While stocking up your pantry for prolonged periods of social distancing your instinct might be to grab the first things on the shelf, buying whatever is available to ensure you have sufficient nutrition during the coming weeks. You’re probably not taking the time to flip the item over and scan the nutrition panel on the back, especially as people are clamoring behind you to reach the shelves.
“Usually, I try to pick something I think is pretty healthy, but if I see something else that’s ‘unhealthy’ I’m still gonna buy it if it looks good,” USC junior Alexa Corcoleotes said.
Maybe, like Alexa, when you’re shopping, you decide whether an item goes in your cart or back on the shelf by looking to see if there are words like “organic,” “gluten-free,” “and “non-GMO” on the packaging. Maybe you only buy the non-fat yogurt, the all-natural granola bars, or the low-calorie ice cream. But does seeing those words printed on the labels outside necessarily mean the product inside is healthy?
In short, no.
In a culture obsessed with appearances, it’s understandable that many people’s instinct is to choose what to eat based on calorie count. However, it’s time that we start to turn away from looking at the numbers on the package and start focusing more on the words. And no, I’m not talking about the aforementioned buzzwords. I’m referring to the ingredient list.
What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain, and thus, in turn, affects how you feel, both physically and mentally, according to Harvard Medical School. When you ingest high quantities of low-quality ingredients, your body’s ability to protect itself from oxidative stress and inflammation decreases.
Xanthan gum is a popular food additive that acts as a thickener or stabilizer. It’s found in many salad dressings, soups, and sauces such as Hidden Valley Original Ranch salad dressing and Progresso Light Chicken Noodle soup. Xanthan gum is made of fermented sugar, which is precipitated into a solid, dried, and then ground into a powder. It is then added to wet mixtures, where it turns into a gooey substance and thickens the mixture.
Additionally, according to Coral Dabarera Edelson, MS, RD, “[Xanthan gum] is derived from soy, corn, dairy, or wheat. Since food manufacturers don’t usually disclose which one is used for the xanthan gum in their product, it is best avoided if you have an allergy to any of those foods.”
Finally, xanthan gum can cause an upset stomach in people prone to digestive issues because of its ability to efficiently bind with water. This can cause bloating or have a laxative effect when consumed in large quantities.
Vegetable oils are any oil that comes from a plant source including canola, sunflower, soybean, palm and corn. Previously, vegetable oils were promoted as a healthy source of fat because they contain lower levels of saturated fat than animal-derived fats such as butter and lard. However, in 2016, a group of doctors reviewed the data from the original study, which had been published in the 1970s, and found that the previously released results had overstated the health benefits of vegetable oils.
Vegetable oils are highly refined and processed in order to render them relatively flavorless. While this makes them a popular choice for cooking, it also strips them of nutrients. Additionally, certain vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil, have high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which are thought to be pro-inflammatory. Consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids without taking in a sufficient amount of omega-3s, which are anti-inflammatory, might lead to increased inflammation in your body, as well as an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
“Our diets often have too much omega-6, and certain vegetable oils are part of the issue,” Edelson said. “Further, there is the GMO issue. GMO soybean crops and corn crops are treated extensively with pesticides. There is evidence that some of these pesticides cause harm, so they are best avoided if possible.”
Palm oil is problematic for entirely different reasons. The increased use of palm oil has led to mass amounts of deforestation and destroyed the habitats of a number of animal species, and palm oil refineries release mass amounts of methane into the air, a greenhouse gas that’s 34 times as potent as carbon dioxide, contributing to the already severe threat of climate change.
Diets high in refined sugar (aka the white, grainy kind you put in coffee and high-fructose corn syrup) have been linked to decreased brain function and the worsening of certain mood disorders, including depression. So, while a little processed sugar won’t hurt every once in a while, regularly eating more than the recommended daily amount might.
However, there are many ways that sugar can be listed on an ingredient label, including cane sugar, brown sugar, and molasses.
That’s not to say that all sugar should be avoided completely. Remember, your brain is literally designed to run on carbs; glucose to be specific. Plenty of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, contain sugar, but these are naturally occuring sugars, not added sugars.
As people become increasingly aware of the potential risks associated with excessive sugar consumption, the use of artificial sweeteners has become increasingly common. However, artificial sweeteners come with their own set of potential risks. A study published in 2019 found potential links between the consumption of the artificial sweeteners and the development of metabolic changes that could lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Saccharin, stevia, sucralose, xylitol, isomalt, maltitol, and lactitol were shown to change the microbiome, increasing the populations of certain bacteria populations and decreasing others. Saccharine was also linked to a change in glucose tolerance. However, the study also states that more research must be done in order to confirm their findings.
Edelson agrees, stating, “They have been extensively studied and are safe to consume. But are they healthy? The data is mixed… There have been several studies in recent years about the effect of artificial sweeteners on gut health, on insulin sensitivity (decreased insulin sensitivity is a precursor to diabetes type 2 and metabolic syndrome), and more. Currently, there is not strong enough data to definitively connect artificial sweeteners to these issues.”
The next time you head to the grocery store, take a few minutes to skim the ingredient list before purchasing something. You might be surprised to see that your favorite peanut butter has palm oil, that the dressing for the vegetable slaw and kale salad has vegetable oil, xanthan gum, and added sugar, and that the “diet” chocolate contains artificial sweeteners.
Once you’re back to a normal routine following the conclusion of necessary social distancing consider setting aside a little time each week to prepare food from fresh ingredients. You can make your own peanut butter by blending peanuts in a blender or food processor. You can make a simple salad dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs. And honestly, at the end of the day, just eat the regular chocolate, because a little bit of sugar won’t kill you as long as you’re regularly making mindful choices.
“Whole foods like fresh produce, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, fermented foods, and lots of water comprise a healthy diet, Edelman said. “However, it is impossible to be perfectly healthy all of the time. Eat primarily those foods listed above, and enjoy “unhealthy” foods sparingly. 80% healthy meals and 20% “unhealthy” meals is realistic, good for you, and a diet you can actually stick to.”
On the other hand, Robyn Goldberg, RDN, CEDRD-S, believes foods should not be classified as “good” or “bad” as doing so can lead to guilt or shame around eating, which in turn can result in disordered eating. Goldberg is a nutrition therapist and certified intuitive eating counselor - she calls herself a “non-diet dietician” and aims to help her patients legalize all food groups.
“We’re all born and blessed with an internal wisdom to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full,” Goldberg said. “I would suggest having no rules at all [when it comes to food].”
So, whichever method of approaching food you choose to adopt, there seems to be an underlying agreement - as Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”