What are you putting in your mouth?
Then I go one step further, and ask if they are sure they are eating real food.
“I couldn’t chew it, swallow it, or digest it if it weren’t food,” they reply. “Right?”
Many people exist almost totally on a diet composed primarily of fake/counterfeit foods, packaged and sold as real food.
Differences between real food and fake food can be subtle and confusing, even to the most discriminating eater. If what we eat does not meet food’s criteria — “an ability to sustain life, provide energy, and promote growth” — it’s fake, despite marketing propaganda that attempts to convince us otherwise.
As scary as it may seem, research suggests up to 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is used to purchase fake foods. From a public health standpoint, this is terrifying, given the substantial link between fake food consumption and chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers.
The world of food has changed
More and more, “food manufacturers” are creating and selling substances masked with additives, emulsifiers, coloring agents, thickeners, binding agents, taste enhancers, odor reducers, and disinfectants. We are led to believe these products are real food.
It wasn’t always this way. Our great grandparents ate seasonal, real, whole foods — not altered in any way. With each generation, diets have grown further and further away from this model. Chemical agriculture became widespread after World War II in response to revelations of worldwide hunger and starvation. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides replaced natural and organic farming methods in the hope of increasing yield.
The 1950s saw a boom in processed foods mainly due to the invention of the supermarket. No longer did people go to the butcher for meat, the baker for bread, or the farmer for vegetables. Canned and packaged foods prevailed. We no longer had a need to shop every day. We could go to the supermarket and buy for the whole week, or better, a whole month.
A new kind of farm
Coinciding with these changes, starting in the late 1960s, agriculture began to apply technology that made old-time farming look drastically different. Officials began to debate whether regulations should be in place to protect consumers and the environment, with little initial success.
Farm animals moved indoors, as industrial operations grew at an alarming scale. Huge farm machinery using GPS to navigate mega-farm fields with ease and efficiency started applying fertilizer and pesticides (and other chemicals) with pinpoint precision. Similar changes occurred in food processing and retailing. In America, technology has replaced labor, and the resulting food system has become larger, more integrated, and more consolidated.
Ten companies now virtually control our overall food supply. These include Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Kraft, Unilever, General Mills, Nestlé, Mars, Kellogg, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson.
Three companies control more than 55 percent of all flour milling; 10 companies process more than 80 percent of all chicken; four packers process 85 percent of all beef; and five food retailers sell most groceries found in supermarkets and big box stores.
BIG FOOD now controls our food supply from farm to table. Sales of packaged foods around the world have jumped year-by-year. In some countries, climate, war, or other factors have a significant impact on production of diverse, real foods. In some regions, processed-food consumption has increased by more than 95 percent!
Packaged and processed foods constitute most fake foods. Food processing represents the transformation of raw ingredients, by physical or chemical means into food-like substances, or, of food into other forms. Also, foods with health and nutrition claims on the label are often processed. And, foods prepared in quick-service and fine-dining restaurants, cafeterias and food courts, sports arenas, coffee shops, and other locations, are mostly processed.
Fake food, in comparison to real food, also can be defined by food-engineering criteria that include mass production, high consistency from batch to batch and country to country, specialized ingredients from specialized companies, pre-frozen macronutrients, use of emulsifiers, and prolonged shelf or freezer life.
Tricks of the trade
Below is just a partial list of some of BIG FOOD’s “tricks” used to manufacture fake foods.
Color additives – Any dye, pigment, or substance imparting color to food or drink; consists of liquids, powders, gels, and pastes.
- Stabilizers – Additives that help preserve a food’s structure; typically used to prevent oil and water emulsions from separating in products such as salad dressing; preventing ice crystals from forming in frozen food; and preventing fruit from settling in products like jam, yogurt, and jellies.
- Emulsifiers – Any substance that stabilizes a mixture of two or more liquids that are normally unmixable; examples include lecithin, (the main ingredient in egg yolks) and mucilage (found in mustard surrounding the seed hull).
- Sodium phosphates – Variety of salts of sodium and phosphate used as an emulsifier in processed cheeses, thickening agents, and leavening agents for baked goods.
- Bleaching agents – Used to disinfect and deodorize certain foods, also, used to kill some undesirable microorganisms and for sanitizing raw fruits and vegetables prior to packaging.
- Preserving agents – Used to prevent growth of bacteria, fungi (such as yeasts), or other microorganisms, as well as slowing the oxidation of fats that cause food rancidity; includes various products as well as extreme salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking.
- Sweetening agents – Food additives that provide a sweet taste while containing less calories. Nature may produce some sugar substitutes, but most are produced synthetically, i.e., artificial sweeteners.
- Flavoring agents – Any agent that gives another substance flavor – causing it to become sweet, sour, tangy, etc. Many flavorants are compounds designed to imitate or enhance a natural flavor. Examples include compounds like diacetyl that smells buttery, limonene that gives an orange odor, or ethylvanillin that has a vanilla odor. There literally thousands of molecular compounds producing different flavors.
- Added sugars – Sugars and syrups added to foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. This does not include naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk, fruits, and vegetables. Added sugars include the following agents: anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, confectioner’s powdered sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar), pancake syrup, and white granulated sugar.
Fake food and health
How fake foods affect health depends on several factors, including their relative importance within a person’s diet. Compared to real food, fake food has a low number of vital nutrients, like carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, carotenoids, and enzyme Q10 (CoQ10 or ubiquinone) per number of total calories. This is termed a foods’ nutrient density. Also, compared to real food, fake food usually consists of large amounts of saturated fat, salt, or sugar and low fiber content per number of total calories.
Specific nutritional characteristics of fake food that predispose to deficiencies and disease include the following:
- Low fiber content – Soluble and insoluble fiber delay the intestines’ abilities to absorb nutrients and attenuates the rise in blood glucose and fructose absorption. This results in insulin reduction and reduces liver fat accumulation.
- Low omega-3 (ω-3) fatty acid and elevated omega-6 (ω-6) fatty acid content – ω-3s are anti-inflammatory while ω-6s are pro-inflammatory; the ideal ω-6: ω-3 fatty acid ratio should be about 1:1 instead of the current 25:1, which encourages oxidative stress and cell damage.
- Low micronutrient (vitamins, carotenoids, phytochemical) contents – Different vitamins, carotenoids, and phytochemical are important antioxidants that help prevent cellular damage.
- Elevated trans-fat content – Trans-fats cannot be oxidized in the body and generate oxygen radicals. The USDA in 2013 declared that trans-fats are not “generally recognized as safe,” so they should not be in our food supply.
- Elevated branched-chain amino acids (valine, leucine, and isoleucine) content – Predispose to fatty liver disease, when consumed in excess.
- Elevated emulsifiers – Emulsifier detergents predispose to intestinal disease or food allergies.
- Elevated nitrates – Found mostly in cured, packaged meat; they can predispose individuals to colon cancer.
- Elevated salt (sodium chloride) content – In many salt-sensitive individuals (15 percent of the population) elevated salt intake predisposes to hypertension and cardiac disease.
- Elevated fructose/sucrose (added sugars) – 74 percent of all processed items in supermarkets contain added sugar, mostly high-fructose corn syrup, that predisposes to type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
In contrast to fake foods, whole, real, and unprocessed foods like grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, associate with reduced risks and incidence of chronic diseases. Options for reduced risk are highest when one consumes moderate (or no) quantities of animal foods, salt, and added sugar.
In next months’ column, I will discuss other aspects of consequences of consuming fake foods as well as illustrate examples of fake foods that you may not know are fake.
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