Thursday, March 21, 2013

Changing Your Diet Series: Read the Labels!

This is actually one of the scariest things to do.  When you start to read the labels and actually realize what you've been will keep you up at night.   

Here’s an exercise:  when your child wants a snack at the grocery store, tell them they can have it if everything in it is natural.  My son tried this with a Twinkie…and was shocked that it contained Red #40.  (Not to mention the HFCS.)

“But Mom – it’s not red!  And why would they make it if it wasn't good for you?”  There’s a lesson in there.  This conversation led to a discussion of marketing, and economics, and...well, suffice to say it was over his head when it happened but he understands it now (after hearing it fifty times!!)

I read labels because I’m gluten free, and even more so now that I had an issue with a brand that I’d used for a while with no problem.  I checked the label and realized the manufacturer had added barley malt to the list.  So much for that product!

Compare to Homemade
I'm suspicious of foods with a ton of ingredients.  My son and I love to make homemade ice cream, and if you've ever made it yourself, you know it only contains a few simple things.  Milk, cream, eggs, sugar, and whatever flavoring you want to add.  So now take a look at your favorite brand…how many can you count?  Guar gum, xanthan gum, carageenan….not to mention soy flour in some.  I've found it helpful to break certain products down this way.  It lets me know how drastically the product differs from homemade.

Here are two different oatmeal products.  Which one would you prefer?  (Side note: package #2 may seem more expensive, but there are only 12 servings in the Quaker product and 18-25 in the Bob's Red Mill, based on the size of the serving.)

Quaker Original Instant Oatmeal

Bob's Red Mill Rolled Oats
When reading the label, take note of how many different sweeteners are used.  Since ingredients are listed in order of predominance, you may see a number of them.  This allows the manufacturer to avoid alienating parents who wouldn't buy their product if sugar was the number one ingredient.  Here's a great list of what to look for.

Food Additives
I've read many times that if you can’t pronounce or understand an ingredient you shouldn't eat it…and I do subscribe to that.  Many times the chemical may be a synthetic substitute for a real food ingredient…but is much cheaper and carries no nutritional value. 

A good example of this is azodicarbonamide, which is a "dough conditioner" present in commercially produced bread.  It's been used in the US since bromide got a bad name, but is linked to respiratory issues and allergic reactions.  Think of this as a manufacturer hiding something they don’t want you to see.  There are any number of ingredients that get listed as emulsifiers, dough conditioners, and stabilizers.   Avoid them.  They aren't real food.

If you have children, you've probably purchased a Hershey product at some point.  Since 2006, Hershey has been using an ingredient called PGPR (polyglycerol polyricinoleate) in some of their candies.  This is an emulsifier that allows manufacturers to reduce the amount of cocoa butter in their products while still maintaining the texture. Cheap substitutes – it’s the cocoa butter that carries health benefits. 

These are only a few examples.  I recommend that, as we did with the peanut butter, you start with a product you use often.  Make sure you understand each ingredient and its function—then decide if you really want it to be included in your diet.  As you work through your pantry, you'll start voting with your dollars for a better food system.

1 comment:

Trish Percy said...

Something to consider re: additives. Even if they are benign, most have absolutely no nutritional value. The traditional food they are replacing (i.e. sourdough sponge replaced by dough conditioners) usually carries benefits. Sourdough is probiotic and the perfect medium for flour.