This whole last year of #mondayhealthbasics, we've been touching on some keystones that are important in reducing inflammation, and are key contributors to reducing your body's toxin load. All of these posts have been aimed at supporting gut health; loving your guts has a tendency to reverberate outwards, to all other systems in the body. Today's post is one I can't believe I haven't done yet. We've touched a bit on this concept on the post aimed at J.E.R.F. But today, we're exploring why you may want to work on reducing the packaged goods in your pantry, and how to go about it.
This post is inspired by a short presentation I led last week with a group of young girls aged 8 to 10. There were four groups, and each group's task was to come up with a list of ingredients that they would use to make a specific food item at home. One group had chocolate chip cookies, another mashed potatoes, one group worked on homemade mac and cheese and a fourth had to come up with the list of ingredients for a homemade chicken noodle soup. They weren't allowed to rely on anything coming from a box, all of their recipes had to come from the idea of 'from scratch'. The girls all understood the exercise, and had fun coming up with the list of tasty things they could add to make a delicious version of their item. Butter chicken and veggies version of mac and cheese? Yea I'd like that. Homemade meat stock and the how-to, before even making the soup? Oh how I love these kids.
It was great to see how they easily came up with those ingredients that belong in their kind of dish or dessert. I then broke out packaged boxes of those items that were on sale at the local grocery store that day. There were name brands in there, and store brand versions as well. Next, I invited one girl from each group to read the list of ingredients that went in to the making of these items. They were perplexed at some of those items listed, and wondered what it was their purpose was in the final recipe. I didn't point out what ingredient does what, nor did I want to scare them into thinking that these chemicals with hard to read names were nefarious for them; I just wanted to emphasize the idea that in order for something to come to us in such a pre-packaged state that requires we only add water and stir, it takes a lot more ingredients, ones we don't even know what they are. (Mechanically separated chicken? Mmm. Sign me up. Blerg.)
And then we went on to introduce the idea of balance to this scenario. I didn't want them to fear any foods they may be served in their own homes after our little exercise; I wanted them to be aware and just to start asking questions of their own, and maybe start to develop an interest in making their own homemade versions of cookies or mac and cheese at home. They certainly all seemed to know what types of ingredients it would take. I will address the idea of balance in a future #mondayhealthbasics post; how it applies to today's write up, read on.
Why it's important to reduce your reliance on packaged foods
The idea for today's article centres around reducing the amount of irritants to your digestive tract and to your system. It's all about the gut love.
Packaged foods are foods that are chemically produced in a factory. I get that some may think that cookies, if made at home, are made from processed food ingredients. Sure, I'll agree with you: it takes a certain amount of processing to convert grain into ground up flour. What I am talking about today though, is those ingredients listed on your package that aren't things we have typically consumed in human history except for the last 20 or 30 years. I am specifically talking about additives, preservatives, other chemicals added to the final product in order to mimic the flavours and textures of the real thing, homemade.
Some of these ingredients we are talking about are known to be irritating to the gut lining: things like carrageenan have been studied with animals, and links have been made to inflammation in the gut with consumption of this food-grade seaweed extract. (It comes from food, isn't that enough evidence? Not necessarily. Not in these amounts.)
My number one reason I'd steer away from packaged foods and look to reduce it in our meals at home is because these foods are where manufacturers add in extra sugar to the product, sweetened with sugar and other ingredients that are, for all intents and purposes, more sugar. (High fructose corn syrup, glucose/fructose, etc.) Adding sugar to their product makes it tastes delicious!
We are hard wired to love the taste of sweet.
From an evolutionary aspect, this makes so much sense: before the advent of grocery stores and convenience foods, the sweet taste of a fruit or vegetable was our signal that the plant food at hand was at its peak freshness. When something is at peak freshness, that sweet taste signals to our bodies that it is at its most nutrient dense peak. Eating an under-ripe tomato? Not sweet. Not so much Vitamin C, either. But the sweetest, juiciest, still sun-warmed tomato that is a deep deep orangey red colour? So much Vitamin C. Factoring in evolution, those people who developed a sweet tooth were also better able to choose foods based on that delicious flavour, meaning they had a higher intake of those all important antioxidants that are late to develop on the fruit on the vine. Higher antioxidants meant good fuel to ensure those people lived longer and better lives, and were better able to reproduce and guarantee progeny, therefore survival of the species. Good work body.
But somehow, things went awry along the way. Food scientists figured this piece out, and realized that if they filled their packaged products with sugar, people would love the taste, and come back for more, ensuring consistent sales of their products. That meant the scientists had jobs. (I'm going all conspiracy on you on this one, I know. Stick with me.) But truly, it meant the business would be around, guaranteeing their customer base would stick around and keep them alive. The people behind these food manufacturing companies have figured out the sugar bit, and have tweaked it to the point of understanding how much sugar it takes in a final product to create a dependency on the product. Good work companies. Sorry people who will be eating now more sugar than we were ever meant to handle. (We'd better evolve, and FAST.)
Why am I not a fan of added sugar? These refined white substances and super processed corn- or other starch- based syrups contribute to blood sugar imbalances, which further feeds the inflammation loop. Yes yes yes: sugars contribute to inflammation. Which is at the root of just about every chronic disease out there.
