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your own organic
ls processed
food making
your kids sick?
may 2014
KIWI0514COVER.indd 2
3/10/14 12:54 PM
by Rachel Rabkin Peachman
Overly processed foods are
sold everywhere—and they’re
making us sick. Here’s how
to limit your family’s intake
and replace them with
nutritious whole varieties
everyone will love.
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“Can we go to the café?”my 5-year-old daughter pleads each day
when I pick her up from school. And each day I brace myself for the ensuing food
fight. The café, which we pass on our way out of her preschool, is a veritable minefield of overly processed foods chock-full of sugar, salt, trans fats, preservatives, and
genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—and virtually devoid of nutrients. To be
fair, there are some salads available, but that’s not what my daughter and her friends
want. No, they want the packaged cookies, muffins, cereal bars, chips, gummies, and
artificially flavored drinks that have become standard fare in our Western diet. Once
we near the café, our standoff begins. Sure, I hold the money, but my daughter is
armed with her arsenal of willpower-reducing tricks (begging, whining, sulking), and
no matter how hard I try to stand my ground, I frequently falter. More often than
I’d like to admit, I buy her the treat.
In my defense, though, I’m up against some very powerful opponents—namely
the food scientists, manufacturers, and marketers of processed foods who spend billions of dollars a year developing, producing, and advertising (often directly to kids)
the most deliciously addictive foods. Like my daughter’s persistence, these foods are
hard to resist. The term “processed foods” generally refers to foods that have been
altered from their natural state—usually in an effort to preserve shelf life, reduce
prep time, and improve flavor and texture—through techniques such as cooking,
Since 1980, obesity has doubled
curing, canning, freezing, and adding preservatives and flavorings. Highly processed
among adults and almost tripled
foods are usually inexpensive, convenient, abundantly available, designed to entice
among children (currently more
your taste buds and make you want more—and some of them come packaged with
than one third of adults and alclaims touting their supposed health benefits.
most 17 percent of children are
Unfortunately, the majority of highly processed foods are anything but healthy.
obese), according to the Centers
Their raw ingredients (like the potatoes in potato chips) have often been stripped
for Disease Control and Prevenof their nutrients and fiber, and replaced by preservatives, salt, sweeteners, fats, and
tion (CDC). This rise has run
synthetic nutrients. Even so-called health foods, like fruit bars and yogurt, often sufparallel with drastic changes in
fer the same fate. While experts don’t suggest that eating an occasional bag of chips
the food industry and our food
is going to be harmful, eating them along with large portions of other processed
supply that make it cheaper and
foods such as French fries, chicken fingers, frozen dinners, packaged cookies, and
more convenient to eat a fast-food
fruit drinks every day just might. And for many American families, that’s what’s on
burger than a fresh salad. “The
the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—taking a severe toll on health. The overearly 1980s marked a turning
consumption of processed foods is tied to our nation’s rising rates of obesity, type 2
point in the way we eat for difdiabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, among other chronic conditions. “We are
ferent reasons, all having to do
killing ourselves and our children with the foods we are
with the effects of deregulation:
eating and providing our families,” says Julieanna Hever,
of agriculture, Wall Street, and
RD, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based
marketing,” says Marion Nestle,
Nutrition, and host of “What Would Julieanna Do?” on
Ph.D., author of What To Eat and
Veria Living. “We’re lab-synthesizing Frankenfoods that
Food Politics and a professor of nutrition at New York University.
our bodies don’t even know how to process; we are fighting
“These deregulatory changes increased food production and,
nature, and we are losing.”
therefore, calories in the food supply, and required companies
to post growth in profits every 90 days, allowing them more
leeway in food marketing.” The result is that our food is now
controlled by a handful of multinational companies, and those
companies now market processed food and beverages much
more aggressively, inducing us to eat more—often while underestimating how much we’re eating.
we are
what we eat 57
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You can’t judge a food by its cover
When searching for healthy, minimally processed foods in the
supermarket aisles, it’s easy to be misled by labels claiming a
product is “All-Natural” or “Heart Healthy.” But advertising claims
are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). The best way to figure out if a product is minimally
processed is to go straight to the ingredient list. “The fewer the
ingredients—and the more recognizable they are—the closer
to nature the food is,” says dietitian Hever, who recommends
choosing foods that have four to six ingredients tops. Another
good way to judge? “I tell people to see if the ingredient list
looks like the kind of recipe your grandma would’ve made,” says
Judith Mabel, RD, Ph.D., an integrative dietitian and owner
of Nutrition Boston.
