Food THE FAD OF THE LAND

The truth about those nutritional crazes.

RC’s and moonpies do not make for a sound diet – it’s hard to raise much of an argument on that point, and the health food industry just has to needle our conscience a bit to make us switch from junk food to papaya juice and granola bars. But now that they’ve got us worried about our diet, health food promoters have begun to cast doubt on the things we always thought were good for us: eggs, bread, and produce from the neighborhood supermarket. They argue that the way our dietary staples are processed makes them downright unhealth-ful. But don’t swear off chicken-fried steak yet: a close examination of the facts proves many of the health food industry’s salvos to be duds.

Refined vs. Natural Sweeteners:

It is indisputable that large quantities of sucrose are harmful to the body. Refined white sugar is 100 percent sucrose; not only does it offer nothing in the way of nutrition, but overconsumption has been implicated as a cause of heart disease and diabetes.

One answer to the problem of refined sugar offered by many in the health food industry is a switch to honey or molasses. These “natural sweeteners” are said to be easier to digest and more healthful – by virtue of trace minerals – than refined sugar.

But substituting honey or molasses for refined sugar will not significantly diminish sucrose intake: Honey and molasses contain almost as much sucrose as does Domino Pure Cane. And in the case of honey, the trace minerals are just that.

You would have to consume well over a pound of honey to receive the same amounts of calcium, phosphorus, and potassium provided by a single serving of almost any vegetable. Even refined brown sugar, which purists scorn, contains many times the mineral content of honey. (All nutritional values are taken from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Handbook of the Nutritional Contents of Foods.)

Honey costs about five times as much as sugar. In health food stores, the price of honey soars to $2.15 per pound!

Honey does taste great. Put it in a spice cake, ice cream, or fruit dessert, and the result will be more flavorful than a dessert sweetened with white sugar. But honey is clearly a luxury, and if it is better for your body, it is negligibly so.

Black strap molasses is a better source than honey for minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium. But the flavor is overpowering, and it is so viscous that it simply cannot be used as an all-purpose sweetener. And molasses, like honey, is fairly expensive, ranging from about $1.10 per pound in supermarkets to $2.25 per pound in health food stores.

The obvious solution to the refined vs. natural sweetener dilemma is simply to cut back on all sweeteners.

Fertilized vs. Unfertilized Eggs:

Most eggs purchased in the supermarkets come from chickens given hormone injections to stimulate laying – they never see a rooster. Fertilized eggs, on the other hand, are laid by hens that get laid. Health food stores carry such eggs, and one hears claims that they are nutritionally superior because they contain a better balance of hormones and a sperm cell. However, every nutritionist I have ever come across states that there are no significant differences between the food values of fertilized and unfertilized eggs.

The real issue here, should anyone care to engage it, is a moral one: Professional laying hens, like other animals kept by the food industry, simply aren’t treated very well. They do nothing but eat, lay eggs, and get slaughtered when they stop producing.

If you commiserate, then you may very well wish to buy (at about double the price) the eggs of hens that are free to wander and peck and enjoy their lives as they please. But it is pointless to pay double for fertilized eggs in the hopes of eating a nutritionally superior food.

Yogurt:

Perhaps the fad food of the decade, the sale of those little half-pint cartons is soaring as more and more people down a yogurt for breakfast, lunch, or snack. And why not? Yogurt is a good product, made from milk, one of the most nearly complete protein foods. Yogurt’s creamy texture and tart flavor make it good for general cooking and baking, and it may be used in many recipes as a low-fat substitute for sour cream. It is tolerated by some who cannot digest milk.

But the perfect food? The evidence says “no.” Ounce per ounce, low-fat yogurt is actually slightly less nutritious than partially skimmed milk. What’s more, most of the flavored yogurts contain a fair amount of sugar-sweetened fruit preserves. While a cup of plain low-fat yogurt has only about 120 calories, a cup of most fruited varieties rings in at about 250 (that’s 130 extra calories just from sugar). Still, people who wouldn’t dream of drinking several spoonfuls of preserves stirred into a glass of milk regularly down flavored yogurts, certain that they are eating a superior food.

At over 40¢ a carton, yogurt is certainly not the cheapest quick lunch available (a 4-oz. serving of cottage cheese supplies nearly the same nutrition at about half the price). If you make your own, it’s much cheaper and you’ll be able to cut down on the sugar content. (One or two teaspoons of preserves, honey, or molasses per cup of yogurt should suffice.)

