I’ve recently heard it said, “More people are mindful of the quality of the fuel for their cars than they are about the quality of the fuel for their bodies.”
Back in 2009, our new habit of scrutinizing food labels piqued our interests in reading more than just the sodium value on the label. We were reading the ingredient list as well and finding out that there were some ingredients we couldn’t even pronounce in a long list of chemical names often abbreviated by initials like BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone) and DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono and diglycerides). Many of these chemicals are added to extend the product’s shelf life, prevent spoilage, and enhance the taste, texture or appearance of the food.
Today, Carrie and I appreciate food as the body’s fuel providing nourishment to all the biochemical processes for it to function at its best. Eating foods that are closest to their natural state is ideal, but not all foods can be consumed that way. That’s why it’s important for us to take a look at what’s added into the foods we choose to eat. We want to know exactly what we are eating to fuel our bodies. We need to know if what we are eating can cause more harm than good. We have been surprised to learn what was in what we ate and have subsequently changed our minds about eating particular products.
We feel that reading the food label is one factor to ensure we are taking the best care of our health. If we only focus on one element of the label we may be missing out on vital information that could influence our overall health. We have trained ourselves to take a holistic approach to reading the information on the package so that we can make an educated food choice. We are not fooled by bright and bold health claims on the package, though we admit we used to be. “Made with real fruit!” “Now with 5 grams of fiber!” We look deeper to see if it’s really all that good for us to eat.
When we talk about food labels, we are including the ‘Nutrition Facts’ label, the ingredient list and country of origin. The nutrition facts label shows a standard serving size, which is sometimes much smaller an amount than you would expect. Pasta sauce is a ½ cup serving. Whole grain or gluten-free penne pasta, for example, is 2 ounces dry and 1 cup cooked. How many ‘servings’ does one eat in reality, particularly at a restaurant? Besides stating the serving size, the nutrition facts label includes calories and a breakdown of fat, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber and protein per serving, not per package or container. Ingredients are listed from highest to lowest quantity according to predominance in the product. Turns out there are many different forms of added sugar. Ever notice how many different types of sugars can show up on the list? A few of the many names for sugar are evaporated cane syrup, corn syrup solids, caramel, dextrin, dextrose, maltodextrin, barley malt, molasses, fruit juice concentrate and rice syrup. If food manufacturers were required to group all these types of sugars together simply as ‘sugar’ then for many processed foods sugar would be one of the first ingredients on the list, if not the first. Country of origin can be harder to locate on the package because it’s in tinier type and in not so obvious locations.
Carrie and I eat lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. We choose to limit our consumption of animal protein and dairy. We eat fish (those with low levels of mercury), organic chicken, and yogurt without added hormones. Over time we noticed that we spend less time reading labels in the store because we don’t shop in those aisles that contain what Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances”. But when we do need to pick up a jar of nut butter, a box of pasta, a can of beans (BPA free, please) or a bag of frozen veggies, we read the labels. We concern ourselves with countries of origin because at this point we do not trust, say, China to follow best practices when it comes to applying chemicals to fruits and vegetables or adding chemicals that are downright harmful, for example melamine to “boost protein” . Sometimes, we pick up boxes of “food” we equate with poison to read the labels and laugh or gasp in horror at the long list of purportedly edible substances.
Verifying the ingredients is our first line of defense in maintaining good health. We all expect food manufacturers to deliver a product that should not cause harm and yet we have learned that they add all kinds of substances that promote addictive qualities in these processed or prepared foods and adversely affect their healthfulness.
How many of these chemicals are actually safe to consume over an extended period of time? Environmental Working Group (EWG), well known for compiling the Dirty Dozen list, recently published “EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives” which highlights the worst offenders and puts all the information in an easy to read guide.
From EWG’s website:
“EWG’s “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives” helps you figure it all out by highlighting some of the worst failures of the regulatory system. The guide covers ingredients associated with serious health concerns, additives banned or restricted in other countries and other substances that shouldn’t be in food. And it underscores the need for better government oversight of our food system. “
It’s hard to keep track of all these chemical additives and know what long-term effects they may have on our body. Many food additives are considered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be “generally recognized as safe”, or GRAS. It’s a loophole in the regulatory process you can drive a tractor-trailer of trans fats through. Partially hydrogenated oil or trans fat is still classified as GRAS. Trans fat has been linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, in which plaque builds up inside the arteries. It is taking years to remove trans fat from the FDA’s GRAS designation. It’s a good example of why to avoid processed or unlabeled prepared foods and focus on eating more whole foods.
When we are out shopping for new products or even some that we have purchased in the past we look at these labels to see if they meet or still meet our requirements. Manufacturers have been known to switch out ingredients or add new ingredients to their products, so we exercise caution by reading the labels. Hershey, for example, in order to lower its cost of raw materials in some of its products has replaced natural cocoa butter with a chemical called polyglycerol polyricinoleate, which is derived from castor bean oil. Don’t see it on the ingredient label? That’s because it is permitted to simply abbreviate it as PGPR.
We take charge of our health by focusing on selecting foods that support a healthy lifestyle. We are very mindful of all the foods we eat. It’s not obsessive, it’s conscious. We each get only one body and ought to do our best to take good care of it. Generally, we follow a simple rule: we don’t eat it if we don’t know what’s in it. Just because something may look wholesome or be touted as wholesome, don’t assume it contains all wholesome ingredients. Ignorance is bliss, especially when it comes to processed or unlabeled prepared food. Artificially induced bliss, however, does not equate to good health.
- Read the Nutrition Facts label, ingredient list and country of origin with a critical eye.
- Seek the good ingredients to best fuel your body.
- Identify the bad ingredients to avoid.
- Choose foods that support a healthy, optimally functioning body.
- Don’t eat it if you don’t know what’s in it.
EWG: The Dirty Dozen List
Breast Cancer Fund: Chemical in Foods
World Health Organization: Questions and Answers on Melamine
Harvard School of Public Health: Added Sugar in the Diet
American Scientist: Assessing Risks from Bisphenol-A
F.D.A. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Proposed Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label
F.D.A. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: FDA Targets Trans Fats in Processed Foods