An article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that a staggering 61% of the food Americans buy is highly processed. Has our quest for convenience gone too far?
Modern day convenience offers lavish time saving modalities such as pre-packaged foods, drive through takeaways, online Shopping, electronic dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, home computers, virtual socialising and even electronic weight loss gadgets. The big question is whether we are healthier, happier and using the rewarded time appropriately or is the convenience leading to over consumption, obesity, illness, laziness and TV and social media addiction?
I’m not a psychologist, I’m a nutritionist so in this article I want to highlight the need to strive for real food in an overly processed world by educating consumers on the deceptions of food labelling.
Evolution provided us with sensitive taste buds that will naturally cause us to gravitate towards foods that are sweet, fatty and salty, because we know such foods contain high energy and trace minerals for survival. The food industry, have cleverly used this knowledge to their advantage, engineering modern processed foods to be hyper-palatable and hyper-rewarding. The dopaminergic system in our brains is activated by foods that are high in sugar but unfortunately very calorie dense and devoid of nutrients.
The truth is, these Frankenstein processed foods are so incredibly rewarding to our brains that they create addictive desires that influence our thoughts, cravings and behaviours, making us over consume without feeling satiated. Junk Foods are literally high jacking the biochemistry of the brain.
Fortunately, all processed foods must legally provide ingredients, nutritional information, recommended serving size and calories but food manufacturers spend large amounts of resources on marketing strategies that result in cleverly misleading labelling and in my own opinion deceptive and exaggerated advertising claims that can trick the consumer into believing the food is both healthy and beneficial.
What do we need to look out for on a food label?
- Organic: Look for USDA certified Organic as this guarantees that over 95% of the products is made from organic ingredients. Be aware of the term made with ORGANIC ingredients, as the product might only contain minimal traces of organic ingredients. Other common terms to be cautious of are; All Natural, Locally Sourced, Farm Fresh and Farm Assured as they don’t necessarily guarantee ethical standards.
- Free Range: It is not a requirement to adhere to a minimal amount, duration or quality of the outdoor access for the animal.
- Gluten Free: The latest buzz word often displayed even on foods that never originally contained Gluten. A Gluten free product is designed for safe consumption for people with Celiac Disease or Gluten sensitivity; it is not designed to help you lose weight. A Gluten free biscuit or cake is not a free pass, its still a sugar laden biscuit or cake, in actuality, most Gluten free products often replace wheat flour with either Rice Flour, Tapioca Starch or Potato Starch which can have a higher sugar content and Glycemic load.
- Ingredients: The most plentiful ingredients have to be listed first, followed by the other ingredients listed in descending order by weight. If sugar or something that you can’t pronounce is one of the initial ingredients avoid it. Alternative names for sugar include; Sweetener, Corn Syrup, HFCS, Rice Syrup, Fruit Juice Concentrate, Fructose, Barley Malt, Cane juice, Caramel, Date Sugar, Beet Sugar, and generally most things ending in ‘OSE’ (Maltose, Dextrose, Sucrose etc.)
- 0% Trans Fats: A loophole in the labelling allows a product that contains less than 0.5grams of Trans fats PER SERVING to be labelled as 0 grams of Trans fats (often packaged foods contain multiple servings per container). If the products contains partially hydrogenated oils, hydrogenated or shortening then avoid it.
- Omega 6: Look out for soybean, canola, sunflower or other vegetable or seed oils as these fats contain excessive amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which can rapidly increase oxidation and inflammation in the body
- No Added Sugar: This doesn’t mean it’s a product that is low in sugar. Most refined carbohydrates and junk foods are made using modern Frankenstein wheat or other complex starches or simple sugars, which are mega sugars.
- Low Fat: A product boasting low fat claims is often loaded with sugar or refined carbohydrates, which are two of the main culprits for Obesity and Insulin resistance. Fat is a primary macronutrient and in my opinion decades of low fat dieting was one of the most detrimental health fads that led to devastating hormonal imbalances, especially in women.
- Fibre Enriched: Most processed and packaged foods are lacking in fibre. If you see the word ‘Enriched’ before the word grain, e.g. Enriched Flour, then it has been heavily refined and stripped of the germ and bran, which contains the majority of the fibre. Look for foods with the least amount of sugar and highest amount of fibre, aim for more than 5g fibre per servings.
- Serving Size: Check what the product suggests as a serving size or portion. They are often listed as very small to make the product look lighter in calories or sugar.
- Sodium: You can double the number of calories to give you an estimate of how many milligrams of sodium per serving (example: 200 calories per serving, would have approximately 400 milligrams of sodium per serving)
- Sugar: Most processed foods are high in Sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup. These combinations are two of the most inflammatory foods on the planet that have been linked to Insulin Resistance, Diabetes, Obesity, High Triglycerides, Fatty liver and increased Visceral Fat.
To make products appear lower in sugar, a combination of different sweeteners is often used, which are then separately listed in the ingredients lists. FDA regulations enforce the most abundant ingredient to be listed first. Separation of the types of sweeteners results in lower quantities per ingredients and will automatically allow the sugar or sweetener to appear lower down on the ingredients list.
There are approximately 4 grams of sugar per one teaspoon. Use this simple conversion to calculate the equivalent number of teaspoons of sugar in any particular food product. The grams of sugar is listed under the Carbohydrates section and the total number of Dietary Fibre can be deducted from the total (don’t forget to check the per serving size).
So for example if a product had 18g Sugar per serving with 2g Dietary fibre;
Carbohydrates – Sugar 18g – Dietary Fibre 2g = 16g per serving
16g ÷ 4g (one teaspoon) = Approx 3 teaspoons of sugar per serving
The World Health Organization recently updated its guidelines to recommend less than 6tsp added Sugar per day for women and less than 9tsp added Sugar per day for men. I would suggest the lower the better.
I have worked in the Wellness Industry in Asia for more than a decade and believe that the expansion of a more western heavily processed diet has dramatically changed the rate of obesity and illness.
I conclude that the only way to really outsmart the food manufacturers and be sure that you are getting good quality products is to mindfully limit the overall consumption of processed and packaged foods. For your absolute favourite packaged foods that you are struggling to surrender, I would encourage you to carefully evaluate the label and get familiar with the ingredients and sugar content to make an educated choice or seek out a healthier alternative. Whenever possible opt for real foods and remember if your grandparents survived without it then so can you.