A trip through the supermarket will reveal what temptations and traps lie in every department in the store. This guide will show you specifically, in each area, what to look out for. You can't avoid chemical-laden, mechanically and chemically altered, nutrient-stripped food unless you're aware of what you're purchasing.
This is a lengthy piece, so if you're looking for a particular category of food (dairy, grains, etc.), skim through, looking for the section titles at the left side. I started in the outside aisles of the typical supermarket and then took on the middle aisles.
We'll get off to a positive start with the produce department.
This is your best bet for finding whole, unadulterated foods rich in nutrients and far less likely to harbor any of the nasties found in processed foods. But remember, you need to wash fresh produce: it may have pesticide residue (unless it's organic) and it could be contaminated with e. coli.
You can find some foods here to avoid: dried fruits loaded with sugar (and/or high fructose corn syrup), dessert toppings laced with additives, fruit and vegetable dips featuring artificial colors and flavors, and so on. But if you stick to fresh fruits and vegetables, obviously you're getting food and nothing but food.
Processed cured meats: deli, hot dogs, packaged cold cuts, etc.
Ah, the deli, home to lots of cured, pressed, formed, nitrite-, salt-, and fat-heavy (and often with added sugars as well) processed meats. Nitrites can form nitrosamines, known carcinogens, in the body. All that fat and salt isn't particularly good for you, either, and you should also know that various flavor enhancers, broth, and so on are added, containing who-knows-what ingredients. You can be sure that MSG (monosodium glutamate) is likely.
Three separate studies have come out showing that hot dogs are linked to increased likelihood of childhood cancers. That link is due to the presence of nitrites, which are found in most cured meats (including bacon) and fish. Some cured meats, including bacon, are now available without nitrites; they are not pink in color, but rather brownish, but they're better for you than nitrite-laden meats (fat, salt, etc. aside).
Do I completely avoid hot dogs and lunch meats? No. I eat them rarely, and I'm planning to seek out nitrite-free versions. At the deli counter I try to choose lower fat items like ham and turkey breast, but still, I know these are adulterated with various flavorings, injected with broth, and so on. It's not something I like to make a habit of, but sometimes I do give in to cravings--including the craving for salami!
Meat, poultry, and fish
The major problem with our meat, poultry, and fish is how the animals are raised: their living conditions, how and what they are fed, and the routine addition of antibiotics and hormones to meat and poultry. Farm-raised salmon are fed a coloring agent in their feed so that they'll be red like wild-caught salmon. Beef cattle are fed--well, read it for yourself. Chickens are also fed a questionable diet and, like cattle, given antibiotics and hormones. Pigs are raised in abominable conditions and also are routinely given antibiotics. I've stopped buying a fresh meat and poultry at the supermarket, and buy only wild-caught fish.
But the potential problems don't end with how the animals were raised. To quote from an earlier post:
Two of the biggest trends reshaping America’s meat supply are gas packaging and brine injection systems. Manufacturers save millions of dollars in lost meat turnover with these technologies, which make meat appear fresh longer and pump “flavor” into factory-farmed meat, in the form of salt water and broth. Companies also save on labor costs, since these “case-ready” meats can go straight from the cold truck to the retail shelf. Consumers are left paying for meat pumped up with saltwater solutions that may be spoiled by its expiration date.
That broth may also contain "flavorings" such as MSG and various other additives--not to mention added salt.
To avoid gas-packed meat, take a good look at the packaging. If the tray is heavy plastic--it must be plastic, if it's gas-packed, because gas can get through styrofoam--and there is a puffy look to the plastic wrap on top (i.e., the wrap isn't touching the meat at all, but is domed over it), then it's gas-packed. As for broth, look at the label for the words "broth added" or something similar.
Remember, gas packaging is meant to make meat look fresher than it is. Don't take a chance.
Dairy and eggs
You might think that eggs are a safe bet when it comes to wholesome food, and indeed, I don't know of any way to add substances of any kind to eggs in the shell. I do know, however, that the conventional eggs in a supermarket are a far cry from those laid by true free-range hens. To avoid eating the product of a hen that's been fed hormones and antibiotics, plus who knows what in its feed, buy organic eggs. (You should be aware that just because an egg carton says "free-range," that doesn't mean the chickens thmeselves really were free-range. It only means that they had access to the outdoors, even if only into a dirt pen with nothing growing for them to munch on, through a tiny door most of the chickens aren't even aware of.)
For similar reasons, I buy organic milk: I don't want to buy or consume the product of an animal that's been given growth hormones and antibiotics.
