Processed Food and the Politics of Breakfast
There exists quite a bit of controversy over the value of packaged foods in a healthful diet. With the help of trusted industry groups, the federal government and billion dollar marketing campaigns, food manufacturers often tell us that this-or-that quick and easy, often highly processed and modified, product is the ticket to lasting health and disease prevention. All the while, legions of underfunded and unrecognized health and wellness professionals promote the time consuming, expensive and minimally processed foods that we all love to hate as the only way to ensure lasting vitality and wellness. It is easy to get confused in the tug-of-war between these two highly motivated groups. However, digging a little deeper into the foods we’ve been told are healthy and the political and financial motivations behind such recommendations may help us better understand the effect such foods may have on our healthful eating routine. I can think of no better way to do this than by dissecting the “most important meal of the day” and the foods that have and continue to nourish millions every day.
Magically Delicious Claims and Nutrition Information
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals (think Cheerio’s, Lucky Charms and Frosted Mini-Wheats) are the epitome of the overly processed foods that have come to be embraced by industrialized economies the world over. With such foods, highly nutritious raw ingredients like oats, wheat and rice are refined and stripped of the majority of their valuable nutrients, transformed into “fun” flakes, puffs or O’s and burdened with loads of added sugar and preservative, all of which are aimed at enhancing shelf life, meeting consumer taste preference and increasing commercial appeal. Most food manufacturers overcome this highly degenerative process by going above and beyond the enrichment standards mandated by the FDA by fortifying their products with a slew of “beneficial” nutrients in order to increase consumer appeal. Further, creating marketing campaigns around structure-function claims like “builds strong bones” or “helps maintain bowel regularity” and placing them on the front of food packaging allows processed food manufacturers to portray their foods as healthy and enables them to capitalize on a grey area in the regulation of health claims that do not need FDA approval.
However, being the astute consumers that we are, looking at the pertinent information provided in the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients List allows us to see through these deceptive techniques. Starting from the top, ready-to-eat cereals appear to be relatively healthy in that they typically do not contain a substantial amount of calories or fat. However, as we scroll down we will notice that the suggested Serving Size is unusually small, which allows cereal makers to present their products more favorably than if the published serving size was commensurate with actual consumption. Next we see the “eat less” nutrients of Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium, which we are supposed to compare to the Daily Values listed to the right that are presented as a percentage of our ideal daily nutrient intake. Unfortunately, the Daily Values can be a little tricky as the same percentages can be both good and bad. For example, if a food contains 20% of our recommended saturated fat intake, it should be considered “bad”, but if the same food contains 20% of our recommended fiber intake, it could be considered “good”. Below the “eat less” nutrients we see the breakdown of Carbohydrates a food contains, which is inherently riddled with misinformation and policy loopholes. Carbohydrates, which can be good, bad and in between, are generally lumped together so that we are not able to discern their origin (natural or added) or how unidentified carbs should be classified. However, a lot can be gleaned from the Sugar content in a specific food, which has the greatest effect on health while provided the least nutritional benefit. With practice, we can develop the ability to reference the Ingredients List, which lists a product’s ingredients by weight, with this sugar figure in mind to accurately identify exactly what ingredient or ingredients are to blame. Beware, this list may shock and awe when you discover that a fairly straightforward food like macaroni and cheese If there are words in the ingredients list which you cannot pronounce, more than likely they are chemical additives that you may or may not wish to include in your diet. Finally, at the bottom of all this information can be found the Contains list, which warns us that a certain product may contain ingredients from the eight most common foods to which you might be allergic, which include: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. For those with food allergies or sensitivities, this may be one of the first places you look when shopping the center aisles of a grocery store where the majority of packaged foods are kept.
