When I was a toddler, my Aunt Helen taught me to sing this ditty each time I needed to cross the street: “Stop, look and listen, before you cross the street. Use your eyes; use your ears; and then use your feet.” Wise words that demonstrated a conscious awareness of our well-being. However, I’ve never heard of a similar limerick adapted for each time we reach for a different food that we intend to put into our bodies; nor have I ever really seen much of an effort anywhere to stop, look and listen, before we pull “food” off the market shelf.
For a time, I thought eating better meant listening to marketing labels printed boldly on the front of food packaging. Unfortunately, too often, it takes a health crisis for many of us, as American consumers, to finally turn over that box or can and read the ingredient labels. Even then, the labels on many processed foods could create even more confusion, as some of the ingredients listed are not identifiable food items found anywhere on the United States Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid chart. How many of us are going beyond this point to learn exactly what are the questionable ingredients that we put into our bodies?
Think about this: What many of us are doing with regard to our food consumption is looking the other way. We abdicate responsibility as the gatekeepers of our own bodies, entrusting companies who are strangers to us and dictated to by their own best interests from their financial bottom lines. We spend premiums on our bling, and cut value on our groceries. Daily, we spend more time on our hair and appearance, than thinking about the food that generates both. Too many of us place work and lifestyle at the top of our priorities list, and health/food education at the bottom.
We've all heard the adage, "If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?" That is the same passive decision-making approach I used to have with food. I assumed that all the food on the supermarket shelf must be safe because the Food and Drug Administration approved the ingredients, and my family, friends and neighbors were eating the same foods, even if I didn’t know the meaning of all of the ingredients in my food. I proverbially followed my friends right off that bridge. I realized that this was just a much slower way of reaching the bottom, which depended on the choices that others made. I realized that I have to own that responsibility and take control of my food choices.
One example of why we should be concerned about the ingredients in our food and question products that make it into our cupboards, is microwave popcorn (being one of the friendliest, fun foods brought into our homes). Here are common ingredients found in some brands: corn kernels, palm oil, salt, potassium chloride, natural and artificial flavor, butter (cream annatto), color added, TBHQ, and citric acid (for freshness). I find it fascinating (and horrifying) how popcorn has devolved in the past thirty years. In the ‘70s, cooking popcorn meant putting kernels in a pan or air-popper with a little bit of oil, then adding melted butter and salt to taste. What are all these other things in microwave popcorn today?
- Palm oil is one of the vegetable oils higher in saturated fats, and it’s desirable for its cooking stability. Palm oil is now endangering prehistoric forests in places like Papua New Guinea.
- Potassium chloride is commonly used as an addictive flavoring technique. We do need salt in our diets, but less than a teaspoon per day. Sea salt is a more nourishing salt choice for our bodies, because of it’s wide spectrum of minerals, which are otherwise stripped out of table salt (pure sodium choloride, lacking in minerals).
- Artificial flavor is a mystery umbrella ingredient that should raise flags. Why does microwave popcorn contain this ingredient? Let’s come back to this deceptively harmless ingredient.
- Cream Annatto is implied to be butter-like, but it is not butter. The definition of Cream Annatto is complex and beyond the scope of this article. In short, it is a tracer added for manufacturing purposes. Perhaps it’s good for manufacturing, but why do we want that in our bodies?
- Color Added is a catch-all term that can encompass a number of artificial dyes or synthetic additives. Why do we need color added to popcorn?!
- TBHQ (tert-Butylhydroquinone) is considered an effective preservative by the industry. We should question what is being preserved? Corn kernels have this preservative ability built-in already. Studies suggest prolonged exposure to TBHQ could be carcinogenic and cause stomach tumors. The name itself is a give-away that this is not an ingredient from nature. Synthetic and highly processed ingredients can be difficult for our bodies to assimilate, potentially resulting in throwing our body’s systems off balance and accumulation of unassimilated materials causing further damage.
Unfortunately, that is not all. The above listed ingredients only included what was reported on the box. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a chemical found in the lining of the bags. Olga Naidenko, PhD, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, reports that this chemical vaporizes into the popcorn and accumulates in our bodies over time, creating carcinogenic levels as tested in lab rats, among other side effects, such as infertility.
Finally, something more familiar to all of us is that the kernels are most likely Genetically Modified (GMO). For many, GMO is not a concern. However, what I hope the moral of this article teaches, is that each of us need to know the ingredients in our food (including if a vegetable is GMO) and knowing their significance. One argument made with GMOs is that when food is tampered with, we do not know what effect those changes bring. There is a case for the nutritional value of GMO foods to be greatly diminished as well. Other studies state nutritional value is the same, but then fail to point out the “extras” found in non-organic produce, much of which cancels out some of the produces' inherent benefits. An additional fun fact I recently learned is about the terminator seed. These are seeds that have been genetically modified with the intention to end their ability to reproduce. What else don't we know?
It is amazing how much has changed since I popped popcorn as a kid in the ‘70s. The good news is, you can still have your popcorn and eat it too! Now that the curtain has been pulled back a bit on the devolution of popcorn, it is disturbing to think how often I and so many others consumed microwave popcorn specifically for the reason that we believed it was a healthy snack. Popcorn still is healthy in its traditional popping method known before the Age of Nuking. It’s cheaper, better tasting and at least as easy as microwave popcorn.
Ready for how to make stone-aged popcorn? Just barely cover the bottom of a pot with any healthy oil you choose (olive, grapeseed, sunflower...), fill the bottom of the pot with just enough kernels to cover the bottom, cook with the lid on, on low heat. And done! Annoyed you have to stand there to listen for the kernel-popping noise to slow down? This step is no different than microwave popcorn, which burned each time I made it, and also left too many kernels left unpopped.
OK, I hear you; you aren’t giving up the microwave for anything. Put ½ cup popcorn kernels into a brown paper lunch bag. You probably should staple the bag shut. Proceed to cook like store bought microwave popcorn, but without all the added artificial “flavor”. For more fun, you can do the same with a whole dried cob of corn.
My family found a farmer at our local farmer’s market who nurtures his own variety of corn that we find tastes far better than any other competitor we’ve ever come across. For an added story for your popcorn, support your local farmers directly (preferably non-GMO farmers).
Stop, look, and listen, whenever you are deciding what to eat, drink or breathe. Turn the box or can around, ask questions and then make an educated choice for yourself. Don’t listen to the box’s marketing, the coupons, the armchair comments about what someone or some company believes. Know your personal philosophy for what you invite into your household, and get to know each product like a stranger walking in off the street. Sound overwhelming? My family’s philosophy recognizes that our grandparents survived just fine and lived long lives without these newly invented ingredients. We choose to go with what nature gave us as our first option. I can’t even claim necessarily that the all-natural product is without flaws too, but our bodies know it far better than anything new that’s come along since. As all our ancestors evolved in nature, grazing off the fruits of nature, our genetic make-up knows the natural option first. Since the ‘70s, I have watched so much of what was supposed to be good for us turn out later to be bad for us; I’ve read conflicting scientific opinions rage for decades whether eggs are even good for us; and I’ve followed the sudden shifts that take place with the winds of political agendas. Frankly after decades of sitting on the sidelines of the tennis match over these changing facts/opinions, my family decided we do not like to gamble. What are your households’ philosophies about food?
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