But there's also a problem in the dairy case that you might not be aware of. The milk you buy at the store is itself a processed food, and not just because of pasteurization:
Inside that machinery, milk shipped from the farm is completely remade. First it is separated in centrifuges into fat, protein and various other solids and liquids. Once segregated, these are reconstituted to set levels for whole, low-fat and no-fat milks; in other words, the milk is reconstituted to be completely uniform. Of the reconstituted milks, whole milk will most closely approximate original cow's milk. The butterfat left over will go into butter, cream, cheese, toppings and ice cream. The dairy industry loves to sell low fat milk and skim milk because they can make a lot more money from the butterfat when consumers buy it as ice cream. When they remove the fat to make reduced fat milks, they replace the fat with powdered milk concentrate, which is formed by high temperature spray drying. All reduced-fat milks have dried skim milk added to give them body, although this ingredient is not usually on the labels. The result is a very high-protein, lowfat product. Because the body uses up many nutrients to assimilate protein—especially the nutrients contained in animal fat—such doctored milk can quickly lead to nutrient deficiencies.
As with others of even our most basic foods, such as wheat, the whole food is dismantled and recombined, then treated with various additives.
Even more problematically, notice that low-fat milk and skim milk have had dried skim milk--milk powder--added to give them the body that disappears when the fat is removed. This milk powder contains oxidized cholesterol, which contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries, or atherosclerosis. In addition, while skim milk has vitamins A and D added to it, like other kinds of milk, one wonders how the body can absorb these fat soluble vitamins, as there's no fat in the milk.
Yogurt is a terrific food that's long been known for its healthful properties. Yet the food industry has managed to adulterate this food as well.
First, I would never buy low-fat or no-fat yogurt; it's sure to have some sort of additive to give it body. (I'm not sure how low-fat yogurt is made; if it's from skim or low-fat milk to which milk powder has been added, then it's as bad as low-fat or skim milk.)
Second, read the label. (See Part Three.)
Flavored yogurt or "fruit-on-the-bottom" yogurt will probably contain high fructose corn syrup and possibly other sugars. All yogurts may contain thickeners, stabilizers, artificial flavors and colors, and the like. Real, unadulterated yogurt is just milk that has been fermented by the addition of specific bacteria. Not only is it more digestible than milk, but it promotes healthy gut flora as long as the yogurt contains live cultures. So that's what to look for in the way of yogurt: organic whole milk with live cultures and no other additives.
My rule of thumb for all dairy products is "buy the brand with the fewest ingredients." This goes for sour cream, cottage cheese, coffee cream, and cheeses. Ideally, the label will list milk, possibly cream, and "cultures" or "enzymes." I don't buy sour cream thickened with gelatin, carrageenan gum, or whatever. Even coffee cream may contain a number of additives. Who needs them?
As for cheese, avoid "cheese food" or "processed cheese" or "processed cheese food." It's not the same thing as cheese. Processed cheese (American cheese is perhaps the best known) contains cheese, but also other dairy products, emulsifiers, colorings, added whey, extra salt, and your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine. Processed cheese may also contain vegetable oil (we'll get to that aisle eventually). You may have seen ads claiming that, say, Velveeta melts more smoothly and doesn't separate, while Cheddar cheese can separate. True enough--that's what the emulsifiers in processed cheese do. I really resent the industrialization of what was formerly an artisanal skill.
Even real cheese--or cheese allowed to label itself as such, rather than as processed cheese--can have a lot of additives, so once again, read the label, and choose the product with a minimum of ingredients listed.
I'm going to list ice cream here instead of in the frozen food section, because I apply the same standard to ice cream that I do to other dairy products: the ingredients list should be extremely short and minus any additives, thickeners, emulsifiers, artificial colorings and flavorings, unpronounceable chemical nomenclature, etc. Cream, sugar, and perhaps some fruit or vanilla bean or natural chocolate--that's what to look for.
On the first part of our supermarket tour, I hit the aisles Michael Pollan urges us to shop--the outside aisles rather than those in the middle of the store. Even those aisles are not free from processed foods--far from it. A person who wishes to eat whole, unadulterated foods faces a challenge. But armed with knowledge, and more importantly, skepticism and distrust, a shopper can navigate these troubled waters.
Onward now to the next stretch:
Breads and other baked goods
I'm sorry to invoke Michael Pollan's name so often, but he's so damned good on this subject! And here I just have to cite his example of a typical loaf of bread--or what passes for bread--offered in a typical supermarket: Sara Lee's Soft and Smooth Whole Grain White Bread. To quote:
Because the small percentage of whole grains in the bread would render it much less sweet than, say, all-white Wonder Bread--which scarcely waits to be chewed before transforming itself into glucose--the food scientists have added high-fructose corn syrup and honey to make up the difference; to overcome the problematic heft and toothsomeness of a real whole grain bread, they've deployed "dough conditioners," including guar gum and the aforementioned azodicarbonamide, to simulate the texture of supermarket white bread. By incorporating certain varieties of albino wheat, they've managed to maintain that deathly but apparently appealing Wonder Bread pallor.
