“You are what you eat." We hear this over and over again, but it doesn’t really register with most of us because it is so cliché. If this old adage is true, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hmmmm… Well, if I am what I eat, then today I am a bowl of cereal, some chicken, and a sugar-free ice-cream sandwich!” This all sounds very cute, until you take a closer look at the back of the cereal box, or the Rice-a-Roni box, or the ice-cream sandwich package.
While reading the labels, you might discover that you are actually made of a lot of things that you might not expect, or may not even be able to pronounce. Now you might be saying something like, “Today I am high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, monosodium glutamate and aspartame!” Not so cute-sounding anymore, is it.
Not only are the ingredients we find in many foods unappetizing and hard to pronounce, but some of these things are the leading causes of obesity and disease today. Food industry leaders are always trying to find ways to sell more products, and make it more cheaply in order to raise profits, as all large companies are. While these ingredients might have been deemed “safe” by the FDA, they are not necessarily the healthiest, nor are they necessarily harmless.
Thankfully, these companies are required to list all the ingredients on the labels. If you take the time to make yourself aware of what’s in your food, you might find out that you are made of things that are a little less scary-sounding, not to mention your pants might start to fit a little better.
Food Labels: Why Should I Bother?
“Okay, wait a minute!” You might be saying. “I like my ice-cream sandwich and it tastes good. Who cares what’s in it!” You should care what’s in it, especially when it could be harmful to your health. If you don’t spend some time educating yourself about your health, there may come a day when you’re eating out of a feeding tube instead of the freezer. Before you get to that point, let’s talk about some choices you can make.
If you know what to look for and what to avoid, you can purchase and eat items that don’t have some of these unhealthy substances in them. Many companies are now jumping in with the “green” (A.K.A. environmentally friendly) marketing trend that is occurring, and avoiding unnatural substances in their food. You can have your ice-cream sandwich and be healthy at the same time!
Some of these substances I am about to discuss, though approved by the FDA are not considered to be safe by many leading health practitioners, including Andrew Weil, M.D. (Author of “Eating Well for Optimum Health”) who considers certain food additives to be “questionable in terms of long-term health.”
But you have to be careful. There are some food additives that are dangerous that are even being touted as healthy. A good example is NutraSweet® (aspartame) which is a sugar substitute. Sugar is unhealthy, right? So if you use a sugar substitute instead, you will be eating no sugar, less calories and therefore this is considered “healthy”, right? Not so much.
The Big Cover-Up: and Why it’s Making Us Big
According to Kevin Trudeau, author of several books on health, including “Natural Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About” considers aspartame to be “a deadly poison” and Kevin, along with several experts who studied several FDA-funded studies are “astonished and amazed that anyone could deduce that aspartame is safe.” Aspartame is one of several common substances in food that has “questionable” effects on long-term health. So just how is it then that all these scary ingredients are allowed into our food? Surprisingly enough, the FDA or Food and Drug Administration is allowing these unhealthy ingredients to make it onto our lists of things that are considered safe to consume.
Although most people think the FDA was created to make us safe, its actual function is to make us feel safe. The FDA regulates chemicals and additives that go into our food, as well as the drugs that doctors can prescribe to us. Although these chemicals are tested, often the tests are not performed for long enough, and/or they are performed on animals, not humans.
There is no way for us to know some of the long-term effects of some of these chemicals if they are not tested properly (for example by independent labs not funded by the FDA) and for a long enough period of time. Often, a problem with these chemicals is something that develops long-term, not a problem that will occur in six months to a year, the average length of most scientific tests used by the FDA.
Many of these “safe” chemicals are extremely unhealthy and contribute a great deal to our current obesity epidemic, especially since they are consumed in large quantities by a large percentage of the population.
Take for example, the popularity of drinking soda products (coke, for example), one of the #1 best-selling items on the market today whose main ingredient is high-fructose corn-syrup. Is it any surprise then, that approximately seventy-five percent of the American population today is overweight?
The FDA uses information that is incomplete or biased because it works hand in hand with the large food corporations and drug corporations, who pay lobbyists millions of dollars every year to get congressmen to change the laws that govern the FDA. Every day we hear statements such as “new research shows that…” which indicates the old research to be false. It is often a hot topic as to which health information is currently correct and which is not.
What is healthy? What does this or that study say? There is certainly a lot of conflicting information, which should tell you one thing: organizations are using different information to their advantage, mostly for company profit. If we can’t even trust the FDA to give us the correct information, then who can we trust? The answer is we have to trust ourselves to look at the research and make a healthy decision.
Why Sugar is Not Just Sugar
We all know that eating too much sugar is unhealthy. People talk all the time about having a “sweet tooth” and that “evil craving for sweets.” We hear on the news about sugar causing health problems such as obesity, diabetes, cavities and even hyperactivity in children. So if we eat less sugar, then we can avoid these problems. Alright then, let’s look on the back of the box to make sure we’re not eating any. Let’s see…no sugar, but I do see ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and malitol. That’s not sugar so we’re safe, right? Wrong! These are a couple of very common sweeteners (sugar) used in all kinds of food, even salad dressing.
