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What’s really in the food we eat?

February 14th, 2011

mysteryFoodThe recent lawsuit filed over the inaccuracy of labeling the meat content of menu items at Taco Bell got me thinking about other fast-food and grocery favorites. Do I even know what I’m really eating? I did a little digging, and learned that many of the inexpensive items contain binders, extenders and fillers.  Many fast-food restaurants do this to hold the meat together, and extend the volume to make more portions. And, this allows them to advertise competitive pricing. Now I’m wondering if I’m really saving money, while I’m getting less nutritional value. These days, most of the average American’s household budget is being spent on processed packaged or fast foods for convenience.

The author of the “Cook This, Not That” series of guides reported that, among many other extra ingredients (64, to be exact), silica was added by Taco Bell to the beef in their Mexican Pizza, which the company claims will prevent it from clumping together during shipping and processing. In fact, they use the same anti-caking strategy with their chicken, shrimp, and rice. This is what we would call “sand” and it’s among a growing list of food “additives.”

Here are five examples of popular foods that can be found at fast food restaurants or on grocery shelves.  Are they part of your family’s regular diet?

  • Chicken and other meats: Did you think chicken nuggets were just chicken and batter? McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets contain 20 ingredients, compared to 30 for Wendy’s Chicken Nuggets and 35 for Burger King’s Chicken Fries.  This formed chicken product has a large percentage of corn, and can include mechanically separated meat.  Jamie Oliver demonstrated the MSM process on his Food Revolution series; it’s routinely used for beef, pork and chicken after the meat is removed to strip the last remaining bits of muscle off the bone so nothing is wasted. Genoa salami, an ingredient in fast-food sandwiches, is made this way. Hot dogs may be a popular and economical treat for the kids, but they also contain a high percentage of food fillers like cereal binders and extenders.
  • Smoothies and shakes: Smoothies are a popular treat for everyone, and can be healthy as long as they are 100% fruit, like the ones sold at Jamba Juice. But others can contain as many as 50 different chemicals to produce an artificial flavoring like strawberry. You can make a traditional shake with just ice cream and milk, while Wendy’s Frosty has 14 to 25 ingredients, depending on the flavor.
  • Fruit juices: When it comes to fruit juice, I really have to do a better job of reading the label before I buy. I found the ingredient list for the popular Sunny Delight beverage didn’t even mention fruit juice until the third item! The first two were water and high fructose corn syrup, followed by only 2% each of a few fruit juice concentrates and a host of flavorings and additives.  It had 8 times the sodium and 1/3 the vitamin C of regular orange juice.
  • Snack chips: There may be only 3 ingredients in a tortilla chip, but there are 36 more ingredients in Frito-Lay Nacho Cheese Doritos. While a couple of them are cheese, the rest of the list includes a lot of carbohydrate fillers that are nutritionally empty. There are 15 other flavors with similar ingredients.
  • Cheese foods: Probably the oldest processed food is cheese, notably products like Cheese Whiz and Velveeta.  We all grew up eating these! They’re classified as “pasteurized process cheese foods,” and contain other ingredients that reduce the amount of cheese in the finished product. They must contain at least 51% of the cheese ingredient by weight, have a moisture content less than 44%, and have at least 23% milkfat. Cheese spread is a variation that may also contain a sweetener and a stabilizing agent, and the less expensive imitation cheese is made from vegetable oil.

Now that I have a better idea of what these “processed” foods could actually contain, I may have to rethink my meal-planning strategy.  If it’s true that “you are what you eat,” I’ll be reading labels and ingredient lists a lot more closely from now on, or searching this online database from Self Magazine or the USDA’s search tool for “What’s In The Foods You Eat.”  I want to start saving my money and my health.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barry Erdman  |  February 14th, 2011 at 7:26 am

    I’m glad to read your comments above. I recommend and ask that you next read “Good Calories Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. It’s a large text, but I predict you will be as appreciated as I to learn how we have been mislead foodwise in our culture. Yes it’s a big book. If that intimidates you, look him up on youtube first or see his NY Times article, “What if its all been a big fat lie” ” http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/07FAT.html

  • 2. Laura Kaeding  |  March 1st, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Seeing this information getting out there everywhere makes me feel great. I have been a nutter about avoiding additives and crazy long ingredients list for many years, and I’m glad that it’s starting to catch fire. Thank you for sharing these, it’s so important to know what we are putting in our bodies as it affects more than just our health. Thank you.

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