Tag Archives: Food Labeling

The Easiest Way to Eat “Healthy”

whole foods make it easy!

whole foods make it easy!

Sometimes I forget that not everyone has been on a food journey for as long as I’ve been on one. While I’ve been cooking, studying health and nutrition and battling my weight and eating issues for far more than a decade, the average person just doesn’t give it all that much thought. Maybe they do if they’re a big foodie, if they want to lose a few pounds or if they have a health scare where they need to change their diet to manage their condition. But for the average person who’s never been in one of these scenarios, convenience or preference often rules the day. My husband pointed this out to me recently as I went on and on about some misleading statements a commercial on TV was using to make their food product sound like a healthy choice. He said “Andrea you take it for granted that you know that, most people don’t. I don’t.”

Thanks to John bringing me back down to earth, I thought it might be a good idea to use today’s post to clear up some of the confusion that’s out there around “healthy” eating.

I follow these guidelines myself and find them to be the simplest “diet” (ahem, lifestyle!) to follow. I no longer have to worry about calories, fat or anything else. And I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been because of them. I feel like I can finally relax around food.

Forget about Labeling Claims
One huge problem with figuring out what is good for us is that we see labels in the store that say “heart healthy!” or “good source of whole grains” or “Natural” but those labels don’t necessarily mean that the food product is good for you. In fact, for some of these labels there is no strict definition by the FDA – foods can be labeled as “Natural” as long as the don’t contain artificial or synthetic ingredients and that leaves a lot of vague wiggle room. “Heart Healthy” labels mean a food is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. As long as it fits those criteria they can use whatever ingredients they want, including chemicals, preservatives and artificial junk. I could write 30 pages on misleading food labels but that would be overkill. The important takeaway around labels is this: Ignore food labels.

Most food label claims are there purely for marketing. They’re designed to convey information that will make us want to buy it. They are not designed with your health in mind. They’re there to make money.

You’ll notice as different food trends show up, new labels will appear. Gluten free is a big one right now and while avoiding gluten is incredibly important for many people, the fact that a product doesn’t contain gluten does not mean it’s good for you. It could still be full of refined grains, sugar and other stuff you don’t want to eat. If you’re going to look at packaging at all, focus on the ingredient list (what’s in it?) and the nutrition label (the part that lists the fiber, calories etc).

I wrote a blog post on this topic last year if you want to read a little more about label claims.

One easy way to avoid the confusion that food labeling claims make is to focus on what we call “Whole Foods”.

Focus on Whole Foods
I’m not talking about the grocery store by the same name. I’m talking about a group of foods that you can always count on to be full of high quality nutrition. There’s no standard definition for the term “whole foods”. Sometimes people also use the phrase “clean eating”. Some people are very strict in their interpretation of it and others are a little more forgiving with criteria. It’s up to you to decide what makes sense and will be easy for you to remember.

To me, whole foods are:

  • food that is close to nature as possible
  • foods that your grandmother and great grandmother would recognize as food
  • grown or raised
  • food that will rot or go bad

To me, whole foods don’t:

  • have artificial sweeteners, preservatives, chemicals or food coloring in them
  • need to be made in a factory. While some whole foods may be processed at a factory slightly (think canned beans or frozen vegetables) for convenience but they still resemble their original form very closely.
  • have very long ingredient lists

Examples of whole foods are:

  • vegetables & fruit
  • meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy
  • whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, bulgur, barley, teff etc)
  • beans & lentils
  • nuts, seeds, avocados & olives
  • herbs, spices, vinegars, maple syrup and honey

What’s so great about Whole Foods?
Because they’re pretty close to their natural state and haven’t been refined or heavily processed, these foods have more vitamins, minerals and fiber than the majority of processed foods. They don’t have added sugar, added trans fats or refined flours that will spike your blood sugar. They don’t have chemicals or preservatives added. Nutrients have been stripped away or destroyed to make it taste better or last longer.

It’s easier to eat “healthy” when the majority of your foods fall into the whole foods category. Most are packed with nutrition. Healthy starts to get harder to figure out when we are buying a lot of convenient processed foods. That’s when we have to worry about the grams of fat, carbs etc as well as the ingredients.

While food processing started off as a way to feed more people, increase nutrition (in the case of fortified products), increase shelf life and portability, you only need to take a quick walk down the aisles of any grocery store to see that most food “products” are made to satisfy junk food cravings or convenience. We have whole aisles dedicated to “snack products” like chips and candy.  Entire walls of freezer cases for ice cream and non dairy “topping”. Let’s not kid ourselves, today, the majority of processed food is not about good nutrition or far reach.

