Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading Food Labels

Most of us are used to seeing food labels on the products we buy. You know, where it tells us the nutritional breakdown: the calorie content, the amount of fat, the sodium, the carbs, fiber, and amount of protein. They also give us the ingredients list. Because of the nutritional label, we know more now than we ever have about the foods we are eating, and yet research suggests that most of us aren’t reading them!

I do. I have to. There are certain foods I am allergic to and need to avoid if I want to feel good. Everyone I know who is allergic to something, or is vegetarian/vegan, is an avid label-reader. Even if you’re lucky enough not to have dietary issues, you’d be doing yourself a big favor by reading them to see what you’re actually eating. A lot of the foods you buy are not as straight-forward as you might think.

I once read that we should never buy anything that contains ingredients we can’t pronounce. Chemicals and preservatives are great for the manufacturer but not for your body. I often think about what kind of havoc those unnatural ingredients could be wrecking in there. What are they doing to my heart, my brain, my stomach, my liver? There are a lot of things to avoid, but here are some of the major ones.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Despite the recent ads from the corn industry, this is a major “no no”. Studies have shown that this sugar substitute, found in so many processed foods and beverages, contributes to weight gain and may be a major cause of obesity. Many soft drinks, yogurts, industrial breads, cookies, salad dressings and tomato soups contain what critics call “a toxic chemical concoction.” I’ve listed some popular foods that contain HFCS. You’ll be shocked at what you thought was “healthy.” For those of you who still don’t believe this stuff is unsafe, here is some data on HFCS you should be aware of:

It's been clearly established that fructose is far more dangerous than other forms of sugar, mainly due to the fact that your body metabolizes fructose differently. When metabolizing fructose, the entire burden falls on your liver. This is why fructose is a hepatotoxin -- it can severely tax and overload your liver. This metabolic pathway leads to the creation of a number of waste products and toxins, including a large amount of uric acid, which drives up blood pressure and causes gout.

Most experts now believe fructose to be the primary reason for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease which can lead to liver failure. Elevated uric acid levels are also associated with heart- and kidney disease. Interestingly, the connection between fructose, uric acid, hypertension, insulin resistance and kidney disease is now so clear that your uric acid level can actually be used as a marker for fructose toxicity.

Some Items Containing HFCS:

• Yoplait Yogurt

• Special K

• Nabisco Wheat Thins

• Coca-Cola and Pepsi

• Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice

• Starbucks’ Frappuccino

• Thomas English Muffins

• Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and Corn Flakes

• Heinz Ketchup

• Miracle Whip

• Wishbone Ranch Dressing and Classic Caesar

Partially Hydrogenated Oil (Trans Fat)

There’s no controversy over whether partially hydrogenated oils, which are, in short, trans fats, are unhealthy for us. In fact, they are so unhealthy that certain states have completely banned the sale of them. Though they have been banned and many labels indicate there are “no Trans Fats” in their product, if anything on the label says “partially hydrogenated”, it’s a trans fat. Sorry, it’s true. The hydrogenation process imparts desirable features such as spreadability, texture, "mouth feel," and increased shelf life to naturally liquid vegetable oils. Adding hydrogen atoms to polyunsaturated fats converts a natural food (the vegetable oil) into many compounds, some of which have never seen before by man until partially hydrogenated fats were manufactured. The body just simply doesn’t know what to do with these compounds and therefore, trans fats have been shown to cause all sorts of health problems from heart disease to liver toxicity. Basically anything in a box is out!

Some Items Containing Trans Fat:

• Bisquick Cake Mixes

• Ramen Noodles

• Girl Scout Cookies

• Pop Secret Popcorn

• French Fries

• Quaker Oats Chewy Granola Bars

• Saltine Crackers

• Nabisco Fig Newtons

• Ritz Crackers

• Fortune Cookies

• Margarine

Sodium Nitrate

Many processed foods contain the preservative Sodium Nitrite, NaNO2, especially canned meats. This additive, which is also found naturally, helps prevent certain bacteria from forming. In other words, it helps keep our meats looking deliciously pink. However, this convenient ingredient is also linked to a higher risk of cancer.

Meats that Contain Sodium Nitrate:

• Hot Dogs

• Sausages

• Bologna

• Ham

• Bacon

• Most deli meat

Aspartame and Saccharine

For all you dieters, this one may be the hardest, but you should know that aspartame and saccharine are popular artificial sweeteners that have been directly linked to cancer! Aspartame has also been shown to be a neurotoxin, and Splenda is no better: it contains chlorine molecules. You would do far better to use natural sweeteners like honey, agave, molasses, or maple syrup than increase your risk of cancer, but consume them in small quantities.

Some Items Containing Aspartame and Saccharine:

• NutraSweet

• Sweet N Low

• Equal

There is so much debate about what to eat and what not to eat. Eat by nutritional type, eat according to your blood type, Atkins or its many derivatives, eat high-protein/low carb, or high carb/low fat, etc. But it seems to me that the best advice about what/what not to eat is to eat simply and in moderation.

Food should be simple, as Nature intended. The less processed it is, the more “whole”, the better it is for your health. And it usually tastes far better than its processed counterpart. Sometimes labels show a whole slew of ingredients for something that should be relatively straight-forward, but instead there are all these things listed that aren’t really food. Next time you shop, read the label on everything you pick up. Choose only those things that have short lists and items you can readily identify.

If you’re interested in reading more, I highly suggest any of the books written by Michael Pollan. In his book Food Rules, I particularly like rule #19:

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

Read the label!

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