Read the Label Before You Buy

by Wayne Ferrier

Junk Food I was driving home from the gym and stopped at the convenience store to grab a power drink, a crunchy snack, and dinner for the cat. I'm being hypothetical here, I don't really work out at the gym, and I rarely buy snacks at the convenience store, but for the sake of this story indulge me please. I looked around at the myriad of choices, not feeling compelled to comparison shop—it's a convenience store remember—so I grabbed what seemed the most appealing and headed to the cash register. What I had chosen was a bottle of POWERADE, COMBOS and a can of FRISKIES Classic Pâté for the cat. Cats are so suave aren’t they? We eat COMBOS and they have pâté. I had skipped dinner so I would have time to go to the gym. I want to be healthy you know.

Back in the car I tore open the bag and downed a fistful of COMBOS and had a swig of POWERADE. Having gotten my initial fix, I took a moment to glance at the nutritional information that is on the food label. The first ingredients listed on food labels are the primary ingredients in that product. The first two or three are the ones you want to look at closely. Ingredients at the bottom of the list may be in smaller amounts than the first ingredients that are listed.

By now most consumers should be aware of what to look for and what to look out for. Experts have been telling us for years to eat whole grains. But my bag of COMBOS listed Wheat Flour as the first ingredient. That's not whole grain. Well that's to be expected. Maybe this snack food wasn't the best choice to get my daily fiber. So what was the second ingredient? It said Palm Kernel, Palm Oil and/or Hydrogenated Palm Oil.

Hmm, it may or may not have Trans Fat, yet this is the second ingredient. Isn't Hydrogenated Oil supposed to be really bad for you? Doesn’t it supposedly contribute to coronary heart disease and other health problems? And why won't they just tell me if it's in there or not? The third and fourth ingredients are Maltodextrin, and Food Starch-Modified. I don’t know what Food Starch-Modified is but Maltodextrin is supposedly a natural product. It is believed to be more easily metabolized than other kinds of carbohydrates, making it popular with athletes and bodybuilders who want quick energy. It is used as a filler and thickening agent making it a popular ingredient for dieters, because it makes you feel full and therefore you don't eat so much. It also may be good for diabetics who may benefit from Maltodextrin being processed easily by the body, assisting in the regulation of metabolic functions. But that's where the positive info ends and the warning is that in small amounts Maltodextrin is perhaps harmless, maybe even healthy. Long term consumption of Maltodextrin, however, we just don't know for sure. This is not too bad information. I was feeling better.

Moving down the list I saw a host of food dyes including Yellow 5 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, and Blue 1 Lake. To me consuming food dyes is like playing Russian roulette, the consensus is that we think some may be benign, others we think might be carcinogenic, and many we just don't know very much at all what they might do. I drove home. Curious now, I booted my computer, and logged onto the COMBOS website. This is when I really got concerned, perhaps even a little frightened. Upon entering the site I was greeted with this message:

Find your inner self. Hint: It’s not at the dinner table. Congratulations on your first step towards the Combivore lifestyle, where hearty snacks are always the right choice. Remember being a Combivore isn’t about trendy eating or fad foods, it’s a way of life.

I’m not sure what that means. The way it comes across to me is the company who makes COMBOS knows my inner self, and it ought not to be eating healthy, well balanced meals with my family at the dinner table. My inner self is a brute, a creature whose main diet isn't meat, nor fruits and vegetables. I'm a Combivore, to whom snacks are all that matters. I'm not to pay attention to the latest fads; health fads? Okay, I will admit to you that what was left in the COMBOS bag went straight into the garbage. But what about the POWERADE, that has to be healthy right, with all those electrolytes and all? So here we go. The first ingredient is water. I guess that makes sense. Here’s what was next: High Fructose Corn Syrup, citric acid, and salt. Further down the list are food dyes, namely Blue 1, which is really an intense blue, not like those pale looking colors you see in GATORADE.

I did a quick search on High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and found that the American Medical Association (AMA) insists that it is no better and no worse than any other commonly used sweeteners. Again I was feeling better. Then I went and checked what Andrew Weil says because I respect his opinion and he is definitely against it. I also checked out Dr. Oz to see what he had to say and he agrees with Weil. The low down is that HFCS is a relatively recent invention and consumption of HFCS in the United States has increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990. HCFS may promote weight gain because it behaves in the body closer to fat than to glucose. According to Weil, there is some evidence to suggest that fructose might disturb the normal function of the liver, and unlike glucose, doesn't seem to trigger the process where our bodies tell us that we are full. Oz further clarifies this by saying that High Fructose Corn Syrup is not recognized by our brains as real food, so we never feel satiated and we keep eating more and more. The result is our blood sugar level keeps rising, and abnormal amounts of insulin are needed to metabolize it, and then we crash and are hungry again. Not recognized by our brains as food!

