In my work as a health coach, I focus on guiding my clients through the often-confusing maze of making healthy choices while living in a junk food world. I encourage them to eat whole, plant-based foods and avoid eating processed foods whenever possible. It sounds great, but how feasible is that really? I understand we all live very busy lives, especially in the jungle of NYC, and can’t always find the time to nourish ourselves with the very best. Realistically, my diet is currently 90% whole foods-based, with the rest coming from processed foods. “Blasphemy!” you say? Hey cut me some slack, I’m only human! I have Greek yogurt in my fridge, dark chocolate in my pantry, and Amy’s Organic frozen meals in my freezer. I have these things is because I don’t know how to make my own yogurt, or my own dark chocolate, nor do I have the time. I also tend to rehearse or teach long hours and sometimes, in an emergency situation of exhaustion, I’ll pop a frozen meal in the microwave for dinner. I embrace these conveniences and am always glad for them when that chocolate craving strikes or I’m too wiped to cook a meal.
But, our society today has those percentages swapped: 90% processed, 10% whole foods. We exist within a food culture motivated by instant gratification, ease and convenience, and an overall ignorance for what is truly good for us. As a whole, we’ve begun to take everything at face value when it comes to nutrition, rather than dig a little deeper to see what’s actually in the foods we’re eating. Food companies like to make bold claims about their products and make sure to splash them all over the packaging. “An excellent source of fiber!“ “Low fat!” “All Natural!” Oftentimes these claims are even endorsed by a reputable organization, such as the American Heart Association, so they appear to be legitimate healthy foods. All these statements are designed to draw the eye to the front of the package, so that you don’t turn it over and witness the horrors that exist on the other side within the nutrition label and ingredient list. But even the savvy consumer can be duped.
Once you begin reading through that ingredient list, you usually notice a large number of those ingredients are things you’ve never heard of, nor can even pronounce. As an example, let’s look at a nutrition label for a common product found in the supermarket that I used to eat quite often as a kid: Nutri-grain Cereal Bars. Right away, the name begins working its marketing magic on you; Nutri- presumably referencing nutritious, and Grain- presumably referencing whole, fiber-rich grains. When you put them together, who could as for a better product? Very smart, Kellogg’s, very smart indeed. On the front of the box is an enhanced photo of said bar, sliced in half to display the shiny fruit filling. Next to it are two luscious looking strawberries and two stalks of wheat. In one corner are the words “No high fructose corn syrup” and in a small circle under the label are the words “Made with real fruit and whole grains.” In order to prove that their claims are legitimate, on the bottom corner of the back of the box sits the Whole Grain Stamp, a trademark of the Whole Grain Council that says you should eat 48g or more of whole grains daily and this product has a whopping 8g of whole grain. Are you sold yet? Let’s break a couple of these statements down.
“Whole Grains” is one of the most popular marketing claims out there today, and probably the most confusing. Whole grains are an excellent source of nutrition, as they contain essential enzymes, iron, dietary fiber, vitamin E and B-complex vitamins. Because the body absorbs grains slowly, they provide sustained and high-quality energy. Unfortunately, the “whole grain” used to make many processed foods is actually refined white flour with a touch of whole wheat added back in. The reality is that a food manufacturer can use the term “whole grain” no matter how much whole wheat the products contains. In order to avoid being taken for a ride, double-check and look at the ingredients and check for key words like “whole wheat flour” to be first on the list. Be aware that manufacturers probably won’t point out that their processed flours are “refined” on the label. Anything listed as corn, rice, wheat or oat flour is processed and refined unless is specifically says “whole”. In Nutri-grain bars, the ingredient list shows that they contain whole grain oats, enriched flour (refined), wheat bran, wheat gluten and whole-wheat flour. Two instances of the word “whole”; could be worse I suppose.
How about “Made with real fruit”? There is no law that requires how much real fruit has to be in a product that makes this claim; it could contain just one grape to be accurate. However, a quick look at the ingredient list will tell you everything you need to know. When sugar is listed as the first ingredient, the “real fruit” content of the product is not significant. In this particular product, the first ingredient listed in the filling is sugar. Whoops! While on the topic of sugar, manufacturers have found a sneaky way to feed you even more of it without necessarily naming it outright. Sugar can go by many names depending on how it was processed, and continuing to use the example of Nutri-grain bars, we find quite a few sources of them. For the crust: sugar, dextrose and fructose; and for the filling: invert sugar, corn syrup (low-fructose I presume?), strawberry puree concentrate, glycerin, sugar and modified corn starch. In total, this snack contains nine different forms of sugar. It makes me wonder: if we already know that just regular sugar is bad for us, why purchase a product that has nine different versions of it? The ingredient list goes on to name some other frightening chemicals and byproducts, such as soy lecithin, carrageenan, methylcellulose, caramel color, dicalcium phosphate., nicacinamide, thiamin mononitrate. This snack, in total, is made using a grand total of 44 ingredients. Yikes. From this, we can conclude that this product is heavily processed and contains very little real foods, while simultaneously claiming that is a wholesome food and therefore a healthy choice to make.
So what to do when faced with this conundrum? When it comes to choosing which processed foods to buy I tend to follow two rules:
1. In the words of the great Michael Pollan, don’t buy anything that contains ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. I doubt she would know what carrageenan or niacinamide are, unless she’s a chemist.
2. The fewer ingredients on the list, the better. For snacks like granola bars, stick to brands that have no more than 6-8 ingredients, and make sure the majority of them are whole foods.
An even better way to know what you’re consuming, make your own! Try this simple, tasty recipe, based on the classic Nature Valley granola bar. http://www.fatgirltrappedinaskinnybody.com/2012/06/nature-valley-knock-offs/
Feeling overwhelmed, confused and stressed about making the right choices when it comes to your health? Let me support you along your wellness journey, contact me to set up consultation today!
Stay curious, stay informed, stay healthy. 🙂