Dear Readers, by now most of you must have heard me on Slow Café and if you are yet to listen to our episode, do not miss out on our discussion. I am grateful for your response. Thank you!
In the last episode, along with some esteemed panelists, we discussed food labels and the claims made by the food industry. Today again, I would like to bring you some insights on the label claims on the food products made by the manufacturers and what some of these so-called nutrients actually mean. You may slowly begin to ponder by the end of this read, whether it is the availability of food or the convenience of preparig quick meals that is making us obese. Or are we the victims of food product marketing?
Even if you aren’t following a caveman diet we must remember, we evolved as hunters and gatherers. Cavemen didn’t eat chemically loaded foods. They hunted wild animals, collected wild berries, ate leaves, roots, fruits and nuts. In ancient India, women in the household spent hours of the day cooking fresh meals with the freshest available ingredients but in the modern world, the evolution of the food industry and technological advancements in food preservation and packaging have enabled manufacturers to prepare and distribute food products which are ready to eat or easily accessible.
Let me share a small incident with you – as a part time store manager at a departmental store in Australia, at the end of each shift, I was always asked to do stock rotation on the grocery aisle. At first, I didn’t understand why we were doing it, I was a medical school student and this task of placing new food products behind the old ones perplexed me. It meant that customers would pick an old product first which was also close to its expiry date. While rotating the stock, to my surprise I found some of the packaged cereals had shelf lives of one year whereas tuna fish was stored in brine to keep it fresh for long, packaged chips had expiry dates with an extended shelf life.
Even now when I think about these products my stomach churns. How could something as old as a year be fresh and still be edible? Since then, I have questioned food politics – “If it is not fresh on your kitchen shelf, how can that product be fresh on supermarket shelves”.
Lets bust some myths:
Myth 1: Sugar
We are taught that low fat foods are good for us but honestly low-fat foods don’t taste good, hence to make up for the missing flavors manufactures add sugar and some more sugar, a little more sugar and more because this is how it will taste edible. Who wants to eat cardboard afterall? It is obvious, they can’t keep adding salt alone as a preservative, so they will mix a bit of both “WHITES” as a preservative. It is funny, I look at some of the products suggested by the specialists for diabetics, I flip the product around and I look at the first ingredient, it is water and the second one is low fat so it is almost getting a green tick and then my eyes fall on “no added sugar”, followed by hidden sugars and high in sodium, and this product gets a red label from me.
So, what are Hidden sugars? Sugars labelled as “hidden sugars” have the following names – so when you read on a label “no added sugar” make sure that in the ingredients these names aren’t listed – invert sugar, dextrose, maltose, barley malt syrup, malt, maltose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, corn sweeteners, corn syrup, sucrose, malt, malt syrup and the list goes on. I believe sugar has 50 different names in the food industry. All these hidden sugars though they look different but still they break down into glucose when you consume them.
A high fructose corn syrup is more likely to make you fat than any honey, jaggery, molasses or natural sweeteners. Corn doesn’t have fructose at all but its syrup which is made with the enzymatic breakdown of corn starch into its unit of sugar molecules that is further broken down into fructose with the help of enzymes to produce high fructose corn syrup. This just reminds me “our homemade kulfi is a food for our soul” and I would opt for that kulfi over any sugar processed lemonade or ice-creams from outside which is produced in bulk.
Myth 2: Vegetable oil
Vegetable oils contain most heat sensitive polyunsaturated fats. These oils are made up of corn, canola, sunflower, cottonseed, safflower, rice bran and grapeseed. It is the most common ingredient in most processed food. These oils are temperature sensitive, when it is cold it is dormant but when it is warm the heat sensitive polyunsaturated fatty acids wake up in response to warming them or heat.
When you refine these oils, it ultimately destroys the healthy fats and their antioxidants and converts them into unhealthy fats and then they are loaded with preservatives to increase the shelf life. MSG, food additives, food preservatives, pesticides are negligible when it comes to the toxicity of food from vegetable oils. “Margarines are one molecule away from plastic” and even ants won’t attack it.
Salad dressings are made in vegetable oils, breakfast cereals are coated with vegetable oils and have a protective varnish.
