February 27, 2014

In Defense of Fake Foods

By Crabby McSlacker

Yep, Crabby is feeling all contrary today and thought she'd try to stir up some controversy by contradicting every normal sane health blogger in the world with this daring pronouncement:

It's perfectly OK to Consume Fake, Processed, Non-Natural Foods...!


Well, so maybe it doesn't sound quite as controversial with that qualifier, but I'm not a total idiot.

Natural Is Better, Right?

There is a fun video making the rounds (which runs a bit long for my tastes, but whatever) that spoofs commercial dishonesty and consumer gullibility when it comes to claims that various processed foods are "natural."

But I think Cranky Fitness readers are pretty sophisticated about how meaningless the term "Natural" is when it's plastered on a label of something suspiciously processed and preserved and reconfigured and sold in a form that bears little resemblance to a real food.

You guys know that you have to read the ingredients on labels.  For example, even if something is "made with" real fruit juice that does not mean it IS real fruit juice, which does not contain splenda or Ace K or food dyes.

And yet... by now some of you by now may recognize the uba tuba granite counter top and the crummy lighting in the top picture as originating in Crabby's Kitchen. Which means you are hip to the fact that something this horrendously fake is in Crabby's nutritional repertoire.

What possible justification for this could there be?

Oh wait, but first...

Obligatory I'm-Not-Totally-Batshit-Crazy Disclaimer:

It is indeed true that natural is better!  And your diet should be made up of mostly natural healthy stuff. It takes a while to retrain your taste buds and habits, but the goal should be to maximize the real and minimize the processed.  I eat a huge wheelbarrow full of produce, mostly organic, every day, and my meat and dairy are organic and grass-fed whenever possible.

I do not advocate the approach some take of swapping out a diet full of high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie processed crap with a diet full of lower-fat, lower-sugar, lower-calorie processed crap.

BUT... I'd argue that there is a place for the lower-fat, lower-sugar, lower-calorie processed crap.

Cartoon: Natalie Dee

Sounds nuts?  Here's my reasoning:

1. Not Everything Natural is Healthy. 

Some things that are natural are still not good for you. Sugar and honey, even in their most "natural" forms, are killers if they are a mainstay in your diet.  Saturated fats are controversial now, but most mainstream nutritional experts think you should be cautious about having a lot of these.  Smoked and barbecued meats may be "natural" but they are full of carcinogens. And natural fruit juices are gonna mess with your blood sugar if you drink a bunch of them.

Depending on what nutritional camp you are in, there are many more natural foods as well that should be avoided, from potatoes to whole grains to legumes to egg yolks. Vegans and Primal and Atkins folks have hilariously different lists of forbidden items, but they are all lengthy and include various "natural" foods.

2. Obesity Is A Legitimate Health Concern

If you are morbidly obese, or if you are trying to prevent creeping weight gain that could contribute to health problems, there are plenty of healthy natural foods that you may be looking to limit or find substitutes for.  (Like my personal beloved but evil temptress, Trail Mix). These may be "healthy" in general, but they are not healthy for YOU if you can not control the quantity you consume.

The Whole Foods bakery cracks me up with acres of desserts made of white flour, sugar, and butter, all in the name of healthy eating. And sure, these are excellent as special treats and probably less likely to have nasty additives than typical grocery store fare.  But if you are eating large quantities of this stuff on a daily basis, that is not "healthy." You don't get to feel smug no matter how cute and crunchy the guy behind the counter is who rings you up.

Is it so wrong to put a bit of splenda in your beverage instead of sugar or find lighter "diet" versions of a treat you used to enjoy? I would argue that if this is part of an overall strategy of eating healthier, you can cut yourself a little slack.

3. Screw Perfectionism

One of the biggest changes in my diet over the years has been taking a "bigger picture" look at what I'm consuming and not getting all black and white about forbidden ingredients.

I've incorporated more and more healthy foods into my diet by reading and tweaking and experimenting, and have also eliminated many "healthy" foods because they don't seem to work well for ME.  Some I can't digest well, some seem a bad calorie bargain, etc.  I eat fewer carbs than I used to, in part because a number of high carb foods, even healthy ones, cause me to gain weight more easily and retain water and they tend to cause afternoon energy crashes that no amount of hyper-caffeination can cure.

