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Expert Alert

New dietary trends mean a whole lot of options, but what do they really mean for your health?

March 15, 2012

Organic, natural and whole grain options are booming in grocery stores, but University of Minnesota School of Public Health epidemiologists warn that shoppers may not be getting their money’s worth if they don’t know the ins and outs of the food trend known as “whole health solutions” and what falls more on the side of advertising hype.  

The FDA defines whole heath solutions as diets that promote health and well being, prevent disease, help cure illnesses and protect the environment. The trend encompasses labeling which declares food as natural, organic or gluten-free.

The problem, according to U of M epidemiology experts, is that consumers aren’t always sure of the meaning behind the label and sometimes, the information can actually be misleading. A University of Minnesota expert who can discuss current dietary trends, label requirements and important nutritional information consumers need to know is:

Lisa Harnack, Ph.D., associate professor, Division of Epidemiology and Community Health.

“A lot of food manufacturers capitalize on “trigger terms” to push consumers toward products they believe are better for them,” said Harnack. “For example, products labeled as 'organic' generally cost more than those not labeled as 'organic'. Likewise, products specially formulated to be gluten-free, like gluten-free breads and pastas, cost far more than their gluten containing counterparts.

Organic. The term “organic” doesn’t always mean a food is more nutritious, it simply means the ingredients in the food or the food itself meets FDA organic standards in the growing process.

Natural Foods. Just like the term organic, “natural” isn’t a term that is synonymous with “more nutritious.” There are no specific or additional government regulations for a food to be labeled natural, it simply must pass the same regulations that apply to all foods.

Gluten-Free. One of the most popular food trends of the moment is “gluten-free.” Gluten itself isn’t bad unless you’re one of the 1% of Americans with celiac disease, and gluten-free food doesn’t mean healthier food. There is nothing beneficial to removing gluten from the diets of the majority of members of society.

“New food trends pose a challenge to the busy consumer who is trying to make smart food choices while shopping on a budget,” said Harnack. "It's important to arm yourself with knowledge about pitches on product packages so you don't fall prey to paying a premium for a food that doesn't necessarily offer extra health benefits."

To schedule an interview with Harnack, contact Laurel Herold, Academic Health Center, (612) 624-2449 or

Expert Alert is a service provided by the University News Service. Delivered regularly, Expert Alert is designed to connect university experts to today’s breaking news and current events. For an archive and other useful media services, visit Views expressed by experts do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Minnesota.

Tags: Academic Health Center

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