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Understanding the "Naturalistic Fallacy"

May 31, 2017

The Biggest Mistake Made In The Healthy Food World Today

Dakota Howe, B.S. in Food & Nutrition

        There is the common notion in the world of health and wellness that you should only consume foods that 1) are not processed aka “raw” 2) have ingredients that you can pronounce and 3) have a short ingredient list. This rule does hold some legitimacy, because plenty of popular junk foods in the American diet have been shown to contain a long list of unhealthy, unpronounceable ingredients that have undergone unhealthy processing1. Moreover, following this advice does leave you with purchasing more wholesome and natural foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, grass fed meats, healthy fats and eggs etc. that haven’t undergone unhealthy processing and don’t have any unhealthy added ingredients. But, is it really logical to say that a product is unhealthy just because it has difficult to pronounce ingredients and comes from a process that you do not understand? Of course not! Just because you do not understand or know what something is does not automatically mean that it is bad for you. This is called the naturalistic fallacy otherwise known as the “appeal to nature”. It is a philosophical concept that argues that anything that is naturally pleasurable is “ethical” and anything that isn’t pleasurable is “unethical”. This is a prevalent philosophy in the world of health and wellness. The idea here is that you should only eat raw foods w/ simple ingredients you can pronounce – i.e. anything that is natural, raw and organic is “healthy” and anything that isn’t is “unhealthy”. Though this may be true in some cases when it comes to food, it isn’t always accurate and in fact can be dangerous if you blindly follow it.

Organic + simple ingredients = healthy...right?! Nope.         

        Just because a food might have simple sounding ingredients doesn’t automatically make it healthy. For example, you may find a package of all-natural, organic cookies or granola bars at your local grocery store that have “organic cane sugar” in its simple list of ingredients. Organic cane sugar is an ingredient that you are familiar with, it is one that you can pronounce and it is natural, per say. According to those who adhere to the naturalistic fallacy for their diet, these cookies are "good" for you. Yet, we of course know that this not always the case. Though the cookies may have simple ingredients they still contain a lot of sugar, in this case organic cane sugar. Now organic cane sugar may sound like a better ingredient than high fructose corn syrup, but when it comes down to it, sugar is sugar is sugar. Consuming excess added sugar can lead to weight gain, diabetes and increased risk of heart disease3. So, don’t be fooled into thinking that ingredients such as organic cane sugar, brown rice syrup and maple or tapioca syrup are good for you merely because they are organic, natural and easy to pronounce. Furthermore, products that are labeled as being “all-natural” are not necessarily healthy. In fact, the FDA does not back the claim “all-natural”. This means that food companies can put this label on any of their products without the claim having any real meaning to it since it is not regulated4.

Cooking tomatoes in fat at high heat increases lycopene absorption.

        Raw foods are another hot topic right now amongst foodies and health conscious people alike. Their argument is as follows: Natural enzymes and minerals found in food are destroyed when food is cooked; leading people to believe that food is healthiest when it is in its most natural and raw uncooked form. While it is important to include a variety of raw fruits and vegetables in our diets, it is not necessary for optimal health8. In fact, the cooking process can help release nutrients in certain foods. For example, when tomatoes are cooked, the heating process helps to increase the antioxidant activity and bioavailability (how easily your body can absorb something) of lycopene, a powerful phytochemical in tomatoes that helps to protect our cells and decrease the risk of cancer and heart disease9. Moreover, cooking is tremendously important for killing unhealthy bacteria in both meat & vegetables10. For example, eating undercooked chicken increases the chances of you contracting Salmonella.12 Thus, just because a food is raw and “natural,” does not always mean that it is healthier than foods that have been cooked and are “un-natural.”

 the food above contains isoleucine and pentadecanoic acid - if you can't pronounce the ingredients, you shouldn't eat it...right?! 

