The Top Overrated Food Trends of 2009

As the year comes to close, I was thinking about the foods that made a lot of headlines but didn’t really live up to the hype.  The most overrated food trends of the year was the topic of my latest article in the Chicago Tribune. Click on the link to view the article online (which includes a slideshow of the five trends), or the article is reprinted below.  What would make your list?

5 most overrated health-food trends

Looking back on the year, some foods seemed to take the country by storm. You couldn’t miss the ads — your neighbor talked them up and you followed all the chatter online. Maybe you even bought a book devoted to these “miracle” foods. Yet, despite the flashy marketing claims and convincing Internet buzz, many of these products deliver far less than they promise. Either the science behind them is weak, nutritionists warn, or their steep price tag is simply not worth what you get in return.

We asked nutrition experts to tell us what foods they thought did not live up to the hype. Here are their votes for overrated food trends.


–Janet Helm, special to the Tribune

1. Super juicesvemmabottle

The claim: These elixirs, extracted from acai, goji berry, mangosteen and other exotic fruits, tout extraordinary antioxidant levels and claim to burn fat, cleanse toxins and fight the flu. Often fortified with extra nutrients and sold online or through distributors, the juices can be quite costly.

Why they’re overrated: You’re paying more for the marketing than the value of what’s inside the bottle, said dietitian Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It’s a pricey way to get your antioxidants,” she said. “You’d be better off with a glass of orange juice and simply add more color on your plate.” Even the antioxidant levels in many of these superjuices have been questioned. Some studies have revealed that the amounts are comparable to apple juice.

Bottom line: Buy a less expensive juice at the grocery store and eat whole fruit more often. Limit juice to one glass (8 ounces or less) a day.

2. Tropical oils

The claim: Coconut, palm and palm kernel oils are frequently used to replace trans fats in processed foods, and they’re now being positioned as the new ?healthy? oils. Coconut oil is especially coming on strong, with books such as “The Coconut Oil Miracle” and Web sites claiming that the oil can decrease your heart disease risk, prevent cancer, boost your immune system and help you lose weight.

Why they’re overrated: While it’s true that some of the fatty acids in coconut oil are different from those found in animal products, there is no evidence to suggest coconut oil is better for you than other saturated fats, said Alice H. Lichtenstein, a nutrition researcher at Tufts University in Boston. Numerous studies have shown that coconut oil can raise LDL or bad cholesterol, she said. For years, it’s what researchers fed to animals to induce atherosclerosis. Despite the aggressive attempts to improve its tarnished image, coconut oil is still mostly saturated fat, and research does not support the battery of claims.

Bottom line: Do not run out and buy coconut oil, especially if you plan to use it in place of more beneficial oils that have been thoroughly studied, such as olive, canola and other vegetable oils.

3. Enhanced watersskinnywater

The claim: Supermarket shelves are filled with bottles of brightly colored waters that are spiked with vitamins, herbs, antioxidants and other ingredients with names like “defend,” “rescue” and “focus.” Some claim to stave off colds, boost alertness or relax you, while others attempt to lure you with promises of weight loss.

Why they’re overrated: Many of these waters are sneaky sources of extra calories and sugar, said dietitian Keri Glassman, who owns a nutrition consulting firm in New York City. Some waters contain 125 calories per bottle — which is equivalent to the calories in two pieces of fruit without the nutritional attributes of the fruit. The advertised benefits are often overblown, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that sued Coca-Cola this year over the “deceptive and unsubstantiated claims” of its line of VitaminWater beverages.

Bottom line: Get your nutrients from foods or take a multivitamin and drink plain water. If you want flavor, add a slice of lemon to tap water or look for calorie-free flavor-infused waters.

4. Miracle seeds

The claim: Flax seeds are showing up in all sorts of foods — including bread, cereal, pasta, yogurt, salad dressing and soup. The latest seed on the scene is chia, which comes from the same plant that gives us Chia Pets. Both seeds are promoted as a top source of omega-3, the good fats linked to heart and brain health.

Why they’re overrated: While flax-fortified products may offer some benefits, flax seeds  are not a reliable source of omega-3 because the potency is much weaker compared with what you’ll find in fish, said Evelyn Tribole, a California-based dietitian and author of “The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet.” Only a small percentage of the omega-3 in plant sources gets converted into the most beneficial form once you eat it, she said. Chia seeds claim to be a new superfood, yet the amount of seeds you would likely eat is quite small — not sufficient to deliver meaningful amounts of nutrients or omega-3s.

