What kind of choices are we making when we pick “healthy” snacks for our family? A yogurt drink for my child instead of a fuzzyone? Vegetable crackers instead of cookies? Fortified juice, milk, and cereal? This makes us feel good about making better nutritional choices. In this world, when the supermarket is full of too many options to pick from, we are constantly trying to pick healthier food instead of what is considered junk, but what if these supposedly healthy options are not real food at all but edible food-like substances? What do experts exactly mean by edible food-like substances? These processed foods are usually mass produced, commercialized, claim to be healthy or have health benefits, contain more than five ingredients—a few of which are unrecognizable.
So, if you were to check the label of the yogurt drink, you will find that it usually contains up to 12 different ingredients, whereas a bowl of traditional yogurt my mom gave me as a child contained only two—milk and some bacteria—which is good for your digestive health. Then, what are the other extra 10 ingredients in the packaged yogurt drink I just gave my child? They are usually sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, thickening and stabilizing agents, and flavors. Even the milk is usually reconstituted, meaning it was dehydrated, then rehydrated, to bring it back to its original condition by adding water. So, that bottle of yogurt drink with its additives, so appealing to a child’s taste buds, is so far processed that it is beyond being a traditional food. It may resemble the traditional yogurt, may taste like it, but it is now not a food in its original form but a food-like substance instead.
We feel good when picking something from a supermarket that claims to be fortified and enriched with vitamins/mineral/proteins. This is a process to add vitamins and minerals that are not naturally present in the given food. However, fortified doesn’t mean these packaged foods are inherently healthy or good for us. These foods are usually highly processed and have additives. A highly advertized children’s’ breakfast cereal that claims to be nutritional is not a healthy choice if it is coated in sugar, made with refined grains, and contains added flavors and colors, even if it claims to be fortified with daily dose of vitamins. Same is true for a pack of juice advertized as “made with real fruit”, a healthy alternative to sodas and enriched with vitamin C; it is basically water added to fruit preserves, flavors, added sugar, chemical additives, and preservatives.
We try and pick one grocery item over another that claims to have better health benefits. The list of ingredients and the names themselves more often than not can be deceiving. If I were to pick a comparatively higher priced brown bread over white bread, most of the times I have found that the brown bread is basically white bread with added brown coloring. Meaning, it is not made of whole wheat like brown bread should have been made with, but processed wheat flour. The name deceives us into believing we are making a better decision about our morning toast. Sugar-free products may have no added sugar, but they contain sugar alternatives like sucralose or sugar alcohol, which may be lower in calories than refined sugar, but still increase blood sugar and insulin level, and have other adverse health effects. So, if I were to buy a pack of sugar-free biscuits for my diabetic father, I would not be making a very wise decision, because the problem here would not be the sugar, but saturated fat from the palm oil, empty calories from the refined flour, and artificial sweeteners.
We are deceived by the word “natural” a lot of times. Many ingredients in the packaged food have natural source, but are changed chemically in the process of making the final products. Only a few out of the many listed ingredients could be natural. Hence, the finished ultra-processed product could be as far away from natural as it could be.
In today’s world, orthorexia is a problem, especially in the Western world. It is a term coined to describe an obsession with eating healthy food. In spite of this, people are constantly making unhealthy food decisions, because a transition from traditional eating to modern eating habits is taking place all over the world. Eating pattern and eating culture have evolved from my grandparents to me and to my child. For example, I was given corn on the cob (whole cereal) as a snack when I was a child, but my child gets corn flakes. We have access to various different kinds of food, and we are seduced by the advertizing making health claims. We are looking for no cook or quick cook options because of our relatively busier lives. We have access to cuisine all over the world, so the culture of eating out is on the rise. Another reason affecting us is that we are consistently being told by health experts what is good for us. For example, if an expert says flax is good for our health, we try to find multigrain bread with flax seeds. What we do not realize is that, most of the times, the multigrain bread we buy usually are not made from various different grains, as the names suggests, but again, with processed wheat flour with a few grains of flax.
So, how do we decide what to put in our shopping carts? If we try going back to what our grandmothers ate, maybe that would help us out. They always ate in moderation. They ate mostly plant-based food, with lower meat consumption. They ate seasonal foods only, and ate locally grown produce; fruits instead of fruit juices and whole cereals. Meals were mostly always home-cooked and offered better nutrition. Various studies have correlated traditional eating to positive health benefits and sustainability. However, we must remember a change in the eating pattern to an extent is inevitable. So, eating out is not always a bad thing if done in moderation, and if nutritional value of the food were to be kept in mind. Also, not all processed foods are junk, and not all junks are processed food. All packaged foods need to go through some processing. So, not all processed foods are always unhealthy. Some packaged foods are convenient and provide nutrition. For example, peanut butter is a processed food, but could be a healthy toast spread, provided it is just peanuts, and no palm oil or sugar or other additives. So, every time we are going to put something in our shopping cart, we need to ignore the marketing claims, read the labels carefully, and make our decisions wisely.