High Fiber Diet:

“Fiber is a fad whose time has come, and the toilet habits of the Western World will never be the same.” (Talking Food Co., Salem, Mass.)

Early on in the nation’s history, most people consumed a lot of fiber in the form of whole grains and fresh produce. But for the past fifty years, until the recent dietary fiber fad, the majority of Americans have eaten little fiber. White flour, with about one-eighth the fiber of whole wheat, is used in most baked goods; the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has declined each year.

In 1970, Dr. Dennis Burkitt, a London physician, published his findings that people in rural Africa, who consume a high-fiber diet, have a low incidence of cancer of the colon and coronary heart disease – both of which are prevalent in the Western world. Dr. Burkitt correlated the present fiber-free diet of Americans and Europeans with the high incidence of such diseases.

And so, the high-fiber fad was born, and the aisles of the grocery now stock the new Crackling Bran and Bran Chex, Kellogg’s All-Bran and the unbelievably tasteless Fresh Horizons Bread, whose remarkable load of fiber – four times that of whole wheat bread – is derived primarily from wood.

Unfortunately, subsequent studies have not always supported Dr. Burkitt’s findings. For one thing, dietary fiber is not just a single entity. Wheat fiber (bran), alfalfa, pectin, oatmeal, etc. all behave differently in our systems. And the consumption of bran, given the most scrutiny as a result of Dr. Burkitt’s claims, appears to have no effect whatever on serum cholesterol levels (although some studies have indicated that vegetable pectins and oats may be able to lower cholesterol).

Rather it appears that, throughout the world, high rates of colon cancer and coronary artery disease are correlated with diets high in fat and protein. Where one might expect to find relationships between high fiber intake and a lessening of these diseases, there is none.

Does all of this indicate that we should now discard fiber from our diets? No. While dietary fiber may not be the answer to the prevention of dreaded diseases, our bodies evolved consuming whole grains, beans, and fresh produce. It stands to reason, then, that there are probably substances in these foods that our systems need.

Sea Salt:

Sea salt is one of the most amusing health food products. Salt is a mineral which, in large doses, is not particularly good for us: It can lead to high blood pressure, kidney problems, and general bloating of the body. Sea salt is identical except that it also contains trace minerals from the ocean, the quantities of which are so minute they are not even printed on the label.

If you are concerned about your salt intake, avoid highly processed “convenience” and snack foods (salt is often added as a flavoring agent) and canned goods (see below). Also, try to salt your own home-prepared foods as little as possible – use herbs and spices instead. Fresh, Frozen, and Canned Vegetables:

Brace yourself: Canned and frozen foods do not lack the nutrition of fresh. Once they have been boiled and drained, fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables all offer the same amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. (Even dehydrated mashed potatoes, reconstituted with milk and butter, have the same food value as homemade.)

This, however, is not the entire story. Mel Marshall, in Real Living with Real Foods, details the steps of the canning and freezing processes. First, the vegetable skins are loosened in a peeling bath of sodium hydroxide (lye) or methyl naphthalene sulfonate, the traces of which are then neutralized with additional chemicals. Soft vegetables, like squash or tomatoes that are to be canned, go into a firming solution of sodium hydroxide, calcium carbonate, or monobasic calcium phosphate. Most vegetables are then dunked in a chemical solution that preserves or enhances their natural colors – a variety of chemicals may be used for this, many of them containing sodium. Finally, various texturizers, emulsifiers, and agents to prevent clouding may be added to canned vegetables, and they are seasoned with salt or glucose.

The most worrisome result of all this processing is a tremendous increase in the quantity of sodium (the potentially harmful element in table salt) in canned vegetables. While fresh and frozen vegetables contain very little sodium (about 1/1000 of a percent), the level in canned vegetables is 200 times as high. Canned vegetables lack the taste and texture of fresh, of course, and generally also cost more, because you foot the bill for packaging, processing, and advertising.

Organic Produce:

Most of us are understandably confused by the word “organic.” Organically Grown Foods supplies a good definition: “. . . food grown without pesticides . . . without artificial fertilizers … in soil whose humus content is increased by the addition of organic matter |andl whose mineral content is increased with application of natural mineral fertilizers.”

What does all this mean? Well, basically, while farmers growing for large supermarket chains are liberal in their use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the organic farmer avoids synthetic chemicals and tries to replenish the minerals in the soil with mulch and manure. Organically grown produce sometimes costs more, though a recent comparison of prices at Harthomp and Moran and Sun-drops Nutrition health food stores with those at Safeway revealed few differences.

