When you do your weekly grocery shopping, grab a snack at a convenience store, or hit a drive-thru window, do you pay attention to what’s in your food? Sometimes finding the ingredients isn’t easy without the help of your phone or computer. Other times the ingredients stare you in the face, and you choose to ignore them.
We believe we know what’s in our food because we read the nutritional facts or fall for some gimmicky banner splashed across the packaging. Marketers understand the draw of buzzwords like all-natural, gluten-free, heart-healthy, fat-free, organic, etc. We get distracted from the actual ingredients by looking at calories, carbohydrates, sugar, and sodium content.
By law, in the United States, every packaged product must list the ingredients somewhere readily available to the consumer. But just because the ingredients list is readily available doesn’t mean you read it. There’s a reason why big food companies rival Penn & Teller in the art of misdirection. The ingredients in most of their foods are frightening. If you read them, you’ll be much less likely to eat whatever chemical concoction lies inside that box, bag, or wrapper.
Tastes like chicken
There may be no finer example of the importance of reading ingredients than that of the famously tasty Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. (If you read our newsletter, you may already be familiar with this one). How many ingredients do you think should be in fried chicken on a bun with pickles? Don’t consider any cheese or condiments. How many ingredients are in the basic chicken sandwich?
You should hear the theme from Jeopardy playing your head. Dah-Nah Nah Nah, Nah Nah Nah…
If you answered, “What is 55?” you’re correct!
Let’s take a look:
Chicken (boneless skinless chicken breast filet, seasoning [salt, monosodium glutamate, sugar, spices, paprika], enriched bleached wheat flour [with malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate, nonfat milk, leavening [baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate], spice, soybean oil, color [paprika], water, nonfat milk, egg, fully refined peanut oil, with Dimethylpolysiloxane, an anti-foam agent added), bun (flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], water, sugar, yeast, wheat gluten, contains 2% or less of each of the following: soybean oil, salt, cultured wheat flour, vinegar, calcium sulfate, ascorbic acid, enzymes, wheat starch, monoglycerides, monocalcium phosphate, DATEM, soy lecithin, potassium iodate, soybean oil, palm kernel oil, soy lecithin, natural flavor and beta carotene), pickle (cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, potassium sorbate [preservative], natural flavors [dill emulsion], polysorbate 80, yellow 5, blue 1)
How many of these ingredients can you pronounce, let alone understand? Now that you know what’s in this sandwich, will you think twice before ordering it next time? That’s why you have to search for these ingredients on the Chick-fil-A website and would be hard-pressed to find them anywhere in the stores.
If it sounds like we’re picking on Chick-fil-A, maybe we are a little bit, but this exact situation exists at every fast-food chain in the world. We guarantee that if you spend less than a minute looking at labels in the grocery store, you’ll quickly realize how prevalent many of the same chemical ingredients are in every packaged food.
What’s in your food?
A simple trick in the food industry is using an unrecognizable chemical name for common ingredients that you would otherwise avoid. How do you read the label?
Products must list their ingredients in order of quantity. It’s the first big tell of any food. Take a look at what they say the food is supposed to be and then compare its number one ingredient.
For example, most popular brands of mayonnaise come in a “heart-healthy” olive oil version.
What you’ll notice is that some not-so-healthy oil like canola or grapeseed is the first ingredient. Olive oil is only an additive and not the base of the mayo, as the label would have you believe.
Including the word sugar in the ingredient list is a big no-no for food companies because they know that’s what we’re trying to find. Making it number one on the list is comparable to adding a warning label that this product is harmful to your health.
Using different names and types of sugar also disguises the sugar content. Five separate listings for sugar in the middle of the list renders it almost unnoticeable. Here’s a list of possible names for sugar in your ingredients:
- Agave nectar
- Barley malt syrup
- Beet sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Cane crystals (or cane juice crystals)
- Cane sugar
- Coconut palm sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup or corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Dextrin or dextrose
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Palm sugar
- Raw sugar
- Rice syrup
- Sorghum or sorghum syrup
- Turbinado sugar
A reasonable assumption is that anything containing to words “syrup,” “sweetener,” or ending in “ose” is a form of sugar. And, by the way, all of these are considered natural ingredients by the Food and Drug Administration. Do they sound natural to you?
Not quite as diverse as the sugar ingredients, products list sodium as salt, sodium benzoate, disodium, or monosodium glutamate (MSG). One of the more popular forms is sodium nitrate, and it’s a preservative found in hot dogs, cold cuts, and any form of packaged meat.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, but the average American consumes twice that much. We eat a lot more salt as an ingredient than we sprinkle on our food at mealtimes.
Trans fats are terrible for your heart because they raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease your good cholesterol (HDL). You won’t see trans fats listed in the ingredients because they come in the form of partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil.
Preservatives and coloring
Many of the complicated chemicals listed as ingredients perform as preservatives and coloring. Believe it or not, Gatorade isn’t actually neon green, and Twinkies don’t spoil.
Here’s a way to test the concentration of preservatives in your food – put them out at a picnic. Flies don’t eat preservatives and will avoid most processed foods. Don’t worry. We’re sure someone at the picnic will be more than happy to eat what the flies won’t.
Keep it simple
If all this ingredient stuff seems a bit too much, there’s a simple way to avoid processed food. Experts recommend sticking with the five-ingredient rule. Stay away from any food that contains more than five ingredients and limit those to whole foods. If you don’t recognize the ingredients, you shouldn’t be eating them.
Another simple rule is only shopping at the perimeter of the grocery store. Fresh foods like meat, eggs, and produce live on the edges of the store, while the highly profitable processed foods dominate the center aisles.
You are what you eat! Choose wisely.
Take care, even down there.
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