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Tuesday, 11 January 2011 09:28

Keeping It Real

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Recently, a friend asked me why I thought my cereal was preferable to her cereal. She compared the stats of fat, fiber, protein, and carbs of each and found them to be comparable. Unfortunately, reading the nutritional information is not enough when it comes to making healthy food choices. It is also important to read the ingredients. My friend's cereal is what Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and Food Rules, would call an "edible foodlike substance." These foods are highly processed and are designed by food scientists. They consist mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy along with some chemical additives. There are 17,000 new products that show up in our supermarkets each year that are faux foods.

The general rule of thumb when looking at ingredients is that less is more. A healthier choice for breakfast instead of cereal would be steel-cut oatmeal or eggs. The ingredient list for eggs is “egg” and the ingredient list for oatmeal is “oats.” When the ingredient list is long and complicated, it’s best to leave the product on the shelf or consider it a treat. Ingredients that you cannot pronounce are likely manufactured. If the package has ingredients like diglycerides, cellulose, xanthan gum, or ammonium sulfate, leave it behind. Most of these food science ingredients are put in the product to extend shelf life and to encourage you to eat more (via our propensity for sweet, fat, and salt).

Opt for real foods for healthy eating. Great real food choices include all fruits and vegetables (reach for colorful produce such as broccoli, broccoli sprouts, berries, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes), nuts, beans, eggs, whole grains (such as quinoa and brown rice) and lean meats or meats with omega-3 fatty acids (like chicken, turkey, salmon, and sardines). See Eat This Way for the basics of healthy eating.

For me, reading the ingredient list is even more important than looking at the nutritional statistics. Supermarket shelves are lined with low-fat and no-fat foods. No-fat foods can look great on the stats, but when you look at the ingredients, you realize that all of the nutrients and wholeness of the food has been stripped out to make the nutrition facts look good. In my opinion, this is not healthy eating.

There is a perception that fat can cause fat, but we have actually gotten fatter as a nation living on no-fat and low-fat foods. These no-fat foods typically contain more sugar and are not as satisfying as their full fat counterparts (which means we eat more of it). Eating fat does not cause fat. In fact, recent studies confirm that healthy fat consumption actually promotes sustainable weight loss and keeps the cells in our body healthy. Not enough fat can lead to low energy and hypoglycemic issues. You just need to be eating the right fat. Healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, almond butter, olive oil, coconut oil, and eggs.

Just to give a concrete example, let’s compare Better‘n Peanut Butter to Trader Joe’s Almond Butter. I have a friend who at first resisted buying real nut butter because of the high fat content. Better 'n Peanut Butter has 2 grams of fat per serving size, whereas almond butter has approximately 17 grams of fat for the same serving size. However, if you look beyond the nutrition statistics to the ingredient list, below is what you find:

Ingredients for Better'n Peanut Butter: peanuts (as defatted peanut flour and natural peanut butter), tapioca syrup, pure water, dehydrated cane juice, rice syrup, vegetable glycerin, soy flour, salt, tapioca starch, natural food flavors, paprika & annato, calcium carbonate, lecithin, vitamin E & C (antioxidants)

Ingredients for Trader Joe's Almond Butter: dry roasted almonds

When looking at the two foods this way, the choice is clear. Trader Joe’s Almond Butter is a better choice because it is made of real food and the ingredient list is short. Better'n Peanut Butter is an edible foodlike substance. Not only is Better’n Peanut Butter not a real food, but also it’s a dessert. Several of the first few ingredients of Better ‘n Peanut Butter are sugar substitutes (tapioca syrup, dehydrated cane juice, rice syrup). A good rule of thumb is that if sugar is in the first three ingredients of a product, it should be considered a dessert. So if you opt for Better'n Peanut Butter, just think of it as eating a dessert, and an edible foodlike one, at that.

Next time you are at the grocery store, reach for the real food. It's healthier and will fill you up so that you don't continue to reach for other sugary foods later. Just remember that when it comes to making healthy food choices, less is more. Keep it simple and stick to whole foods. With this strategy, you can’t go wrong. As Pollan says, "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't." It doesn't get much clearer than that.

What edible foodlike substances posing as real food are lurking in your cupboards?

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Edible foodlike substances found in a standard grocery store, 2010

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