Today I was reading an exhaustive list of questions to ask and things to look out for when reading labels in a grocery store. I like to look through things like this because I’m interested in the different ways my colleagues educate people about what is in their food. This list was well-written by a food activist whose top priority is removing harmful chemicals and additives from our food supply (read it here if you are interested).
The list was long.
About three-quarters of the way through it, I asked myself, “Why does it have to be this hard?”
The truth is, buying healthy food doesn’t have to be hard. It’s hard because we insist on buying processed food, thinking it is the easier option. We don’t have time to make something from scratch, so we buy what we think is an equivalent in a box. Little do we know that the food additives that make our lives easier are also making us sick and fat. Even the ones labeled “all natural,” or “low fat,” or “whole grain,” or gluten-free.”
Oh, yes. Especially the ones with healthy-sounding labels.
Do you know what is in those boxes that make your life so much easier? It’s not food, I’ll tell you that!
Those boxes contain colors that are linked to hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders and cancer; emulsifiers and preservatives that wreck your gut microbiota; other additives (like MSG) that trick you into overeating and entice you into coming back for more. Then, of course, there’s excess sugar, salt, and hydrogenated oils that we kind of know are somehow bad.
Think you’re okay if you stick to products labeled organic or “natural”? Yeah, I did, too. Do you know what carrageenan is? It’s an emulsifier in natural and organic food that is used in laboratories to cause inflammation of the digestive tract! It’s made from seaweed, so technically it’s natural. Challenge yourself to find deli meat, nut milk, or yogurt that doesn’t contain carrageenan next time you’re in the supermarket. It’s hard.
These ingredients have no nutritional purpose. You don’t need carrageenan in your food. Each of those ingredients that you can’t pronounce or wouldn’t stock in your actual pantry serve the purpose of convincing you to buy more fake food. They keep things creamy, provide the perfect color, prevent caking, are cheaper, or make the product last longer on supermarket shelves. Using food additives makes the multi-million dollar corporations more money. That is their only purpose.
Ever wonder why you crash in the afternoon? Or have joint pain? Or suffer from headaches? Or depression? Or acne, eczema, or rosacea? Or have thinning hair? Or have asthma? Still having trouble losing the weight even though you have been killing yourself at the gym? Should I go on?
Worse, the “Big Food” industry regularly runs campaigns and educational opportunities aimed at “educating” registered dieticians. Frito-Lay sponsors registered dietician training conferences that educate dieticians about how ingredients such as those in Fritos are heart healthy! If that isn’t the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard…wait, it seems like I’ve heard something like that before. Oh, yeah! Medical conventions sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. I digress. Fortunately, dieticians aren’t dumb and have formed a group called Dieticians for Professional Integrity that seeks distance themselves from Big Food companies.
If you are going to eat anything other than produce, meat from a trusted source, or that you grew yourself, you are going to want to investigate what is in your food. It matters! Even things that seem “healthy” on the surface can be ugly when you look closer. For example, a preservative called TBHQ (or butane) is only approved for use in extremely limited amounts. However, the maximum amount can be used in each meal component at a fast food restaurant. The meat can have the maximum amount. The bun can have the maximum amount. And an extra dose can be added in the fries for good measure. TBHQ is regulated and so highly limited because it has been linked to ADHD, asthma, and dermatitis. (1) Maybe avoiding things with federal regulations attached to them might be a good plan.
What about the ingredient that is in crackers, chips, roasted nuts, and fruit snacks that is actually industrial waste? I’m looking at you cottonseed oil! This is also what Crisco is made of, by the way. It’s straight up waste from the cotton industry repackaged, rebranded, and sold as food. The common ingredient “cellulose” is also waste from the cotton industry, although to be fair, sometimes wood pulp is used as cellulose additives as well. (2) I did not know this until today.
This is stuff you’re putting in your body! Many of these things are not allowed in other countries due to health concerns. I could go on and on, but all I’m asking is that you do a little research into what you are eating every day. Your body is constructed out of these ingredients. Every cell, hormone, chemical, neuron, and strand of hair that makes you who you are is made from these ingredients that aren’t even food!