Who would have thought Wonder Bread would ever become an ideal of aesthetic and gustatory perfection to which bakers would actually aspire--Sara Lee's Mona Lisa?
When buying bread, it's important--as always--to read the label. Some breads will still contain trans fats (remember, look for "partially hydrogenated," "hydrogenated" [without the word "fully" in front of it], and "shortening" on the label; don't count on "zero trans fats!" emblazoned on the package). Many will contain high fructose corn syrup. Most will not be actual whole-grain breads.
And you can't trust the store's bakery, either. I used to shop at a local Farmer Jack, and while the artisan bread was excellent and free of repulsive ingredients, the same could not be said of the in-store bakery. Take care when you buy bagels, donuts, or any other items that come from the store bakery.
I bake a lot of bread that contains just four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. If I buy bread, I look for simplicity. And whole grains. White flour is nutritionally inferior to whole-wheat flour, despite the fact that it has been "enriched" to replace some of what's been stripped out by processing.
Which brings me to this caveat: don't mistake "wheat flour" on the label for "whole wheat flour." If it's made of wheat, no matter how extensive the processing it's undergone, it's still wheat flour.
What goes for bread goes for other baked goods--only even more so.
With desserts, cakes, pies, cookies, and so on, the main problem is the high sugar content itself. These foods, which so many Americans seem addicted to, should be rare treats. The food industry has worked assiduously to make us crave more and more sugar, a sweeter and sweeter taste, ratcheting up the amount of sweetener in all these products and more.
How much sugar does the average American consume? It's shocking:
The average American now consumes 175 pounds of sugar per year! That's 46 teaspoons a day! If we pretend that sugar actually had some benefits, eating one-half pound every day would not seem like such a bad idea. But the truth is that sugar has absolutely no nutritional value whatsoever. Not only does it totally lack nutrients, but when you eat sugar it actually robs your body of nutrients-- vitamins, minerals and even enzymes.
To make things worse, there's nothing in these products to slow down the absorption of sugar in your bloodstream. In fruits and other natural sources of sugars, there's plenty of fiber to slow things down. Not so in most baked goods: they're made with refined white flour, which is yet another refined carbohydrate. If you're eating a lot of refined sugars and other carbs, you're putting yourself and your body through a roller-coaster ride of spiking blood-sugar highs followed by bottoming-out lows. All kinds of symptoms can arise from this: mental fog, anxiety, depression, and the craving for more sweets--starting the cycle all over again.
And of course high-fructose corn syrup is usually present in processed baked goods.
Artificial and natural flavors and colors are also often present in these products ("natural" flavors are usually the same chemicals found in "artificial" flavors, the only difference being that they originally came from a natural product at some point in their history).
Too much sugar is making Americans fat, tired, lazy, and prone to diabetes. It also leaves little room for nutrient-rich foods, including naturally sweet but vitamin-packed fruits.
So, try to bypass the sweet baked goods at the supermarket. Learn to bake your own sweet treats, substituting honey for sugar and using some whole wheat flour instead of all white flour. And eat far fewer of these goodies, if you've been loading up on them.
Crackers and salty snacks
Just recently I bought a box of crackers and was taken in by the "zero trans fats" claim, which I didn't discover until after I'd fed a lot of them to my grandson. You'd think I'd be more careful, wouldn't you?
For some reason, crackers often contain trans fats. You have to read the ingredients label to be sure that Keebler or Nabisco hasn't used shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. I couldn't find unobjectionable oyster crackers for the longest time, but finally had success. Keep looking on subsequent supermarket trips if you haven't found what you want--more and more trans fat-free products are coming on the market.
Crackers often contain high fructose corn syrup as well.
Whole-grain crackers like Triscuits or Ry-Krisp are excellent choices--you're actually getting some real food (and fiber) there.
As for other salty snacks, many manufacturers have switched to trans fat-free versions, but as always, be vigilant. One thing to remember about potato chips and other crunchy munchies is that they have very little nutritional value, and that you're getting a lot of fat--and salt--when you eat most products in this category. Popcorn (home-made) is a better bet. We tend not to buy potato chips, but we do buy tortilla chips, especially those made with organic corn and free of additives.
Be careful with dry-roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds. I looked at the label on a jar of Planter's dry-roasted peanuts and was not pleased to find sugar, corn syrup solids, MSG, and gelatin listed. I can't see the necessity for these ingredients; I'd rather buy peanuts roasted in a little oil with nothing added but salt.
Tree nuts and peanuts are good sources of various necessary minerals, but they tend to be oversalted (to my taste, anyway). If you can find unsalted nuts, so much the better.
When it comes to beverages, American shoppers face a dizzying array of choices. Unfortunately, most of those choices are empty of any nutritional content, and what's worse, they actually contain harmful substances like high fructose corn syrup or aspartame. These noxious ingredients are not only in carbonated beverages, but in juice drinks, iced teas, and so on.