Bottom line: Enjoy flax and chia seeds if you like the taste, but don’t let them distract you from eating more omega 3-rich fish or incorporating a variety of seeds, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables into your diet.

5. Natural sugarsagave nectar

The claim: Scores of new foods and beverages boast about the lack of refined sugar, yet they contain “natural sweeteners” such as agave nectar or evaporated cane juice. The new darling of natural foods, agave nectar is sold as a syrup for home use and claims to be diabetic-friendly with anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties.

Why they’re overrated: There is no real difference. The body treats all of these sugars the same, said Liz Applegate, who teaches nutrition at the University of California at Davis. Even the wholesome sounding “fruit juice concentrate,” she said, is basically equivalent to table sugar. Agave nectar may come from the same cactus-like plant that gives us tequilia, but the refined sugar is similar to the oft-maligned high fructose corn syrup. The terminology of “evaporated cane juice” came under fire this year because the name falsely suggests the sweetener is juice. It’s dried sugar cane, just like table sugar.

Bottom line: Sugar is sugar. All forms are virtually the same and should be consumed in moderation

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  • I have to agree with you about the juices and enhanced waters. What a joke! Also, when it comes to “natural” sugars, it seems like several have been given too much credit. While I enjoy a variety of natural sweeteners, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that there is a lot of positive hype about agave when there should be more facts/research to account for the hype. I’ve used it plenty in the past, but have decided to give it the boot. Its high fructose content is disturbing. Why the darling image, I wonder?

    As far as other natural sweeteners, eating them in moderation is certainly the key!

    On another note, I noticed the “MyPyramid.gov” on your site. Have you seen Harvard’s food pyramid, by chance? If not, I highly recommend taking a peek at it by going to Harvard’s School of Public Health.

  • pdw

    The body does not handle all sugars the same way. Glucose is immediately usable in the body. Fructose needs to be processed by the liver, and may take glucose from the blood to process it. Glucose can therefore cause spikes, and fructose dips. Agave is a high-fructose syrup. Sucrose half/half fructose plus glucose.

    That doesn’t mean that one is healthy and the other is not . But they are processed very differently by the body.

  • These opinions make for a sad commentary on the quality of nutritional education in this country. These opinions are regurgitated drivel that these “certified” and “registered” “experts” were fed in nutrition school by the processed food companies that fund the schools and control the curriculum that’s slanted to make processed foods look good.

    To make my point, the DEAN of Tufts University School of Nutrition recently declared that Kellogg’s Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs were worthy of a “Smart Choice” seal of approval as a healthy breakfast food!!! Why? Because they’re healthier than a donut!!!

  • These same type of “experts” also told us, back in the 70’s, that corn oil margarine was a great way to prevent heart attacks. How did they come to this conclusion? Marketing and promotion by the food industry — not science. Nutritional information is really not formulated through science, but through clever marketing. It isn’t the health food industry that we should worry about.

  • The food industry does not want to people to eat healthy food – it’s not profitable like junk food) – so they pump out sneaky propaganda like this to make people think that health foods are a scam.
    Think about it – every time you see an article about “health food” in the mainstream media, there’s a subtle hint that there’s something “too good to be true” about them, and the health food industry can’t be trusted.

  • If I were coming up with a list I’d choose the very same things! I can’t tell you how many “miracle foods” have been pitched to me throughout the year. While some of them are better than the overprocessed junk on America’s grocery store shelves, none of them is a magic bullet and many are really overpriced.

  • raymond cooper

    you can call coconut oil a scam if you want, but through experience it has helped me in many ways. my doctor recommended it also. i have no respect for the fda, monsanto and the standard american diet (sad) or soybean and corn farmers, americans are fat stupid pigs

  • I agree that everything should be taken in moderation. Plus it is safer to have the natural ones than those processed dozen of times. We are much assured that we are taking healthy stuff.

  • Hi there! Great website – I found you from an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I have written about agave on my blog, thinking it was pretty fantastic. But since then, I have found article after article like your’s saying it’s not. I can no longer support it myself! However, I have read that some manufacturers do not refine it as much as other and they actually make an agave that is less high in fructose than others. Is that true? Which brands?

  • Trajayjay

    Sure, coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol. It also raises HDL (good cholesterol) and to a higher extent. Overall, your HDL/LDL ratio improves, and if coconut oil were so bad for you, then Pacific Islanders would be dying of heart attacks by the ten thousands because they get up to 60% of their calories from the saturated fruit and it’s oil. Coconut oil may not have the same benefits as olive oil, but both oils have their benefits.

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