Before you grab the Doritos from the pantry, the bologna from the refrigerator, or even that Lean Cuisine from the freezer, take a moment and squint at the fine print of the ingredient list. You'll likely find food additives in every one. Now, this may not faze you — most of us are so accustomed to seeing these ingredients in our packaged food items that we hardly bat an eye. It is simply the norm.
But the question is: are processed foods healthy
? Compared to the foods our bodies were built to eat, they are definitely not. These foods are designed to be both quick to prepare and consume and capable of staying "fresh" for a very long time. In order to fulfill these demands, they are stuffed full of artificial ingredients, like monosodium glutamate, potassium bromate, aspartame and sodium nitrate, all of which have been linked to cancer. So, how can you avoid these dangerous chemicals? It's simple: choose natural, whole foods instead of packaged items whenever possible. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, organic dairy products, organic meat and wild fish are all examples of whole foods. What do these things have in common? One, they don't have ingredients, they are ingredients. Two, they might be shelled, peeled or trimmed, but they're essentially unprocessed.
In light of this information, why do consumers continue to reach for packaged foods in grocery stores across America? Ironically, part of the problem is the increased consumer awareness of the need to choose healthy items. As information about the dangers of ingredients like trans fats and high fructose corn syrup becomes common knowledge and consumers grow increasingly concerned about good nutrition, large food-processing corporations are latching on to the trend. Companies like PepsiCo, which recently announced the formation of a global nutrition group headed by the company's chief scientific officer, have redirected their business models to accommodate the changing, more health-oriented marketplace. Among other initiatives, PepsiCo is testing a reduced-sodium salt for eventual rollout in its savory snacks. Kraft Foods Inc. is developing foods that "align with organic principles" by having fewer ingredients. Starbucks recently rolled out a line of "Petites" — mini baked goods that promise to keep you fit by remaining under 200 calories. These companies are aware of the potential fiscal growth in the health and wellness arena, and are remodeling their businesses accordingly.
The biggest resulting shift is perhaps not in the resulting food products themselves, but in the way that they are being marketed. Sara Lee cakes and cookies, for example, now boast the words "a good source of whole grain," and sugary General Mills cereals like Lucky Charms announce that they are good sources of calcium. Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark, a family physician with NorthShore University HealthSystem, says that health claims like these shift "the consumer away from the primary focus, which is whether it's nutritious food to begin with." Advertisements like "low-fat," "low-carb," "heart-healthy" or even "organic" disguise the more damaging aspects of the item. So while Lucky Charms in fact are a good source of calcium, consumers might forget that they are also a good source of sugar, modified corn starch, trisodium phosphate, artificial flavoring and artificial food dyes like yellow 5 & 6, blue 1 and red 40.
A lot of the confusion, Dr. Maker-Clark says, relates to the volume of the advertising. "If you've got messages coming at you from 50 different directions about what's good for you, you'll probably listen," she says. "You don't see nearly as much advertising for broccoli because there's no industry around it, but if there was, we'd probably see people making those choices." The more processed the food, the less nutritious it typically is. Yet it's the processed food makers who have the marketing budgets to do the research to support the health claims and then shout them from the rooftops. That's not the same as actually being healthy. A scientist can find a crucial nutrient in any packaged product he or she is paid to study.
But here's the thing: as everybody knows — or used to know before the proliferation of health claims confused us all — the hands-down healthiest foods in the supermarket are the unprocessed vegetables and fruits and whole grains. These foods sit silently in the produce section or the bulk-food bins. They don't utter a word about their antioxidants or heart-healthiness, while just a few aisles over the sugary cereals scream about their heart-healthy "whole grain goodness." Remember, in order for a food to make health claims on its package, it must first have a package, which increases the likelihood that it is a processed food. As Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," has pointed out, "Next time you're in the produce aisle, don't take the silence of the yams as a sign they have nothing important to say about your health. They do. They just don't have the money needed to say it."