I have a simple rule about buying beverages: nothing containing high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweetener goes into the cart. Again, you need to read labels, including the labels of dairy drinks.
With this rule in mind, there are whole aisles I don't even need to traverse on a shopping trip.
I like to drink sparkling water, but I'm convinced that bottled water is not environmentally sound. From Think Outside the Bottle:
Bottled water corporations are changing the very way people think about water. Though many bottled water brands come from the same source as public tap water, they are marketed as somehow more pure. What’s more - bottled water corporations sell water back to the public at thousands of times the cost. Plastic bottles also require massive amounts of fossil fuels to manufacture and transport. Billions of these bottles wind up in landfills every year.
[ . . . ]
Each year more than 4 billion pounds of PET plastic bottles end up in landfills or as roadside litter.
Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil last year – enough fuel for more than 1 million U.S. cars for a year - and generated more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Here in Michigan we recycle the bottles, but the fossil fuel required to make plastic bottles is unconscionable.
But I like my water bubbly. What to do? I went so far as to buy a seltzer bottle. The chargers for the bottle--the little containers of carbon dioxide that put the sparkle in the water--are made of metal and go into the recycle bin after use. Using tap water also means I'm not buying water that's been pumped out of the aquifer to the extent that communities are seeing their wells dry up.
Remember, one of the reasons to avoid processed food has to do with environmental issues and fossil fuel use. Bottled water is truly one of the villains in this regard.
Bottled water isn't really a food, is it?--but neither are the carbonated beverages so many Americans are addicted to. Americans love their soda pop, and that's a problem:
A single 12-ounce can of soda has as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup. And because the amount of soda we drink has more than doubled since 1970 to about 56 gallons per person a year, so has the amount of high fructose corn syrup we take in. In 2001, we consumed almost 63 pounds of it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA suggests most of us limit our intake of added sugar -- that's everything from the high fructose corn syrup hidden in your breakfast cereal to the sugar cube you drop into your after-dinner espresso -- to about 10 to 12 teaspoons a day. But we're not doing so well. In 2000, we ate an average of 31 teaspoons a day, which was more than 15 percent of our caloric intake. And much of that was in sweetened drinks.
Yes, the sugar itself is bad. But high fructose corn syrup has other sins to answer for:
Pure fructose contains no enzymes, vitamins or minerals and robs the body of its micronutrient treasures in order to assimilate itself for physiological use.7 While naturally occurring sugars, as well as sucrose, contain fructose bound to other sugars, high fructose corn syrup contains a good deal of "free" or unbound fructose. Research indicates that this free fructose interferes with the heart’s use of key minerals like magnesium, copper and chromium. Among other consequences, HFCS has been implicated in elevated blood cholesterol levels and the creation of blood clots. It has been found to inhibit the action of white blood cells so that they are unable to defend the body against harmful foreign invaders.8
Fructose is metabolized by the liver; it doesn't cause the pancreas to release insulin like other sugars. Nor does it result in an increase in the hormone leptin, which lowers the appetite and controls body weight. At the same time, it fails to suppress a hormone that increases appetite. It acts much like a fat in the body, because it is converted to fat, and raises serum triglyceride levels. High fructose corn syrup may be the leading reason we're seeing a startling rise in so-called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
The process used to make HFCS also results in some features not found in nature--features that may pose further health hazards. In table sugar, fructose and sucrose are "bound" and chemically stable, while in HFCS, there are unbound fructose and glucose molecules that give rise to highly reactive and undesirable carbonyls that can cause cellular and tissue damage.
If we buy soft drinks at all, we now buy only those small specialty brands made with cane sugar or evaporated cane juice. They're expensive, which discourages overindulgence.
Many consumers, aware of the effects of too much sugar on the waistline, have turned to artificially sweetened beverages. But artificially sweetened drinks, particularly where aspartame is used, are no better for your health--and may be worse.
It's hard to know where to start with aspartame. Many people have suffered debilitating health and found relief only after discontinuing the use of artificial sweeteners. Their experiences are usually pooh-poohed by government agencies and conventional medicine alike. But if I were an aspartame consumer plagued with headaches, memory loss, vision problems, slurred speech, or a myriad of other symptoms that weren't helped by modern medicine, I'd certainly try ridding my diet of aspartame. Of the food additives approved by the FDA, 80% of all health complaints the agency receives arise from the use of aspartame. We are assured, however, that aspartame is completely safe ...
