Everybody wants to eat healthy More and more people are becoming more concerned about what they eat. We hear too much about problems with our food supply, and we know in our gut that the old saying, “you are what you eat” is true. More people are shopping at farmers’ markets and buying as much fresh local food as possible. Many are even growing a little garden in the summer. If you’re one of these people, you know you’re doing the right thing – so there’s no need to worry about what you eat -- right? Of course the part of our diet that’s fresh and healthy is good. But everybody eats more than just seasonal fruits and vegetables. Most of us also eat meat, eggs, bread, dairy products…and lots and lots of processed food. Avoiding packaged, processed food is much easier said than done! They’re too convenient to simply ignore.
However, undeniably, when it comes to staying healthy, avoiding processed foods is the "secret" of vibrant health. People who are concerned about the quality of their diet may look for healthy packaged foods to supplement the fresh – foods like granola bars, fruit-flavored yogurt, veggie burgers, trail mix, or healthy frozen dinners for example. This is good -- right? Not really. These foods that seem to be good could actually damage your health. In America today it is close to impossible to avoid foods that could damage your health. This includes food that appears to be so healthy. If you look at the labels, you will see pictures of delicious fresh food and perhaps read claims of being good for the heart or something similar. They are so inviting and the promise of health is there. Packaged foods that appear to be good for you, however, most likely contain refined grains, real or artificial sugar, refined oils, and chemicals that are definitely NOT good for you.
The sad truth is that if you rely on processed foods as a major portion of your diet, you exchange convenience for long-term health problems.
Deceptive marketing If you select food from an attractive package showing pictures of fresh foods, or sporting claims to contain fruit, veggies, or whole grains, it don’t mean the product is good for you. Marketers are tricky! For example, many products claim to be “made with real fruit” when they actually contain a very small portion of fruit concentrate. Read the label and be careful to look beyond the claims: There are many claims food manufactures use to trick you, so be doubly careful. These include:
- Natural: While a product labeled “natural” cannot contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, it can contain pesticides, genetically modified ingredients, high fructose corn syrup. It can be heavily processed, so it isn’t exactly what you might think of as “natural”.
- Healthy: A food labeled “healthy” must limit the amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium but it still may contain large amounts of sugar and artificial ingredients or preservatives. These ingredients are not healthy at all!
- Low Calorie Counts: A 20% margin of error is allowed by the FDA for calorie counts. A 500-calorie meal for example, could contain up to 100 calories more than stated on the label.
- Zero Grams of Trans Fats: If a food contains a half gram or less of trans fat per serving, it can claim to be trans-fat “free” or have “0 grams of trans fats.” As we all know, lots of people eat more than the single serving on the package suggests.
- Made With Whole Grains: Many products say they’re healthy because they contain whole grains. This claim is made even when refined flour is the first ingredient. The FDA does not define what percentage of grain must be whole in order to use this claim.
- Lightly Sweetened: The FDA regulates reduced sugar and sugar-free claims but it does not regulate the term “lightly sweetened”. A product claiming to be “lightly sweetened” could contain any amount of sugar.
- Serving Sizes: Take care because the amount of food you think of as single servings can be divided into two or more servings. This can trick you into believing the food contains less sugar, fat and calories than it really does.
- Preservatives, such as sodium benzoate, sodium nitrite, BHA, BHT, and TBHQ
- Sweeteners and artificial sweeteners, such as fructose, high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K)
- Artificial colors, such as FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, and Citrus Red No. 2
- Artificial flavors, flavor enhancers, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed soy protein, and autolyzed yeast extract
But the safety of some of the government’s allowable additives is highly questionable. Many that are approved for use in America have been linked to endocrine dysfunction and cancer. Food manufacturers can decide in many cases what is safe without any FDA oversight. “The food industry does not want us to pay attention to the ingredients nor do they care about the negative effects from eating them. They certainly don’t care about the astronomical medical bills that are a direct result of us eating the inferior food they are creating.” According to the New York Times “Honest Food Labels” March 17, 2010, safer foods have already been formulated for use in other countries. Products used in American are sometimes banned in other countries. Let’s look at a few examples of specific additives that may not be as safe as they should be: Artificial colors…Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are found in cake, candy, sports drinks, sodas, cheese, and macaroni. Kids eat a lot of this stuff! Since they are smaller, a little goes a longer way. Most are make from coal tar, a known carcinogen. BHA and BHT…found in cereal, dehydrated potatoes, and beer. BHA is thought to be carcinogenic. BHT is thought to cause toxicity of internal organs. Additives made from phosphates…found in leavened baked goods. The European Food Safety Authority has begun a reevaluation of these phosphates. They are thought to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Artificial and natural flavors...found in a great many processed foods. These are mixtures of many types of chemicals, including emulsifiers, solvents, and preservatives. Food manufacturers do not have to fully disclose their ingredients on food labels. Look for these culprits when you read labels, and if you see them, don’t buy it!
