Thinking About Processed Foods
Like all of you, food is a big part of our lives. We think about it a lot and the social and political issues surrounding food are important to us. How can I make sure that the food I put on the table is healthy and safe? Buying organic is one way, but the reason to choose organic is complicated. Here are the beginnings of my thoughts on Processed Foods.
When you read headlines that say “70% of Foods Contain GMOs” this is what they are talking about. Processed Foods. As you learned earlier, GMO crops linked to RoundUp are limited to soy, corn, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa, canola and some sweet corn. Other GMO crops raised for disease resistance include zucchini, yellow squash and papaya.
GMO sweet corn, zucchini and yellow squash are so limited in production that you are most likely not finding it on your grocer’s shelves. The majority of papaya, however, are GMO and are grown in Hawaii. But even if you are, you can buy organic and you won’t have to worry about those agricultural chemicals making it onto your plate.
Processed foods present an entirely different challenge than produce or proteins. But if we first address the idea that not all packaged goods are actually food, you may start steering clear of the boxed aisles in the first place.
When we think of what food is, let’s first look at our trusty dictionaries. Dictionary.com describes food this way:
- any nourishing substance that is eaten, drunk, or otherwise taken into the body to sustain life, provide energy, promote growth, etc.
So for a food to be a food, it must be nourishing.
- promoting or sustaining life, growth, or strength.
A food must be nourishing. It must promote or sustain life, growth or strength. It follows then when a “food” causes the deterioration of life, growth or strength that it is not actually a food. Right?
How are we supposed to know if a food is nourishing? Here is an example of what the government requires food companies to tell us about their products. These are the items of information the government has decided we need to know to understand if that product is good for us. We challenge ourselves and you to consider whether the labeling required by the government is the best measure for whether we should consume a particular packaged good.
We will think about this by analyzing this example of the Nutritional Facts from a particular brand of non-organic crackers. I chose this product randomly from a Google search for Nutritional Facts panels. This comes from a variety pack of single-serving items, marketed mainly to children for their lunch boxes. Remember, I am not a food scientist, physician or dietician. Instead, I am just like you and am trying to understand whether I should feed this to our family.
Notice how the first item of information is Calories and Calories from Fat. Many people look at the number of Calories in a food item and they end their analysis with that. But is Calories In and Calories Out the most important measure of the health of a food product? The USDA would like us to think so. However, we know that at the most basic level the average man requires about 2,500 calories per day and the average woman requires about 2,000. But we frame this in marketing as a limit rather than a need. As a result many people become fixated on only the number of Calories they are consuming. In fact, there are entire weight loss systems that are merely based on counting calories.
With packaged foods, the amount of calories contained can be manipulated through chemistry. Calories from processing can be removed and replaced with artificial ingredients. Many packaged foods are high in calories because of the foundation of the product itself. In order for packaged foods to taste good and last on the shelves without spoiling, a lot of engineering has to go into them. Most foods you buy in a box or a bag are based on corn or wheat and processed oils and require high levels of sugar and salt to satisfy consumer tastes. Many of these foods are so high in fat that they have to be engineered to reduce the amount of fats and calories in order to appear healthy on the Nutritional Facts panel that the government requires to be included in all packaging.
On the face of it, let’s analyze this food product based on the Nutrition Facts panel on the opposite page. Calories come from three basic components of a food: (1) fat, (2) carbohydrate, (3) protein. Each gram of Fat contains 9 Calories. Each gram of Carbohydrate contains 4 Calories. Each gram of Protein contains 4 Calories. This food has 110 Calories per serving. They have already done the math for us to let us know that 35 of those Calories come from Fat. If we do the math on the other two, we see that about 72 Calories are coming from Carbohydrates (in this case mostly Sugar) and only 4 calories are coming from Protein. This product is mostly Fat and Sugar. Only 4 Calories come from Protein.
I'll continue this analysis in my next post and let you know why I'm thinking about food.