Now that we have a better grasp on our bowl of cereal, where would we be without indulging in one of our nation’s most beloved past times: drinking the milk of another species? We’ve been told all of our lives that dairy foods are supposed to be good for us and, accordingly, the USDA says that they provide high quality protein and are a good source of vitamins A, D and B12, as well as calcium, potassium and zinc. However, many skeptics believe that the manufacture of milk through homogenization (mixing) and pasteurization (heating) rob milk of many of its beneficial nutrients. Further, studies “proving” the benefit of milk and other dairy products derived from milk are ripe with conflict, mostly political, and are highly contested by scientists, nutritionists and health oriented individuals the world over. First of all, the primary argument for the increased consumption of milk is its calcium content, which is believed to help build and maintain strong bones. However, calcium balance is a multi-variable concept and limiting its discussion to milk and other dairy products ignores how other foods and lifestyle choices impact calcium levels in the body. Next, dairy products contain lactose, milk sugar, and casein, milk protein, substances which many adults cannot digest or may be highly allergenic. Finally, conventional milk production outfits often utilize dangerous hormones in order to increase output and, therefore, sales. Recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST, is the most commonly used hormone on dairy cows which often requires farmers to implement antibiotic regiments on their herds, both of which can cause severe harm to humans who consume them.
Turning the carton over, the labels found on diary products and milk are identical to that found on our favorite ready-to-eat cereals. And, the primary place we should focus our attention with regard to dairy are the “eat less” nutrients and, more specifically, the amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. Nearly 60% of the fat found in milk is saturated, but the production of low- (1-2% fat) and non-fat (less than 1% fat) milks from whole (roughly 3.25% fat) helps reduce the potential cardiovascular harm that they may have upon the body without sacrificing a large amount of nutrients. Similarly, cholesterol is found in all food products of animal origin and may be a similar concern for those worried about heart health. The presence of saturated fat and cholesterol does not mean that these foods are strictly “off limits”, but suggests that they should be enjoyed in moderation, maybe no more than once a day. However, milk and other dairy foods do not agree with a lot of us, which has led a great majority of people to turn to the most recognizable alternative, soy.
Soybeans and its processed derivatives, most importantly in this instance, soy milk, are popular dairy alternatives for those unable to digest or are allergic to milk and is the quintessential health food to many enthusiasts. Believed to be one of the most balanced foods, soy products are said to be loaded with healthy vitamins and minerals and contain a wealth of high quality proteins that have been linked to reductions in blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. However, soy products also contain phytochemical, a.k.a. phytoestrogens, which behave similar to the female sex hormone estrogen and may alter hormone production in post-menopausal women and men of all ages. On the whole, the research concerning the health benefit or detriment of soy foods is inconclusive at best and the effect of consuming soy is probably too small to make much difference. However, there are certain things that we need to be on the lookout for when considering if soy products belong in our eating philosophy. First and foremost, sugar. Soymilks are often flavored with sugar or artificial sweeteners to mask an aftertaste that some consider unappealing. This has its obvious drawbacks as the last thing most of us need is to consume more sugar. Also, 91% of domestically produced soybeans are genetically modified, which some studies suggest may be nutritionally inferior and have the potential to cause humans harm upon consumption, and it is probably a good idea to verify that all the soy products we consume are non-GMO.
Strikingly similar to the labeling practices utilized in other sectors or processed food, largely inconclusive research doesn’t prevent producers of soy based goods from leveraging reductionist reasoning when applying the “25 grams of soy protein, combined with a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” health claim on the front of their goods. Health claims like this that suggest a specific benefit must be based upon “current, published, authoritative statements from certain federal scientific bodies, as well as from the National Academy of Sciences”. Whether said benefit is a reality, more research is needed, but if soy foods are used mindfully to occasionally replace animal foods, the health effect will more than likely be marginal.
I know what your thinking. Why have we been led to believe that certain foods may be good for us when, in fact, there is little or no evidence confirming such information?! The answer, my friends, is politics. First of all, the government is heavily invested in agricultural and livestock production through a complex web of price guarantees, subsidies and tariffs aimed at increasing production and decreasing competition. Next, the federally funded USDA runs a series of “check-off” programs that collect funds from the concerned parties in order to manage industry wide marketing campaigns. In addition to this, the dietary recommendations provided by the FDA and USDA place the financial interest of partner industries above public health. Also, the claims advertised on the front of product packaging falls under the jurisdiction of these federal entities and they are notorious for favoring measures that benefit partner industries while discouraging measures that may indirectly affect their bottom line. Finally, the government agencies responsible for mandating health and safety measures to ensure product quality and hesitant to adopt production and packaging standards that may interfere with a concerned company’s ability to generate the desired output and, therefore, profits. It is evident that the government is far more concerned with creating and maintaining a food system that best serves their individual agenda rather than that of consumer health and resource welfare.