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This Is the Biggest Mistake You’re Making With ‘Clean’ Eating

Food with non-GMO labels are all the rage. But do they lead to better nutrition? Photo by Robyn Beck AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week ConAgra (CAG) joined a growing list of Big Food companies that have said they will label products made with genetically modified organisms.

The decision by these food giants—including Kellogg (K), Campbell Soup (CPB), Mars, and General Mills (GIS)—is a byproduct of a tectonic shift occurring within the industry. Consumers, wary of ingredients they don’t understand, have turned their back on Big Food. Voluntary GMO labeling is in large part an attempt by legacy food companies to win back consumers. So is reformulating some of their iconic products—as Kraft Heinz (KHC) did with its macaroni and cheese—to be free of things like artificial ingredients and preservatives.

Big Food is responding to what consumers are asking for. But it’s also an important moment as the food movement celebrates these victories to ask whether consumers are asking for the right things.

I’m not so sure they are. No question, the push for “clean” labels—simplifying ingredient lists—is a positive trend. But along the way many people seem to have conflated clean eating with nutritious eating. That has given consumers what feels like license to consume in ways that may actually be more detrimental to our health.

“Organic cane sugar is still cane sugar,” says Christine Day, CEO of Luvo, a nutrition-focused frozen food company. “It’s a lot easier to put on that label than it is to actually address the consumer-nutrition issue.”

Opting to eat cookies from an artisanal, local bakery instead of Oreos may make us feel good about ourselves, but it isn’t necessarily improving our overall wellbeing. “The real challenge in improving the American diet is reducing discretionary calories,” notes Deborah Cohen, a senior natural scientists at research organization RAND Corporation. “It doesn’t matter who makes it.”

By all means, eat natural products. The problem is, there’s no standard definition of what “natural” means—although the Food and Drug Administration is exploring the possibility of coming up with one. But to most shoppers, the natural label is now an automatic stand-in for healthy. Rather than make difficult choices about food—such as choosing fruits and vegetables over sugar- or salt-laden snacks—many people opt for, say, a “natural” version of a traditional treat. But eating a high-calorie slice of GMO-free, gluten-free cheesecake isn’t appreciably healthier than eating a high-calorie slice of cheesecake with preservatives in it. If you really want to be healthy, have some blueberries.

“Natural isn’t always better,” says Susan Roberts, a professor nutrition at Tufts University. “It’s often better, but you still have to be smart about a knee-jerk reaction that everything natural is good and artificial is bad. That can get you to an unhealthy diet.” She adds (brace yourself, foodies), “I would much rather have people have a little aspartame than a large amount of sugar.”

It comes down to psychology. Consumers think about food in two categories—good or bad, says Pierre Chandon, who is director of the Sorbonne INSEAD Behavioral Lab. “As a result, if you claim to be good on just one dimension—low fat, gluten-free—people categorize you as good overall and that you have all the properties of good food,” he says.

Indeed, today’s trend replicates what occurred decades ago when the vogue for “low-fat” products swept through the packaged-food world: Consumers simply replaced one calorie-laden food with an equivalent version that boasted one nominal benefit. Not coincidentally, America’s historic obesity epidemic only intensified.

The really healthy stuff, like fruits and vegetables, don’t have any claims at all, Chandon says. “When you see a claim you need to start worrying about it,” he explains. “Foods that are truly healthier are not marketed. They don’t belong to companies that have the money to market them.”

Adds New York University professor of nutrition and food studies Marion Nestle, “If you’re looking at processed food advertising itself as a health food, it’s a marketing ploy.”

Here’s the bottom line: Feel free to enjoy a towering piece of GMO-free, gluten-free, natural cheesecake. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we’re doing it in the name of good health.