We have all heard the cautions to avoid processed foods—those grocery items with long, incomprehensible ingredient lists. However, the industrial processing of otherwise healthy foods can be just as harmful; for instance, when sugar is added to bread, or when whole wheat flour is refined to white flour and loses most of its fiber, calcium, and more.
Even if we have not read the nutritional tales of Michael Pollan or John Robbins, we intuitively sense that most real food can be found in the peripheral aisles of our grocery store: the produce, seafood, dairy and meat sections. We further know (especially if we HAVE read Pollan and Robbins) to stay alert even when we shop these outside aisles.
What we don’t really understand is how much of our “food” is not really food at all.
Unfortunately, many of the food-like substances and chemical additives approved by the FDA are only meant to be consumed in VERY limited quantities. But we consume them rampantly. Many Americans take in more calories than are healthy, and a significant percentage of them are in processed foods. Each of these additives now appear in thousands of products!
As the Center for Science in the Public Interest puts it: “Shopping was easy when food came from farms. Now, factory-made foods have made chemical additives a significant part of our diet.” Those inside aisles are fairly new in the history of man. They present a dizzying array of choices. But if you take the time to read the label of an item before you put it in your cart, you’ll see that many of the choices are not our choice.
All along the inside aisles, our food now contains a number of FDA-approved emulsifiers, deemed “necessary” to prevent our industrial food from separating: ingredients like soy lecithin, mono-glycerides, polysorbates, and sorbitan monostearates.
We have a choice of pH-controlling agents (lactic acid, citric acid, ammonium hydroxide, or sodium carbonate), leavening agents (monocalcium phosphate or calcium carbonate), and anti-caking agents (calcium silicate or silicon dioxide) in our food. Likewise, the market provides us with over a dozen preservatives (including BHA and BHT), a dozen sweeteners (among them, the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup), ten fat replacers (e.g., olestra), and a handful of firming agents and humectants.
We are fed flavor enhancers (monosodium glutamate, hydrolized soy protein, disodium guanylate) and stabilizers (gelatin, pectin, guar gum, carrageenan and zanthan gum) to give us that familiar “mouth-feel” and remind us that we are eating food.
And last but not least are the color additives, including lovely Blue No. 2. As the FDA’s own website says: “Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat…without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown.” Sound good?
Even if we spend all of our time in the outside aisles, we should be paying close attention. The World Cancer Study, the Nurses’ Study and Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future all caution that animal-based diets are high in saturated fat and are correlated with chronic degenerative diseases including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes and some cancers. Conversely, vegetarian diets are associated with reduced risks for these diseases.
Now, I’m not preaching that we should all put away the steak knives and chew on lettuce for the rest of our lives. But we will live longer, healthier and more vital lives if we eat more vegetables, fruits and plants.
When we do visit the meat section, we can slash our saturated fats by 85% by selecting free-range, grass-fed, or organic beef and poultry. Conventional animals eat corn and soy (look out for deceiving descriptions like “vegetarian fed” and “100% angus” and “100% natural chicken”).
Even though there is a legion of books and articles exhorting us to eat our vegetables, and to eat more plants, Americans take only around 5% of their caloric intake in the form of fruits and vegetables. We should all spend more time in the produce aisle. Know, however, that produce that is not certified organic can contain one or more of hundreds of pesticides that have been approved for use by the EPA.
In order to ensure that the produce you buy does not contain pesticides, you should purchase certified organic produce from your grocer, from a farmer in your area, or at a CSA pick-up near you. Or you can buy uncertified produce from a farmer you know whose production methods you trust.
Cleo braver is the owner and operator of Cottingham Farm in Easton, Maryland, a certified organic grower of heirloom vegetables and herbs. In a former life she practiced envimronmental law, and she is now devoted to highlighting the nexus between protection of the land, the Chesapeake Bay, human health, and economic resources.