No, don’t eat ‘That,’ but in many cases don’t eat ‘This,’ either

Posted by
August 17, 2012

Twinkies -- just one of the bizarre food swap choices from Rodale

It’s the nutritional guide that Americans probably rely on more than any other to help them make daily food choices – Rodale’s  paperback book series,“Eat This, Not That!”

But just how reliable are the “simple food swaps” recommended in the pages of these books to make you “an expert in every eating situation”? Can you really be assured that they’re providing you with the kind of  “essential” information you need to “make smart nutritional choices no matter when or where you’re faced with them”?

To find out, we reviewed some of the contents of just one book in the series — the edition of “Eat This, Not That!” specifically intended “for Kids!” And what we discovered was that some of the “this” the book advised consumers to feed their kids was as bad, ingredient-wise, if not worse, than the “that” they were urged to avoid.

To read the introduction to this particular volume, you might well get the impression that author David Zinczenko (the editor of Men’s Health), co-author Matt Goulding (a “trained chef and food journalist”) and the large group of individuals who helped compile it (including the “Rodale book team” and the “entire Men’s Health editorial staff”) had gone to great lengths to identify the food products that will enable you to avoid not only high-caloric, high-sodium foods but those with unhealthy and undesirable additives. But a scrutiny of the actual ingredients contained in some of the recommended items gives the impression that the advice the book offers isn’t always in agreement with its purported aims.

To cite just one example, the book takes food processors to task for having contributed to today’s excessive caloric consumption by adding high fructose corn syrup to “an unbelievable array of foods – everything from breakfast cereals to bread, from ketchup to paste sauce, from juice boxes to iced tea.” Yet, in a casual scan of just a few of the supermarket items recommended in the “Eat This” category, we came upon a couple items that contain HFCS: Campbell’s Tomato Soup with 25% Less Sodium  (“Of the soup aisle’s many takes on tomato, this classic can is tops,” says a blurb in the book) and Nabisco SnackWells Crème Sandwich cookies.  And that’s not to mention Campbell’s Healthy Request Chicken Noodle Soup, which also lists HFCS among its ingredients and appears as one of the book’s “11 Foods That Cure.”

Another example is the introduction’s observation that “we’ve laced our food with time bombs,”including trans fats, which “increase your bad cholesterol, lower your good cholesterol, and greatly increase your risk of heart disease.” Fine so far, right? But then, there on page 190, among the  various cookie choices that the authors claim are preferable for our kids,  we find two sources of partially hydrogenated oil that represents the major source of those trans fats – Nabisco Ginger Snaps (“as far as classes of cookies go, ginger snaps are about as safe as it gets,” goes the accompanying explanation), and, again, those Snackwells, while on another page – recommended cookies and crackers from vending machines – we find Pepperidge Farm Milanos, which contain fully hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil. There’s also Hershey’s Chocolate Drink, first among the “Drink This” selections on page 246, whose ingredients include partially hydrogenated sunflower oil. (Of course, that “loophole” in the regulations allows companies to claim zero trans fats if their products contain less than .05 grams per serving, a measure which can be easily exceeded in  actual consumption).

Some undesirable additives you won’t even find mentioned in the book

Not included among the dietary “time bombs” referred to in the introduction is monosodium glutamate, and the various other ingredients containing free glutamic acid.  This is a glaring oversight, to say the least,  since these flavor enhancers (labeled “excitotoxins” by many experts) are being diligently avoided by parents. And yet, you don’t have to look very far to find them in various products in the book’s “Eat This” category such as Campbell’s Chunky Soup with Grilled Sirloin Steak and Hearty Vegetables, which contains monosodium glutamate and Campbell’s Dora Fun Shapes, whose ingredients not only include MSG, but two “hidden sources” of free glutamic acid — yeast extract and soy protein, as well as Morningstar Farms Veggies Dogs, which contains free glutamic acid in the ingredients hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy protein isolate, autolyzed yeast and autolyzed yeast extract.  Yet another repository of MSG is the above-mentioned Campbell’s Healthy Request Chicken Noodle Soup.

Also not mentioned in the book is the artificial sweetener aspartame (also categorized as an “excitotoxin”), which is present in the Jello Cook  & Serve Sugar-Free, Fat-Free Chocolate Pudding suggested on page 192 – along with three artificial colors.

(A call we placed to the Rodale Press regarding such inconsistencies and oversights was not returned.)

All of which isn’t to say that many of the foods recommended in this book – including some organic products – aren’t wise choices.  The problem, however, is that anyone who depends on it as a definitive guide to what they should and shouldn’t be feeding their family has no way of knowing which of the foods they’re being advised to eat really belong in the “Eat This” category.

Perhaps such discrepancies are due to the fact that “Eat This, Not That” is obviously not just the work of one or two authors, but is put together by a committee, some of whose members may not have been tuned into all of the concerns mentioned here  – or, for that matter, in the book itself, whose opening section likens the struggle of parents to instill healthy eating habits in their kids to trying to keep a boat afloat when a group of people are busy “punching holes in the hull.”

But then, there’s the little video that appears on the “Eat This, Not That” website, in which a narrator named Clint Carter compares two “decidedly unhealthy pastries,” noting that “if you have a sweet tooth, like a lot of us do, there is a smart decision you can make.” And that is to choose the Twinkies over Cosmic Brownies, which can “save you 130 calories “ as well as cutting out “a lot of fat and a lot of sugar.” But while Clint acknowledges that both products are unhealthy, he neglects to mention that the Twinkies are a virtual mother lode of additives (as are the brownies),  including HFCS, trans-fat generating partially hydrogenated oil, soy protein isolate and sodium caseinate, and two artificial food dyes.

Viewing that video, one can’t help but wonder how an operation like Rodale, which began as an organic gardening enterprise and still pays high tribute to the virtues of the organic lifestyle, could have reached the point where one of its most popular spin-off  ventures actually hypes the comparative health benefits of eating a Twinkie.

There is, however, a good piece of advice we can take from this book.  You’ll find it right there in the introduction, which notes how “anything you have for your kids to drink in your fridge right now … probably has HFCS in it,” and advises us to “Go ahead – read the label.”

We completely agree with that recommendation.