When is a healthy recipe not a healthy recipe?

It has become the fashion for most, if not all, of our lifestyle magazines to present what they call “healthy recipes”.  This is a development that concerns me, not for the fact they are promoting healthy food, but because such recipes are generally devoid of any nutritional reference points.

Perhaps there is an increasing demand by some for healthy, affordable meal ideas.  The unparalleled success of the Healthy Food Guide magazine would certainly indicate this. 

As a result, everyone seems to have jumped on the bandwagon with ideas for “healthy” snacks, “healthy” pantry items and “healthy” meal ideas.  The problem is that most of these recipes do not stack up when put against real nutrition criteria, such as energy (kilojoule) content, fat content, sugar content, fibre content and salt content.  Healthy Food Guide pride themselves (rightly) on their rigorous nutritional criteria for recipes and as such, when they say “healthy”, they really do mean healthy.

Some recent examples of other so-called “healthy” meals include anything vegetarian or gluten free, or anything our nana might have made.  While the use of a range of vegetables in vegetarian recipes is to be applauded, sadly when they are swimming in cream, oil or high fat cheeses their health benefits are somewhat offset.  One particular recent example of “healthy” has been a vegetable stack on a mashed potato base with parmesan wafers.  When analysed it was found to provide more than 75% of the daily energy requirement and more than 100% of the daily requirements of fat, saturated fat and sodium in just one serve.  The recommended serve size was also very large. 

While there are regulations around using claims such as “low fat” on food labels, there are no such regulations covering the promotional headlines often seen on the covers of magazines.  Usually analysis of the supposedly “low fat” recipes reveals the promotional headline is outrageously misleading.

Just as frustrating can be the use of terms such as “diet foods” – inferring healthy – but actually meaning for people (rightly or wrongly) trying to avoid particular food components such as gluten and lactose.  The recipes might be devoid of lactose or gluten, but they can make up for it with lashings of fat and sugar.

I suspect that some of references to “healthy foods” are intended to mimick Healthy Food Guide magazine. However I suspect the success of that magazine is due not just to its strict nutrition criteria for recipes.  It’s also due to its “best friend” approach to its readership, in providing helpful, supportive ideas, while ensuring the information it provides is factually correct.   Contrast this with the claims of a recent article in a popular magazine, headlined “why sugar is making you old”.  It quotes a “celebrity dermatologist’s” theory about how sugar consumption affects the elasticity of the skin.  Any objective analysis of the published research in this field would find the evidence for such claims to be shaky, at best. 

I have discussed this “healthy recipe” trend with other dietitians. They agree there’s a role for Dietitians NZ to provide some guidance on this, so watch this space for more information. 


Categories: Food Industry, Food Trends, Health Promotion, Nutrition and Health, Scientific Research

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1 reply »

  1. Healthy Food Guide richly deserves their credibility. When they encountered growing requests for “Diabetes Friendly” recipes they drafted some guidelines and circulated them for approval by practicing diabetes dietitians. Additionally the nutrition information is supplied as an integral part of the recipe.

    In contrast, another publication has different “diabetes friendly” criteria which to my knowledge were not circulated. Users must turn to the back of the magazine to find the recipe’s nutrition information. People with diabetes are taught to plan their meal as a whole and consume “some but not too much” carbohydrate at each meal (individual needs differ considerabley – part of the challenge of setting guidelines). Remote nutrtion information does not help this planning process.