Healthy Eating
Credit: Seraphoet | - Healthy Eating Choice Photo

Healthy living is pretty straightforward: exercise, eat well, reduce stress and stay away from heavy drugs.

Basically, take a look at what Rob Ford has been up to and do the opposite. Easy, right? Not quite. 

Unfortunately, the ambiguity of human health creates a labyrinth of choices few of us fully understand. Frequently, we make our choices based on recommendations from others; however, this relies on a trust that is often misplaced. Take, for example, one of the biggest blunders that government health organizations have made: the demonization of saturated fats.

For 60 years, governments around the world recommended reduced consumption of saturated fats. As a result, health-conscious people forfeited cheeses, bacon and other tasty products high in animal fats. For those at risk for cardiovascular disease, it was suggested to forgo the creamy taste of butter and use margarine instead, most of which was made from trans fat (hydrogenated oil).

Over the past 15 years, two shocking revelations have come to light. The first is that saturated fat isn’t harmful and the recommendations were based on bad science. Millions of dollars have been spent researching this subject, and the final conclusion suggests there is no evidence that saturated fat contributes to cardiovascular disease. Secondly, hydrogenated oil is extremely detrimental to your health. The Mayo Clinic now calls it the “worst kind of fat,” and the U.S. government has banned it from restaurants and public kitchens.

Ironically, for more than half-a-century, millions of people at risk for heart disease had been substituting a harmless fat for what is now considered the worst lipid in existence. It is no wonder many people are abandoning mainstream health guidelines and adopting more holistic advice. But is this any better?

A few months ago, my wife, Julie, and I were at a health expo in Victoria, British Columbia. There were all sorts of interesting and tasty-looking products — from organic unpasteurized cheeses rich in probiotics to vegan nutritional shakes. Advice delivered with evangelical enthusiasm effused from every booth.

One booth in particular caught our attention. An organic farm from the interior of the province had a display of herbal supplements, including sun-dried olive leaves that were powdered and sold in capsules.

As I read the information about the olive leaves, something didn’t seem quite right. It claimed they were sourced from a special variety of olive tree that can withstand cold Canadian winters. As far as I knew, there is no olive cultivar that can endure the BC interior’s frigid months. Later, I did some research, and my suspicions were confirmed. There definitely is no cultivar of Olea europaea, the common olive, that can survive in the vicinity of their farm. Further investigation revealed they were gathering the leaves from a completely unrelated tree, the Russian olive. The word “olive” in its name stems from a slight resemblance to the real olive tree, like the “tiger” in tiger moth. The Russian olive is not just from a different species or even genus, but an entirely different family. It is as distant from Olea europaea as rats are to humans.

Their website makes no reference to the fact that their “olive leaves” are from a tree considered an invasive weed that has no relation to the real olive and no known health benefits (folk or scientific). Instead, scientific research conducted on health benefits from the leaves of Olea europaea is cited as proof of their unrelated product’s numerous health claims. 

I queried the co-owner of the company by email and she admitted that they were using Russian olive leaves, but added, “Bottom line, the results we and our customers have been getting is undeniable.” 

The problem is “undeniable” is a word rarely spoken truthfully in the health industry. If you buy a vacuum cleaner, it’s undeniable that the dirt has been sucked out of your carpet. But there is no black and white when it comes to wellness — and snake-oil salesmen leverage these vagaries.

Bragg’s soy sauce is another example of the healthy-living spin. Bragg Live Foods is a multi-million dollar empire, and their products can be found extensively in health food stores. The founder, Paul Bragg, developed an entire strategy of healthy living, and claimed that those following his guidelines would be more youthful and could live to 120. Bragg lied about his own age, claiming he was 14 years older than he really was, which helped to convince people that he really had discovered the fountain of youth.

My interest in Bragg products was piqued when I tried their soy sauce a few years ago. Their promotional material states that their soy sauce is “a healthy alternative to regular soy sauce” and that “no table salt or preservatives are added.” Heart disease is prevalent in my family, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was as salty as you’d expect any soy sauce to be. How could this be?  

I did some digging and learned that Bragg’s sauce actually has a higher sodium content than my regular soy sauce from China. The messaging is carefully spun. Technically it is true that “no salt is added” because the salt is produced in a chemical process during production. The soybeans are treated with hydrochloric acid and then the acid is neutralized with sodium bicarbonate, creating sodium chloride, or salt. Salt is salt whichever way it ends up in the product, and the claim that it is a “healthy alternative to regular soy sauce” is dubious. But then again, what would you expect from a company started by a guy who lies about his age?

So, with an industry full of opportunists, how do we know what is actually beneficial to our health? Even science frequently lets us down with skewed results due to bias and inaccuracies. In short, we’ll never truly know. My personal ethos (which is probably wrong, so don’t heed it) skews towards moderation. Try to eat a variety of less-processed foods, exercise a lot and stay away from dubious caplets, Bragg’s soy sauce and margarine. 

Oh yeah — and enjoy the occasional craft beer. I hear there’s no alcohol added. 

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2014 issue.