So yeah, I have half a power bar every morning with my coffee, and I enjoy the hell out of it. To me it tastes like a candy bar, but I don't bother feeling guilty. After I return from my workout I eat a big-ass kale and egg-white scramble because everyone knows kale magically erases any fake food worries for the entire day.  And I drink my carb-erasing apple cider vinegar with the cran-cherry and it tastes lovely and water or tea just wouldn't be as much fun! I also use the fake juice in my salad dressing and even in "skinny" cocktails.

But several years ago, I'd refuse to buy anything that had any chemical I'd heard was bad, regardless of the small quantity, or how inconclusive the evidence was against said chemical, or how useful it might be in substituting for a high-calorie, high-sugar "natural" food.  And protein-fortified power bars seemed way too contrived and silly to be on the approved list.

Oops, sucralose, horrors! 

Now I say f--ck it.  A little bit of splenda or food dye or Ace-K or even the occasional transfat gram or two is not gonna kill me. Probably.  As a result, I'm far less of a pain in the ass to go grocery shopping with, and less stressed about what I eat, and I still eat way more healthy things than most people... but get to feel totally spoiled by my favorite processed compromise foods.

Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils

I'm not saying it isn't great to avoid fake foods, it is!

But there seems to be some hypocrisy in the way we've come to make judgments about deviations from what's optimal.  It's totally cool to splurge with a teeny-tiny serving of a high sugar, saturated-fat packed brownie every now and then, right? Everything in moderation!

Yet somehow it's totally uncool to splurge with a serving of a fake low-cal brownie every now and then, even if it tastes good to you and you get to eat a lot more of it for the same amount of calories, because fake things are evil and disgusting and must not be tolerated, acccckk!!

And yeah, being cool is clearly not Crabby's department.

What do you guys think of fake foods?  Do you feel secretly judgey when people are eating them? (Note: I do, even as I eat them myself! But then I'm secretly judgey about almost EVERYTHING.)


  1. I know a few people that have been transitioning away from the potato chips to those fancy rice chips and then the more bland rice chips and finally finding that vegetables taste pretty good after bland rice chips. It is the usual thing that you have to figure out what works for you.
    I'm still stuck at the fancy rice chips/bland rice chips transition point myself.

  2. I'd probably partake in a Diet Coke Bong if truth be told (I am bereft that Natalie Dee has stopped producing new comics!).

    I am trying to balance low calorie (which a lot of times means artificially sweetened) with whole foods, and I'm just hoping to generally strike a good balance. I figure the amount of stuff I buy without a label (fruits, vegetables, bulk grains) is a high percentage of my diet, so I get to have a little leeway.

    I always say...something's going to kill me. Maybe it'll be the Diet Coke, but you never know what'll getcha.

  3. For myself the less fake stuff I put in my body the better especially with the PCOS crappola I deal with. But processed food that is labeled "organic" isn't any better, processed is processed. SO I try to stick to as normal as possible, so what does that mean? I don't use splenda but I will use coconut sugar or something that isn't quite as processed as plain old WHITE sugar. I eat rice crackers (if I am eating crackers and seriously sometimes you need to eat a freaking cracker) because I try to stay away from Gluten, not because it's some weird trend to people but because my stomach and intestinal track (as well as anyone who would have to use a bathroom after me) thanks me for it. I definitely have a gluten sensitivity. I drink milk from the farm because I prefer to support my local community as opposed to a big company, I bake most of the time when I really want something sweet and delicious, I bake at home and then I keep one or two and give all the rest of said baked goods away. Because PCOS has mimicking of insulin resistance I try to stay away from the fake sugars because it operates the same way in your body as regular sugar but because it's so much sweeter it tends to make you crave it more so yeah for myself, I TRY REALLY HARD not too, but I like soda sometimes, so occasionally I drink diet soda. I don't feel bad about it, I try my best and forget the rest!