What are we talking about here? Sugar is sugar, right? Then why is it called by a different name? While it is true that all sugar is glucose, it is also true that sugar or glucose can be derived from different sources. Some of these sources contain higher levels of glucose than others, and can have a negative effect on the body. Also, these sugars are named after their source, which is the reason why you’re not necessarily going to see the word “sugar” on the back of the label if you are looking for it, which is misleading. Again, you have to educate yourself and know what to look for. Some of the frequently used terms that refer to sugar are: corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, lactose and sucrose. And, as we’re about to find out, even sugar substitutes are something you have to watch out for.
Diet Pop Makes You Fat: What?!
In his book, Kevin Trudeau pleads with us to “avoid diet soda at all costs.” This is because the sweeteners used in diet soda are some of these substances I have previously mentioned that have not been tested adequately and for long enough. While the FDA does approve the use of these sweeteners, we have to keep in mind the FDA’s goal of making you feel safe, so that you will purchase these products. They may actually not be safe. Many studies today show this to be the case. Even the American Heart Association admits that different artificial sweeteners have been linked to bladder cancer, and that the artificial sweetener Aspartame poses a fatal risk to those with phenylketonuria, an inborn metabolic disorder which most people aren’t even aware that they have.
GMO Foods: The “Frankenfoods”
One scary new trend in food production (now done mostly by large corporation-style “factory farms”) is called GMO foods, which stands for “Genetically Modified Organisms.” What this means for you is that when you are eating a tomato you might not actually be eating just a tomato. You might be eating a tomato with pig genes in it, for example, to keep it from being crushed during shipping. This has horrible implications for some people who don’t eat pork for religious reasons, or who are vegetarian.
You would think that large food companies, such as Con Agra foods would be liable for this information, but in fact they are not required to put this on the label at all. Companies will often put it on the label that they are not using GMO foods in their product in order to advertise it, because it is becoming common knowledge that GMO foods are everywhere, and scary. Perhaps the scariest fact of all concerning GMO foods is that the genes used many times come from bacteria, and some were even taken off the market because they were either resistant to certain antibiotics or they were connected to mad cow disease.
GMO foods have implications for the environment as well. Certain types of corn, for example are genetically modified so that more pesticides can be sprayed on them than the normal amount, which would usually kill the plant (not to mention the farmland around the plant.) GMO foods can also contaminate other “pure” crops out in the area with their genes, making species of certain crops extinct. Remember the Irish Potato Famine, where twenty-five percent of the Irish population perished in the late 19th century? This was because everyone started growing one species of potato (the potato was pretty much all the Irish people ate back then, especially the poor) which was wiped out by a fungus. There were no other food crops around, and almost everyone was starving. If all of the food sources are contaminated by these “frankenfoods,” and some type of virus or disease develops that kills all those crops, who is to say that history can’t repeat itself?
What to Avoid
“Okay, now I’m scared,” you say. “What do I stay away from and how do I do it?” Start with taking a few seconds at the grocery store to look on the back of boxes and cans for certain ingredients that are known to be unhealthy and potentially harmful. As well as basically staying away from pretty much anything that you can’t pronounce (more than likely it is not natural and unhealthy). here are several common ingredients you should avoid and why.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
If you do the research on High Fructose Corn Syrup, you will learn that this is pretty scary stuff. Not only is it physically and chemically addicting, but it alters your metabolism in such a way that makes you hungrier, and also causes your body to produce more fat. And Americans are consuming more and more of it every day. Even ketchup is laced with it.
Partially Hydrogenated Oil/Trans Fats
Thankfully, companies are realizing that trans-fats are extremely unhealthy and increase your risk of heart disease by lowering your good cholesterol and raising your bad, and are labeling their products “no trans-fat.” Stick to these products. Hydrogenating fats involves the process of adding more hydrogen molecules to fat, making it even more saturated or fatty than it already is. It is found in many boxed foods, as it increases food shelf life. One famous product made up entirely of partially hydrogenated oil is Crisco.
To see if your food product has trans-fats in them look for (partially) hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list. If it has any of that , stay away from this product. (Regular oil on the other hand isn’t harmful).
Artificial sweeteners include NutraSweet, Sweet n Low, Aspertame, Splenda, Sucralose, Malitol, Sodium saccharin, Isomalt, and many others. These artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes have a negative effect on the metabolism, are reported to cause all kinds of health problems including PMS, cancer and migraines.
Enriched, Bleached White or Wheat Flour and White Sugar
Next time you are at someone’s house or the grocery store, where flour or sugar is in plain view, take a close look at it. What do you notice? That it is the purest white. Sugar and flour does not occur like that in nature. It has been ground down to a very fine powder and then bleached. Yes, actual bleach is mixed in with the flour or sugar to make it pure white. You are eating bleach. Bon Appétit! On top of that, during the bleaching and refining process, all the nutrients that occur naturally in it are processed out of it and must be put back in, hence the “enriched” part that goes with the “bleached”. Anyone care for a slice of Wonderbread?