Not every restaurant will use pure ghee to fry your samosa or pakoras. Think vegetable oils, they are cheap and an easy way out. Parents if you deny your children in an attempt to get them to eat low fat, they will crave sugar. I am not suggesting that you feed your children doses of bad fat, feed them healthy fats like pure ghee, nuts and seeds, brown eggs, mustard oil, ground nut oil. A homemade burger or a homemade pizza with fresh ingredients (homemade pasta sauce is far more healthy than canned pasta sauce and tinned fruits).
I say “The expanding sizes of food products labelled as Extra, are expanding our waistlines”, who checks the servings sizes mentioned on the packaging and the hidden ingredients?
Myth 3: Whole Grain
Fresh crops are processed into refined sugar, vegetable oil and white flour. Brown rice under food processing is turned into white rice where the fiber is removed, whole grain is turned into white flour which removes fiber. Dog food comprises of processed soy and corn meal, as do most of the preservatives in the food of those people who feed them. Researchers have claimed that animals who are fed garbage or processed animal food weigh more than their wild counterparts.
Myth 4: Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Monosodium Glutamate is just another hydrolyzed vegetable protein. There are about forty different ingredients which have names similar to MSG. The last time I read up on MSG, it was evident that it contributed to Alzheimer’s. Many governing organizations say that a manufacturer doesn’t need to label MSG as an added ingredient unless it is 99% pure MSG. It has several hidden names such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract, textured vegetable protein to name a few.
Myth 5: Preservatives
Mass production of food involves the use of preservatives and artificial flavors. Food products are vacuum packed, extra salt is added to make them palatable and they undergo processing for deep freezing. Some of the other preservatives are nitrites, BHT, BHA, sulphites, sodium benzoates, potassium benzoate and many other permitted colors and additives, the list can go long.
Myth 6: Protein Supplements
As an accredited sports dietitian, I often get asked about protein supplements. Most of my clients, look for proteins’ supplements, not just to enhance their protein intake but also to improve their performance in sports. For a professional athlete, a fraction of a second can decide his or her victory, in this quest they are driven by their peers, to use supplements which may not be the most suitable ones for them. Not all protein powders or supplements mention banned substances. In order to promote their products, manufacturers claim fancy ingredients on their labels. Our great athletes in the past did not have artificial supplements or protein powders to enhance their performances. The strongest man on earth – Patrick Baboumian is a vegan and eats natural food to stay fit and strong.
What choices have we got here?
Do not get smitten by food marketing – the packaging of food is done in the most effective way to grab the consumer’s attention. When you walk into a super market even in the dry goods aisle, you will find ten different varieties of breakfast cereal provided by the same company and when it comes to fifteen different companies, you have a minimum of a hundred and fifty different types of cereals to choose from. So, how will they establish that their product is better than their competitor? They label them ‘low fat’, “low sugar”, “high fiber” and so on and may also have a celebrity endorsement. But learn to read labels well and look out for the hidden dangers.
Swap for better ingredients:
- Those same potato chips if prepared at home in ghee or groundnut oil will be far better than a packet of chips from the shelves of a supermarket which are loaded with preservatives and extra salt.
- Swap your oils for our liquid gold – ghee, homemade butters – our delicious white butter, cold pressed mustard oil, peanut oil, coconut oil and ditch canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, soy oil, margarines and so on.
- Swap ketchups and sauces with homemade chutneys.
- Swap breads or any bakery products with homemade or freshly made breads using multigrain flour or whole meal flour.
- Use traditional ragi, jowar, roasted gram, bajra flour to prepare chappatis.
- Swap pasta sauces with homemade tomato sauces and fresh herbs and spices and prepare pizza bases at home.
- Use homemade pickles preserved in glass containers or ceramic pots over pickles commercially prepared in refined oil and stored in plastic containers.
- Source homemade ghee or certified organic or cold pressed oils over vegetable oils.
- Eat homemade chips, pappadam, steamed vadas, paniyarams, roasted chana, homemade bhel.
Our health would have been better if foods didn’t have a large shelf life and if it was eaten fresh. These preservatives have increased the shelf life of food products but at the expense of the longevity of the human race.
Editor’s Note: This weekly column,”Slow Diet with Swati Bathwal” is a part of our Slow Foods initiative. To become part of it, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or @slowfoodsindia on Twitter and instagram
You can watch the Slow Cafe episode about food labels here:
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