  4. It's all a question of where we draw our particular lines, isn't it? What is fake? What is processed? I guess if you pick an apple off the tree and eat it right there, it is completely natural and unprocessed (well, maybe you have to find a tree in a forest, and be sure it's not just from a seed from one of those orchards that cultivate their seeds carefully - low-tech GMO, basically). But hey, if you squeeze it to get juice, in my dictionary that constitutes processing. Just not much processing. And fake? Well, what did it start as, and how did it get to where it is now? Is the stuff used to thicken ice cream that derives from seaweed all natural and harmless, or fake and evil? Personally, I can't keep track.

    So yeah, moderation. I agree that food we buy that has all sorts of stuff in it that we can't pronounce (except I have to say I laughed when my ultra-natural relative pointed scornfully at ingredients that turned out be...the scientific names of a couple of vitamins) is probably not as good as food we eat when we know and understand all of the ingredients. But I also think back on the endless debates about what we should and shouldn't eat - eggs leap to mind - and I sort of figure that whatever I put in my mouth will (sooner or later be labeled as likely to) kill me. The problem is, if I don't eat anything, I will starve to death sooner rather than later. So, I just try to eat a reasonable amount of stuff that has proteins and vitamins and healthy fats and stellar carbs, then I stop thinking about it and eat what I want.

  5. Aw come on, no one is being all pissed off and self-righteous about my defense of fakeness? How can a blogger stir up a little controversy around here? You guys are so reasonable and nonjudgmental and articulate! Where are the strident dogmatic perpetually offended natural food nazis?

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot... Cranky Fitness commenters are famous for being open-minded and polite.

    Dang it!

    1. Well you could go trolling in the comment section of some more strident blogs and bring back an angry mob, but please don't!

    2. Guess I could have worse problems than having nice readers who make the comment section a joy. Oh well! :)

  6. Umm...I don't judge anyone for anything they eat! My diet would probably be appalling to the majority of the health/fitness bloggers out there and I'm OK with it. We eat lots of single ingredient foods but I also make use of processed foods in some recipes!!!

  7. Last i checked, hemlock is natural, but i think Socrates would agree, not healthy. If you want to splurge when your diet is mostly healthy, splurge the way you like best. And pass the raw cashew nuts. Those are what i can't have in the house because i'll go crazy and eat the whole bag in one sitting.

  8. I judge people for eating fake food, but it's an esthetic judgement. "How can they eat that tasteless crap?" I ask myself (silently, most of the time.) Remembering the furor at the end of Hostess Twinkies as We Knew Them, for example. I ate one once, in elementary school. Bleah.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  9. We eat a lot of lean meats and fresh vegetables (and by vegetables I mean broccoli), but I still like to throw in some fake food every now and then. It makes me happy, and I honestly think the fear mongering and misinformation floating around out there has created a tempest in a teapot about certain ingredients. Moderation is my friend. There are no Bad Foods, only foods I should eat less of to meet my health goals.

    That said, I tend not to be judgey when noticing other people's carts because I managed to get to the age of 40 without really knowing diddly-crap about proper nutrition. That's frighteningly easy to do these days. I do get jealous occasionally, though; I miss Oreos something fierce. :-P

    Now, please excuse me while I go create a bong for Vanilla Coke Zero. Mmmmmmmm.

  10. Occasionally, what- the- hell. I'm a full fat proponent, but if I'm offered a low fat similar product somewhere I'll eat it and maybe even like it.
    I have switched to unsalted potato chips and I like the hell out of them. I can throw together a dip of say, salt and vinegar if I need salt, or eat them with a pickle and some cheese. These I consider health food.

  11. It's pretty difficult to eat a perfect diet now-a-days for sure. Actually if the whole world wanted to, most of humanity would quickly starve to death as there isn't enough perfect out there based on our food industry and farming practices!

    So since we are all going to hell in a hand-basket filled with mostly distorted foods, just keep the "oven" as fit as you can.

  12. I tell my kids that "made with" is like I "made " these cookies with a three-year old -- the kid was in the kitchen while the cookies were being made. Doesn't mean I put the kid in the cookies....

  13. Sorry to disappoint, but complete agreement here! I love good, whole, fresh, organic stuff and try to stick with a basically healthy regimen.