Mono-Sodium Glutamate or MSG
A common flavor enhancer in many oriental foods, MSG is an Excitotoxin which has health effects known as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (Wiki):
In April 1968, Ho Man Kwok wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine where he said, "I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant, especially one that served northern Chinese food. The syndrome, which usually begins 15 to 20 minutes after I have eaten the first dish, lasts for about two hours, without hangover effect. The most prominent symptoms are numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations..."
MSG has been linked to all kinds of health problems, including Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and Stroke. It is physically and chemically addicting and can make you fat. On top of that, the FDA is not required to label it properly and it can lurk in foods with other names, such as “spices” and “natural and artificial flavors.” Yikes! (Recent studies say that the effects of MSG are false, but still, why take the risk when there are plenty of healthy alternatives available?).
Okay so what CAN I Eat?
Give people the above information, and you are going to get mixed results from “Oh that’s just a bunch of health-nut jargon” to “Oh we don’t eat enough of that stuff to make a difference.” Well take a look around. Seventy-five percent of today’s US population is overweight. Chances are, three out of four of the people in the room you are in are overweight. This is a recent phenomenon, known as the “obesity epidemic.” That, along with the rise of diseases such as cancer that are rampant in our society today should tell you that something unhealthy has to be going on. Taking even small steps can help you be healthy and, if you want, lose weight. Something as simple as no longer drinking beverages with high-fructose corn syrup in them might be enough for you to see big results, especially if you’ve never taken any steps to be healthy in the past. If you want to go even further with changing your eating habits into healthy ones, here are some recommendations.
Whole Foods, Slow Foods, Raw Foods.
Perhaps our best sources of nutrition are right under our noses. It’s nothing that has to be preserved, processed, or even prepared. This is the concept behind whole foods. Fresh produce, whole grains, eggs and other more pure sources of protein aren't processed and are therefore superior sources of nourishment.
If by processing you mean cooking, and you want to go hardcore on the whole nutrition thing, then raw foods might be for you. These are foods that are not even cooked. They may be chopped up, or pureed, such as in a blender or food processor, but that’s it. These foods have the most nutritive value because during the cooking process, some nutrients are lost.
If you cook your food, cook it slowly. Spend time with it, braising and broiling and baking it. Take your time and cook it from scratch. Savor what you are eating, and you will feel very satisfied in many ways. This is the concept behind the slow foods movement. All of these movements are created out of backlash by all this unhealthy and fast-paced stuff going on.
Organic Foods: Good Stuff on the Labels
Perhaps the most confusing and trendy new concept in food labeling and marketing is the concept of organic foods. Organic foods are foods that are not grown using any pesticides, hormones or antibiotics. It may be anything from a carrot to a cow. Organic farming is done differently too. Organic pesticides involve natural predators for example, that are placed on or near the crop and eat its enemies. Organic soil is built up from compost (natural decaying matter such as manure and plant refuse) rather than depleting the soil of nutrients and building it up with chemical fertilizers. Because of this some sources say that organic food is more nutrient dense and tastes better. Individual tastes are best left to opinion, but one thing is certain: organic food is more ethical and environmentally friendly.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture caught onto this, they developed an official label for organic foods. If a food is more than 95% organic, then it can be labeled U.S.D.A. Organic. Here's an article that describes organic labeling more fully.
Keepin’ It Real: Food Labels and Real Life
“Who has the time?” you might say. Most people don’t picture themselves walking down the aisle of a grocery store and reading every label. And while you certainly don’t have to do that, it might be a good idea just to take a quick glance every once in a while at your favorite products to see what’s in them. You might be surprised that a “diet” cookie is loaded with sugar, or that your “healthy” protein bar is packed with protein from genetically-modified soybeans. Learning about what’s in our food may give you pause, and might help lead you toward more nutritious choices that you can feel good about, both for your body and also ethically.
Simply by taking a few seconds out of our busy schedule to glance at food labels, you can begin to make slow, small changes and thus begin to live a more healthy life. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Even by doing a small thing such as purchasing an organic apple instead of a conventionally grown one, you are helping fund a less-polluted planet. If you look at it as a few seconds for not just your life, but for others, you may begin to see a bigger, better picture, starting with yourself.
And if you really can't find the time to read your labels, I have one more tip for you that will go a long way in your journey to a healthier lifestyle: Keep your ingredient list short! The longer your ingredient list, the less healthy it is likely to be. Stick to pure, unprocessed foods that come with as few ingredients as possible. A great example is the wonder grain oatmeal which has only one ingredient on it's label which is oatmeal itself. You can't go wrong with that, can you?
Health and Wellness Blogger