Oh great! I just ate half a bag of COMBOS with Maltodextrin which gave me the feeling of being full. Then I drank POWERADE, which leaves me feeling perpetually hungry? But what really worries me are those insidious food dyes. They don't draw much attention. I'm no expert, but they really concern me. We really don't know what they are or what they are doing for us or to us. Natural and artificial flavors, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Blue 1, etc. I just don't like the sound of them.

Here's a bit of evolutionary rumination. We evolved to prefer certain nutrients in certain forms. Young primates normally avoid bitter tasting food because many toxic plants contain alkaloids which have a bitter flavor, while sweetness in natural foods is usually an indication of ripe, health-giving fruits and vegetables. Over time adult primates, through trial and error, become savvy consumers knowing which bitter plants are good to eat and which are not. Primitive peoples are often just as discerning about what are good or useful alkaloids from those which are bad and dangerous. Even in modern society drinking coffee, tea, beer, and eating spicy foods and bland vegetables are acquired tastes.

But many food manufactures, it seems, are colluding to keep us perpetually naive, bombarding us with mega amounts of sweeteners and easily digestible carbohydrates. Why sit at the dinner table eating healthy food, which takes time to digest, when you can get what you want quick and cheap at the convenience store? Unfortunately these perpetually available sweets and carbs are also loaded with other man-made substances, which we know very little about.

Rats cannot vomit. That’s a weird fact but true. When a rat eats something it has to digest it, it cannot throw it up. A rat encountering an unfamiliar flavor the first time will nibble then walk away. After a number of hours if it doesn’t get sick, the rat might return and finish its meal. The rat does this to see if what it is eating is poisonous. Manufacturers of rat poison have to make their products appealing to rats yet not be so toxic so that the rat comes back for seconds or so toxic it gets them on the first nibble.

In humans smell and taste might have evolved to give us the ability to identify good food from poison. If it is acidic the food might be spoiled, if it is bitter it could be potentially toxic. Carbohydrates and other simple sugars provide quick energy for primates on the go. Associating sweetness with energy may be behind our present addiction to processed food. Food that was once hard to find is now overly abundant and the rule of nature is that too much of a good thing can be harmful, even dangerous. The very definition of pollution is too high of a concentration of anything. Our supermarkets are cesspools of too much of what we crave. Abundant sources of easily digestible carbs are difficult to find in nature, salt is equally scarce. Food manufacturers have caught on to this and create processed food with the right combination of the goods we want: salt, sugar, fat, etc. The food doesn’t even have to taste good; if the right combination is there people will buy it and consume it.

And that can of FRISKIES? Just for the shock value I would love to tell you that it beats human food hands down but I can't. The ingredients in that can of FRISKIES Classic Pâté are Meat By-Products, artificial and natural flavors, and the omnipresent food dyes are there too. Nobody really knows what Meat By-Products are except the manufacturer. To conjure up images of what Meat-By Products are exactly sounds too much like a horror flick to me, so I'll leave it at that.

We are a society that is caught in the middle of a battle between exploitative marketing and a raging health-kick movement. I am constantly being reminded of the dangers of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. I see the word “cancer” mentioned dozens of times per day on television, in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet—every form of media. Even my Facebook friends are constantly posting warnings and reminders of these maladies and asking me to post them too. Eventually one of these killers is going to get me, but preferably later than sooner. The fear and threat of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and diabetes is fed to me so many times a week I just can't get them out of my head. I really think we need a break from it as it seems that's all we think about these days! We've really become quite a paranoid culture.

Yet a quick trip to the supermarket reveals that there are still a lot of companies out there that have resisted changing the quality of the ingredients in their products. Other companies are bent on fooling us, making us think that their products are healthier when they are really not. Read the labels please, and then don't worry so much about the dangers. I already know the dangers. If a company is making crap why don't we just stop buying it? And if we're not sure what an ingredient is then let us take a lesson from the rats. Wait until the verdict is in, scientific investigations conclusive, and meanwhile choose something else on the way to the cash register.