A look at processed foods, and why no healthy diet should include them.
Maybe you’re finally living on your own, or perhaps the parentals took a little getaway and left you to fend for yourself for the week. Either way, there’s nothing worse than waking up hungry to an empty fridge. So you take your fine behind on down to the grocery store to stock up on food (because we know you’re trustworthy and NOT throwing a rager!). Wandering through the aisles, your eyes skip the 1R-approved snacks, and instead go to the TV dinners, frozen pizzas, hearty soups, filling chips and dips, sugary sports drinks, sodas, and other childhood favs. Stop right there! Remove the Hungry Man XXL dinner from your cart. You’ve now entered the freaky world of processed foods, where no healthy diet ever resides, so you had better be label reading!
What exactly are processed foods? So happy you asked. They’re any foods altered from their natural state – usually for shelf life and ease of transportation. Basically the majority of the foods you’re finding in your grocery store. Processed foods are usually depleted of nutrients – including good fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Then they’re pumped full of ingredients to change the taste (sugar is sweet but aspartame is sweeter!), shelf life (so that cupcake is still edible in a year), color (no, it’s not fruit in froot loops making your breakfast look like the rainbow), etc
What’s so wrong with that? A lot, actually, because babes, strawberry fruit rollups are not giving you the same nutrients as fresh strawberries, and many frozen meals are full of ingredients like butane (lighter fluid) to preserve freshness, plus enough salt for a month.
Beyond the freaky ingredients, which we’ll get into in a hot sec, eating a diet heavy in processed foods can increase your risk for a lot of diseases. The World Health Organization blames the drastic rise in obesity on processed foods. Then we have the rise in diabetes and heart disease… both of these are associated with intake of sugary, trans-fatty, salty refined foods. And it’s not just the cereal and cookie aisles that are to blame – processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, sausage and ham may increase your risk of colorectal, kidney and stomach cancer, too. What makes healthy eating tough is all of the nutrition claims- low-fat (which doesn’t mean healthy), trans-fat free, sugar-free, multi-grain… these make shopping so confusing and are often flat out lies, or are cover-ups for the multitude of other unhealthy ingredients.
Here are the main things to look out for:
1. Partially-hydrogenated oil
Code for trans fat- a man made oil to preserve shelf life- that is associated with heart attacks and high cholesterol. Even if a food claims to be trans fat free, it may not be. Take this for example:
So sneaky! The main place you find these suckers are in baked goods because margarine is a source- but there are so many foods out there that you would never expect- like the blandest cracker in the world, Saltines! You might also be surprised about Ritz crackers, Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles (cereals = trans fat jackpot), Fig Newtons, Quakers chewy granola bars, popcorn, candy bars, and yes, college students or future college students.... A kid on a budget fave, ramen noodles.
The biggest trans-fat surprise, though?
Commercial peanut butters like Jif and Skippy!! So, per the 1R approved dorm foods, go with natural peanut butter always.
2. Refined grains
White flour. But don't be fooled by breads that are simply the color brown, or that say 7-grain, wheat, or multigrain. This is ridiculous: they’re often just white flour colored with molasses and sprinkled with oats. You want to look for one word- it's the key to buying healthy grains.... it's not wheat, it's not oats, it's not multi or enriched. Are you on the edge of your seat??
WHOLE! Whole means the food hasn't been broken down and stripped of fiber and nutrients. Whole wheat, grains, oats, bran, brown rice... it's all good.
3. High fructose corn syrup
This one's associated with obesity, diabetes, high triglycerides, and heart disease... Ick. And it's everywhere cause it's cheap! Foods with HFCS are lacking in nutrition - and ones you probably wont be surprised about are soda, candy, cookies, cakes, cereals, or icecream. But there are lots of other foods with HFCS that probably come as a surprise. Check out this label:
Seriously, HFCS in Ketchup? It’s also in salad dressings, yogurt, applesauce, baked beans, pickles, and Wheat Thins. And many brands of breads, even ones with your new key word – Whole! Check out labels on Orowheat and Pepperidge Farms 100% whole grain bread lines. There’s only one way around it- Label reading!
Other things to watch for, in general, are ingredients you don't recognize or can't pronounce. Learned this little trick in a gem of a book called Twinkie, Deconstructed.
Taste that lemony flavor? It might very well be 2-methyl-3-pisopropylphenyl)-propionaldehyde, created in a lab and not at all from a lemon. Propylene glycol is a preservative in ice-cream, but it's also in antifreeze and paint remover, and it's toxic to the skin. Carboxymethylcellulose is a stabilizer in salad dressing, cheese spreads and chocolate milk.... and it caused tumors in 80% of rats injected. Food coloring? Yeah, quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red (E129) make your milk turn cool colors but they add no nutritional value and may be related to ADHD and/or carcinogenic. Ew.
Since I know your competitive streak would never refuse a challenge, I have one for you: start label and ingredient reading!! Even if it’s something you already have in your own kitchen, check out what’s in it.
Before I go, I’ll leave you with a little grocery store guidance: stick to the perimeter of the store where the fresh produce, meat and fish are. Use the middle of the store for beans, whole grain pastas, quinoa, barley, oats, and nuts, but unless you're committed to label reading, avoid the aisles filled with cereals, candy, chips and cookies. Look, the more non-processed foods you consume, the healthier you'll be -- think about it, the best things for you usually come without ingredient labels! So stay on the perimeter, use the middle aisles sparingly, and try to eliminate processed foods from your diet.