a blueberry is a blueberry, or maybe not
Dark glasses on? Check. Collar turned up? Check. Head for the shelves in the local supermarket and find some interesting labels for Surinder's Food Label video (as co-founder of an online health channel I didn't want to be caught with a basket full of pop tarts).
But I digress. One of the things in my basket was a packet of bake your own blueberry muffin mix. On the packet was an attractive looking blueberry muffin and above it the command: "Just Add Milk" I can't help it, I have the kind of mind that wonders how muffins studded with juicy blueberries can emerge from an instant muffin mix, when all we have to do is add milk?
On closer examination of the packet I was stunned to see - in pale grey print and all but invisible: Artificial Blueberry Pieces. I was incredulous, HOW can they GET AWAY with that? And, if they are not blueberries, WHAT ARE THEY? Turns out it's a well established method in the food industry - take corn syrup, hydrogenated fat, artificial flavouring and food colourings Blue 2 and Red 40 et voila: blueberries that are not blueberries. (I also found out that the artificial flavouring used to make strawberries that are not strawberries, contains around fifty different chemicals).
In my world seducing consumers with the promise of health giving blueberries would qualify as fraudulent advertising, but in the world of Big Food it seems it's just good business.
In recent decades the food industry has increasingly focused on the development of chemical substitutes for natural ingredients - they are much less expensive and more importantly for food manufacturers, they offer the potential for long-term storage. Many processed foods can sit on a shelf for years without decaying. Like the frog in the pan that we heat up slowly we have become accustomed to the increasing adulteration of our food supply.
Unfortunately, the science behind food safety is now a morass of conflicting information, involving on the one hand research paid for by the food industry and revolving doors between industry and government regulatory agencies and on the other, independent researchers, parts of the medical profession and consumer advocate groups. At the very least the industry research doesn't take into account the possibility of individual sensitivities to the chemicals tested, often restricts their testing to lab rats and don't seem to take into account the potential long term consequences of human consumption. Nowhere is this more true than in the controversies surrounding the most commonly used food additives: Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG) and the artificial sweeteners, which together with High Fructose Corn Syrup, are to be found in some concentration in virtually all processed foods, along with artificial colourings, flavourings, stabilizers and preservatives.
The flavour enhancer extraordinaire
The controversy surrounding MSG (E921) has raged for more than 60 years. In the 1970's possible adverse effects hit the headlines as "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" (headaches, flushing, numbness, and weakness) associated with the use of MSG in American-Chinese restaurants. The food industry could not find any evidence of cause and effect and declared it safe while the FDA gave it a GRAS rating (Generally Regarded As Safe). Independent scientists, some medical professionals and many consumer advocate groups have stacked up significant evidence to the contrary and claim it is a neurotoxin responsible for a wide range of serious adverse effects, especially where the blood brain barrier is not fully formed - in children before puberty - or is weak, for example in the elderly.
Interestingly (but maybe not surprisingly) in recent years, MSG has been renamed and can be found on food labels with a variety of names like: Glutamic Acid, or Glutamate (E620), or the less obvious hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, textured protein, while other apparently unrelated ingredients like calcium caseinate and sodium caseinate contain significant amounts of Glutamic Acid.
All the sweet and none of the guilt?
Since the 1950's the nonnutritive 'intense sweeteners' have seemed to offer the indulgence of a sweet tooth (they are hundreds and in some cases thousands of times sweeter than natural sugar) without paying the price in calorie consumption or tooth decay. Those in current use: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame, sucralose and neotame are now found in more than 6,000 products, from diet sodas to chewing gum and yoghurt, to pharmaceutical drugs - many people regularly consume them without realising it.
But is there a down side? The food industry says no, the FDA agrees and declares them safe. Independent researchers, a good proportion of the medical profession and consumer advocate groups say yes, they are excitotoxins, capable of cell damage, especially in the brain and fraught with problems. Aspartame (E951) which breaks down into aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol and eventually formaldehyde and formic acid, all of which are potential problems for the body, has been charged with causing a whole range of health problems. In sensitive people and after long term use, aspartame has been identified as a possible cause of some serious degenerative conditions, among them Lupus like symptoms along with seizures, headaches, depression, anxiety, memory loss, fatigue and joint problems to name just a few.
But that aside, when our tongue detects a sweet taste, a message goes out to our pancreas to produce the insulin required to keep our blood sugar within the necessary narrow limits. Learn more here. And when we eat artificial sweeteners the same reaction occurs, but there is no sugar for the insulin to balance. In the short term, depending on the food consumed, this may induce hypoglycemia with weakness, shaking, sweating and irritability, while over time the receptors for insulin become unresponsive and a condition called insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, associated with both obesity and Type 2 diabetes, can ensue. So in our attempt to cut calories without paying the price, we set off a biochemical process that produces the very issues, like weight gain, we are striving to avoid. Furthermore, fooling our bodies is not as easy as we might think. When we short change ourselves, eating fat free, sugar free, chemical laden foods with little actual nutritional value, our body doesn't feel satisfied and we can end up eating more.
As Alex said in his recent blog, the main source of calories in the US diet is another non-nutritive ingredient, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) found in almost all processed foods (even foods not obviously thought of as 'sweet', like pickles).
But there are other problems besides calories related to the digestion of HFCS - it's very difficult for the body to process. It raises blood levels of cholesterol and triglyceride fats, while making blood cells more prone to clotting and accelerating the aging process. It's been quietly creating devastation on heart health while fat took all the blame.
Recently, studies suggest that chemicals in food are especially problematic for children and the younger the child the more problematic they are. Artificial additives in the diets of three year olds have been found to produce a measurable loss of IQ by the time the children are eight. Artificial colourings have been associated with hyperactivity and an increasing number of children have severe food allergies. So if we have children it makes sense to read the labels of the foods they eat.
So what can we do?
We can make a conscious choice about what we eat. Once you start to read labels and think about what you are eating, it's hard to keep buying foods with a long list of names only a chemist would recognise. And the more we shift the balance of our diet towards fresh and wholesome foods, the stranger and more artificial the processed food begins to taste.
And although buying processed foods from a health store might avoid the industrial level of chemicals, processed food of any kind is still a long way from its natural form and more expensive than making your own.
Go cold turkey!
We can go cold turkey and retrain our taste buds in less than a week. Stop sugar for even a few days then try a small taste of something we previously enjoyed - chances are it now tastes nauseatingly sweet. Likewise the intense flavouring of MSG - avoid it for a week and it tastes far too intense and strangely artificial. If we think about small children coping with flavour enhanced snacks, it makes sense that in comparison healthier food won't taste so intense, so no surprise they seem to be turning down "real" food. Given what we know about the effects of chemical additives it makes sense to avoid getting into this vicious cycle to begin with.
Once we have retrained our taste buds, we'll instantly detect and reject the artificial taste in favour of more natural food, and if we eat healthily and move, we will attain and then maintain our health, including our best weight, with only an up side.
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