The question is, of course, whether it is worth the additional trouble to go to a health food store when your supermarket is right around the corner. And despite claims attributing superior taste to organically grown produce, I am unable to detect many differences. Unfortunately, no systematic studies have been done to compare the nutritive values of organic and chemically treated fruits and vegetables. Just about all we know is that the mineral quality of the soil affects the product grown there, and that plants may retain some residues of the various toxic insecticides and chemicals with which they are treated.

Sulfured vs. Unsulfured Dried Fruits:

Most of the dried fruits we purchase are treated with sulfur dioxide, which preserves color and freshness. In large quantities, sulfur dioxide – the chief constituent of municipal smog- is clearly toxic; in smaller amounts, it can be mildly irritating to the mucous membranes. Dried fruits purchased in health food stores, on the other hand, are dipped in honey. This retards spoilage but does not prevent the darkening of apricots, peaches, and pears.

Vivid colors in dried fruits are important to those photographing color food spreads, but most people – given the choice – would probably select a brownish fruit without the chemicals. But there are other differences. One is cost: Raisins in the supermarket range from $1.00 to $1.30 per pound, while the honey-dipped version sells for as high as $2.75 per pound. Honey-preserved prunes are about 60¢ more per pound and dried figs up to 50¢ more per pound than their grocery store counterparts. (The extra cost of these fruits is probably due to the fact that they are organically grown and must be kept refrigerated.) Honey-dipped dried fruits also have a different texture and flavor – moister and less chewy, with an almost winey taste.

As with so many other foods, the dried fruit you select is a matter of taste. I suspect that the extremely small amount of sulfur dioxide in the supermarket packages is not harmful, and you may prefer the flavor, color, and texture of this type. But if you wish to avoid preservatives and do not mind paying somewhat more for your food, the honey-dipped fruits may be for you.

Carob vs. Cocoa:

Carob, the pod of a fruit called St. John’s bread, supplies chocolatey flavor without the chocolate: it’s the only choice offered in all “chocolatey” health food candies, ice creams, and baked goods. The reason for this is that carob, unlike chocolate, contains no caffeine, and therefore gives us no “artificial stimulation.” It’s also said to be more nutritious.

A comparison with cocoa, the powdery form of chocolate most like carob, shows that carob does indeed supply about twice the fiber and calcium and six times the Vitamin A of cocoa, with about one-third fewer calories and one sixteenth the fat. However, cocoa contains about three times the protein, five times the potassium, eight times the phosphorus, and ten times the iron of carob. Clearly, then, carob is not the hands-down winner.

All of this means little, of course, if you do not like the taste of carob. For as similar as it is to cocoa, it is not the same. In a recent taste test, for example, cocoa brownies were preferred over the carob version (otherwise identical) by a ratio of three to one. Most tasters commented that the carob brownies were too sweet and not chocolatey enough.

Whole Grains:

One of the most noteworthy effects of the health food movement is the switch from degerminated flours to whole grains. The selection of whole-grain breads put out by national companies has increased greatly within the last five years; whole wheat flour, once fairly expensive and hard to come by, is now found in five-pound sacks at the supermarket. Corn meal, unfortunately, is still mainly produced in the degerminated form. I have, however, found whole grain corn meal in health food stores and at an occasional Tom Thumb.

The reasons for eating whole grains are fairly obvious. For one. when both the germ and the fibrous outer coating of the wheat and corn are removed, a tremendous amount of flavor and texture is also lost. And despite claims of enrichment, the food value of degerminated flours cannot compare to that made from whole grains. For example, whole-wheat flour contains about one third more protein, three times the calcium, four times the phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium, and eight times the fiber of enriched white flour: whole grain corn meal contains about twice the potassium and magnesium and three times the fiber, calcium, and phosphorus of enriched, de-germinated corn meal. (Incidentally, yellow corn meal has a very high level of Vitamin A. while white corn meal has almost none.)



A final word regarding health food stores: While it is true that many of their products cost more than you might spend in ordinary supermarkets, these stores offer some unique benefits. For one. there is a tremendous selection of grains, nuts, seeds, soy products and so on that you simply cannot find elsewhere. If you enjoy cooking, you may find it pleasurable to browse and experiment. If you do not know how to use a particular food, salespeople can give you directions or lead you to cookbooks that may be of help. Unlike the usual check-out or stock persons of the supermarkets, these people genuinely enjoy their work. Be prepared to pay more, though, and use your own judgment in evaluating the claims of certain products or books. The foods we eat are highly complex, and no one has all the answers.

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