When chef Gordon Ramsay launched a new gin last year, in partnership with the Scottish producer Eden Mill, a Facebook advert for the brand made it sound rather wholesome. It included the claim that the gin retained the micro-nutrients of honeyberries, “which have more antioxidants than blueberries, more potassium than bananas, more vitamin C than oranges and a flavor like a mixture of blueberry, plum and grape”.
But, while many of us would love the notion that a shot of gin could be part of our wellness routine, the Advertising Standards Authority put paid to that ideafinding that the advert made nutritional claims that are not allowed under the UK advertising code.
Eden Mill is just the latest of many brands keen to harness their products to the wellness industry behemoth – if they can get away with it. As a result, it can be a nightmare for consumers trying to make conscious choices about their diet and nutrition, to tell fact from fad.
Nutrition therapist Ian Marber explains that prior to the establishment of the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) in 2002 it was common to see adverts or descriptions on products that said things like, “Brimming with vitamin C” or “Bursting with antioxidants”.
“They were meaningless statements but gilded a product with a benefit in the eyes of the consumer.”
New rules meant that language became less colorful. “You could say ‘A source of…’ or ‘High in…’ or ‘Rich in…’. And the wording ‘A source of…’ had to have a certain percentage of the recommended daily allowance or nutrient intake per 100 grams,” explains Marber.
“You’re not supposed to say ‘full of antioxidants’; the actual legal claim is that it supports normal oxidation, which is very dull wording.”
Sian Shepherd, a registered dietitian, who offers clinical advice via begoodtoyourgut.co.uk welcomed the fact that the UK remained committed to the EFSA post-Brexit, but says the system is far from perfect.
“’Empty’ health promises are unhelpful to the public and can be misleading,” she says.
Nutella is described as a hazelnut spread, “when really,” says Marber, “it’s stuffed full of palm oil and sugar”. So why do we buy it? Because we want to believe that the foods we like to eat have benefits.
A classic example of wanting the things we love to be healthy for us is red wine. Red grape skins contain small amounts of resveratrol, which has potent antioxidant properties. There is a tendency therefore to see it as a quasi health drink – when the scientific consensus is far from conclusive.
Often the superfood of the day is exactly that, a passing fashion. Today’s CBD is tomorrow’s goji berry.
Given how tricky it can be to navigate the confusion and heavy marketing, nutritional therapist Eve Kalinik says that the main thing to bear in mind when looking at food labels is not to take things at face value. “Just because something has ‘plant based’ on the packet doesn’t make it healthier. Same with ‘gluten-free’ which also comes with similar connotations.”
So what “healthy” food products are perhaps less impressive than they might seem?
It started as a craze in LA with home-brewed potions. Now it’s in cans on the shelves of corner shops. However Shepherd says: “Evidence to support the health benefits of fermented foods including kombucha is scarce. Despite being around for thousands of years, it remains largely anecdotal.”
A systematic review in 2019 identified only one controlled human study, examining any health benefits of kombucha from human subjects; the rest was undertaken on animals and “in vitro” studies. “There was also some concern regarding the health risks, particularly in vulnerable populations such as those that are immunocompromised.”
Sugar content is also a concern. “All kombucha requires sugar as part of the fermentation process to a lesser or greater extent,” says Shepherd, who recommends fermented foods with more human-based research studies, such as fermented milk and evidence-based probiotics.
It’s been lauded as an alternative to overly processed loaves with unpalatable additives that often are the root cause of gluten problems. And it should be as simple as flour, water and salt. But as demand for the bread has increased and supermarket sales have shot up by 98 per cent, many of the loaves on the shelves are by no means the pure ideal.
An investigation by Which? looked at 19 sourdough loaves sold in supermarkets and found only four were made in the traditional way with the three basic ingredients. The rest contained extra ingredients, such as yeast, ascorbic acid and yogurt and vinegar. While these are not necessarily bad for you or unhealthy, it’s clear customers are being misled. “That is one of the biggest marketing hoodwinks in recent years and with a hefty unsubstantiated price to go with them,” says Kalinik.
Yakult and probiotics
Those little pots that promise to make your gut flora sing. “Probiotics can support gut health, when consumed as part of a balanced diet incorporating an adequate fiber intake, regular physical activity and adequate rest/good sleep hygiene,” says Shepherd.
However for most healthy people, without a digestive disorder or disease, she says: “They are very likely unnecessary, but if you have IBS, diverticulitis or are taking long-term antibiotics they may well be helpful.”
Something for consumers to be aware of, adds Marber, is that the idea that probiotics are good for your immune system hasn’t been proven. In order to include this on their packaging though, he says: “A lot of companies add a supplement like vitamin C, because it has a legal health claim for the immune system. So then they can actually say, ‘supports immune function’, and we the consumer think that means the probiotics, but it’s actually the vitamin C. Sneaky but commonplace.”
It’s worth noting that Yakult has 10 grams of sugar, and the sweet stuff is thought to be bad for the gut.
It’s gone from a treat on an exotic holiday to being in your fridge door. Coconut water has become popular because of its perceived hydrating qualities.
“That and birch water are very slightly more hydrating than regular water because they are from a plant and therefore contain minerals, but they are still mostly water,” says Marber. “Studies showed that after exercise some athletes were marginally better hydrated from having coconut water. And of course that translated into marketing it as ‘the secret Olympic athletes use is coconut water’.”
You’ll either like the taste of cooking with it or not, but what about the health benefits? “Coconut oil was actually a form of medium chain triglycerides, providing a source of fuel for the brain that’s not glucose. Now that’s part of a ketogenic diet. Take that out of context and it suddenly becomes something so good we should cook with it. But it’s still nearly all saturated fat.”
Shepherd thinks the coconut oil phase is now waning a little, for the simple reason that it contains 80-90 per cent saturated fat. “We all know this is not great as it could impact on our cholesterol level and, as such, in the longer term, heart health.”
While there are studies reporting lower rates of cardiovascular disease in India and the Philippines, Shepherd says other aspects of the populations’ lifestyles have not been fully taken into account, “which may account for this, and so considerable caution is required”.
Protein bars and shakes
They’re at the checkout of most shops and appear to be a healthier option than a generic chocolate bar. “But protein bars and ‘healthy’ bars often contain the same amount of sugar gram for gram as a Mars bar… or more in certain cases,” says Kalinik.
Also, protein powder shakes are often loaded with more than necessary amounts of sugar and additives so it is always worth checking the ingredients carefully. There’s also the question of whether a protein boost is even necessary.
“Most people get enough protein from their diet, unless you’re a serious athlete,” says Marber.
You’ve replaced the Sugar Puffs and Coco Pops with “healthy” granola. But granola can often rack up a huge amount of sugar, says Kalinik. “It is often seen as a more virtuous option but depending on the brand, the sugar content can be high.”
Marber agrees: “Granola tends to be processed grains often with a lot of sugar. Muesli is all right as long as it’s low in sugar.”