versions. Low-fat granola, cereal bars and baked goods often contain excessive sugar. Even worse are fat-free Italian dressing and reduced-fat peanut butter, which remove healthy olive oil or peanut oil and replace it with sugar and additives. Most nutrition experts recommend avoiding artificially fat-free foods and choosing whole foods with healthy fats, such as nuts.

Bon appétit!

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