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Last week I responded to a question about what to eat to help lower cholesterol. One reader had commented that she didn't want to consume only oatmeal and my column was about all the fabulous foods that can help lower cholesterol as well or better than oatmeal. This resulted in a fair amount of mail asking about what NOT to eat in order to be healthier.
While I have tried for years to avoid bashing foods because I want to remain positive, I will suspend that rule for today's column and give you some simple rules to look for when deciding what you want to put in your mouth. While this is not a column about specific foods, next week the gloves come off (ooooohh, stand back!).
First and foremost, check the label and if the top three ingredients are any type of salt, sugar or fat, think twice.
1. Sugars. Here's a list of ingredients that you should think of as sugar:
Sugar (makes sense)
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
2. Salts. There's a wide variety of ingredients that can easily add sodium to your diet without you thinking about table salt:
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening
Partially hydrogenated animal shortening
4. Artificial ingredients. Note that some ingredients might be labeled "natural" and that can be a bit challenging. With a recent court ruling in favor of Snapple being allowed to label their drinks as natural - even though they contain high fructose corn syrup - you can't be too careful about what's in that food you are purchasing.
First and foremost, if the label says "natural" on the front of the package it means nothing (see Snapple example above). If there's an ingredient that says "natural flavors" or "natural flavorings" this could be almost anything. Like high fructose corn syrup, the most highly processed chemicals are allowed to be called "natural."
Crazy, I know.
The ingredients below have a lot of different uses. Some are colorings, some are preservatives and others help to stabilize the texture of foods.
Artificial colorings such as FD&C Yellow no. 5 & Red No. 40
Soy protein isolate
Sodium acid pyrophosphate
Natural and artificial flavors
Sodium stearoyl lactylate
Sodium and calcium caseinate
Yogurt is a good example of how you should look at ingredient lists carefully. (Strange ingredients in bold.)
Stonyfield is an organic dairy products company (now owned by Dannon). Note that their ingredients seem pretty natural. The Yoplait, however, has a tremendous number of ingredients that you likely don't recognize. Choose the Stonyfield.
Stonyfield Strawberry Yogurt
CULTURED PASTEURIZED ORGANIC NONFAT MILK, NATURALLY MILLED ORGANIC SUGAR, ORGANIC STRAWBERRY JUICE FROM CONCENTRATE, NATURAL FLAVOR, PECTIN, ORGANIC BEET JUICE CONCENTRATE (FOR COLOR), VITAMIN D3.
CULTURES: S. THERMOPHILUS, L. BULGARICUS, L. ACIDOPHILUS, BIFIDUS, L. CASEI, AND L. RHAMNOSUS.
Yoplait Strawberry Yogurt
Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Low Fat Milk, Sugar, Strawberries, Modified Corn Starch, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Nonfat Milk, Kosher Gelatin, Citric Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, Natural Flavor, Pectin, Colored with Carmine, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D3.
(Colored with Carmine sounds like the mafia is involved somehow.)
Even within certain brands you do have to take care. Here are two examples from Dannon. The Dannon Vanilla Yogurt is similar to the Stonyfield, with mostly recognizable ingredients (pectin is a fruit thickener).
The Light & Fit products are even worse than the Yoplait.
Dannon Vanilla Yogurt
Cultured grade A reduced fat milk, sugar, natural vanilla flavor, pectin. Contains active yogurt cultures including L. acidophilus
Dannon Light & Fit Non Fat Yogurt
Nonfat yogurt [cultured grade A non fat milk, modified food starch, fructose, kosher gelatin, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D3], water, fructose, contains less than 1% modified corn starch, natural vanilla flavor, aspartame, citric acid, potassium sorbate (to maintain freshness), caramel color, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, annatto extract (for color), sodium citrate.
Contains active cultures including L. Acidophilus.
Note that fructose appears twice in the list of ingredients, along with aspartame (NutraSweet) and sucralose (Splenda). That's a lot of sweetening!
One of the interesting things in both of these comparisons is that the lower calorie product contains the more unusual ingredients. When I review foods, this often seems to be the case.
Those of you who have followed Dr. Gourmet for some time know that the best rule is to only eat fresh food. While we do review convenience foods, this has never been an endorsement of their consumption but a recognition that people do eat them. Convenience meals can clearly illustrate how to choose better processed foods. For instance, we have had good reviews in the last few weeks for Organic Bistro meals. Here are the ingredients for their Savory Turkey meal:
Organic green beans, natural cooked turkey breast, organic cooked quinoa, organic cooked French green lentils, organic button mushrooms, water, organic shiitake mushrooms, organic white wine, organic extra-virgin olive oil, organic walnuts, organic mushroom flavor (organic mushrooms, gum Arabic, sea salt, organic butter), organic corn starch, organic parsley, organic vegetable flavor (organic carrots, organic mushrooms, organic sunflower oil, organic onions), organic black pepper, organic garlic, organic thyme, organic lemon juice concentrate, organic rosemary.
Contrast these completely recognizable ingredients with those from Lean Cuisine and their Roasted Turkey & Vegetables meal (Strange ingredients in bold):
Green Beans, Cooked Turkey Tenderloins (Cooked Turkey Tenderloins, Water, Modified Cornstarch, Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Maltodextrin, Salt, Turkey Flavor, Turkey Stock, Flavor, Gum Arabic), Carrageenan, Canola Oil, Sodium Phosphate, Natural Flavoring, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Paprika), Water, Mushrooms, Dried Cranberries (Cranberries, Sugar, Sunflower Oil), 2% Or Less Of Soybean Oil, Almonds, Modified Cornstarch, Skim Milk, Turkey Flavor (Flavor, Salt, Dried Turkey Stock, Maltodextrin, Sesame Oil (Contains Soy)), Sugar, Salt, Chicken Fat, Bleached Wheat Flour, Seasoning (Maltodextrin, Flavor, Enzyme Modified Butterfat), Seasoning (Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Flavors, Water, Chicken Powder, Chicken Fat, Sugar, Sodium Lactate, Sodium Phosphate, Lactic Acid), Dehydrated Onions, Potassium Chloride, Seasoning (Wheat Starch, Extracts Of Annatto And Turmeric Color, Natural Flavor), Yeast Extract, Caramel Color, Spices, Cultured Whey
Man, that sounds like a high school science project and not a meal!
What not to eat? Start by eliminating processed foods. Those that you do consume, strive to eat only those with reasonable amounts of fats, sugars and salt. If there is an ingredient that you don't recognize, put it back.
Next week: foods and ingredients that you do recognize (sort of) and should not be eating.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.