I never eat processed foods. Except when I do.
In Sandy’s Perfect World, I eat perfectly and cook for my family perfectly all the time–with organic food grown and harvested from my back yard. But Sandy’s Perfect World is fake. Sometimes, I just do the easier, quicker thing for the sake of balance.
Reality is, I purchase and eat a mixture of whole foods and minimally processed foods, none of which are grown or harvested from my yard. I cook from scratch some nights—but other nights I microwave frozen burritos or make boxed mac and cheese. I order pizza once a week and eat out on Saturdays. I buy cereal, bottled salad dressings, chips, crackers and bread.
Maybe that causes you to question my qualifications as a health and wellness blogger—or maybe it endears you to me because I’m keepin’ it real. I hope it’s the latter.
That said, I am very picky about the kinds of processed foods I purchase and place on our pantry shelves. It’s so confusing, trying to decode all those ingredients listed on the package, isn’t it? Understanding what goes into processed foods—even the organic varieties—requires a degree in molecular chemistry (is that even a real degree?).
My degree is in Communication. So, basically, I can correct your grammar or critique your verbal presentation–I could probably even diagram your sentence–but I have been as clueless as anyone about chemically-sounding ingredients. I’ve had to educate myself about every mystery ingredient to see if it’s good or bad for me. And since my husband, my kids and some of my friends hand me packages on a regular basis and ask, “Is this healthy?” I thought I’d pass what I’ve learned to you.
This is Part One of a Fitness Friday Series I’ll be doing on the Mystery Ingredients in your processed foods. Hopefully, the series will become a quick reference to help you know what to forbid, what to discourage and what to allow.
Part One: The Forbidden List:
This week, I’m focusing on the chemicals I refuse to eat and refuse to feed my kids. To me, these are the worst and most poisonous, and I disallow them as much as it depends on me. I’d like to say I NEVER allow them, but I know just as soon as I say that, one of my kids will show up with some partly-hydrogenated something-or-other that they got from so-and-so’s mom. Some of it truly is out of my control. And sometimes, it’s just not worth the fight. And, as I type this, it’s Halloween. So…yeah. I do my best.
I also want to qualify my list by admitting that no one in my family has food allergies or food sensitivities. If you do, of course, your list will include those ingredients you must avoid.
ASPARATAME: An artificial sweetener that is 180 times sweeter than sugar. This is commonly used in diet sodas and chewing gum and is also known as NutriSweet (this would be the blue packets on your table at the restaurant.)
Why it’s bad: Asparatame accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. Many of these reactions are very serious including seizures and death. A few of the 90 different documented symptoms caused by aspartame include: Headaches/migraines, dizziness, seizures, nausea, numbness, muscle spasms, weight gain, rashes, depression, fatigue, irritability, tachycardia, insomnia, vision problems, hearing loss, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, loss of taste, tinnitus, vertigo, memory loss, and joint pain.
According to researchers and physicians studying the adverse effects of aspartame, the following chronic illnesses can be triggered or worsened by ingesting of aspartame: Brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, parkinson’s disease, alzheimer’s, mental retardation, lymphoma, birth defects, fibromyalgia, and diabetes.
SUCRALOSE: An artificial sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Also known as Splenda (the yellow packets on your table at the restaurant.) I have found sucralose in a number of “healthy” drinks and meal replacements, like Vitamin Water, Fuze, recovery drink mixes and protein bars. Even samples handed to my husband at Iron Man triathlon events. Very frustrating!
Why it’s bad: People think this one is safe because it’s “made from sugar.” But recent studies have revealed links to weight gain, disruption of sleep patterns, sexual dysfunction, increases in cancer, MS, Lupus, diabetes, and a list of epidemic degenerative diseases. And a recent Purdue University study found this fake sweetener to wreak havoc on the metabolism of laboratory animals. Which may explain why people who consume diet sodas and “sugar free” processed foods tend to still gain weight.
Don’t Be Fooled! A sweet drink or food that says “Sugar free!” or “Low Calorie!” sounds great, but I can almost guarantee it contains Asparatame or Sucralose. Don’t eat these!! EVER! (and this time I really do mean never!)
HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP (HFCS): A highly processed liquid sweetener and preservative. HFCS is one of the most commonly seen ingredients in highly processed foods. If I start reading the back of a package and see “high fructose corn syrup” listed, I know immediately the product is a poor-quality, nutritionally depleted, processed industrial food full of empty calories and artificial ingredients. (Ask me how I REALLY feel).
Why it’s bad: Holy cow, where do I start?
- First, HFCS contains contaminants including mercury that are not regulated or measured by the FDA.
- Second, (this is going to get scientific, so stick with me) regular cane sugar (sucrose) is made of two-sugar molecules bound tightly together – glucose and fructose in equal amounts. The enzymes in your digestive tract must break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are then absorbed into the body. HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, not in a 50-50 ratio, but a 55-45 fructose to glucose ratio in an unbound form. Fructose is sweeter than glucose. Since there is there is no chemical bond between them, no digestion is required so they are more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream. Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol). This is why it is the major cause of liver damage in this country and causes a condition called “fatty liver” which affects 70 million people. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin – our body’s major fat storage hormone. Both these features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more.
- Third, high doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia, and accelerated aging.
Naturally occurring fructose in fruit is part of a complex of nutrients and fiber that doesn’t exhibit the same biological effects as the free high fructose doses found in “corn sugar”.
Don’t be fooled! The “nice mom” in the HFCS commercials assuring you that HFCS is just like real sugar is a paid actress reading a script—she might not even be a mom! HFCS is NOT biochemically the same as regular cane sugar and does NOT have the same affect on the body.
PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED OIL: An oil that has been partially hardened through chemical means and contributes to trans fat in foods. Margarine sticks and processed snack foods like chips, crackers, cookies, icings and microwave popcorn are often made with hydrogenated oils. In restaurants, deep-fried foods like French fries or doughnuts may contain trans fats. Be especially wary of baked goods, pie crusts and frosting.
Why it’s bad: Trans fats have no nutritional benefit whatsoever. They raise the level of LDL, or bad cholesterol, which deposits fat in the blood vessels. They also lower the level HDL, or good cholesterol, which removes fats from the arteries and helps protect against heart disease.
An article on trans fatty acids and coronary heart disease published in the October 2006 “Nutrition in Clinical Practice” reports that partially-hydrogenated oils may be responsible for between 30,000 and 100,000 premature deaths each year in the United States.
Don’t be fooled! The FDA allows foods with less than 0.5 percent of trans fat per serving to be labeled “zero trans fats.” Read the ingredients. If it says, “partially hydrogenated oil,” there will be trans fat in the food—even if it says “Trans Fat—0g.”
Three easy ways to avoid Forbidden Mystery Ingredients:
- Eat whole foods (single ingredient, all natural foods), like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and meat. You will never find a “list of ingredients” on a bag of apples or a head of lettuce.
- Shop at Whole Foods: On their website is a list of “Unacceptable Ingredients” which include all of the ones I mentioned today—plus 78 more. Meaning they do not sell foods with those ingredients in them, ever.
- Buy organic: Don’t confuse “natural” with “organic.” Products labeled “organic” require auditing & have a certification seal; whereas the term “natural” is not regulated at all. The USDA guidelines for “natural” state: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color that is only minimally processed may be labeled ‘natural.’ The label must explain the use of the term (i.e. no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed).” Natural products should have no artificial preservatives, chemical additives artificial sweeteners or no hydrogenated oils . But you must read ingredients for yourself. For example, high fructose corn syrup, a highly processed ingredient and unnatural ingredient is sometimes used in products labeled “natural” because it is derived from corn! (For a more detailed post on the terms like “organic,” “all natural,” and “grass-fed” click here)
Tune in next Friday when I’ll reveal Part Two of the Mystery Ingredients: The Highly Discouraged List—foods I really try to avoid, but sometimes make an exception.
Q4U: Do you have a Forbidden List? What’s on it?
Resources for this article:
Ingredient Decoder: A list of which ingredients we’d use at Kashi and which we avoid (a magazine advertisement by Kashi)