Sugar, vegetable oil, whole grain – Busting myths around packaged foods
Sugar has 50 different names in the food industry, all of which break down into glucose when consumed. MSG (monosodium glutamate), linked to Alzheimer's disease, also has several names such as hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast extract, textured vegetable protein…Do we really know what we are eating?
Swati Bathwal 29 April 2022 9:40 AM GMT
Is it the availability of food or is it the convenience to prepare quick meals that is making us overweight? Or, are we the victims of food product marketing?
We may be following a caveman diet, consuming just fruits, or following any number of fancy diets out there, but we must remember, cavemen didn't eat chemically loaded foods. They hunted wild animals, collected wild berries, ate leaves, roots, fruits, and nuts.
In ancient India, women spent hours cooking meals with the freshest available ingredients and people sat in lotus posture that made digestion easy. Spices were freshly ground, fruits and vegetables came mostly from farmers' markets or kitchen gardens, flour was sourced from local stores or processed manually at home.
But, in the modern world, technological advancements in food preservation and packaging have enabled manufacturers to prepare and distribute food products which are ready-to-eat. This has not only made food easily accessible but also made us lazy.
Let me share a small incident with you – As a part time store manager at a departmental store in Australia, at the end of each shift, I was always asked to do stock rotation on the grocery aisle.
At first, I didn't understand why we were doing it. I was a medical school student and this task of placing a new food product behind the old ones perplexed me. It meant that customers would pick an old product first which was also close to expiry.
While rotating the stock, to my surprise, I found some of the packaged cereals had a shelf life of one year whereas the tuna fish stored in brine, and packaged chips had expiry dates with extended shelf life. When I still think about these products my stomach churns.
How could something as old as a year be fresh and still be edible? Since then, I have questioned food politics – "If it is not fresh on your kitchen shelf, how can that product be fresh on supermarket shelves?"
So, let me bust some packaging myths for you.
Myth 1: Sugar
We are taught that low fat foods are good for us but honestly low-fat foods don't taste good.
So, to make up for the missing flavours manufactures add sugar and then some more to make it taste edible. Who wants to eat cardboard after all!
I look at some of the products suggested by the specialists for diabetics, I flip the product around and look at the first ingredient. It is water and the second one is low fat. It almost got a green tick from me, but then, the phrase 'no added sugar' caught my eye. The product had 'hidden sugars' and was high in sodium. I gave it a red mark.
So, what are hidden sugars? When you read a label of "no added sugar" make sure that in the ingredients the following are not there.
Invert sugar, dextrose, maltose, barley malt syrup, malt, maltose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, corn sweeteners, corn syrup, sucrose, malt, malt syrup, and the list goes on.
I believe sugar has 50 different names in the food industry. All these hidden sugars, when you consume them still break down into glucose. A high fructose corn syrup is more likely to make you fat than honey, jaggery, molasses or other natural sweeteners.
Corn doesn't have fructose at all but its syrup, which is made with the enzymatic breakdown of corn starch into its unit of sugar molecules, is broken down with the help of enzymes to produce high fructose corn syrup. This just reminds me that I would opt for that kulfi over any sugar processed lemonade or ice-creams from outside which is produced in bulk.
Myth 2: Vegetable oil
Vegetable oils contain most heat sensitive poly-unsaturated fats. These oils are made up of corn, canola, sunflower, cottonseed, safflower, rice bran and grapeseed. It is a common ingredient in most processed foods.
These oils are temperature sensitive. They are dormant when cold but the sensitive polyunsaturated fatty acids wake up when heat is applied. When these oils are refined, the process destroys the healthy fats and their antioxidants and converts them into unhealthy fats. Also, they are loaded with preservatives to increase the shelf life.
"Margarines are one molecule away from plastic" and even ants won't attack it.
Salad dressings are made in vegetable oils, breakfast cereals are coated with vegetable oils like a protective varnish. Not every restaurant will use pure ghee to fry your samosa or pakoras; they use vegetable oils, that are cheap.
If you deny your children low fat, they will crave sugar. Feed them healthy fats like pure ghee, nuts and seeds, brown eggs, mustard oil, groundnut oil, a homemade burger or a homemade pizza with fresh ingredients (homemade pasta sauce is far healthier than canned pasta sauce and tinned fruits).
Myth 3: Whole grain
Fresh crops are processed into refined sugar, vegetable oil and white flour. The grains are stripped of fibre rendering them almost without any nutritive value.
Soy meal, corn meal, etc in dog food are also found in food for humans. Researchers have claimed that animals who are fed garbage or processed animal food, weigh more than their counterparts in the wild.
Myth 4: Hydrolysed vegetable protein
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is just another one of hydrolysed vegetable proteins. There are about 40 different ingredients which have similar names as MSG. There are claims that suggest that MSG contributed to Alzheimer's.
Many governing organisations say that a manufacturer doesn't need to label MSG as an added ingredient unless it is 99 per cent pure MSG. Meanwhile, MSG has several hidden names as hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast extract, textured vegetable protein, to name a few.
Myth 5: Preservatives
To mass produce, preservatives and artificial flavours are added to some food products. Extra salt and other preservatives are added to make them suitable for deep freezing. Some of the preservatives include nitrites, salt, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), sulphites, sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, etc. The list is long.
So, what choices have we got here?
Do not fall for food marketing. The food packaging is done in such a way to grab consumer attention.
So, how do competitive brands establish that their product is better than the others'? It all depends on the marketing and labeling. Terms such as 'low fat', 'low sugar', 'high fibre' and so on, grab attention. Sometimes celebrities endorse these products.
If you baked fresh bread at home without preservatives, it goes off within a few days. The biggest example is chapati, which it goes stale within two days if kept on a kitchen shelf. Then, how does bread last so long?
Potato chips if prepared at home in ghee or groundnut oil is far healthier than the one on the supermarket shelf. Those are probably loaded with preservatives and extra salt to preserve them.
Towards healthy living
Swap your oils to our liquid gold – ghee, homemade white butter, cold pressed mustard oil, peanut oil, coconut oil – and ditch canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, soy oil, margarines and so on.
Swap ketchups and sauces for homemade chutneys. Swap breads and bakery products for homemade or freshly made breads using multigrain flour or wholemeal flour. Use the traditional ragi, jowar, roasted gram, and bajra flour to prepare chapatis.
Swap pasta sauces with homemade tomato sauces and fresh herbs and spices for bottled ones. Make that pizza base at home. Use homemade pickles preserved in glass containers or ceramic pots, over pickles commercially prepared in refined oil and stored in plastic containers. Source homemade ghee or certified organic or cold pressed oils over vegetable oils. Homemade chips, pappadam, steam vadas, paniyarams, roasted chana, homemade bhel are much fresher than packaged chips.
While packaged foods have longer shelf lives, they have done nothing for the human lifespan.
Swati Bathwal is a dietitian, nutritionist and author of the textbook – 'Let's magnify health and fitness 6th - 12th standard'.
Views are personal.