Sunday, February 14, 2010

Western Food & the Great Deception

I hope you got to watch that Jamie Oliver video that I put up yesterday. If you missed it, here's the gist: our current food system is feeding us crap that's making us fat, sick and poor, while also shortening our life spans (for the first time ever, people in the western world -- not just America -- are facing a shrinking life expectancy).

In the post-war (heh) era, our food delivery system evolved dramatically, to the point where a lot of people no longer prepare food in their homes -- beyond heating and adding water, anyway. These people are entirely dependent on the few consolidated corporations that actually do the food prep work for their nutritional needs. Can these companies be trusted to deliver healthy food? Well, of course not. Delivering healthy food has very little to do with their corporate objectives.

What they did over the latter half of the last century is convince us of many things. That we don't have to work at being healthy -- we can buy our health in a box of cereal, a glass of juice, or in a pill. That meat is not a treat -- something to be enjoyed and shared at Sunday dinner -- but that it should be consumed three times a day. That dessert is not special occasion food, but a coda that should end every evening meal. And that food -- preferably popcorn, chips, pizza, hot dogs and candy -- should be a part of the experience every time we watch a movie or sporting event, and even every time we watch TV.

And now they're trying to convince us that we can keep eating all this stuff and still be healthy. Not that we should give up any of it -- god forbid our health goals should interfere with their bottom lines -- but rather we should let them make the food magically harmless with additives and chemicals (which, by the way, they'd rather not talk about).

So, I set about to find an example of this. I could have looked in any number of places, but a friend* was recently touting the merits of Blue Bell ice cream, so I figured that would be a good place to start. My friend told me they'd come out with "no sugar added" ice cream that is just as good as the regular stuff, but since it has less sugar, this new stuff is more healthy. I went to their web site and found the No Sugar Added creation. But I searched high and low all over that web site and I couldn't find any information about the ingredients or nutritional content of their concoction. You'd think this is information they'd want to put forward -- testimony to the healthful benefits of their product! But all they'll allow is that they use "old fashioned ideas" and "only the finest ingredients". It's "traditional." Huh.

OK, so now I'm starting to get really curious (and maybe a little bit suspicious). What are these finest ingredients? Well, I had to wait until the next time I went to the grocery store, but eventually, I got to find out (sorry about the quality of the photos -- I took them with my phone).

Here are the facts (below), and they are impressive. Only 100 calories and three grams of fat! Wow! This is indeed magic ice cream! Ok, so maybe the serving size is a little small (who eats only a half a cup?!?), but still, this is not a huge indulgence.

But then I kept spinning that carton, and was surprised to find out what Blue Bell considers to be traditional, old-fashioned ingredients. Here's the list (below). How many of these ingredients can you identify? Or pronounce? I'm no nutritionist, and I'm certainly no expert, so I had to do some research and here's what I found out.