What’s not a Whole Food?
Aside from the junk foods I mentioned above, something else that doesn’t really fit into the whole food category – most breads, pasta and baked goods in stores. You may be surprised to hear this. Whole grains in their whole form are great but products “made with” whole grain can be a whole other story. They are often refined (meaning the outer tough fiber is removed). It really depends on the ingredient list and is a case by case basis (the majority of stuff in the market doesn’t count).

Again, ignore the labeling claims about whole grains and focus on the ingredients. It may be high fiber (thanks to added fiber for bulk) but when a sweetener made from corn is the second ingredient, stay away. There are some breads on the market that are made with great ingredients. You really want to play detective and read each label before you purchase it. Your great grandmother would have never eaten a loaf of bread with high fructose corn syrup, so why should you eat one?

How to make this work for real life
Obviously if you’re eating a diet that is low in whole foods making a switch may seem like a huge task. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. As I said earlier, I’ve been on this food journey for more than a decade. Don’t put pressure on yourself to change everything overnight.

A few things that can help:

  • Make one change at a time and don’t make another until you are comfortable with each one. Perhaps you want to switch from a peanut butter brand that contains high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils to one that just contains peanuts. The taste will be very different at first but you’ll get used to it and over time begin to prefer it!
  • Make your goal 90/10 each day. 90% whole foods and 10% splurge or processed! Right now you might be at 40% whole foods and 60% processed. That’s ok. Keep the goal in mind and aim for higher whole foods intake over time. It will take time.
  • Cook / eat at home more often. It’s much easier to control the ingredients that go in our meals when we make them ourselves. I love a good restaurant meal like anyone else (maybe more than anyone else! haha) but we try to make eating out a special occasion. It’s possible to get whole foods at restaurants but it really depends on what you are ordering and where. In your own kitchen you know exactly what is in your food!
  • Keep an open mind. Be willing to try new foods and experiment. There will be foods you don’t like. There will be foods your kids don’t like. Try things at least a couple of times and prepare them different ways. You never know when you’ll stumble on a recipe that changes how you feel about a food!
  • Don’t deprive yourself. Eating well, eating clean, eating whole foods is not about depriving ourselves. It’s about doing the best we can for our bodies in any given moment. Sometimes, a piece of chocolate cake (or whatever your vice is) will fit the bill even if it’s not “clean”. As long as you don’t have a medical condition that makes that food dangerous, eat it occasionally and enjoy it when you do. Then go back to eating as well as you are able.

We’re in this for the long haul. I’m not sure who said it but . . . health isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. You don’t get up one day and finally reach “healthy”. You want to live well so that you can be your healthiest every day.

If you didn’t have time to read this long post, here’s all you really need to know:
1. Ignore label claims
2. look at ingredient lists
3. focus on whole foods as much as possible

I hope that cleared up some of the confusion around food that gets thrown at us day in and day out. There’s no need to follow trends or marketing campaigns if you listen to your body and stick to foods from nature.

What’s the deal with GMOs in food? Should you eat them or not?

IMG_2697We keep hearing about GMOs in food. It’s on the news. Vermont just passed a mandatory labeling law. Some food products packaging declare that they are GMO free. But what’s the deal? Should you be eating them?

Some say we shouldn’t eat them and other’s say there’s absolutely no danger and that they’re necessary for the future.  I can see the potential benefits to the science behind it but I am wary that enough long term research hasn’t been done (especially when it comes to things like Bt corn).

When I decided to hold a veggie garden workshop last month, I sent home attendees with a handout on GMOs (along with some organic non gmo seeds) and I thought I would share it here because so many people have questions about whether they should be eating GMOs.  I tried to give pros and cons to both sides (but I’ll admit it’s hard for me to not sound biased).  Here’s the thing, no matter what research you do, you’ll be able to find sources that support whatever side you look at (and not just with GMOs) so it’s really important to try to take in as many facts as possible and then make up your own mind.

What do you think?  Do you think I’m crazy for being wary of them?  Do you worry about GMOs in your food?

