Is junk food bad for you even when it’s healthy junk food?
I partly blame the spiraliser. Ever since it came on to the kitchen scene a couple of years ago promising guilt-free pasta in the form of cunoodles (cucumber noodles) or courgetti (courgette spaghetti) — effortlessly created with a turn of its handle and blade — our perception of food seems to have changed beyond recognition.
Mounting pressure to shun anything remotely processed or sugar-packed has been eased by the realisation that if we can’t have carbs we can at least transform foods to look like them. Even the humblest of vegetables has been shredded, peeled or whirred into a dish that barely resembles its original form — who would have thought, for instance, that people would be clamouring for tagliatelle made with raw ribbons of butternut squash or pasta shells sculpted from mini-moons of shaved broccoli stem?
The obsession with eating virtuous alternatives of demonised foods, once a niche activity restricted to clean-eating crusaders, has gone mainstream. Supermarkets are selling bags of cauliflower rice and courgetti, butternut squash noodles and “skin-on” — obviously — sweet potato chips to the growing numbers who can no longer justify buying oven chips or normal pasta for their family.
You can buy carrot spaghetti from Marks & Spencer, beetroot rice from Sainsbury’s and cauliflower couscous at Tesco. The Graze brownie is made with beetroot and almonds; there are crisps made with parsnips, tomatoes or broccoli. The message is that you can eat as much pizza and pasta as you like, provided you adjust your mindset accordingly.
The fashion has been buoyed by celebrity cooks including Ella Mills (Deliciously Ella) and the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa, who have introduced us to such delicacies as broccoli and pea mash in place of potato, and courgetti ragu as a substitute for spaghetti bolognese.
Other chefs and bloggers invite us to feast guiltlessly on the delights of roasted aubergine bruschetta, portobello mushrooms masquerading as burger buns and flattened leeks as an alternative to the forbidden pasta layers in lasagne. Name a vegetable and you can probably transform it into a dish of delicate ribbons and twirls, or blend, toast or bake it into a quasi-carb. From celeriac and daikon radish to onion, cabbage and kohlrabi, there seems to be no limit to the number of vegetables that are posing as carbs.
Take cauliflower, which for years has been overshadowed by more fashionable cruciferous vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli and kale. We’ve seen it in a new light since learning it can be transformed into rice, flour and mash, boosting the nutrient content of meals and helping to avoid the dreaded spikes in insulin levels that come with too many simple carbs.
“Cauliflower is our go-to to replace high-starch potatoes or refined white rice,” Melissa Hemsley says. “It’s become a fridge essential; we joke that it’s one of the only beige foods allowed in there.”
We are dumbing down our eating habits to an almost childish level
Cauliflower pizza dough, anyone? If life’s not too short, it can be made by pulsing the veg in a food blender, microwaving the resulting “cauliflower sand”, wringing the moisture out of it, then mixing in cheese, dried herbs and an egg. “Roll it out and, boom, you’re done,” enthuses one vegan blogger.
A movement so virtuous could surely not be accused of anything other than enhancing our health. Yet, for all imitation junk food’s organically obtained vitamins and fibre, not everyone thinks it is a good thing. One of its harshest critics is Kathleen Keller, a professor of nutritional sciences and food science at Penn State university. She believes that there are significant downfalls to the eating trend, not least that it could lead to pounds gained around your middle.
“People tend to perceive these products as healthier and often find that they aren’t satisfied by eating a small amount,” Keller says. “It often leads to overconsumption and studies have confirmed this.” She points to one that suggested that people ate about 35 per cent more calories when a snack was billed as healthy compared with when it was seen as fattening.
In another paper, published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 50 students were shown pictures of healthy and unhealthy food, and words associated with “filling” and “not filling”. Asked to rate the foods accordingly, most of the participants deemed the junk food potentially more satiating.
What’s more, says Keller, kidding yourself that you are consuming spaghetti or pizza is unlikely to kill the desire for junk food. Our brains are intricately wired to associate calorie-dense foods with reward and pleasure, and being faced with a dish that looks like pasta but feels and tastes different can lead to disappointment.
“When people have cravings, they tend to be very specific, even so much as specifying the exact brand of pasta or pizzeria they like,” she says. “So I don’t believe that fashionable carb alternatives will take the place of highly palatable fast foods.”
The nutrition expert Ian Marber says that nutritionally there’s not much wrong with the fake junk food fad, but he’s sceptical about whether it holds any additional benefits. “My inner cynic tells me it’s another means of categorising food as good or bad which, on a wider scale, severely limits our food choices. We are suggesting that a courgette is boring in its own right and needs to be made to look like something else to be palatable. It’s creating an ever more skewed idea of what is OK to eat.”
He also thinks that the trend is reaching a point of ridicule. Mashing your carrots is one thing, but halving an avocado to use it as a replacement for a burger bun is another. “Disguising food is something we used to do to tempt children into eating their vegetables,” Marber says. “It’s as if we are dumbing down our eating habits to an almost childish level.”
There is also a sense of superiority among those who consume fake foods that rankles with him. “You may be eating cauliflower that’s been ground up to look like couscous, but it’s no better for you nutritionally than sticking a floret of the vegetable on your plate,” he says. “If you want a carrot, then eat a carrot. There’s this snobbery that has arisen out of people thinking it’s better to serve it as something else.”
What, then, is the answer? Keller says that fake food has its place in the diet. “If they are seen as a more creative way to eat vegetables, that’s fine,” she says, “but if they are viewed as a way of restricting ‘unhealthy foods’, it can ultimately lead to bingeing when you have access to a food.”
So should we indulge in authentic crisps, cakes, pizza or pasta every so often, to satisfy our cravings? “Certainly,” Keller says. “I actually think for most people, it’s necessary to splurge once in a while.”
10 ways to fake it
■ Sainsbury’s beetroot rice (£1.25 for 300g)
One and a half beetroot finely chopped to look like rice. Serve with chilli or meatballs.
■ Tesco cauliflower couscous (£1 for 330g)
Billed as an alternative to pilau rice to accompany a curry.
■ Wholegood organic carrot spaghetti (£1.49 for 350g, ocado.com)
Add a ragu sauce for a faux bolognese.
■ Rude Health The Beetroot bar (99p for 35g, hollandandbarrett.com)
A blend of dates, beetroot, seeds and nuts.
■ Broccoli crisps (£1.85 for 18g, ocado.com)
Who needs ready salted when a bag of vacuum-fried crispy broccoli florets serves as one of your five a day?
■ Waitrose butternut spaghetti (£1.29 for 185g)
Use in place of fresh pasta. Don’t tell the kids.
■ Mash Direct red cabbage and beetroot mash (£1.99 for 350g, mashdirect.com)
Red cabbage and beetroot, steam cooked and blended together for an alternative to serve with your bangers.
■ Sainsbury’s skin-on sweet potato chips (£1.00 for 300g)
With a lower glycaemic index than white potatoes, they are billed as a healthier choice.
■ Oh So Cheesy kale chips (£2.99 for 40g, thefoodmarket.com)
Dehydrated organic kale — a clean-eating swap for cheese and onion crisps.
■ Nana chocolate and banana ice cream (£1.50 for 90ml, iceland.co.uk)
No cream, milk or sugar in sight because this version is made with mashed and frozen avocado, banana, apples and dates. It’s entirely vegan and gluten-free.