        Moreover, it is commonly believed that if you do not know what an ingredient is then you are better off without it. But, not understanding an ingredient or its purpose does not automatically make it dangerous. This notion stems from the correct observation that some foods contain a slew of synthetic, complex sounding ingredients which are actually unhealthy for you11. Though this is true in some cases, it isn’t always correct to avoid all :unpronounceable" ingredients. Take the ingredients of an all-natural, free range and organic egg for example. You may have not even known that something as simple as an egg could have complex sounding ingredients. Glutamic acid, isoleucine, octadecnoic acid and pentadecanoic acid are just some of the chemical compounds that you would find on the ingredient listing on a carton of all-natural eggs if it were to have one5. Not only are these ingredients hard to pronounce and complex sounding, but unless you have a background in chemistry you may have no idea what they are. For the record, they are just different kinds of amino acids and fatty acids that make up the chemical structure of an egg and they are healthy for you to have! Also, kale has a vitamin in it called phylloquinone, which is just another name for one of the types of Vitamin K it contains.  

     On a more general note, one of the most important molecules that carries genetic instructions for all of our body’s functionality is deoxyribonucleic acid aka DNA! Should we fear specific molecules and chemicals just because we have a hard time pronouncing them and don't understand them? Absolutely not. It’s more important to learn why specific things are unhealthy for you than blindly following a rule that “all unpronounceable ingredients are bad”.

dont hate on my DNA!

        Additionally, there are a number of foods out on the market today that are fortified with different nutrients in order to prevent nutrient deficiencies. This means that manufacturers add nutrients to foods that are not naturally present or ones that were lost during processing. Salt for example, is fortified with iodine an essential nutrient that would otherwise be lacking in the American diet. All grain products are fortified with B vitamins and iron. Non-dairy milks and orange juice are typically fortified with calcium. And lastly, milks (both cow’s milk and non-dairy nut milks) are fortified with vitamin D which is essential for the absorption of calcium. In fact, the main source of vitamin D in the United States comes from the consumption of fortified milk6.

sometimes added ingredients make sense        

        Even though weird and strange sounding ingredients are not always bad for you, it is still important to know how to differentiate between bad, red flag ingredients versus good, complex sounding ingredients. Certain ingredients that should automatically stick out to you as “red flag ingredients” include: hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, nitrates, nitrites, potassium bromate, aluminum additives, phosphate food additives, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame and hidden sugars (any ingredient that ends in “-ose” such as maltose)7. The reason being is that these complex sounding ingredients have been highly processed and studies show that they can cause several adverse health effects including different types of cancers and a disruption in hormone levels1. However, if you are unsure as to whether or not an ingredient is safe to consume, the best thing to do is to look it up. Preforming a simple Google search can help you to identify whether an ingredient is safe or not, just be sure that you are getting your information from a credible and reliable source.

Junk food usually contains added ingredients that are actually unhealthy for you

        Going back to the theory of naturalistic fallacy, just because something is found in nature does not mean that it is automatically better for you than something that has been processed. For example, organic cane sugar is not good for you just because it is “natural.” In the same way, unsweetened almond milk that has been fortified with calcium is good for you and a healthy option even though it is not “natural”. When trying to make healthy food decisions it is important to inform yourself, learn how your body works and not fall into the naturalistic fallacy trap. Before getting too caught up with the ingredients that make up a food, be mindful of the product itself and whether or not it is a healthy choice to begin with. For example, an all-natural, organic can of soda is not going to be the healthiest option, no matter how “natural” the ingredients are. Rather than being intimidated and turned off by foods with long lists of ingredients that sound complex, try to figure out why that ingredient is there in the first place. As we always say here at SaladPower, "Informing yourself is always the healthiest thing you can do". Don't blindly listen to others (even us!) when it comes to food advice. Understand why some ingredients are actually bad for you, learn how your body truly works and treat it well! As the saying goes - if you don't take care of your body, where are you going to live?! 


  10. 10.

1 Response

Melissa St Laurent
Melissa St Laurent

June 01, 2017

Great article guys! I hope more people read this and take it seriously, because it is definitely a big issue.

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