Naughty or nice? The startling truth about everyday foods

Reviewed by our expert panel
Naughty or nice? The startling truth about everyday foods

Nutritionist Rose Car has good (and bad) news on the foods we always thought were healthy, and some surprising facts on foods we often think of as ‘bad’.

The internet abounds with claims about coconut oil. It’s said to prevent osteoporosis, improve digestion, support immunity, cure hypothyroidism, promote weight-loss and lower the risk of cancer, to name a few. Yet coconut oil is a highly saturated oil, and saturated fats are the ones we need to eat less of. So what’s the truth?

Over half the saturated fat present is lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid also found in breast milk, which is relatively easy to digest. The pro-coconut oil camp says it’s the lauric acid which gives it special health-giving properties. They also cite the health and longevity of tropical populations which have been consuming plenty of coconuts for centuries as evidence. This explanation ignores the fact they never pressed the coconut to extract oil and other healthy aspects of their traditional diets – high in fish, fruit and vegetables – and high activity-based lifestyles.

Our verdict

There is no good evidence to support the claim coconut oil is a good oil. It is high in saturated fat, so use one of the healthier oils such as olive or rice bran oil.

All nutritionists will tell you nuts and seeds are good food. They’re rich in vitamin E and potassium; many are high in other minerals and vitamins such as folate, niacin and other B vitamins; they contain fibre; and they’re a rich source of antioxidants. Nuts contain small amounts of protein and combine well with legumes to make complete protein, which is especially important for vegetarians. On the other hand, being 50% fat makes nuts and seeds very energy-dense food. A quarter cup of nuts and seeds can provide between 800-1100 kilojoules.

Our verdict

When we say a small handful is good for you, we mean a small handful. Much more than that and you’ll be wondering why you’re putting on weight.

Given sweets are made almost entirely of sugar and don’t typically contain fat, this fat-free claim is therefore somewhat misleading. It would be like saying 99% sugar-free butter – when butter typically has no sugar.

Our verdict

A claim about being low-fat or no-fat doesn’t tell you anything about the amount of energy you’ll be consuming. Look at the nutrition information panels to compare energy content of different products.

In the 1940s, the people of Chad were observed to collect and sun-dry these microscopic blue-green algae for food. In many parts of Africa protein sources are scarce and it was subsequently found spirulina was over 60% protein. In the intervening years, spirulina has somehow acquired the tag of a miracle food which will prevent and even reverse a wide range of diseases.

Our verdict

Spirulina contains a range of good nutrients. If you like the taste, enjoy it. But scientific evidence doesn’t support the claims of it being a ‘super food’.

When the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) published their first report in 2007, Kiwis got a fright about eating red meat. Along with other advice they recommended we ‘limit intake of red meat’, namely beef, pork, lamb and goat.

While the WCRF report was not recommending a meat-free diet, they advised consuming no more than 700-750g (raw weight) of red meat each week. Studies show for the highest consumers of red meat, there is a significantly higher risk of developing colorectal cancer (colon cancer). While the evidence for a link between eating higher amounts of red meat and colorectal cancer is still strong, the 2017 update of the WCRF report changed the wording from ‘convincing’ to ‘probable’.  However, the advice did not change.

There are often environmental issues raised about red meat. Would the environment benefit greatly if we were all vegetarian? Emerging evidence from around the world tells us it would and experts have said that globally we need to cut our meat consumption in order to be able to feed everyone.  This is because it’s a relatively inefficient way to produce protein.

Most New Zealand beef is different to meat produced in North America and other countries where cattle are raised in pens and largely fed on grain. These intensive farming methods have a much greater environmental cost than the way we do it here, where our cattle are raised on grass. In a study published in 2007 Lincoln University showed the energy used in producing lamb in the UK is four times higher than the energy used by NZ lamb producers, and this included transporting our lamb to the UK. In other words, it was four times more energy-efficient for the English to buy our lamb than their locally produced lamb.

There’s also a health benefit to grass-fed meat. Meat from pasture-fed cattle like ours is less marbled with fat, so overall it is much leaner. It also contains more of the beneficial long-chain omega-3s that we normally associate with fish.