Whether or not one believes that aspartame can trigger all the side effects claimed, it looks like the sweetener may actually be contributing to the obesity epidemic, undermining people's best efforts to lose weight:
Aspartame itself doesn’t have any calories, but basically, one of its ingredients, the amino acid phenylalanine, blocks production of serotonin, a nerve chemical that, among other activities, controls food cravings. As you might well imagine, a shortage of serotonin will make your brain and body scream for the foods that create more of this brain chemical—and those are the high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich snacks that can sabotage a dieter. Obviously, the more aspartame one ingests, the more heightened the effects. Simply put, aspartame appears to muddle the brain chemistry.
In addition, it appears that artificial sweeteners fool the body into releasing insulin, only to find that no actual food is present. And that triggers a craving for high-calorie, sugary food.
Perhaps most troubling of all is a study from an Italian cancer institute suggesting that aspartame causes lymphomas, leukemia, and breast cancer in rats.
The new study, conducted by the respected Ramazzini Foundation and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found statistically significant increases in lymphomas and leukemias in rats that were fed 100 milligrams of the sweetener per kilogram of body weight--an amount several times higher than what some people consume. A lower amount, 20 milligrams per kilogram, also caused an increase, but it was not statistically significant.
There are now calls for the FDA to reevaluate the safety of aspartame in light of this study. Other studies have shown damage to DNA, indicating that even low amounts of aspartame over the course of many years can do irreparable harm.
Keep in mind that aspartame was banned by the FDA for several years, until Donald Rumsfeld--yes, that Donald Rumsfeld--got it approved (that's too long a story to go into here; Google "aspartame rumsfeld" for the sordid tale).
Frankly, I wouldn't knowingly ingest any artificial sweetener. If it's not in nature, I don't want it. I'm just waiting for the bad news to surface about Splenda or any new artificial sweetener.
So, to sum up: avoid all beverages with high fructose corn syrup and all beverages containing an artificial sweetener--these no-no's include juice-like beverages--and out of respect for the environment and other people's water supply, eschew bottled water as well.
It's pretty simple to avoid processed foods in the frozen department: stick to vegetables and fruits without added sugar, seasonings, or sauces. Just about everything else will be loaded with additives, trans fats, flavorings, unpronounceable chemicals, thickeners, etc. Don't even consider the frozen dinners, frozen burritos, garlic bread, pizza, desserts, and the like--unless you've read the label carefully and are sure there's nothing objectionable in the product. It's really more efficient to just skip it, in my experience.
Occasionally I'll pick up some frozen shrimp (uncooked, or cooked but not breaded), but not often, because it's most likely farm-raised.
I've already covered ice cream here, but to recap: buy the brand of ice cream with the fewest ingredients, preferably just milk/cream, sugar, and fruit or natural cocoa. As for other frozen "treats," avoid them if you want to avoid overly refined and processed foods high in sugar (probably from high fructose corn syrup).
Except for organic broth, I can't recall the last time I bought canned or boxed soup. There are some organic soups out there that might be quite good, but I haven't tried them.
The problem with canned soups is that they are high in salt, probably contain MSG, may include high fructose corn syrup or other sugars, and most likely contain a bewildering array of additives and flavorings. If you must buy canned soups (or dried soups, or prepared soups in cartons), read the label and go for the brand with the fewest objectionable ingredients.
Do I eat soup? Certainly. I make my own, always making enough to freeze leftovers--some into lunch-sized portions, some into dinner-sized portions. Usually there's a selection of main-course or first-course soups in the freezer. More on this in a later installment.
You've probably already figured out that I never use canned "cream of" soups, or canned cheese soup, in casseroles or other dishes. You can easily and quickly substitute for these ingredients, and I'll show you how when I talk about overcoming obstacles to avoiding highly processed foods.
Sauces and seasonings
Spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, sauce mixes, gravy and gravy mixes, and the like usually contain ingredients better avoided. Mixes will inevitably contain MSG and that vast unknown territory called "natural and artificial flavors" and sometimes "natural and artificial colors" as well. Sauces in cans and jars often--but not always--contain high fructose corn syrup and possibly thickeners, artificial flavors, and so on. Many of the better quality spaghetti and pizza sauces use sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, and some even use olive oil, at least for part of the oil (olive oil is superior to other vegetable oils, but we'll get to that later). Here's where it really pays to read labels, if you're not making your own sauces, because decent sauces are available.
I don't use packaged seasoning mixes such as taco mix, meatloaf seasoning, sloppy joe mix, etc. All these dishes can be made with aromatics, herbs, and spices from your own pantry, and if you make them yourself, you'll know you're not getting any MSG, sugars, or additives that you might be sensitive to and that certainly aren't a part of nutrition.
Canned, glassed, and packaged goods
(I'm talking here about products other than the soups and sauces covered in the last post.)
There are vast areas of supermarket shelving that we never so much as glance at. Among these are all the Hamburger Helpers and their clones, pizza kits, canned pastas, and all the rest of the convenience "foods" that are supposed to save you eons of time and loads of trouble.