First of all, let's scratch milk, skim milk and cream off the list. We know what those things are. Those are the traditional, old-fashioned ingredients. Here's what we're left with, then:
  • polydextrose - this is a pseudo dietary fiber. It's not really a fiber, but they do get to claim fiber content. And check this out:
    Polydextrose is made by combining dextrose (corn sugar) with sorbitol. The result is a slightly sweet, reduced-calorie (only one calorie per gram because it is poorly digested) bulking agent. The FDA requires that if a serving of a food would likely provide more than 15 grams of polydextrose, the label should advise consumers that "Sensitive individuals may experience a laxative effect from excessive consumption of this product."
    Ew. More on sorbitol below. BTW, you did know that corn is in pretty much all the processed food you eat, right?
  • sorbitol - a sweetner and a laxative. Also made from corn. Although this stuff is supposedly safe to eat, you might want to stay away, especially if you're diabetic. Or if you have a sensitive stomach:
    Moderate amounts of sorbitol are safe, but large amounts may have a strong laxative effect and even cause diarrhea. The FDA requires foods “whose reasonably foreseeable consumption may result in a daily ingestion of 50 grams of sorbitol" to bear the label statement: "Excess consumption may have a laxative effect."
  • maltodextrin - a starch sweetener often made from corn. I gather it's pretty innocuous.
  • cellulose gel - an ice cream stabilizer and fat substitute. Again, pretty innocuous.
  • cellulose gum - another stabilizer.
  • vegetable gums (guar, carrageenan, carob bean) - more thickening agents/stabilizers:
    Gums are derived from natural sources (bushes, trees, seaweed, bacteria) and are poorly tested, though probably safe. They are not absorbed by the body. They are used to thicken foods, prevent sugar crystals from forming in candy, stabilize beer foam (arabic), form a gel in pudding (furcelleran), encapsulate flavor oils in powdered drink mixes, or keep oil and water mixed together in salad dressings. Gums are often used to replace fat in low-fat ice cream, baked goods, and salad dressings.
  • natural and artificial flavor - who knows? That's about as vague as it can be.
  • soy mono- and diglycerides - these are emulsifiers:
    Makes bread softer and prevents staling, improves the stability of margarine, makes caramels less sticky, and prevents the oil in peanut butter from separating out. Mono- and diglycerides are safe, though most foods they are used in are high in refined flour, sugar, or fat.
  • aspartame - this is your Equal/NeutraSweet sugar substitute. Don't even get me started on this stuff. The jury is very much out on whether it is safe, so if you eat it, you're volunteering yourself -- and your children -- to be lab rats (you're even paying for the privilege!) in the great laboratory we call a marketplace.
  • acesulfame potassium - another artificial sweetener. The jury is out on this one too.
    The safety tests of acesulfame-K were conducted in the 1970s and were of mediocre quality. Key rat tests were afflicted by disease in the animal colonies; a mouse study was several months too brief and did not expose animals during gestation. Two rat studies suggest that the additive might cause cancer. It was for those reasons that in 1996 the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA to require better testing before permitting acesulfame-K in soft drinks. In addition, large doses of acetoacetamide, a breakdown product, have been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits, and dogs. Hopefully, the small amounts in food are not harmful.
  • annatto color - a food coloring. Apparently harmless, outside of a few allergies.
  • vitamin a palmitate - the major component of palm oil.
And that's that. Not exactly what I'd consider to be a health food, or either "traditional" or "old-fashioned."

Now I ask you, would you rather eat this stuff a lot or take the hit on the fat and calories and just eat the real stuff only once in a while?

*Sorry if I'm picking on you, dear friend. But you're a very smart, well-educated person, so if you're struggling to figure out what's healthy and what's not, is it any wonder that the masses are clueless? And this is what the food companies are counting on...


fletch said...

Great post. Thanks for the research.

A Free Man said...

Very nice work, Alice. I've been looking carefully at food for a while now and you begin to realize that all these health claims are just marketing campaigns. The fact is that you would be better off with good old fashioned sucrose than you would be with the artificial sweeteners.

Keera said...

I don't eat ice cream, but like a lot of today's food that have to have to both survive transport and have a certain shelf life, there are all sorts of things added to what would otherwise be just eggs, cream, salt and flavoring.

But the problem here is how they trick you into believing you're getting something relatively healthy (as in fairly natural) because it has no added sugar. And indeed, there is no added sugar but there sure are a lot of sugar substitutes!

And that polydextrose thing is scary (and exists over here, too). You know, here's where that 9th grade biology class still helps: I know that there is no naturally occurring fiber in either milk or eggs, so if a product like ice cream claims to have it, I have to wonder where they got it from.

Julie L said...

Here's a book for you: Good Calories, Bad Calories. Read that and you won't be afraid of fat anymore.

There is also a book by Weston Price (I think), all about indigenous peoples and how they didn't have cancer, dental decay, etc etc until they started eating the typical western diet (esp. wheat et al). Your kimchi is a very good thing - that's one thing that indigenous diets had a lot of that ours doesn't: fermented foods.

re: sugar substitutes: they ping insulin, even if they are completely "-ose" free!

No one should eat *anything* with any sugar substitutes ever. And you know about high-fructose corn syrup. blech >:P

Keera said...