On the flip side, if the ingredient list is a mile long, you can be
fairly sure the product is highly processed and contains additives,
many of which are not regulated by the FDA. The organization
has a system that dates back to 1958 known as the GRAS process,
in which an ingredient can be termed “Generally Recognized As
Safe.” The problem with the system, though, is that it’s voluntarily up to the food manufacturer to prove that the ingredient is
safe—not the FDA. The FDA is given the option to review the
substance, but it doesn’t have the staff or money to review the
more than 10,000 chemicals that are estimated to be in our food
supply now. What’s worse, it’s legal for companies to determine
that a substance is GRAS, and put it into our food, without actually sending proof of safety to the FDA, according to a report by
The Pew Charitable Trust.
This is not to say that there is no place for additives. “Folic acid is
an additive in processed grain products, and it has diminished neural
tube defects in babies,” says Joy Dubost, RD., Ph.D., spokesperson
for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (In 1998, the FDA
required manufacturers to add folic acid to enriched breads and other
grain products.) “The iodine in table salt is an additive, and until
they started to iodize salt in the 1920s, goiter [enlarged thyroid]
was a major problem,” she adds. (The government recommended
that iodine be added to table salt in the 1920s to prevent iodine
deficiency, which causes such conditions as goiter and intellectual
disabilities.) And we can’t forget that products such as frozen and
canned fruits and vegetables are processed, yet they can be both
nutritious and affordable. “In our busy lives today, food processing
enables us to eat on the go—and this can still fit into a healthy,
active lifestyle,” says Dubost. In other words, there can be a role
for some processing in our diets, but the trick is learning which
ingredients are mostly helpful and which ones are mostly harmful.
Eat less of these ingredients
SUGAR: Sugar can be called any number of things on an
ingredient list—sugar, sucrose, fructose, glucose, dextrose,
maltose, and more. But regardless: “Sugars of any kind
taste good and encourage further eating,” says Nestle.
Research also shows that excess sugar causes rapid spikes
in blood sugar, increases risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes,
and heart disease. Americans consume an estimated 335
calories (22.2 teaspoons) of added sugar per day, while
the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no
more than 100 calories of added sugar a day for women,
and 150 calories for men. If a product has sugar in any
form, you want it to be low on the ingredient list, and if
it has an artificial sweetener like high fructose corn syrup,
avoid it entirely.
SALT (SODIUM): As with sugar, sodium has many names,
including sodium chloride, sodium citrate, monosodium
glutamate (MSG), and disodium phosphate. Though
sodium is a useful food preservative and is an essential
nutrient for our bodies, Americans are eating way too
much of it—and up to 75 percent of the sodium we
consume comes from processed foods, according to the
AHA. Excess sodium can up the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, stomach cancer,
and kidney disease. What’s more, MSG, which has been
deemed by the FDA as safe, is associated with reactions
such as headaches and nausea. Currently, Americans consume about 3,436 milligrams of sodium per day, which
is more than double the AHA’s recommended limit of
1,500 milligrams. To cut back on salt, look for products
with sodium near the bottom of the list.
TRANS FATTY ACIDS: Listed as partially hydrogenated oils,
trans fatty acids are found in frozen pizza, coffee creamer,
crackers, and packaged baked goods, among others. Manufacturers use partially hydrogenated oils because they have
a long shelf life and give foods a pleasing taste and texture.
Unfortunately, trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and
lower HDL (good) cholesterol, and increase risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. “Based on
FDA regulations, food manufacturers can claim that their
product has 0 grams of trans fats as long as one serving of
the product has less than half a gram of trans fats,” says
Dubost, though the FDA has proposed to ban the use of
partially hydrogenated oils. So don’t be fooled by a trans
fat–free label. Instead, check the ingredient list; if it contains partially hydrogenated oil, it has trans fats. The AHA
recommends no more than 2 grams of trans fats a day.