Good processed or bad processed?
The more the food is processed, the more potentially damaging it is to your health. The more steps the food goes through before it reaches your plate, the greater the chances of contamination. You might remember an interesting story about of a heavily processed food that received a lot of publicity a few years ago. An infamous snack cake was found in a landfill still “edible”! A good guideline to remember is, “good food goes bad”.
Even if you think you’re eating “good” packaged foods that are processed just a little, you may be fooled. Check out this list of processed foods most people would believe are quite healthy.
1. Yogurt – Be Careful!Many leading brands contain high-fructose corn syrup, modified corn starch, artificial coloring, and preservatives. These ingredients provide few health benefits, and high-fructose corn syrup may cause increased appetite and insulin resistance.
2. Veggie Burgers
These highly processed burgers usually have TVP, texturized vegetable protein, as their main ingredient. It is extracted protein from soy beans, cooked under pressure and dried. Even if veggies, legumes, or seeds appear further down on the ingredient list they’re not going to make it healthy. Don’t forget about the additives like artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and modified starch. TVP can cause allergic reactions in those who are sensitive to soy or MSG.
3. Multigrain Bread
Most multigrain breads sold in grocery stores is white bread with added grains and coloring. These breads may seem healthy, but they often contain a lot of sugar and minimal fiber. Look for bread with 100 % whole wheat as the first ingredient on the nutrition panel.
4. Granola Bars
These snacks seem like a healthy option, but many of them are packed with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fat, and artificial colors and flavors. Don’t take for granted that granola is healthy. Read the label before you buy.
5. "Healthy" Frozen MealsFrozen meals are convenient and often quite tasty, but they're often full of refined grains, preservatives, artificial flavors, and sodium. Processing destroys the food value of any fruit or vegetable they might contain. Many people think that if a food is plant or vegetarian based, it is automatically healthy. This is not always true. If the food is processed, it isn’t as good for you as its fresh counterpart. Good processed foods Certain minimally processed foods can be healthy choices. Generally, the fewer ingredients the better. Even though they are technically processed, here a some examples of foods that are “minimally processed” and therefore better for you than more heavily processed foods:
- Nut Butters, with just processed nuts (not sugars or emulsifiers)
- Nut Milks, like almond milk, hemp milk, rice milk, or coconut milk
- Canned or Carton Foods, like kidney beans, navy beans, black beans, tomato puree, chopped tomatoes, or organic stocks for soups
- Breads, like sprouted grain bread or brown rice burrito wraps
- Always read the ingredients label, but change the WAY you read it. Stop focusing on things like fat grams, calorie count and sugar content. Focus instead on the best indicator of quality -- the list of ingredients. If a food contains more than 5 ingredients or includes a lot of unfamiliar, unpronounceable items, you may want to move on or at least reconsider before buying.
- Avoid ingredients you believe to be harmful. These include the chemicals mentioned earlier and also things like high fructose corn syrup and trans fat like those found in margarine.
- Become more “radical”. Swapping much of your processed food for more fresh whole food may seem radical. But this is one swap you must make if you value your health. When you look back over the long history of the human race, it's actually processed foods that are brand new and "radical". People have thrived on vegetables, meats, eggs, fruits and other whole foods for millennia. They’re what we’re supposed to eat.
Drop the processed from your food and enjoy something delicious Real food tastes really great, especially when it is well-prepared and fresh. Experiment with new recipes cook food yourself. Incorporate these suggestions into your new way of eating:
- Buy fruits and vegetables as local and organic as possible.
- Buy dairy products that are organic, unsweetened, and pastured.
- Switch to whole grain products, and become delighted with their crunchy, complex flavors.
- Munch on new kinds of nuts, seeds, and nut butters and even use them in your recipes.
- Create delectable dishes using sustainably raised or wild caught seafood.
- Use natural sweeteners in moderation like raw honey and real maple syrup.