You may have also heard animals in North America are given hormones to promote quicker growth. While there’s no hard evidence this is harmful to us, growth promotants are not used here. If you look out for the Beef and Lamb Quality Mark or the 100% NZ Pork symbol, you’ll know the meat is from New Zealand and has been raised following our standards.

Our verdict

While we don’t necessarily need to eat red meat, it is a good source of protein, iron, zinc, vitamins B12 and B6, niacin and phosphorus, and even contains small amounts of long-chain omega-3s. If you do eat red meat, always choose lean meat and trim the fat.

For those used to eating large portions of red meat on a regular basis there are good reasons to cut back.  For others, 700g of red meat is more than they would normally eat each week anyway.

Healthy Food Guide sometimes has muffin recipes, so generally, muffins must be healthy, right? Unfortunately, the word muffin has been hijacked and abused. Beware the pretenders – they are cake in disguise. Not all muffins are created equal, and even a real muffin can be ruined by upsizing. Whenever you see or are offered a bigger version of a food, just say to yourself: “Do I want to upsize my clothing size?”

Our verdict

Go for small, dense muffins made with high-fibre, low-fat ingredients – not those fluffy oversized cakes pretending to be healthy muffins. For a healthy muffin recipe, try our Banana and raisin bran muffins.

Eggs are great to include in the diet because they are a good quality protein source; they provide iodine and selenium, which many of us don’t get enough of; and they contain two antioxidants which are particularly important for maintaining eye health.

When US researchers compared a breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast to one of equal kilojoules of bagels, cream cheese and yoghurt, the egg breakfast had significantly higher satiety: people felt fuller and ate less at lunch. Other academics suggest because of eggs’ high satiety, they could play an important role in weight-loss and reducing the risk of heart disease.

Our verdict

Eat eggs – they’re a nutritious and filling food. The most important advice for people with high cholesterol is to limit saturated fat. The Heart Foundation now recommends that New Zealanders who are at increased risk of heart disease can eat up to six eggs per week as part of a heart-healthy diet.  For healthy people there is no recommended limited.

Juicing is in. We go to a juice bar for a freshly-squeezed hit, and can spend hundreds of dollars on a home juicer. Juice provides a concentrated boost of nutrients such as vitamin C, folate, potassium, and a range of antioxidants. But we also get a concentration of energy (kilojoules). All the sugar from the fruit – or vegetable – is in the juice but the fibre is removed in the ‘waste’. A single vegetable or piece of fruit takes time to eat, the fibre helps fill you up, and it’s low in energy. On the other hand, the juice from several fruits or vegetables can be drunk in a flash.

In years gone by, when juice was still a treat, we were told it was okay to count juice as one of our 5+ a day.  These days the World Health Organisation (WHO) advise us to count the sugars in juice as part of our free sugars each day.  And it’s recommended we limit free sugars because, globally, they’re making a significant contribution to weight gain, and the’re not good for teeth either.

Our verdict

Don’t replace fruit and vegetables with juice. Whole fruit and vegetables provide more nutrients for less energy.  They also take longer to eat and digest and are more filling.  As an example an apple provides about 3g fibre and 240kJ compared to one cup of apple juice at 0.8g fibre and 480kJ.

Overseas, concerns have been raised about unsustainable and unhealthy fish-farming practices. But we know salmon is one of the richest sources of long-chain omega-3, which has many health benefits. So do we want to eat more salmon, or is the environmental cost too high?

The fresh salmon we buy in New Zealand is farmed in the South Island. Fortunately, our fish-farming practices are a million miles away from those causing controversy overseas. New Zealand salmon are raised without the need for antibiotics or vaccines and their feed does not contain steroids or other growth enhancers.

The Best fish guide from Forest and Bird is a guide to sustainably caught seafood.  In 2017 they list freshwater farmed Canterbury salmon as a best choice; marine farmed Canterbury salmon as a OK choice; and marine farmed salmon from the top and bottom of the South Island as OK, but with some concerns.  Unfortunately the Canterbury salmon accounts for only around four per cent of production.  ON the other hand the Monterey Bay Aquarium who produce Seafood watch, a guide to seafood with less impact on the environment, list all New Zealand salmon as a best choice.

