A couple of weeks ago, I listed my top five suggestions for eating healthy. Another important step is to eat real food… always!
Of course, “real food” can be a confusing term because it’s easy to assume that everything sold as food at grocery stores, restaurants or some other establishment is real food. So, I like to differentiate real food from “edible food-like substances” (as Michael Pollan calls them) by saying that real food is something you could make with the right ingredients and tools. I’m not saying that you have the time or the inclination or the skills. But rather, you could make them.
Let’s use doughnuts as the example (because who doesn’t like a doughnut once in a while?!). The above photo is of some chocolate cream filled doughnuts (actually, Berliners, to be precise) that I made at home one weekend before I found out I am sensitive to gluten. The recipe is from Daniel Leader’s cookbook Simply Great Breads and the ingredients are:
- All-purpose flour
- Instant yeast
- Kosher salt
- Unsalted butter
- Lemon zest
- Pure vanilla extract
- Vegetable oil
- Heavy cream
(Note: the last two ingredients were used to make a chocolate whipped cream which substituted for the raspberry jam that the recipe calls for because, if I’m having a treat, I’m going all the way!)
If I gave you the recipe, you could go to a store, buy the ingredients, take them home and make these lovely little balls of sugary, doughy tastiness. Now, you may not have the 2.5 hours it takes to make double-proofed doughnuts. And you may not have the tools to fry them and fill them. Heck, you might not even like doughnuts. But my point is that you could make them.
Now compare this to a doughnut that you might buy at a popular chain. The ingredients for their glazed chocolate kreme donut are:
- Enriched unbleached wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron as ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, enzyme, riboflavin, folic acid)
- Palm oil
- Soybean oil
- Whey (a milk derivative)
- Skim milk
- Vegetable shortening (palm oil, canola oil, mono and diglycerides)
- Corn syrup
- Cocoa processed with alkali
- Corn starch
- Vegetable shortening (partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils)
- Chocolate liquor
- Citric acid
- Potassium sorbate (preservative)
- Sodium benzoate (preservative)
- Polysorbate 60
- Leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda)
- Defatted soy flour
- Wheat starch
- Mono and diglycerides
- Sodium stearoyl lactylate
- Cellulose gum
- Soy lecithin
- Guar gum
- Xanthan gum
- Artificial flavor
- Sodium caseinate (a milk derivative)
- Turmeric and annatto extracts
- Beta carotene
- Propylene glycol
- Vanillin (an artificial flavor)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Sodium propionate (preservative)
That’s a really long list of ingredients for a recipe. More importantly, I have no idea what some of them are! I mean, I have some notion about most of them from a structural perspective because I did take organic chemistry, but I flat out don’t know what some of them are (ex: polysorbate 60?!). As well, I certainly can’t buy all of them at a grocery store… even a really well stocked grocery store because many of them were created by food chemists.
Let’s consider how good these unrecognizable ingredients are for you.
As you are likely aware, preservatives are used to keep food fresh through one of the following mechanisms:
- Inhibit the growth of microbes (bacteria, yeast, or mold),
- Slow oxidation of fats (i.e., prevent them from turning into bad fats), and/or
- Block the natural enzymatic process associated with ripening and harvesting (ex: the browning of cut apples).
The problem with preservatives is not their intended function. After all, humans have been preserving food with salt, sugar, fermentation and smoke for centuries. Rather, it’s that most preservatives were created in a lab and have been shown to cause problems for some people. For example, some people have a food sensitivity to sulfites; when added to many foods, nitrates and nitrites may form nitrosamines which are volatile compounds that have been shown to cause cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases; and all of those sodium-based preservatives increase our overall sodium intake.
Any time something says “artificial flavor” or “artificial color”, that ingredient was made in a lab. According to the Code of Federal Regulations (US), an artificial flavor is “any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof” [emphasis mine]. In other words, all artificial flavors are made from something that didn’t start as edible.
Perhaps even more vague is the definition of a color additive (including “artificial color”) which is “a dye, pigment, or other substance made by a process of synthesis or similar artifice, or extracted, isolated, or otherwise derived, with or without intermediate or final change of identity, from a vegetable, animal, mineral, or other source and that, when added or applied to a food, drug, or cosmetic or to the human body or any part thereof, is capable (alone or through reaction with another substance) of imparting a color thereto.” The good news: the color may have come from something you recognize as food (like beets or turmeric). The bad news: it could have come from absolutely anything else (i.e., the “other sources”). In either case, you have no idea what you are putting in your body because food manufacturers don’t have to provide the details.
You may have also seen the term “natural flavor” or “natural flavoring” on food labels. These are slightly better in that they are “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.” Bottom line, it at least started as something that could be edible. However, there’s no way to know what the “flavor” started out as, so you’re still in the dark about what exactly you are eating.
if you don’t know what an ingredient is, neither does your body.
Read ingredient labels of food you buy in a store. Use the web to look up the ingredients of foods that you eat at restaurants. Make it a point to eat real food as often as you can. It may mean that you end up having to make your own “junk food” (ie, food that has no nutritional value like these doughnuts), but at least your body will know what to do with the ingredients. And, trust me, you’ll eat junk food much less frequently when you have to cook it yourself!
Bonus: if you’re eating real food, you can stress less about so-called super foods.
If you want additional information on how to interpret all of the ingredients on a food label. Check out What the Fork are You Eating? by Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN.
— Dalton L. What’s that Stuff? Food Preservatives: Antimicrobials, antioxidants, and metal chelators keep food fresh. Science & Technology. 2002; 80(45): 40.
— Food and Drug Administration. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Title 21, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 70, – Color Additives. Accessed on 8 November 2015.
— Food and Drug Administration. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Title 21, Chapter I, Subchapter B, Part 101 – Food labeling. Accessed on 8 November 2015. http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/retrieveECFR?gp=1&SID=06b38879bbc52051f649123d0bc70a65&ty=HTML&h=L&mc=true&n=pt21.2.101&r=PART#se21.2.101_122
— Grotheer P, Marshall M, Simonne A. Sulfites: Separating Fact from Fiction. Updated June 2014. Accessed 8 November 2015. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731
— Scanlan R. [Abstract] Formation and Occurrence of Nitrosamines in Food. Cancer Res. 1983; 43(5 Suppl): 2435s-2440s.