What’s In Your Food?

For all our pickiness, many popular American foods contain some truly strange ingredients. Most of us are clueless that our favorite processed foods contain cellulose aka wood pulp, cotton seed oil, a inherently rancid by product of the fabric industry, and synthetic food dyes that are linked to hyperactivity in children.

Sometimes we don’t care what’s in your food. You want to eat something convenient or cheap, or want to fulfill a nostalgic food craving.

What is disturbing is how often creepy ingredients show up in packaged foods that advertise themselves as healthy. Pull out the magnifying glass and a skeptical eye whenever you see an ingredients label.

Here are things to watch out for when checking labels:

1. “Natural” is printed large on the package.
There are no FDA regulations which foods can be labeled as “natural.” High fructose syrup and dog hair can both be labeled as “natural.” Natural is a desperate last resort when a company can’t make a better claim.

2. It’s advertised as low-fat, low-carb, high fiber, etc.
These foods focus on latest health fads to distract from the creepy ingredients it does contain. I challenge you to find a “high fiber food” that doesn’t contain cellulose. Most low fat foods contain gums and yet more cellulose to create a rich texture and extra sugar to improve the taste. Low-carb often means artificial sweeteners and other lab made mystery ingredients to lend an appealing flavor and texture. Avoid ingredients with vague or scientific sounding names with too many syllables. Some ingredients are so common, we feel like we know what they are, even if we don’t. For example, most citric acid doesn’t come from citrus. Citric acid and xanthan gum are both produced by mold and can cause reactions in people with yeast overgrowth and mold allergies. Caramel coloring is inherently inflammatory and is linked to hypertension. Just because you’ve seen it listed over and over again doesn’t mean it’s totally safe.

3. It’s a junk food that claims to be healthy.
Remember the first time you saw gluten-free cookies? Or vegan cupcakes? Or heard that agave nectar is a healthy sweetener, overlooking the fact that it contains more fructose than high fructose corn syrup?  We want to pretend that junk is good for us, and food manufacturers know this. The corn industry is renaming high fructose corn syrup “corn sugar” because it sounds healthier. The sugar industry prefers to use the term “dehydrated cane juice,” and aspartame will soon be known as “amino sweet.” Premium saltines have “0% trans fats” printed on their boxes, and yet partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is on the ingredients list. The amount of trans fats in what Premium calls a serving is a small enough that they can claim 0% according to FDA rules. Never mind that their idea of a serving is unrealistically small. Portion size information is unregulated, so many products list tiny portions in order to manipulate their nutrient information.

So what should you eat?

1. Choose foods that doesn’t have labels.
Flaxseed can’t tell you that it has 3 grams fiber in one tablespoon, but it does. Add some ground flax to your salad for an instant fiber boost. Brazil nuts can’t tell you that they contain more of the super antioxidant selenium than any other food on the planet, but they do. Brazil nuts make a great mid-morning snack. Ignore the hype and enjoy real food, not manufactured foods with ulterior motives. You can learn the nutrient value of any food from the USDA Database.

2. Learn how to cook
Start with baby steps. If you are a ramen nut, add some fresh vegetables to your soup. When you feel braver, try creating your own version by cooking some brown rice noodles in organic chicken broth, and add vegetables and a little soy or fish sauce. It doesn’t take much more time to cook, and this process forces you to slow down and demonstrate self-care.
Check out this recipe for dairy-free chocolate popsicles. Enrolling in a cooking class can also really help boost motivation and build confidence in the kitchen.

3. Eat local and high quality
Be picky when eating out or choosing a prepared food.  I tend to trust smaller, local companies that pride themselves on high quality ingredients. Read the ingredients label carefully if choosing a packaged food, and then really appreciate how much better it tastes. The price difference may mean you eat smaller portions or less frequently, but the quality more than makes up for quantity. A big clue on who to trust is to avoid “health food” companies are owned by large corporations who have a history of adding questionable ingredients to their products. To top it off, many of these companies are funding a bill that prevents labeling of GMO foods. The health of the public isn’t a concern when profit is on the line. You may save money when you side step packaged foods which tend to be more expensive and choose to to cook from scratch. Ultimately eating better will reduce the huge financial burden on health care down the line. Eating healthy, delicious food is cheap in comparison, and a lot more fun.

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