These things are not food and should be avoided (well, pizza kits aren't so bad). If you don't believe me, glance at the labels some time. As for canned pasta--ugh. I didn't even feed my kids Spahetti-Os. Canned pastas are usually sweetened and contain goddess knows what else.
So what canned products do we buy?
- certain vegetables, namely tomatoes and tomato products (paste and sauce, if I haven't made my own to freeze), artichoke hearts, pearl onions, sauerkraut, and cooked dry beans
- tuna (albacore, packed in water)
- ripe olives (sometimes deli olives won't do)
- pickles (if I haven't had a good crop of cucumbers that year) and hot pickled peppers (I don't care for home-canned: they are soft, regardless of what you do when canning them)
- peanut butter (the natural variety only, complete with oil separation)
- the occasional jar of capers
- mandarin oranges
Any other canned or glassed items would be purchased only rarely, such as canned chipotles or pie filling or tahini (sesame seed paste).
We prefer fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits to canned, unless we've canned them ourselves. But if you do buy canned vegetables or fruit, read the label: sugar may be an ingredient (dextrose or other -oses, high fructose corn syrup, etc.). Look out, too, for artificial flavorings and that all-purpose word "seasonings," which can mean MSG, among other things.
As for beans, such as black, kidney, garbanzo, etc., I try to stick to bags of dried beans, or beans purchased from a local organic farmer; they're a snap to make in a pressure cooker if they've been soaked several hours. Still, it's good to have a few cans on the pantry shelf "just in case."
We've been eating natural peanut butter since before our (now grown) kids were born. Other peanut butters have had much, if not all, of the peanut oil removed--peanut oil makes more of a profit for the manufacturer--and replaced with some other vegetable oil. Formerly, that oil was usually partially hydrogenated something-or-other, meaning trans fats. I haven't read the label of a jar of non-natural peanut butter in a while, so that may have changed. The other unfortunate fact about peanut butter is that usually sugar's been added. Added sugar used to be in the form of dextrose, but I suspect it's now more likely to be high fructose corn syrup, that ubiquitous villain.
As for jam, the little we use I make myself. But were I to buy jam or jelly, I'd look for that made with sugar and not, you guessed it, high fructose corn syrup. Another choice would be the kind made with no added sugar, only fruit juice.
Pasta, rice and other grains, and beans
You can't really go wrong with pasta. I'll only add here that we like the whole wheat or the Barilla Plus. The latter is made using bean flours and other ingredients that lower the glycemic index of the pasta, making it a better choice for my spouse.
As for rice: Rule Number One is that Minute Rice is NOT rice! It's been stripped of its nutrients, it tastes terrible, its texture is abominable, and I would never, ever serve it. For nutrient-rich rice, buy brown rice or converted rice.
Converted rice is steamed before it's hulled, so the grains absorb a lot of the nutrients from the husk. I like converted rice (the best known is, of course, Uncle Ben's) and use it when brown rice just won't do. Brown rice is the most nutritious, having undergone minimal processing. The other rice I use regularly is arborio, which has the short, fat, starchy grains needed for risotto.
There are some interesting rices out there, such as basmati (and brown basmati), wehani, Forbidden rice, red Bhutanese, and so on. These varieties, while more expensive, are well worth trying; their flavors are deeper, often nutty, and they are quite aromatic. Why eat white (or "polished," as it's also called) rice when you can experience the flavors of whole-grain rice?
I have bought rice mixes in the past, but I don't any more. If you like them, do please check out the label to see what's in the spice packet.
For other grains, I try to buy organic and to get the least processed available. For example, I like steel-cut oats as a hot breakfast cereal, and when a recipe calls for rolled oats, I buy the old-fashioned variety. Organic corn meal is a taste treat that puts the usual supermarket varieties to shame. It's worth seeking out the whole, organic forms of any kind of grain or meal. If you bake, consider using part or all whole wheat flour instead of all white flour. (If you're interested in using whole grains in your baking, but feel intimidated or mystified, King Arthur Flour's Whole Grain Baking is a great place to start.) Whole wheat flour does not necessarily consist of the whole grain, with nothing added or removed. Commercial whole wheat flour may have been refined just as white flour is, with the bran and germ separated and then added back in according to a formula that may or may not be just like that found in nature. For true whole-grain flour, you want whole-meal flour, which you may have to buy from a small mill that stone grinds its wheat. But whole wheat flour, even if it has been refined, is still far, far better than refined white flour.
As for dried beans, again, other than choosing organic, there's not much to decide. I prefer to cook the dry beans rather than buy canned; canned garbanzos (chick peas) taste quite tinny to me, and the home-cooked dried ones are almost a different bean altogether. Dry beans have the advantage of not costing as much per unit to ship as canned beans, and they use fewer natural resources in the packaging process.
Hoo boy, the cereal aisle: garishly colored boxes all too often matched by the garishly colored product inside (Froot Loops, anyone? Trix?)