GMOs Yay or Nay?
For a little background, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism.  Humans have been altering the genomes of plants for a very long time but until relatively recently it was through natural means; things like planting only the seeds of the best crops or cross breeding varieties to produce a sweeter plant. Today, a scientist in a lab can take DNA of any living thing and choose to insert it into another, completely unrelated species.  For example, they may choose to insert a gene from a moth into a potato to reduce the effect of potato blight disease on the next crop.  We even have GMO crops that have been engineered to withstand normally deadly doses of herbicides and pesticides.

The Upside of GMOs
Some of the benefits of GMO foods are that they are expected to increase our food supply. Advocates of GMOs say that with less disease or pest problems, farmers can grow more crops and feed more people, in less time and for less money.  GMO foods can be bred to taste and look better.  There is even potential to increase the nutrient content in certain varieties. GMO science also has wider reach than just food production. GMO research is helping the medical community understand which genes are responsible for certain diseases and speed production of some vaccines.  We are even studying GMO pigs for future organ transplants into humans!  There is also research being done to see how GMOs could be used for cleaner fuel sources.  With the growing problems our planet is facing, it would be irresponsible not to investigate the potential of GMO science.
The Downside of GMOs
As far as GMOs in our food goes, there is a lot we just don’t know yet.  The USDA does not require independent safety studies on GMOs and no long term studies have been done.  Research on GMOs is still in the infancy stages.  Some plants have antibiotics added to them so that they are resistant to certain diseases.  These antibiotics then show up in our bodies making medicines less effective when we need them. Some GMO corn and cotton varieties have been bred to contain Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that naturally occurs in the soil that is deadly to moths, caterpillars and butterflies.  This bacteria has been used as a pesticide in Organic farming because it is effective but easily washes off produce.  These GMO plants that have been bred to contain this bacteria have it in every fiber of the plant.  There is no washing it off.  So while this bacteria previously wasn’t harmful to humans, what happens when we’re ingesting large quantities of it in every bite of corn, corn syrup or tortillas that we eat?  Try finding processed food that does not contain corn in some form. Cornell University found that Monarch Butterfly larvae died after eating pollen that came from Bt corn.

Beyond unknown health risks, a few other possible consequences of GMO foods is the potential to create super weeds that are resistant to herbicides, difficulty preserving non-gmo fields (A farmer in Oregon found GMO wheat growing in a field he did not plant it in), legal ramifications (GMO seeds are patented and farmers have been sued for planting seeds more than once after purchase), and environmental pollution from liberal pesticide spraying (on pesticide tolerant gmo plants).

Unfortunately for us, there is no clear answer yet as to whether GMO foods are good or bad. Credible research on the dangers of GMOs are limited and often inconsistent but at the same time, much of the research that has come out saying GMOs are safe for consumption have been done by the same biotech companies who benefit financially from their widespread use.  If you do your own research, you will find people on both sides armed with lots of “facts” to obliterate the other side’s argument. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s up to you to decide.  There is no requirement at this time to label foods containing GMOs so we don’t always know when we are consuming them.

For me personally, just because there isn’t a ton of evidence saying that they are bad yet isn’t enough for me to jump on board wholeheartedly.  Once upon a time, the American public was convinced cigarettes were not harmful either.  I’d rather be safe than sorry.

If you are concerned about GMOs in your food, the most important thing you can do right now is getting the government to require labeling for GMO foods. There is a lot of money coming in from biotech companies (like Monsanto) to prevent labeling.  They know if we know there are GMOs in our food we will choose to spend our dollars elsewhere. We at least should have a choice in knowing what we put in our bodies.

What foods in our food supply are more likely to be GMO?
The crops most likely to be GMO today are: soy, corn, sugar beets, canola oils, papaya, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and peas, zucchini, yellow squash, dairy (due to the use of rbGH growth hormone) and alfalfa (fed to factory farmed animals).   To give you an idea of the reach, 88% of corn and 94% of soy produced in the US in 2012 were GMO.

How can I avoid GMOs?

  • Buy Organic when possible.  The USDA organic certification states that “the use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited at any stage in organic production, processing or handling.”
  • Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal.  GMO labeling is not mandatory in the US and this label is the closest thing we have currently to any guidelines.  You can read more about it online at: http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/understanding-our-seal/
  • Buy from local farmers – ask about their sources.  Local is usually a better choice even if it isn’t organic.

What else can I do?

  • Advocate for GMO labeling in your state. Until we know if GMO foods are truly safe (and we won’t know for many years) we should at least have the right to know what is in our food.  A label declaring this is the first step. Visit www.righttoknow-gmo.org/states to learn how you can help your state to support GMO labeling.

    Untitled drawing (1)