Common But Deadly: Toxic Ingredients Found in All Packaged Foods
Lets face it, in the journey towards health and wellness compromises must sometimes be made. There will most certainly be times when we don’t have access to a fully stocked kitchen in order to make a nutrient packed meal and I can almost guaranteed that at some point in time the unexpected will occur and we won’t have a simple, healthy, homemade snack at our disposal. Basically, it’s almost inevitable that at some point in time we will need to resort to packaged, processed foods in order to keep us active and engaged in whatever unique circumstance life throws our way. Recognizing this, it is important for us to have a basic understanding of a few of the fundamental ingredients found in packaged foods (wheat, corn and soy) so that we can make the most informed decisions when the unexpected does occur and we must depend upon quick and easy nourishment.
Amber Waves of Grain
Wheat and its flours, the foundation of our industrial food system, are often the first item you will come across when reading a packaged food’s ingredient list. The use of wheat defines a food’s character and structure and has been consumed in some form or another for close to 10,000 years. However, according to Steve Ettlinger, author of Twinkie Deconstructed, “wheat is not just wheat”. There are many different kinds and each has its unique moisture and gluten content that make it well suited for certain types of food. For example, the cake flour used to produce Twinkies, one of America’s favorite snack cakes, is higher in moisture and starch with a proportionally lower gluten content, which provides the light, airy texture that so many adore. Conversely, pizza dough is made from flower with a much greater gluten content, which improves elasticity and “doughy-ness”. Concerning its impact upon health, the science goes both ways, but many believe that the displacement of traditional foods with processed foods made with large amounts of wheat and flour have contributed to the physical and psychological deterioration of primitive societies. The largest proponent of this theory was Weston A. Price, a dentist who extensively studied isolated non-industrialized people to establish the parameters of human health as a function of diet. Another possible concern for consumers is one of the major constituents of wheat, gluten, which can be highly allergenic and harmful to one’s health. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder characterized by a highly acute inflammatory reaction in response to the consumption of gluten, the protein found in wheat, can greatly impair gastrointestinal function if it is not completely eliminated from one’s diet. A less sever gluten allergy, or sensitivity, is often characterized by gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea and mal-absorption in response to gluten consumption and is becoming more prevalent as consumers become more aware of the impact that certain foods have upon wellbeing. If physical, psychological and gastrointestinal deterioration wasn’t enough cause for concern, bleach, the substance responsible for transforming golden flour into the white variety ideal for baking, has been linked with some very unsavory health consequences. Predominantly made from chlorine, bleaching flour has been found to produce a poisonous substance, alloxan, which is often used to artificially produce diabetes in healthy lab animals. Through the production of free radicals in pancreatic beta cells, alloxan interferes with the body’s ability to produce insulin, which causes humans, and mice, to develop diabetes. Further, bleaching flour impacts its nutritional value by reducing its levels of vitamin E, which functions as an antioxidant to helps fend off damage caused by free radicals.
Corn By Any Other Name
Corn, the agricultural embodiment of the industrial revolution, and its derivative sweeteners are a “valuable” component in over 600 well-known products like auto fuel, pharmaceuticals, Twinkies and our favorite soft drinks. The initial production process of raw corn includes soaking, milling, separation, spinning, washing and refining to produce the cornstarch that is in turn used to manufacture four different corn sweeteners. Corn syrup, one and the same as the version that can be purchased at your local grocery store, is used by industrial bakers because of its ability to stabilize and soak up moisture while helping to brown cookies and cakes. Dextrose and glucose, two substances that are quite similar and often used interchangeably, are bulking agents that add fewer calories than the ingredients they replace while helping obtain the golden brown color. High fructose corn syrup, the grand daddy of corn sweeteners, works in tandem with regular corn syrup to give foods body and color, control moisture and microbiological growth while adding the desired level of sweetness. Plain cornstarch is what you buy at the supermarket and is valuable in food production for its ability to absorb moisture, set liquid foods, thicken and texturize moist foods, extend crispiness in substances like milk, bind moisture in processed meats and, most importantly, keep baked goods springy while preventing crumbling. Modified cornstarch, or pre-gelatinized starch, is the industrial solution to the finicky nature of plain cornstarch, which requires the tender love and care of a home cook. Being designed to thicken at various temperatures, modified cornstarch is primarily utilized in moisture control, improve freeze-thaw behavior, create a smooth mouth feel, improve tongue coating and plays an essential role in forming Twinkies’ creamy filling. Dextrins, the product of heat and acid applied to cornstarch, is a dark, sweet and sticky substance that is used as help bind foods, in addition to adding sheen to printing paper and the glue used on stamps and envelopes. Last, but not least, corn flour is dry milled in a process similar to wheat flour milling but is used mostly in the production of food alcohols utilized in whiskey and ethanol, or corn fuel while improving texture and shelf life of processed goods. Although it may appear that corn is a Godsend with its versatility in the food production process, all is not well when some of these products are consumed in excess. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that the habitual consumption of caloric sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup is associated with a 22% increase in the risk of developing type II diabetes while simultaneously blunting the production of satiety signals that help us moderate intake to match our body’s energy requirements, which may lead to obesity and the entire spectrum of obesity related diseases. High fructose corn syrup is just the tip of the corn iceberg because 88% of the corn harvested in the United States is genetically modified (GMO). And, according to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, the consumption of GMOs has been found to increase the risk of infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.
Sooooo…y Good For You?
Soy is one of the most ‘successful’ and widely utilized foods in our modern food system and contributes three of the most common processed food ingredients: shortening, lecithin and isolated proteins. During production, soybeans are shelled, tempered, and crushed into oil rich flakes that get are then run through an extraction tower where the resulting vegetable oil will become lecithin or shortening. What’s left, the oil-less spent flakes, will become soy protein isolate or any number of dry soy products. When oil leaves the extraction tower, lecithin – a generic term for a specific class of fat- and water-soluble compounds – gets ‘degummed’ to produce oil, which eventually gets turned into vegetable oil, margarine and the partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening used in every variety of processed food to emulsify, or blend, fat molecules in food. Lecithin also makes batters easier to mix, helps eliminate clumping and serves as a vegetarian replacement for egg yolks. Shortening, the star of the soybean processing show, is also produced from the degummed oil but undergoes deodorization and then hydrogenation. Soy protein isolate, the tasteless and infinitely adaptable matter drawn from spent soy flakes, is used to replace more expensive meat and dairy products in addition to boosting protein content of commercially produced foods. From a health perspective, soy and soy products may not be as healthy as widely believed. First of all, hydrogenated vegetable oils and shortenings are rich in trans fats, which the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition claims increase concentrations of LDL, bad, cholesterol and reduce concentrations of HDL, good, cholesterol, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. Also, soy is a member of the legume family (think beans, peanuts and chickpeas), which, in addition to your every day whole grains, contains phytic acid that has the ability to bind with vitamins in minerals during the digestion process that can lead to micronutrient deficiency and disease. What’s more, soy and products derived from soy contain high levels of phytoestrogens, which can interfere with sexual maturation when fed to children and alter hormonal balance in adult men and women. Last but certainly not least, approximately 94% of the soy harvested in the United States is of the genetically modified variety, which, as discussed above, may contribute to an increased risk of infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system.
Regardless of how minimal or infrequent, it’s almost impossible to entirely avoid these ingredients if we consume packaged foods. However, knowing their potential health impact will help you better decide which may have a place in your dietary philosophy.
Image courtesy of the FDA