Our verdict

Salmon farming in New Zealand seems to be a sustainable way of providing a food which is beneficial to our diets (and tastes great, too) – and it’s in all of our interests to ensure this continues.

Eat it regularly – it’s more affordable than you think because you only need a small amount to get your omega-3, and it’s filling.

Pasta is often regarded with suspicion because it’s made from highly processed white flour, which is blamed for bloating and weight-gain.

But we need carbohydrates – they’re our main source of energy. Whole grain pasta is better than white pasta because it has two-and-a-half times more fibre and is higher in a number of vitamins and minerals. But don’t feel guilty when you use white pasta – it’s a filling, satisfying food. Remember, however, pasta is only the carbohydrate portion of your meal, so it should only fill a quarter of your dinner plate.

Our verdict

Pasta is an ideal ‘carrier’ for a vegetable-laden meal, whether it’s a tomato-based sauce or as a pasta salad. There’s no need to avoid pasta unless you’ve been diagnosed with a wheat allergy or coeliac disease. We recommend you include whole grain pasta in your diet but avoid high-fat, creamy pasta sauces.

Some people talk about coffee as though it’s some kind of evil drug percolating through our society.

Too much caffeine (from coffee or any other source) can increase your blood pressure, your cholesterol level, and even disturb your heart rhythm. A recent study also found men who drank more than three cups of coffee a day had poorer sperm quality.

But if you don’t overdo it, there are positives to coffee drinking. Coffee is a rich source of antioxidants and has been linked with reduced risk of developing some diseases, including type 2 diabetes in women over 50, and heart disease in older men. Coffee is also a brain stimulant, and there are quite a few of us who need a kick-start in the morning. Japanese scientists have even found in animal studies just the aroma of coffee can stimulate anti-stress brain activity.

Our verdict

Get the benefits of drinking coffee by not overdoing it. For most people, the equivalent of five cups of instant coffee a day is fine, although for some it will be less. Remember – a single shot latté or flat white is equal to two instant coffees, and a long black has the same amount of caffeine as four instant coffees.

Don’t be fooled, this does not mean low-fat. Some manufactured baked foods are just as high in fat as their fried equivalents. Even baked snack foods can be more than 25% fat.

Our verdict

Read the nutrition panel. To make the best choice, compare total fat and saturated fat content per 100g and choose the lowest one you can find.

Even though it might contain some worthwhile nutrients (especially if you use our HFG carrot cake recipe, which features less fat and more fibre), unfortunately carrot cake will never count towards your 5+ a day.

Our verdict

Carrot cake is delicious, but it’s not an ‘everyday’ food.

Potatoes are said to be fattening and have a high GI (glycaemic index), making them unhealthy. But the potato doesn’t deserve such bad press. A decent-sized potato (150g) contains less than 0.3g of fat. The only way it gets a higher fat amount is when the fat is added. Not frying potatoes or serving them with lashings of butter will keep them low-fat food.

Potatoes do have a relatively high GI, but we usually eat them as part of a mixed meal, so it’s the overall GI that’s more important. Keep portions smaller so you don’t need to worry about their glycaemic impact.

Our verdict

Potatoes are good food, so include them in your 5+ a day of fruit and vegetables. Try red or yellow varieties for more antioxidants, and never waste the peel – that’s where lots of nutrients are. Small potatoes are even better as they have more peel by weight. Serve a fist-size portion for moderate glycaemic impact. If you need a topping to add interest, try a dollop of low-fat plain yoghurt or a spicy salsa.

‘Natural’ is a word frequently found on food packaging intended to make us think the product is ‘healthy’. Butter, salt and sugar are all natural. Butter is best avoided, salt best limited, and we don’t want to go overboard on sugar either..

Our verdict

‘Natural’ on a food label tells you the food ingredients are derived from natural sources, not how healthy they are. Lots of things which are natural should still be consumed in moderation..

First published: Nov 2008

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