You already know not to buy sugar-laden cereals. That right there narrows your choices. Many other cold cereals are highly processed, as a glance at the label will show you. We're not fans of cold cereals, as they're mostly highly refined carbohydrates--not the best way to start your day, with a blood sugar spike followed by a drop that leaves you slumping. There are, however, whole-grain cereals that aren't so highly refined--shredded wheat, for example--and these would be a far better choice. (The fiber in whole grains slows the absorption of sugars, preventing the spike and subsequent trough in the blood sugar level.)
Most cereals are enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals. That's because the original nutritional content has been processed out of it, in most cases. Additionally, cereals are fortified becauce they're an important source of nutrients for most kids. Some cereals boast that they provide 100% of the RDA of vitamins and minerals. Well, okay ... but look at the label to see what else is in there. If you see a long list of unfamiliar ingredients that sound like they come from a chemistry lab, pass that box by.
You can find lots of cereals at most supermarkets that, once upon a time, would have been found in health-food stores only. Even these require label-reading, though, because items like granola and muesli may be high in sugar or have other additives better avoided.
Avoid instant oatmeal (or instant anything) if you're avoiding highly processed foods. That goes for breakfast drinks, too. And for heaven's sake, stay away from those toaster pastries! Ugh. High in sugar, possibly including trans fats--these aren't the stuff meals are made of. Breakfast bars are another highly processed "food" to stay away from.
Best are cereals that have been minimally processed, whether meant to be eaten cold or hot. Whole grains are always better than processed grains. Steel-cut oats are better than rolled oats (to my mind they taste far better as well), but rolled oats are quite nutritious and a good choice. Whatever hot cereal you buy, go for the longest-cooking version.
Longer cooking cereals can be made in advance and reheated in the microwave, so don't let the cooking time prevent you from making a healthier choice. When I make oatmeal, I try to remember to make enough for another morning's breakfast.
Recently, trans fats have been exposed for the dangerous substances they are, so that the labeling of trans fats has been mandated, and trans fats have disappeared from many foods. You probably already know--and I've certainly harped on it throughout this series--that trans fats are evil. But what about other fats?
For years we've heard that saturated fats--those found in animal products plus a few that come from plant sources--are bad for us: they raise our cholesterol level, make us fat, and cause heart disease. We've been urged to eat polyunsaturated fats, namely corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola, sunflower, and safflower oil to stay "heart healthy."
In fact, polyunsaturated vegetable oils are NOT good for you. Even if you can find cold-pressed or expeller-pressed, it's probably still better to avoid these oils. Most of the vegetable oils, however, undergo heavy processing that is itself of concern. Let's take a look at how canola oil (made from rapeseeds) is processed:
The oil is removed by a combination of high temperature mechanical pressing and solvent extraction. Traces of the solvent (usually hexane) remain in the oil, even after considerable refining. Like all modern vegetable oils, canola oil goes through the process of caustic refining, bleaching and degumming--all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety. And because canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which easily become rancid and foul-smelling when subjected to oxygen and high temperatures, it must be deodorized. The standard deodorization process removes a large portion of the omega-3 fatty acids by turning them into trans fatty acids. Although the Canadian government lists the trans content of canola at a minimal 0.2 percent, research at the University of Florida at Gainesville, found trans levels as high as 4.6 percent in commercial liquid oil.24 The consumer has no clue about the presence of trans fatty acids in canola oil because they are not listed on the label.
Let me put it bluntly: DO NOT BUY POLYUNSATURATED VEGETABLE OILS. Say good-bye to canola, corn, sunflower, cottonseed, soybean, and safflower oils.
Polyunsaturated vegetable oils have been implicated in a number of health problems:
Excess consumption of polyunsaturated oils has been shown to contribute to a large number of disease conditions including increased cancer and heart disease; immune system dysfunction; damage to the liver, reproductive organs and lungs; digestive disorders; depressed learning ability; impaired growth; and weight gain.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) become rancid easily when exposed to heat, oxygen, and moisture--as happens in processing and in cooking. Rancid oils are characterized by free radicals, compounds that are very reactive chemically. Free radicals are linked to cancerous tumors, premature aging, and autoimmune disorders. And then there are lipid hydroperoxides:
Lipid hydroperoxides are contaminants that form from natural fatty acids when polyunsaturated fats are heated excessively, which happens in processing and when these oils are heated for cooking and frying. Lipid hydroperoxides poison our body's systems just as trans fats do; in fact, they may even be worse than trans fats because of their propensity to react with oxygen and iron, thereby forming free radicals.
