Hey all! We’ve been out-of-state for the last month or so, visiting family and friends, but now that we’re back (and it’s summer) I finally have time to tackle a project that has been on my mind for the last few months: reading our food labels.
It sounds really silly, but a few months ago I began to wonder more about what, exactly, I eat. I did some investigation — checked out Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food from the library and read some highly informative blogs — and realized that (a) I really DON’T know what I’m eating, and (b) there are some really bad things out there I could be putting in my body. So today I decided to go on an expedition and find out what is lurking in our cupboards. The following details the highlights of that expedition, as well as some of the questions I asked along the way.
What I decided to do was sort the contents of our cupboards into three piles:
1. I know what all the ingredients are!
2. I don’t know one or two of the ingredients and I need to do a little research.
3. There are so many weird ingredients that I can’t believe I ate this!
Once I finished sorting everything (it didn’t take too long, since we’d been gone a month and I needed to go grocery shopping anyway), I had 3 piles of roughly equal size. The first was comprised mostly of fruit and whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, etc.). The second contained an assortment of cans that had few ingredients, but at least one I didn’t know about, and also lots of baking supplies (like “enriched flour” and baking powder). The third group had all sorts of stuff in it, from BBQ sauce to sunflower seeds, but every one of them had a paragraph of strange ingredients (yes, even sunflower seeds!). The label that shocked me the most was a container of bread crumbs. Sounds simple, right? Dried-up bread? Wrong! Check out the ingredients list: Thiamin mononitrate? Diglycerides? Calcium carbonate? I just wanted some dried-up bread, not a whole chemistry lab! I basically decided to give away or dispose of Pile #3, because I don’t think food should be that complicated. Pile #1 I put back in the cupboard — I already know what it is, and I’m happy to eat it! But Pile #2 left me with a lot of research to do…
There were a lot of items in Pile #2 that didn’t seem terribly menacing (i.e. they only had one strange ingredient), but that still didn’t help me know whether to put it in the cupboard or the bye-bye pile, so I decided to learn some things! Here are the questions I wrote down from my “investigation” pile.
1. What is “enriched” flour? How is it different from not-enriched flour?
Enriched flour is flour in which most of the natural vitamins and minerals have been extracted. This is done in order to give bread a finer texture and increase shelf life. When the bran and the germ (the parts of the wheat that contain fiber and nutrients) are removed, your body absorbs wheat differently. Instead of being a slow process that gives you steady bursts of energy, your body breaks down enriched flour more quickly, which typically raises blood sugar more quickly as well. This excess blood sugar has to be metabolized by the liver, and if there’s an excess of sugar, your body will store some of it as fat. Read that again: your body STORES IT AS FAT. All this and you’re not even getting close to the amount of nutrients that whole grains contain. In other words, enriched flour sounds healthy but isn’t so healthy after all. (Jodi Davis at A Healthier Michigan)
The author goes on to add that “if it doesn’t say “whole,” then it’s the same stuff.” So out goes my enriched flour — and in comes my whole wheat flour!
2. What is the deal with different kinds of oils? Are some better than others?
In order to understand the different oils, it’s important to understand the different types of fats. I don’t really have time or space to go into that here (although my biochemistry major husband did an excellent job of explaining), so here’s what we’re gonna do. For all you scientists, check out this awesome sciencey article. For everyone else, read this pretty good explanation and list of oils to avoid and use (also see below). I will be posting a follow-up post on this sometime soon, complete with chemistry, but I will speak in English major language! =)
Here’s what it all boils down to.
Oils to avoid: Vegetable Oil, Organic Vegetable Oil, Soybean Oil, Corn Oil, Canola Oil, Organic Canola Oil, Grape Seed Oil, Hydrogenated Oils, Margarine, and any oil that is labeled as refined, hydrogenated, or partially-hydrogenated.
Oils to put in your cupboard: Coconut Oil, Raw or Cultured Butter, Olive Oil, Red Palm Oil, Sesame Oil, and Flaxseed Oil.
In my cupboard: coconut oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, butter.
3. What is xanthan gum?
Ok. This one was actually somewhat complicated. According to several websites, xanthan gum is a sugar that is added to foods to keep them together — like gluten-free baked goods, or sauces that have to stay preserved without separating. Apparently it can also be taken in higher doses for use as a laxative (?).
Here’s my conclusion: It sounds like xanthan gum isn’t horrible for me to eat… but it doesn’t sound like it’s particularly nutritive either. So I’m going to try to avoid it when I can.
In the fridge: Thai chili sauce (with xanthan gum)… but that’s it, since I can find awesome salsa without.
4. What is pectin?
Pectin is another thickening agent, but it is used mostly just for jellies and jams. It does occur naturally in a lot of fruits, but some types of fruit require additional pectin (that has probably been extracted and isolated from other fruits) in order to be successfully preserved for longer periods of time. Apparently it also works as a digestive regulator. (Read a little background here.)