    That said - during a recent endurance event - I ate in the completely opposite direction! Donut holes, cheesecake, sections of cheeseburgers, cookies, potato chips. And it was by intention since I knew I'd have to load in plenty of calorie dense food and veggies, etc... just wouldn't be sufficient.

    I'm also the Occasional Splenda fan :)! And thanks to your blog, I have discovered the wonderfulness of Quest bars :) Thank goodness for Faux Foods - hooray!!!

    Yes - all things in moderation - including moderation.....

  14. More reasonableness from the Cranketeers, my goodness, not one flame yet! Love to hear the different strategies and objections and kryptonite we all struggle with in a world of imperfect options.

  15. No Fake Food....No Rice, No Beans, No potatoes, I would rather just say NO then "sometimes" or
    "in moderation" Any interpretation room is a slippery slope for me. DO or DO NOT...

  16. For me, healthy is better, but it has to taste good. My diet has has had to change a lot for health reasons, but there are still a lot of little things I love that aren't that great for me. But delicious? Yes :)

  17. I am all fro balance in life! I eat very healthy BUT I also eat things with crap in them - I don't care. My mom dies not being able to eat anything she liked & food is not the end all but it is fun so.. I do a 80/20 or 85/15 - all is good to me & being perfect sucks! :)

  18. Hahaha! You are hilarious. I would love to eat all organic and no fake food. To be honest though, we can't afford it! Not to mention that my husband does not buy into or understand the difference between organic and full of pesticides. Or grass-fed, hormone-free beef and the "regular" stuff. He just sees the price tag and loses his mind over the healthier stuff. I try to get the better food when I'm shopping alone. My other issue with avoiding fake food is that I dislike cooking, and I'm also pretty bad at it. So I limp along as well as I can and improve over time. But me and fake foods are pretty good friends, for sure.

  19. "Screw Perfectionism" Yep. That's basically my attitude. I'll go with mostly all natural, and I'll cook from scratch, and I do like eating "whole" foods--but fake foods have their place once in a while.

  20. It all depends on if I am "behaving" or not. If I am, there will be minimal "fake" foods entering this pie hole. I am not, then fake foods galore will be ingested. One way I limit "fake" food is to not bring it into the house. If I want to eat crap, I go out and pay too much for it.

  21. I don't judge anyone on anything they eat because it's basically their choice and no one else's what goes in their mouths. Unless they're eating intestines or something equally disgusting, then maybe I judge a little while I throw up in my mouth.

  22. I try to stay right away from anything that comes in a pkt right of the shelves in the supermarkets. For me it's fresh fruits and veggies, Organic if possible (but not always) and I buy my meat from my local Butcher. It is hard to stay right away from Fake Foods though, as they are everywhere.

  23. Articulate post and I love your perspective, Crabby. Gretchen Rubin, at The Happiness Project, has an interesting take on this topic, in her discussion of "Abstainers vs. Moderators." Some people are good at the "eat in moderation" philosophy that you're talking about, but others do better when they completely abstain from eating a particular item. For me, I love a good (fake, processed) grocery store cookie, but I can't eat them in moderation...so I have to abstain. You have to know yourself!

  24. Of course everything organic all the time would be great, but how many of us can actually afford such a diet/nutrition plan on a reasonable budget?

    Also, a little fake food to help boost your psyche to achieve greater long-term goals is important for me.

  25. Great post! It's all about moderation. I recently wrote a post about steps in the right direction rather than perfection about being more green in your house... the example I used is that I, like you, eat a ton of fresh and whole foods but also still put sweetener in my coffee. Felt like I was confessing to a crime :P http://alifewithouticecream.blogspot.ca/2014/02/turns-out-its-actually-pretty-easy.html

  26. I agree with you - though I think 'if it tastes good to you' is an important distinction. Personally, I don't enjoy artificial sweeteners; I'd rather limit myself to a real Coke once a week and skip a daily Diet Coke...But that's just me.

    One of my personal healthy living rules - which I think I've been ignoring a bit lately - is to make it easy on yourself. For instance, I know I am more likely to work out regularly if I can do it at home; if I have to leave the house and go to the gym, I probably won't.

    So if a moderate amount of the fake stuff helps you stick to an overall healthy plan, I think it makes sense.


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