In addition, a highly toxic compound occurs in vegetable oils when they're heated to frying temperature:
Researchers at the University of Minnesota have identified a highly toxic compound, 4-hydroxy-trans-2-noneal (HNE), which forms in vegetable oils when they are heated to frying temperature (365 degrees) and then concentrate in the fried foods themselves. "HNE is a well known, highly toxic compound that is easily absorbed from the diet," said A. Saari Csallany, professor of food chemistry and nutritional biochemistry at the 96th annual meeting of the American Oil Chemists Society. "The toxicity arises because the compound is highly reactive with proteins, nucleic acids--DNA and RNA--and other biomolecules. HNE is formed from the oxidation of linoleic acid, and reports have related it to several diseases, including atherosclerosis, stroke, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Huntington's and liver diseases."
Another problem with using PUFA is that the balance of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids is upset. PUFAs contain very little omega-3 fatty acids and quite a lot of omega-6 fatty acids, and this is a prescription for trouble.
So what's a cook to do?
Don't be afraid to choose animal fats--yes, you heard me!--like butter or, if you can find lard or tallow from pasture-raised, organic animals, even those maligned products. They are far, far better for you than vegetable oils. Butter is an excellent food, containing many nutrients that are protective against heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Saturated fats are necessary for the proper functioning of the human body. They are not the major villains in the obesity epidemic, nor, as many studies have shown, for heart disease or cancer. (If you're skeptical--and why not, with all the propaganda we've been fed for so long!--please start here to find articles that just might convince you.)
For plant-based oils, turn to olive oil (extra virgin cold-pressed only) and coconut oil, perhaps with the occasional use of peanut oil (for the now-and-then stir-fry) or nut oils (best in salad dressings or as added flavor, not really for sauteing).
I use mainly organic butter and olive oil in my cooking. Coconut oil is tasteless, so when I don't want an olive-oil flavor, I use coconut oil. Coconut oil is also wonderful for baking. Saturated fats, including coconut oil, are the best for high-temperature frying.
I hope you'll follow some of the links I've provided so you can read for yourself some of the information on fats and oils. We've been sold a bill of goods when it comes to fats. Spread the word!
Salad dressings and mayonnaise
If you read the post on fats, you might have guessed already that one of the chief problems with commercial salad dressings is the type of oil used: nearly always soybean oil or some other vegetable oil that's not olive. So the first thing to look for, if you must buy your salad dressing, is olive oil. (But it's so fast and easy to make the vinaigrette type of dressing, you should really make it part of your repertoire.)
In addition to polyunsaturated fats, high fructose corn syrup is a frequent ingredient of bottled salad dressings. I myself don't like any sweetener in my dressings, but if you do, look for sugar, honey, or even (non-high fructose) corn syrup.
Of course, the trouble doesn't end there. Bottled dressings are likelty to contain MSG, often hidden under the rubric "natural and artificial flavorings," "autolyzed yeast," or some such. They're often heavy on the salt. Additionally, it's typical to find preservatives, various gums, etc. listed on the label. Xanthan gum isn't harmful, as far as I've been able to discern, but I'm never sure about the preservatives.
If you're using a creamy dressing, check to make sure that milk solids have not been added, as these contain oxidized cholesterol.
Because bottled dressings are heavily salted and flavored, homemade salad dressing may taste somewhat bland to you at first. But if you avoid the bottled stuff and keep eating the homemade--into which, by the way, you can put all kinds of garlic, shallots, minced onion, herbs and spices to jazz it up--you'll find that eventually the commercial stuff just tastes, well, processed.
Mayonnaise--now here's a tough one. I love Hellman's, and will probably go on using it unless I find a substitute mayo made with olive oil. Hellman's is made with soybean oil, alas. I assume the same can be said for most, if not all, of the readily available mayos and "sandwich spreads." I'm going to be hunting for a substitute. Failing that, perhaps I can get a steady supply of local free-range eggs and make my own mayo ...
For other condiments--ketchup, the various mustards, salsas, pickle relishes, tartar sauce, seafood cocktail sauce, steak sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and all the miscellaneous little additions that brighten our plates--read the label. Unfortunately, these days most of the leading brands of ketchup use high fructose corn syrup. I rarely eat ketchup, so that's not a problem for me, but if you do, you might want to experiment with brands that don't contain it. When I do eat ketchup, it's Heinz--but Heinz uses HFCS. As little as I use, I don't suppose I'll substitute, but if I were a heavy user, I'd certainly consider it.
You should even check your mustard label, if it's anything other than plain yellow or good-quality Dijon style mustard. You probably don't eat enough of any of this to do a lot of harm, but why encourage the food industry in its folly?
Some condiments will be heavy on MSG and salt, along with various mystery ingredients, thickeners, stabilizers, and whatnot. I'd just as soon not ingest them.
That ends our trip through the supermarket. I welcome any additions to the seemingly endless list of products to be scrutinized. I'm sure I've left out something that particularly bugs or concerns you, the reader, so just give me a shout.
For alternatives to the supermarket see this page.