What’s In Your Food?

March 9, 2015

Do you know what you’re really eating?

“Imagine if waiters told you the truth about your dinner order. They’d probably start like this:

“Hi folks! Thanks for dining with us tonight! We’ve got some delicious specials for you. Our featured pizza comes on a dough built partially from plastic foam; topped with human hair, duck feathers and the desiccated abdomens of beetles; and finished with a delicate dusting of silicon dioxide—you know it as sand. And for the kids, we have a yummy selection of ice creams blended with wood shavings and flavored with extract from the anal scent glands of beavers. And, as always, your meal comes with a chef’s selection of more than half a dozen chemicals that are only suspected of causing—but let me emphasize, have not yet been 100 % proven to cause—obesity, hyperactivity, asthma, cancer, and diabetes!” – David Zinczenko (from Eat It to Beat It)”


As comic as the above quote is, it should scare you. More than 3,000 natural and artificial chemicals are approved by the Food and Drug Administration as preservatives, additives, artificial and “natural” flavorings.

So I’ll ask again. Do you know what you’re eating?

Once upon a time, grocery shopping was simple and natural. In these modern times, not so much.

It seems we need a doctorate in chemical biology to read a label and understand what might be in the product in our hands. And while Michael Pollan’s theory that if your grandmother wouldn’t know whether to brush her teeth with a product or eat it is solid thinking, it doesn’t help us navigate what’s in the food we eat.

Past the usual nutrition facts we seek on labels we live in a time when we need to also pay attention to the latest allergens, chemicals, genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), toxins, wood chips and other ingredients you would never consider consuming.

But don’t stress. I’m not here to make life harder. Knowing how to navigate the minefield that has become food shopping can make a difference when it comes to making the best choices. So take a deep breath and let’s dive in.


What about organic?

When a food is 100% organic, you know what you’re getting and it’s a great thing. But…when a product ‘contains organic ingredients’ you’re likely paying more for a product that may not be as great as marketing implies. For example, 70% organic ingredients sound great but what it really says is: 30% of the product might not be so great. Read labels carefully so you can make the best choice.

You can get away with some foods being made with organic ingredients but not 100% organic, but take care with others, like any animal products and all the ingredients on The Dirty Dozen list (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/) . New studies show that our bloodstream reflects the concentration of pesticides we consume so it’s important to buy organic where we can.


What’s a whole food?

Besides a grocery store chain, whole foods refer to foods with minimal or no processing. The more a food is processed, the less natural and the more profit is made from the processing (so you can see why manufacturers just love processed foods).

Look at it this way. Breads are natural foods, right? Flour and water with some yeast, correct? It might surprise you to discover that additives in commercial breads read like a chemist’s handbook: from azodicarbonamide in flour and dough to bleaching agents and dough conditioners. The good news is that truly natural breads exist and are readily available to us in grocery stores and bakeries. We just have to read the labels and remember the fewer ingredients, the better the product.

Most packaged foods come with an ingredient panel that will leave you scratching your head with wonder, so your best option is to avoid processed foods, even the ones claiming to be natural.

Go for whole grains, like brown rice and quinoa, whole beans like lentils and chickpeas and fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits. You won’t find an ingredient panel that reads like a Russian novel and you’ll have delicious and less expensive food to enjoy.


Soy for you

If you haven’t heard the controversy around soy, then you must live a very sheltered life! If you’re paying the least attention to food and where it comes from and what’s done to it, soy is on your radar. Should we eat it? Does it cause cancer? Ay, ay, ay! Let’s clear it up because there’s good and bad news about soy.

If you’re eating traditional organic soy foods like miso, tempeh, tofu or edamame and soy sauce, you can skip to the next topic of interest because you are eating some seriously healthy foods. If not, read on. Soy can be great for our health when in its whole, organic, non-GMO state but when you see it on labels in the form of isolated soy or soy isolates, you might want to choose another product. Found most often in processed foods, isolates are a far cry from whole soybeans, devoid of most of their nutritional value, very likely genetically modified, are difficult to digest and can cause stomach upset and inflammation in the body.


The sweet story of sugar

The mind-blowing truth about American sugar consumption is in. On average, we consume about 22 teaspoons a day of the sweet stuff.

Between processed foods and drinks of all kinds, we take in an awful lot of this white stuff. And while it’s natural (before bleaching and processing) the sheer volume is the problem. Sugar makes us fat, tired, suppresses immune function and is responsible for erratic mood swings due to erratic blood glucose levels.  White sugar and all its counterparts appear in more food than we can count. So look for: sugar , sucrose, caster sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, diastase, fructose, dextrose, ethyl maltol, cane sugar, cane juice, evaporated cane juice, galactose, golden sugar, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, maltose, maltodextrin, raspadora, panocha, confectioners’ sugar, turbinado sugar, raw sugar. And that’s not even all the names for sugar in foods. It’s exhausting.