Whoa. lets you read a lot of pages of "Good Calories, Bad Calories" and I also found an hour talk via Google video by Taube. I knew that the data re cholesterol was misrepresented but I didn't know that carbs in general had such an impact on fat metabolismm and that obesity really has nothing to do with quantities (of either calories or exercise). So now I'm revisiting the low-carb diet.

alice said...

Thanks, Julie! I'm looking forward to checking it out! It's been a busy (beautiful, anyway, so I've been outside!) couple of days, so I haven't had a chance yet.

But please forgive me if I recoil at the idea of "low-carb" dieting. If that's what this is about, I'm afraid I'm going to be disappointed.

I think that phrase has been tossed around enough to be rendered either dangerous or meaningless. Many people use it either as an excuse to binge on meats and fats (please don't try to convince me that either bacon or fast-food burgers are a good choice under any circumstances) or to demonize whole-grain foods (I'm happily willing to jettison the Wonder Bread and Fruit Loops, but don't mess with my oats, fruits or home-made wheat bread). While there may well be good calories and bad calories, there are also good carbs and bad carbs. And, of course, good fats and bad fats.

I guess the problem with the "low-carb" diet is mostly that it tries to simplify the complicated -- which is, in a word, eating. And that can't be reduced to a few simple rules. And the "low-carb diet" (as I know it, anyway) doesn't work. You may lose a pound or few, but that's it. And then you're stuck eating too much fat and not enough whole grains. I've been there. Got the t-shirt. Stayed fat.

Keera said...

I'm pretty sure you already low-carb, Alice, without thinking about it. The problem with the term "low-carb" is that it doesn't include the word "refined" or "sugar" which is what is eliminated from a low-carb diet (the term "low-carb" is misleading). Whole grains and the carbs found in beans are not the problem.

That said, do check out the book Julie mentioned. It's not about low-carb diets (that's what I brought with me from reading it). It's about all the misguided research and misuse of research and simple lack of research that has led to misguiding an entire society into obesity. As Julie said above, you won't be afraid of fat any more after reading it.

That said, I still have questions about types of fat, and tripped over something about corn oil etc. vs. others, so I still have some reading to do. I'm already sold on the coconut oil thing; I just need to experiment a bit more with my own body. (And other people choose to skydive off cliffs.)

alice said...

Well, the thing is, I don't count carbs, fats, calories or anything else. I just try to eat a little bit of everything, and not a lot of anything.

I did have a chance to take look around this morning. First, I looked at the Taubes book on Amazon. I read for a while, but can't take too much dry, science-y stuff at one time, so then went down a rabbit hole from there. Taubes raises some important points and I'm glad to see he's stirred the pot quite a bit -- the ensuing discussion should be interesting to follow.

I hadn't heard of Taubes before, but I was pleased to see him mentioned in a positive light by Marion Nestle (here: What's the Deal on Saturated Fat). I loved reading Nestle's What to Eat, continue to follow her blog, and think she's got a lot of credibility. I also noted that Nestle considers Taubes, along with Michael Pollan, an "excellent science journalist." I'm currently enjoying Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and have In Defense of Food in the queue -- he's an engaging writer. Which is a long way around to saying that Taubes appears to be in good company, so I'll look forward to hearing more from him.

And while the debate continues to rage, I'll keep following the advice of both Nestle ("Eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food.") and Pollan ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.") and hope for the best.

Keera said...

I like Pollan's advice. :-)

alice said...

I just received his In Defense of Food in the mail today and noticed that his advice occupies a spot on the cover. Nice. :-D

Keera said...

I like it better than Nestle's because it conjures up less guilt in me - and I imagine her phrasing "eat less, move more" and "eat less junk food" would have the same effect on other people. It's just too similar to the finger-pointing we get elsewhere in society if we aren't at the right weight or fitness. Pollan's phrasing is a more of a reminder that eating isn't criminal behavior. :-)

alice said...

I like Pollan's better too. It's just simpler. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." How can you go wrong with that? :-D