Have you been taking a closer look at processed foods lately?
I always thought that I was fairly smart about nutrition. Boy, was I wrong. Just a little research has left me wondering what the heck is in the foods we eat.
The past decade has revealed some unpleasant truths about the food industry. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the first book that really got me thinking about where food comes from, why we eat what we eat, and how we might make better choices. Lately, I’ve been reading Christina Pirello’s I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Eat It Anymore!
If you are thinking that I’m becoming one of those health nuts, think again. I love bacon, and potato chips, and candy (especially Werther’s Original Hard Caramels).
Maybe, though, it’s time to grow up and take some responsibility. After reading so many articles about how the food industry has manipulated the American public into becoming addicted to junk food, and how those addictions are being linked to a host of chronic diseases (the list keeps growing), how can anyone think that eating lots of processed food is a good thing?
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An Example that You Won’t Believe
It is practically impossible to determine whether a food is okay based on its nutrition label.
Yesterday, I went into the cupboard and started digging around, trying to decide what to make for breakfast. I pulled out a box of an old time favorite of mine that I’ve been eating since I was 8 months old. Let”s call it “Creamy, Wheaty, Hot Cereal.”
Ingredients: Wheat farina, calcium carbonate, defatted wheat germ, disodium phosphate, ferric orthophosphate, niacinamide, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? We feed this to babies.
What’s in It Isn’t Always Easy to Figure Out
Here’s a closer look at the ingredients:
wheat farina – a form of milled wheat.
calcium carbonate – calcium salt, used as a calcium supplement.
defatted wheat germ – Defatted wheat germ is produced by extracting the oil from wheat germ.
disodium phosphate – a food additive that combines the minerals phosphate, or phosphorus, and sodium.
ferric orthophosphate – an iron nutritional supplement.
Now, it doesn’t seem so bad. The stuff that isn’t wheat is actually the “enriched” part of this common hot breakfast cereal.
Natural Foods Are Okay, Right?
The cereal ingredient that will surprise you with its adulteration is one of the two seemingly “natural” ingredients: defatted wheat germ.
Defatted wheat germ is added to the cereal to increase its nutritional value inexpensively, and extend its shelf life.
Here’s how it’s made.
Defatted wheat germ is created by extracting the oil from wheat germ. Solvents such as hexane or petroleum ether are used. Wheat germ is found at the base of the wheat kernel and is considered the embryo that will produce a new plant. Defatted wheat germ often is used to enrich products such as spaghetti noodles and macaroni, the top two selling pastas in the United States.
Then, you think “what is hexane?” and “is it safe to use in food processing?”
Using Petroleum And Solvents to Process Food. Yes, You Read that Right
Hexane is a petroleum product and known central nervous system toxin. However, there is disagreement about whether the levels of residue found in foods processed using hexane are dangerous to human health.
The FDA allows hexane to be used in processed food applications, but you will not see it listed in the ingredients.
Most food-processing substances, including solvents, can be regarded as “incidental
additives” and thus are exempt from label declaration in the finished food product.
(Source: FDA Regulatory Affairs Article)
Further, the FDA has not set tolerance limits on the amount of residue in defatted wheat germ. You will never know how much hexane residue is present in defatted wheat germ, unless you have your own chemical analysis done.
By contrast, the European Union limits hexane residue in cereal germs to 5 ppm.
A test of soy meal and grits processed using hexane revealed that:
“When The Cornucopia Institute tested samples of soy ingredients for hexane residues, levels as high as 21 ppm were found.” (The Cornucopia Institute)
The FDA’s position is that hexane has been used in processing since the 1940’s and no evidence of adverse human health effects has been shown. Additionally, testing on rats (for a ninety-day period) showed no adverse health effect.
However, the studies did not involve long term exposure.
Can I Just Have My Cereal without Hexane, Please?
The answer is yes. Organic foods are not allowed to contain any hexane.
Why would the cereal manufacturer need to fortify/enrich the wheat cereal anyway?Why not just sell it without the chemically-treated ingredient?
Here is the heart of the problem. Processing often removes nutrients from food, to make the product “convenient” or increase its shelf life. To put nutrition back into the food, ingredients like defatted wheat germ are added.
How Much Is Safe? There Isn’t an Answer. How’s That for an Answer?
The experts can keep arguing about what levels of hexane are safe or unsafe, but I am not waiting around to see who will be the winner.
We’re better off just eating real food, skipping as much processed food as possible, and buying organic when in doubt.
This post is not intended to offer medical advice. Check with your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise plan.
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