But don’t take my word for it. Learn what is in your food! Learn what these ingredients are and what they do to your body. This is a great place to start.
When I talk to people about cutting processed food out of their diet, most of the resistance comes in the form of, I can’t because…”I don’t have the time,” “I’m on the go all the time and can’t pack my food,” “I don’t have the energy by the time I get home at the end of the day.” And, you know what? I get it. I do. I’m a business owner and a mom of a busy girl. I know all about shelling out time and effort and coming up short when it’s time for dinner.
If this article and a little poking around of your own has motivated you to at least make a few small changes in the way you and your family eat, here are a few tips as to how you can identify the processed stuff and get fake food out of your diet.
- The easiest thing to do is to buy only single ingredient food. Produce, meat, eggs, beans, rice, etc. that have nothing added. Frozen is okay as long as the ingredients say “broccoli” and that’s it.
- One tip I have heard quite often is “look for products that have less than 5 ingredients.” That’s great, except for Fritos only have 3 ingredients. Are those good for you? They also say “Heart Healthy” on the label. Believe them yet? They are deep fried in corn oil which is super inflammatory because of the way it is processed. But, only 3 ingredients!
- Another common tip is to never buy anything with an ingredient you can’t pronounce. This is a solid plan, but I can pronounce MSG. I would add to this by saying, don’t buy anything with ingredients that you can’t picture growing in the ground or in an animal.
- Educate yourself about ingredients. Not only the ingredients but how these ingredients are grown, extracted, or manipulated and where they come from. Cellulose seems like a harmless ingredient. All plants contain cellulose. It is a beneficial fiber. However, cellulose added as an anti-caking ingredient in processed food is decidedly different than the stuff in celery.
- If it has a health claim on the packaging, it is likely not healthy. Case in point, the Fritos that are “Heart Healthy” or the sugary kid’s cereal that is “An excellent source of whole grain.”
- “If it is a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” (Michael Pollan, Food Rules) ‘Nuff said.
Now that we’ve taken practically every food out of your pantry, what are you supposed to eat? You’re busy, I get it. Here are some tips on how to make a whole food dinner in about the same amount of time that you would be waiting in line at the local burger joint.
- Learn to cook. I mean, really cook. Did you know that Betty Crocker wasn’t a real person? The Betty Crocker cookbook that is in everyone’s home was created to teach housewives how to use all of the new processed foods that were starting to flood the market. Need to know how to use cream of mushroom soup? Betty can help you with that. And so we’ve forgotten how to use real ingredients. You can take a cooking class or look up some tips on YouTube.
- Become a prepper. Chop veggies and marinate meats ahead of time so you can simply throw a meal together when you are short on time. Make your sauces and freeze them. Or make all of your meals for the whole week and throw them into the freezer. Here are some tips, but by no means do you have to get super crazy about this. The simpler the better.
- Make simple meals and let everyone customize their own. Here’s what I do. A normal weeknight meal for us is mixed roast veggies or stir-fry with fish or chicken, or a sizable roast that has sat in the crockpot all day with roast veggies. Then I serve it with an array of condiments, relishes, fermented veggies, and chutneys. If someone wants it spicier, they can add spice. If someone wants more crunch, they can add it. This way you’re not making 3 meals to cater to everyone’s needs.
- Look into a food service. There are some amazing services out there that will deliver pre-prepped food to your door. Some of these services are great, some are not, so be sure to do your homework. This would save you having to grocery shop and prep, but also costs more. It’s a trade-off.
- Don’t stress out over this stuff. How many of these ingredients have we ingested in our lifetimes? Tons. Many of them we weren’t even aware of until now. Even I didn’t know “cellulose” was a disgusting thing until I researched this article. Do the best you can and don’t worry about the rest. Go out to eat sometimes. Unless you have food sensitivities, eat with abandon without worrying about what scary thing might be in your fabulous dessert. Just don’t do it every day.
If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!
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