01/30/2013 12:10 EST | Updated 04/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Sorry PC, This Nutritionist Won't Hawk Your "Healthy" Products


President's Choice is getting prepped and ready for a brand new advertising campaign that will feature Mr. Galen Weston discussing the challenges Canadians face in eating healthier.

I was called to attend an audition.

After five years working in the field of nutrition accompanied by three years in advertising before that, I was pretty sure I'd get it. I get what the nutrition game is about and I know more than I'd like to about Healthwashing. I am often contacted by former colleagues who want me to meet with their clients or try out a new "healthier" cereal, or "fat free" ice cream, or "good for you" chips. I am always hopeful but often as soon as I read the ingredient labels, I have to decline.

With that being said, I was both delighted and surprised when I was contacted by a casting agency for a President's Choice TV campaign around their healthier choices Blue Menu products.

Last year  I was invited to an event at Loblaws, in support of the Blue Menu products and couldn't eat a thing. This "healthier" line of products just isn't healthy. "Healthier" is not the same as "healthy." For example, one might suggest that it is healthier to smoke only five cigarettes or eat just five Krispy Creme doughnuts instead of 10. That doesn't make five cigarettes or five doughnuts healthy. Just as adding the words "multi-grain" to a junk food product doesn't make them a healthy choice. You will not get healthier by eating multi-grain pretzels instead of regular pretzels.

I do believe that companies that come out with "healthier" options have the intention in the right place and are likely further committed to this direction when "health experts" will accept large payouts to agree.

When I was invited to audition for a campaign that was described as being documentary style, for a real discussion about the challenges families face in eating better, I was thrilled. I think it's fantastic that this is the direction the mainstream grocery scene is heading. After all, I did teach a sold out class at Loblaws last year that was 100 per cent organic and whole foods based. I know this way of eating is completely possible at a mainstream supermarket. In fact, when I was writing UnDiet, I field tripped over to my local Loblaws to make sure everything I use in my recipes could be found there.


The Worst Snacks For Your Body

As for this audition, I would have loved to chat healthy living over two days in my kitchen with Mr. Galen Weston. The problem of course with that is simply that the line of products I was being asked to vouch for, just isn't healthy and actually is a prime example of some of the worst Healthwashing claims.

3 Healthwashing Myths Explained

Myth #1: Multigrain = Healthy

The ingredient list of those "healthier option" pretzels are made primarily with enriched wheat flour (meaning all purpose flour, that has been enriched with synthetic nutrients) comes before the multi-grain flour mix- which is actually a combination of more processed flours. This is followed by malt (sugar) and salt. The ingredients of Frito Lay's Rold Gold brand  pretzels is virtually identical -- starting off with enriched wheat flour and following up with malt, and salt. "Multi-grain" doesn't offer any additional health benefit in this or most cases. If you want to eat pretzels, eat pretzels. If you want a health promoting snack food, eat carrots and hummus.

Myth #2: Omega 3s = Healthy

Omega 3s -- flax seeming to be a popular source at the moment -- are being added to everything. Omega 3s are the anti-inflammatory fat. We need omega 3s for our brains, nervous systems and hormonal balance to be happy. Can we get them from bread and oven roasted chicken? Not a chance. If you have ever bought flax oil, you know that it comes in the fridge. The reason we keep our Omega 3 rich oils in the fridge is that this fat is highly sensitive to heat, light and oxygen. Exposing the flax seed oil to heat, oxygen or light increases the risk of free radicals forming -- which happens when we cook it. Free radicals are known to have an impact on cancer producing cells; and not in a good way. Therefore, cooking with omega 3s causes more harm than benefit. Which brings me to the Blue Menu product: "Oven Roasted Chicken Breast with Flax Oil."

Right in the top panel, a label "Source of omega 3″ is highlighted and the description has Flax Oil right next to the words "fully cooked." If I wanted my omega 3's with chicken, I would have to drizzle on the oil after cooking. Speaking of cooking, if you do eat chicken, whole roasted chicken, should typically come as a whole roasted chicken (or breast as the case may be) and leave out the sugar, potassium lactate, "flavour," sodium phosphate, carageenan and carmel colour."

Myth #3: Low Sodium = Healthy

It is true that table salt is not a good thing. It is a refined chemical that has proven health problems, but it's not just the sodium that makes it problematic. The problem with this belief is that, many processed food companies make huge strides to reduce the amount of overall sodium in their food -- no matter what the source. As a result, much of the sodium is replaced by the deceptively named ingredients like "yeast extract." Yeast extract is another name for MSG. What yeast extract/MSG does is enhance our ability to taste, which means less salt can be used and still have an enhanced flavour to a food. Neuro-toxicity is an unfortunate by-product of that chemical reaction which kills brain cells, impairs cognitive function and can have serious developmental and behaviour affects on children.

The challenge then becomes how we can all play together. How do we make packaged foods more legitimately healthy, and also inform consumers as to how to make the right choices, and demand certain changes in the products they want to continue to use?

In a room with a glaring fluorescent light, a camera on me in one corner, four execs around the table,  they started asking me questions. What were my three favourite go-to meals? (Chilli,quinoa salad and soup.) Did I shop at Loblaws? (Yes, occasionally).

Unfortunately, this where I knew it was going to fall apart.

I applaud Loblaws for their efforts to remove artificial colours and flavours from their own brand of products. I appreciate their addition of new symbols to help people to choose Blue Menu products over the other product options, but is that good enough? More often than not, the "healthier choice" is still not health promoting and if it's not health promoting, then it falls into the disease building side.

I knew I sealed the deal on my being cast aside when I was asked if I used Blue Menu products. For all of the above reasons, and many more, I do not. Unless we educate people on the true health and economic benefit of eating whole, real unpackaged food, combined with the ease and deliciousness, well that's the only we way we can truly address why Canadian families are being challenged with making truly healthy (not healthier) choices. It was then that I was labelled "hard core healthy" by the team around the table. I agreed.

What I later learned, was that I was not the only nutritionist called in for an interview. I was also not the only nutritionist who wasn't willing to put their name or professional reputation behind these products. That should speak volumes: nutritionists unable to support a major grocery store chain's "healthy" line of products.

I may not have been right for this commercial, but could I add value in helping Loblaws educate the public on whole and healthy living? Absolutely. We won't be filming a commercial in my bright kitchen next week, but I will be here, ready to chat about the challenges of getting our population healthier, when they are ready for me.