How do you work to reduce your chances of developing inflammation? Look to reduce your consumption of refined sugars. Check your labels: even your tomato soup may be hiding some sugar! I was quite taken aback when I found it listed on my favourite tetra pack of emergency soup for weeknight suppers. (I still rely on it from time to time, but aim to have more homemade soups now in order to work towards balance.)
With the girls, I pulled out a few different packaged foods and noted how many grams of sugar were in each serving, and had them figure out how many servings there were in the whole package by just reading the Nutrition Facts label on the back of the box. I set my little digital scale up, and had the girls count how many sugar cubes it took to weigh out the amount of sugars listed on the label for each item.
They were quite taken aback at how much sugar was in a little juice box, even though there was no sugar listed on the label! They couldn't believe that sugar was added to tomato soup. What was it even doing in the mix? And why did they need to add so many cubes of sugar to a can of soda? Could you even drink a glass of water or a cup of tea with that much sugar dissolved in it? It was great to witness their discovery, and the questions that came up afterwards. I expect a few questioning emails from parents any day... (sorry gang! It was in the name of good food and good health, I promise you!)
My other beef when it comes to packaged and refined foods is that when you read that list of ingredients, there are a whole lot of artificial ones in the mix. These ingredients are things made up in a lab, created to help develop the flavour or mouth-feel of the product, make it seem closer to the real thing. These chemicals are not foods as recognized by our digestive tract necessarily; they too can contribute to our liver's toxin load, that work it has to do to move stuff out. (Read up on this article to remember what that toxin load is, and how important it is we look after moving that stuff out.) These chemicals may be there acting as preservatives, or they could contribute to the colour, or the flavour profile. They may also help develop the texture in order to try to mimic the real thing. (When was something meant to mimic ever as good as the real thing?)
Not only that, but some words like 'artificial flavour' or 'artificial colour' are industry labels that mean 'a proprietary blend that we are legally bound to keep secret so that no one copies what it is we are making'. Who knows how many more chemicals are making up a part of that 'artificial colour'. To be clear, all of these chemicals do have to pass rigorous testing in the food industry; they all have to be deemed 'safe' by the Canadian Food & Drugs Act & Regulations division of Health Canada. But when it comes to choosing our foods, I tend to err on the side of what types of foods people have been eating for centuries including my ancestors, as opposed to relying on a recipe dreamed up in a chemistry lab meant to mimic the real thing.
My other beef with processed foods is their use of hydrogenated vegetable oils and soybean oil. These types of oils are contributing to our body's inflammation by throwing the balance between omega 6s and omega 3s right off. Ergo, processed foods can exacerbate any kind of inflammation already going on! I invite you to read this earlier post on what fats are the good kinds, and why certain fats should be avoided.
These processed foods are typically also quite low in nutrients when you compare them to the real version. Manufacturers need to make a living, and so they tend to use cheaper ingredients in order to turn a profit. Don't we all need to turn a profit? I get it. But at the expense of my health and that of my family's? I choose no. Cheaper ingredients may have relied on the use of glyphosate in their growing season; glyphosate is a chemical that show evidence of disrupting the gut bacteria. It is this gut bacteria we want to keep happy, as they are key players in keep inflammation at bay and supporting healthy digestion.
The packaging used in these processed foods are also contributing to the picture here. There are endocrine disruptors in the plastics and in the lining to cans that we come across in our day to day life; this means they mess with your hormones, negatively impacting many of our bodily processes. All processed foods come in some sort of packaging; the ingredients found in those foods can pull some of those chemical compounds out of the packaging and into the foods we the consume. Choosing to eat real food instead will drastically reduce those harmful effects from the possible endocrine disruptors. Opt to purchase anything tomato-based or with any fat content from a glass jar: a much safe non-BPA and non-BPS bet.
There are quite a few great reasons posted in this article here in regards to reducing your consumption of processed foods, along with the scientific evidence to back their claims. I invite you to read this post if you're curious to go deeper into this idea.
Your secret to improved health then?
Reducing your reliance on processed foods, and doing so gradually (in order to make it do-able!). Cook from scratch. Eat more simply. Meal planning can help. Choosing a box of prepared food whose list of ingredients is much shorter than that found on the other box on the shelf next door. Read your labels!
Do a bit of digging to find a product that lists a pretty clean list of ingredients, like this Calgary-based manufacturer of delicious Butter Chicken and other curry sauces. These are often on our menu for those busy weeks; and they're delicious! Check out your grocery stores and health food stores that take a special interest in stocking their shelves with local specialty items, or those shops who look to facilitate your success in the kitchen with health first and foremost. I saw some harissa sauces in glass jars with a pretty clean list of ingredients at the grocery store last week: you can bet your bottom dollar I'll be dreaming these up into recipes in my future instagram posts!
Here's a round up of ideas I pulled together for you to get you started:
Keep it real my friend, and keep it do-able.
Knowledge is power; read your labels, and opt for those packages that are lower in chemicals. If your body is working extra hard on health things, know that providing it with more nutrient dense foods and reducing the toxins found in packaged foods may be of benefit to you at this time. Most of all, please do play with your food.