Guest Post by Kresha of Nourishing Joy
Are you working to ditch processed foods and put more real food on the table? This month we're running a series called Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner's Guide to Eating Better. Our goal is to answer the questions you might have and make the transition a whole lot easier!
Up until a few years ago, I’d always been rather naive when it came to ingredients in packaged foods. “Surely,” I thought, “they wouldn’t use anything that wasn’t actually an ingredient.” But as my family and I started our real food journey and I started reading labels, I realized I was sorely mistaken. It can be overwhelming to sort through the myriad dietary options we have, especially when life is busy, so here's a quick list of seven items to avoid on your own real food journey.
A word of grace here. This is just a list of information - guidelines, if you will. Know that all of us - yes, all of us - don't always follow them either. Don't feel frustrated if you don't keep this list "perfectly" - do what you can and at the end of each day, be joyful and satisfied that you are taking any steps at all toward healthier living.
And here's a shameless plug: because I was frustrated by all the hidden stuff in my food, especially my kids' favorite ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, and salad dressings, I wrote a cookbook to make all our favorite condiments at home - ones that look and taste like the store-bought versions! You can get free sample pages here.
image by Hadleygrass is asparagus
In 1800, the average American ate about 4 pounds of sugar each year (source). In 2011, the average per person was closer to 150 pounds. Obviously, something has changed. The big deal with sugar is that most of the sugar we're exposed to is highly refined. In its purest forms (think honey and maple syrup), sugar also includes beneficial minerals, vitamins, and the enzymes necessary to digest the sugar. But in our modern versions (yes, white table sugar and corn syrup, I'm looking at you), all those beneficial elements have been stripped away. Thus, our bodies get the load of sugar without receiving any benefits of the trace minerals.
A Wiser Choice:
- Use minimally refined sugars such as honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, sucanat, or evaporated cane sugar.
- Read "21 Ways to Eat Less Sugar" as well as "Sweeteners: How they Affect You, Which Ones are Best and How to Use Them."
- Also, remember that a sweetener doesn’t have to be sugar to be sweet. Using spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger or plant extracts such as stevia, mint, and lavender can give the sensation of a sweet treat without the overload of sugar.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Yes, we already mentioned sugar, but high fructose corn syrup is a particularly insipid refined sugar worth mentioning all on its own. At first glance, HFCS may seem rather innocuous - after all, it's a natural sweetener because it's made of corn, right? Not so much. Most corn grown in the US is genetically modified (nasty stuff). And along with that, HFCS helps you overeat, makes your liver pretend you're a raging alcoholic, causes memory loss, interrupts your ability to process emotion, and helps you gain fat, especially around the belly. Lovely.
A Wiser Choice:
- Buy foods that only list minimally refined sugars (like the ones listed above) and skip high fructose corn syrup and its refined cousin, agave nectar, entirely.
image by DixieBelleCupcakeCafe
Did you know that modern food dyes are made from petroleum? They're known for causing hyperactivity and allergic reactions like welts and hives, and the only reason they're used in food is to mimic the vivid colors of nature- after all, typically the more colorful the food, the more nutrient-dense it is: think leafy greens, beets, and bell peppers.
A Wiser Choice:
- When buying packaged products, look for those with vegetable-based colors, such as "annatto," "paprika extract," or "beetroot red."
- When needing to use food dyes at home, make your own dyes. (See how beet juice, for example, makes gorgeous pink frosting in these dark chocolate cupcakes with pretty pink buttercream or how turmeric makes a perfect yellow mustard.)
It's ironic that preservatives – which are intended to preserve food – do anything but preserve your health. Preservatives lurk in pretty much every boxed food out there. Even plain ingredients can be suspect, like most all-purpose flours, which have potassium bromate and chlorine bleach in order to keep them from oxidizing. The problem is, most industrial preservatives are known carcinogens and can cause a host of digestive issues.
A Wiser Choice:
- Buy fresh foods (be sure to wash fruits and vegetables).
- Buy organically-grown foods.
- Look for preservatives that are slightly more "natural," usually listed as "tocopherols" or anything that sounds like a vitamin, like "ascorbic acid," or "beta carotene."
- For flour, look for products that say, "unbromated" or "no additive."
- There's a really helpful list of preservatives - the good, the bad, and the ugly - at The Center for Science in the Public Interest.
image by Dominik Schwind
MSG: "A Rose by Any Other Name..."
Ah... MSG. We've all heard of it - but what is it, really? Basically, monosodium glutamate is an amino acid, one of those "good guys" who help our bodies function. However, MSG's job is to trigger messages to the brain, which means that if you've got extra glutamate floating around, it's like an overactive two-year-old on sugar trying to get your attention. Total overstimulation of the brain, which is why over time exposure to MSG tends to cause things like migraines and hives. MSG also tends to cover up non-ingredients and pass them off as real ingredients. The message that your brain receives when it tastes MSG is that it's getting protein and therefore food manufacturers can add in wood pulp (no, I'm not kidding), throw in some MSG, and our brains will still think we're getting a nutritious meal. Now, the most slippery thing about MSG is that it has about 40 different names, so it's darn difficult to avoid. You can see the entire list at TruthInLabeling.org, but basically, if the words "hydrolyzed," "amino acid," "protein," "enzyme," "yeast extract," "flavoring," or any long, chemical name appear on the label, it's likely got MSG.
A Wiser Choice:
- Buy fresh foods and foods that list "sea salt" as a flavor additive.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO Ingredients)
Today, more than 80% of all processed food includes genetically modified ingredients - and that means that most of us are eating them and don't even know it. But what's so bad about GMOs? After all, we eat foods that have been cross-bred all the time. The difference is that cross-breeding involves the same species - i.e. a hardy tomato and a juicy tomato cross-breed to create a hardy-juicy tomato. Genetic engineering injects genes from an entirely different species, say an arctic fish into a tomato, to create a new type of tomato (in that case, it was an experiment to see if it would make the tomato resistant to cold). Now, none of us have purchased a fish-tomato, and most GMOs we encounter in our food supply are there just to make the plant resistant to certain pesticides and herbicides. But that also means that our food is extra-laden with those chemicals when we purchase them. However, there has been almost NO testing done on the safety of GMOs. If no testing is allowed for food safety, then we're basically using ourselves as human guinea pigs, and I, for one, would prefer not to, thankyouverymuch. Foods using GMO ingredients are also not required to be labeled in the U.S. or Canada, despite the fact that nearly every other developed nation in the world already requires labeling. So, suffice it to say, GMOs lurk around nearly every corner, pose potentially numerous health risks, but there's no way to know whether they're safe or not.I, for one, would rather be safe than sorry.
A Wiser Choice:
- Buy organic (which isn't allowed to include GMO ingredients).
- Buy as much of your diet from the local farmer's market as possible and ask the farmer if they used GMO seed or feed.
- Keep this list of likely GMO foods in your back pocket when you go shopping.
image by tellumo
Here's a scary thought: packages can legally emblazon "0 g of trans-fats!" on their packaging as long as it has less than 0.5 g per serving. So, by decreasing the size of the serving they list on their ingredient label, they can still include trans-fats AND tell you that there aren't any trans-fats. No wonder we moms get headaches at the store. Sigh. But what are they? Basically, any oil that should be liquid at room temperature but is chemically changed in order to be solid at room temperature is a trans-fat.Margarine and vegetable shortening are good examples, although anything with "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" on the label is a trans-fat.
A Wiser Choice:
- Use fats that are naturally solid at room temperature, such as butter, coconut oil, and lard, for cooking, baking, and spreading.
- Use fats that are naturally liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil, for salad dressings and dips.