In Defense of Fake Foods

By Crabby McSlacker

Yep, Crabby is feeling all contrary today and thought she'd try to stir up some controversy by contradicting every normal sane health blogger in the world with this daring pronouncement:

It's perfectly OK to Consume Fake, Processed, Non-Natural Foods...!


Well, so maybe it doesn't sound quite as controversial with that qualifier, but I'm not a total idiot.

Natural Is Better, Right?

There is a fun video making the rounds (which runs a bit long for my tastes, but whatever) that spoofs commercial dishonesty and consumer gullibility when it comes to claims that various processed foods are "natural."

But I think Cranky Fitness readers are pretty sophisticated about how meaningless the term "Natural" is when it's plastered on a label of something suspiciously processed and preserved and reconfigured and sold in a form that bears little resemblance to a real food.

You guys know that you have to read the ingredients on labels.  For example, even if something is "made with" real fruit juice that does not mean it IS real fruit juice, which does not contain splenda or Ace K or food dyes.

And yet... by now some of you by now may recognize the uba tuba granite counter top and the crummy lighting in the top picture as originating in Crabby's Kitchen. Which means you are hip to the fact that something this horrendously fake is in Crabby's nutritional repertoire.

What possible justification for this could there be?

Oh wait, but first...

Obligatory I'm-Not-Totally-Batshit-Crazy Disclaimer:

It is indeed true that natural is better!  And your diet should be made up of mostly natural healthy stuff. It takes a while to retrain your taste buds and habits, but the goal should be to maximize the real and minimize the processed.  I eat a huge wheelbarrow full of produce, mostly organic, every day, and my meat and dairy are organic and grass-fed whenever possible.

I do not advocate the approach some take of swapping out a diet full of high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie processed crap with a diet full of lower-fat, lower-sugar, lower-calorie processed crap.

BUT... I'd argue that there is a place for the lower-fat, lower-sugar, lower-calorie processed crap.

Cartoon: Natalie Dee

Sounds nuts?  Here's my reasoning:

1. Not Everything Natural is Healthy. 

Some things that are natural are still not good for you. Sugar and honey, even in their most "natural" forms, are killers if they are a mainstay in your diet.  Saturated fats are controversial now, but most mainstream nutritional experts think you should be cautious about having a lot of these.  Smoked and barbecued meats may be "natural" but they are full of carcinogens. And natural fruit juices are gonna mess with your blood sugar if you drink a bunch of them.

Depending on what nutritional camp you are in, there are many more natural foods as well that should be avoided, from potatoes to whole grains to legumes to egg yolks. Vegans and Primal and Atkins folks have hilariously different lists of forbidden items, but they are all lengthy and include various "natural" foods.

2. Obesity Is A Legitimate Health Concern

If you are morbidly obese, or if you are trying to prevent creeping weight gain that could contribute to health problems, there are plenty of healthy natural foods that you may be looking to limit or find substitutes for.  (Like my personal beloved but evil temptress, Trail Mix). These may be "healthy" in general, but they are not healthy for YOU if you can not control the quantity you consume.

The Whole Foods bakery cracks me up with acres of desserts made of white flour, sugar, and butter, all in the name of healthy eating. And sure, these are excellent as special treats and probably less likely to have nasty additives than typical grocery store fare.  But if you are eating large quantities of this stuff on a daily basis, that is not "healthy." You don't get to feel smug no matter how cute and crunchy the guy behind the counter is who rings you up.

Is it so wrong to put a bit of splenda in your beverage instead of sugar or find lighter "diet" versions of a treat you used to enjoy? I would argue that if this is part of an overall strategy of eating healthier, you can cut yourself a little slack.

3. Screw Perfectionism

One of the biggest changes in my diet over the years has been taking a "bigger picture" look at what I'm consuming and not getting all black and white about forbidden ingredients.

I've incorporated more and more healthy foods into my diet by reading and tweaking and experimenting, and have also eliminated many "healthy" foods because they don't seem to work well for ME.  Some I can't digest well, some seem a bad calorie bargain, etc.  I eat fewer carbs than I used to, in part because a number of high carb foods, even healthy ones, cause me to gain weight more easily and retain water and they tend to cause afternoon energy crashes that no amount of hyper-caffeination can cure.

So yeah, I have half a power bar every morning with my coffee, and I enjoy the hell out of it. To me it tastes like a candy bar, but I don't bother feeling guilty. After I return from my workout I eat a big-ass kale and egg-white scramble because everyone knows kale magically erases any fake food worries for the entire day.  And I drink my carb-erasing apple cider vinegar with the cran-cherry and it tastes lovely and water or tea just wouldn't be as much fun! I also use the fake juice in my salad dressing and even in "skinny" cocktails.

But several years ago, I'd refuse to buy anything that had any chemical I'd heard was bad, regardless of the small quantity, or how inconclusive the evidence was against said chemical, or how useful it might be in substituting for a high-calorie, high-sugar "natural" food.  And protein-fortified power bars seemed way too contrived and silly to be on the approved list.

Oops, sucralose, horrors! 

Now I say f--ck it.  A little bit of splenda or food dye or Ace-K or even the occasional transfat gram or two is not gonna kill me. Probably.  As a result, I'm far less of a pain in the ass to go grocery shopping with, and less stressed about what I eat, and I still eat way more healthy things than most people... but get to feel totally spoiled by my favorite processed compromise foods.

Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

I'm not saying it isn't great to avoid fake foods, it is!

But there seems to be some hypocrisy in the way we've come to make judgments about deviations from what's optimal.  It's totally cool to splurge with a teeny-tiny serving of a high sugar, saturated-fat packed brownie every now and then, right? Everything in moderation!

Yet somehow it's totally uncool to splurge with a serving of a fake low-cal brownie every now and then, even if it tastes good to you and you get to eat a lot more of it for the same amount of calories, because fake things are evil and disgusting and must not be tolerated, acccckk!!

And yeah, being cool is clearly not Crabby's department.

What do you guys think of fake foods?  Do you feel secretly judgey when people are eating them? (Note: I do, even as I eat them myself! But then I'm secretly judgey about almost EVERYTHING.)

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