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Eat more of these
WHOLE VEGETABLES AND FRUITS: “One strawberry has an estimated 10,000 phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals,
and fiber that all come together in this beautiful package created by nature; and when it enters our body, it meets our
needs in an extremely complicated synergistic fashion,” says Hever. “We cannot replicate this in a lab. If you simply
extract one of those chemicals and put it in a cookie, it doesn’t react the same way in our body.” When buying produce,
try to buy organic or locally grown. Plus, buying local also means that your produce will be in season and doesn’t have
to travel across the country to get to you. To find farmers’ markets and family farms near you, visit
WHOLE GRAINS: Unlike refined white flour, which has been stripped of nutrients and fiber, whole grain and whole wheat
products contain the whole grain, which packs a major nutritional punch when it comes to fighting chronic diseases such as
heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. The fiber in whole grains also keeps you feeling full longer than refined grains
do. And don’t be swayed by multigrain labels: “Multigrain” on packaging simply means that a product contains a variety of
grains, which may be highly refined. Also, if you see the word “wheat” without the word “whole” in front of it, it’s probably
a refined flour. Look for whole grains or whole wheat at the top of a product’s ingredient list to be sure it is the real deal.
HEALTHY FATS: Though fat gets a bad rap, there are healthy fats, in the form of omega-3 fatty acids—and most of us don’t
get enough of them. Found in salmon, olive oil, flaxseed, avocados, and walnuts, omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation,
which can lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. During pregnancy, omega-3 fatty acids also enhance fetal
brain and eye health. Our bodies need a balance of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Americans get plenty of
omega-6s (the unhealthy ones found in processed foods), so aim to up your family’s intake of omega-3s.
DIET SWEETENERS: Low- and no-calorie sweeteners include
aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet), saccharin, (Sweet’N Low),
sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), and
sugar alcohols (such as maltitol and sorbitol). Some studies
say they’re safe, but others have found them to be harmful
and associated with cancer, headaches, and digestive issues. If
you are diabetic and cannot have added sugars, you may want
to consider Stevia, an herbal sweetener that has no calories.
NITRATES AND NITRITES: Sodium nitrate and sodium
nitrite (types of salt) are used as preservatives and color
enhancers in processed meats such as cured ham, bacon,
and hot dogs. The concern is that they can be converted into
cancer-causing chemicals, especially when meat is burned.
But just because a product claims to have “no nitrates or
nitrites added,” doesn’t mean they’re not present. Nitrates
are abundant in our environment, soil, and fruits and veggies, so some companies are using celery juice (which is
high in nitrates—and then converts to nitrites) as a meat
preservative. This means that even an organic hot dog can
contain nitrates and nitrites; it just may not be labeled as
such. Play it safe and limit your consumption of processed
meats—they tend to have loads of saturated fat and salt,
and are associated with an increased risk of disease.
Rich in protein, iron, and zinc, lean meats can be part of a healthy
diet. But most of our meat comes from animals that have not
been raised humanely, have been given growth hormones, and fed
genetically modified pesticide-laden soybeans and corn to make
them grow faster and larger, which then causes them to get sick
more and need antibiotics. To find healthier, safer meat—and
dairy—choose products that are organic or are from local farms
that feed their animals pesticide-free grass. Even better: find out
how meat is raised by asking the farmer at your local farmers’
market. To find pasture-based farms, go to
ANTIBIOTIC-FREE CHICKENS: Eggs are a great source of
protein and nutrients, but in order to ensure that the chickens
have not ingested pesticides or antibiotics, choose organic eggs.
One caveat: The organic practices of industrial-scale farmers have
been called into question. A report by the Cornucopia Institute
(a farm policy research and watchdog group) found that many
large egg producers are not giving their chickens true outdoor
access, compromising the health of the chickens and the quality
of their eggs. For help choosing high-quality organic eggs, see
Cornucopia’s organic egg scorecard (, or ask a farmer at your local farmers’ market. To find
eggs from truly pasture-raised chickens, visit
READY TO START SHOPPING? For easy ways to cut back on
processed food, visit 59
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