The verdict: Again, it sounds like this is not horrible — but I don’ t necessarily want to eat a bunch. Avoid when possible, because I’d rather eat it where it occurs naturally than where someone has sucked it out of another fruit and added it to a “fruit product”.
In the fridge: Nothing so far. BUT I am resolved to investigate further.
5. Why do canned tomatoes (and some other fruits) have citric acid added to them? Don’t they already have acid in the tomatoes themselves?
Apparently, although fruits like tomatoes and pineapple already contain natural acid, additional citric acid or ascorbic acid is often added as a preservative and, according to this website, is supposed to make sure the canned items retain their color and texture.
I’m starting to notice a theme here… added chemicals = make the food prettier and tastier for a very long time. So the point is really about convenience and companies being able to crank stuff out and put it on a shelf for a long time, or you being able to keep it in your pantry for a long time.
Verdict: Yet again, probably won’t kill me, but especially since I already deal with acid reflux, why ingest more acid than I need to?
6. What is tomato paste?
Ok, thanks to this excellent explanation by cookthink, I finally understand what tomato paste IS! I am truly feeling my cooking ignorance here, because I never realized before that “spaghetti sauce” and “tomato paste” are really just cooked-down tomatoes. Wow. I feel dumb. Or maybe it’s just that I’m so used to this stuff coming in a can or a tube that I never actually stopped to wonder how a person might make it. Well, now I know!
7. What is meant by “natural flavors”? What sorts of added flavors are good or bad?
For a more detailed answer to this question, read this excellent Q&A article on this very topic. Here’s my summary: Basically all “natural” means is that it was made in a laboratory but with NATURAL starting materials… so it’s often the exact same flavor molecule as artificial flavors, just more expensive to make. Good to know.
8. What are baking soda and baking powder made of?
Baking soda is an acid salt made by combining an acid and a base. It can be found naturally — mined, in fact — but most baking soda is human-made. (For more info, read here!) Looks like the process may have some environmental side effects (which is another kettle of fish), but it doesn’t appear to put anything weird into my body.
Baking powder is basically made of baking soda and cream of tartar… and in many cases, also contains aluminum! But apparently it’s also rather easy to make your own, seeing as baking soda and cream of tartar are probably both things I’d have in my cupboard anyway.
Into the cupboard: Baking soda and cream of tartar!
SIDE NOTE: If you’re curious (as I was) how people baked things before chemical leaveners were invented, check out this highly informative thread of comments on the subject.
9. What is corn starch? What is corn meal? (And what’s the difference?)
Corn starch is essentially ground-up corn where all of the kernel except the endosperm (the white part in the middle) has been removed. It’s very fine and is often used as a thickening agent. Based on my previous grain research, it doesn’t seem that corn starch is actively bad for you… just that it has no nutrients (the nutritious parts of the kernel having been removed). So as long as I’m not eating entire baked goods made of cornstarch, a little bit probably won’t hurt me. (Also, cornstarch can be used to make Oobleck! Check it out!)
Corn meal, on the other hand, is coarsely-ground corn. Like flour, it comes in “enriched” and non-enriched varieties. It does NOT make Oobleck… but I bet it makes really yummy cornbread!
Into the cupboard: Whole corn meal, bag o’ cornstarch… but use in moderation.
10. What is soy lecithin?
According to this article, soy lecithin is an emulsifier (a thing that keeps other things together) that’s extracted from soybeans. It also says that it can be used as a dietary supplement. Interesting!
Well, again, I’m not gonna bake a cake outta this stuff, but a bit here and there isn’t gonna kill me. So I’ll keep my dark chocolate… but eat in moderation. (Which I should probably do anyway, considering it’s chocolate!)
11. What is evaporated cane juice?
Apparently evaporated cane juice is actually “a healthy alternative to refined sugar“. Who knew?
12. Is it bad to have extra vitamins and things added to food?
It seems like there are a few cases where adding a nutrient into the flour or something like that was helpful in fighting some widespread disease. But it seems that usually people add in vitamins just to replace the ones they accidentally killed by processing the food in the first place! It also seems that once one food producer starts adding a certain vitamin, then EVERYBODY does it and before you know it you’re actually getting an overdose of vitamins or justifying poor eating habits because “well, at least my Sugary Fruit Ring Cereal has VITAMIN C!!!”
Conclusion: The best way to eat healthily — and get the appropriate intake of vitamins, etc. — is just to eat naturally healthy food! No amount of added “health benefits” is going to make Cheetos a good food choice. In the same vein, you can’t ruin a good carrot. So, while I will be making a few compromises (e.g. keeping my Thai chili sauce and dark chocolate), I think I will mostly put my food-energy towards simply eating things that are good for me. Because really, if I’m consuming huge quantities of ice cream and chocolate, I have bigger problems than how much xanthan gum I ingested in the process. Eating is not about the legalism of the new fad diet OR the organic chemical-counter — it’s about enjoying the food and about having a healthy, energized body. Plain and simple.