Skip artificial sweeteners like saccharin, neotame, aspartame and sucralose. Not only inflammatory to your liver, they leave you craving more sweet taste due to their intensity. So you eat more in response.


Colorful foods

…and I don’t mean fruits and veggies. Chemicals used to dye foods colors that you won’t find in nature but entice with their intensity. Linked to hyperactivity, cancer, allergies and so much more, you’ll find dyes usually listed by color and number, like Red #40 and Yellow #6, they are in cereals, bright yellow cheese, granola bar filling, yogurt fruit, etc. Here’s the real kicker. Marketers know we are psychologically attracted to brightly colored foods because in nature, that means they are vitamin-rich so our brains interpret as such. A-a-a-a-r-r-r-r–g-g–h-h!


GM What?

Plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.

-From the glossary on the Monsanto website.


Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.

-World Health Organization


“Genetically Engineered Foods”, “Genetically modified organisms,” “Transgenic Foods” or GMOs are organisms that have been created through application of transgenic, gene-splicing techniques that are part of biotechnology. These transgenic methods are also known as genetic engineering.

This is a relatively new science that allows DNA from one species to be transferred into another to create a new (who knows what?) species. This science has been known to move genes from plants to animals, bacteria, even viruses from one species to another.  This mixing of genes among species that have never shared genes is what GMOs so unique…and a bit scary. This is not the same as hybridization, a natural way in which farmers have been known to improve or alter a food or crop. This is uncharted territory with no independent studies done on the long-term effects of this technology.

Present in over 70% of processed foods, America is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t require the labeling of GM ingredients in food. As a consumer, you have no idea what might contain GM material in the ingredients. And while this whole process may just seem a little creepy to us, scientists are raising real concerns about GMO’s. Their biggest worry?  This genetic tinkering could be linked to the rise of new and increased food allergies.

Biotech giants like Monsanto say there’s no need for concern to which I reply: if GMO’s are safe and are everything they are reputed to be: more nutritious; safer for farmers and the environment; safe for human consumption, then why the resistance to labeling?

They tell us it’s because we will be afraid, confused and not understand. They think we’re idiots.

The truth is GM foods are not more nutritious; farmers need to use substantially more pesticides when GM crops are planted and food allergies in our children are on the rise.

But you’re not helpless. You can choose to not buy foods containing GM ingredients. You can support organic foods by choosing them knowing you will not be consuming any GMO’s.


When shopping for produce, pay attention to those little stickers on various items. They have numbers on them:

If your produce has 4 digits, it means that it was “conventionally grown, but not organic”.

If it has 5 digits, and begins with a 9, it means that the produce was organically grown.

A 5 digit code that begins with an 8 indicates that the produce was genetically modified.

Sure, you need a magnifying glass to see the little numbers, but it’s a specific action you can take!


And then there’s meat

Now, before I begin let me say that my bias is that we do not need…nor should we eat…meat or any other animal product. But that’s me. Many people feel the need for animal food and since I love you, here’s the skinny on meat.

More than three-quarters of the antibiotics sold here in the US are to farmers for farm animals so they grow faster, fatter…and fattier. Choosing meats from a local producer that skips the use of these drugs and paying attention to how animals are raised can be helpful but antibiotics are hard to avoid.

And let’s not forget the hormones pumped into most commercial meats, like estradiol (estrogen), testosterone, progesterone and synthetic forms of estrogen.

The only way to avoid all this is to…wait for it…skip meat. But if that’s impossible for you, choose grass-fed and organic to get the most natural form of meat available.


So now what?

There was a time when farms were pastoral but now the food landscape is scarier than it should be. The good news is you are more empowered than ever to find the information you need to make the best choices for you…your family…and the planet:

Read labels intelligently.

Pay attention to certifications like 100% organic, hormone-free, non-GMO .

Visit localharvest.org to discover farm markets and local producers in your area. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and be guaranteed a share of locally grown food weekly.

Buy seasonally so you’re getting the freshest food possible.

Most important: Buy real food…whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible. Eat as Mother Nature intended and life will be just grand.


PS Kiddies: Don’t forget to post your best ideas for living a deliciously healthy life and tag me @christinacooks. Post on Facebook (Christina Cooks), Tweet your ideas (@christinacooks), post a pic on Instagram (christinacooks) and pin an idea on Pinterest (Christina Pirello). We’ll be gathering the best of the best and posting them all together at the end of the month!