Now that we’ve rediscovered the taste of simple in-season produce, let’s move on to our cupboards where we find bright boxes, crinkly bags, aseptic containers, and cans of processed food. It’s a whole array of convenience food that has a long shelf life! Part two of this series will focus on reading labels. For now, let’s ignore the colorful labels that draw us in to buy one brand or another and zero in on the ingredient list. What are these ingredients actually made from?
You might be tempted to skip this step because most of us read ingredient lists; we check the sugar and fat content and know to avoid hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup. And it’s easy to gloss over the ingredients that look simple and seemingly healthy. But if we examine how some of these foods are being processed today, we begin to find that we need a whole new type of knowledge to read these labels. What is really going into these foods? Let’s take a look.
I picked a simple convenience food: Kraft Zesty Italian salad dressing.
Ingredients: VINEGAR, WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, CANOLA OIL, SUGAR, SALT, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF GARLIC*, GARLIC, RED BELL PEPPERS*, ONIONS*, XANTHAN GUM, SPICE, OLEORESIN PAPRIKA, POTASSIUM SORBATE AND CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA (TO PROTECT FRESHNESS). *DRIED.
The ingredient list isn’t too long compared with many other salad dressings. If we look deeper than the cursory view, what will we find?
Vinegar: it doesn’t state what kind of vinegar they use, so I’m assuming it’s distilled white vinegar which is much cheaper to manufacture than apple cider or wine vinegars. When I began to research what white vinegar is made from, I ran into a lot of confusing information. It’s most likely made from corn, but possibly from potatoes, wood, or petroleum. If it’s made from corn, it’s most likely genetically modified. If it’s from petroleum, it’s truly frightening. But despite a lot of research, I couldn’t verify the exact makeup of this ingredient.
Soybean and canola oils: while these oils look healthy enough, they are almost certainly made from genetically modified plants. Over 85% of these crops commercially grown in the US are GMOs. In addition, these oils are highly refined and extracted by chemical solvents, by-products of petroleum.
Sugar: because it’s not specified as cane sugar, it’s most likely beet sugar which is also almost certain to be genetically modified. (Up to 95% of sugar beets grown in the US are GMOs.) This is the case anytime you see sugar listed on any product without a specific crop name.
Notice that there is no GMO labeling required here in the US. But since the commercial corn, soy, canola, and beet sugar crops are almost all genetically modified at this point, we can assume that we are in fact eating GMOs.
From the Center For Food Safety:
Currently, up to 85 percent of U.S. corn is genetically engineered as are 91 percent of soybeans and 88 percent of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products). According to industry, up to 95% of sugar beets are now GE. It has been estimated that upwards of 70 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves–from soda to soup, crackers to condiments–contain genetically engineered ingredients.
You might be asking, what’s wrong with eating genetically modified food? At this point, we don’t fully know because this technology is an untested, unlabeled, and unregulated experiment. But the evidence is troubling. These plants have had their DNA altered to withstand massive treatments of the highly toxic herbicide, Round Up, that is designed to kill every plant and insect that is sprayed, except for the genetically created organism. Monsanto, the largest pesticide company in the world, is now engineering over 85% of commercially grown soy, corn, canola, cotton (cottonseed oil), and sugar beets. It appears that our health and environment is now a testing ground for the profits of huge bio tech companies.
More GMO facts from the Huffington Post.
Xantham gum: derived from grain (corn, soy, wheat), and again most likely a GMO product.
Spice: the FDA allows the generic term “spice” for any spices. According to their list, it can’t hide chemical additives like MSG. However, most non organic spices added to processed foods are irradiated to extend shelf life.
Oleoresin paprika: a coloring agent derived from sweet red peppers.
Potassium sorbate: a synthetic preservative added to extend shelf life.
Calcium Disodium EDTA: a chemical preservative that looks to be quite toxic.
Calcium Disodium EDTA is a salt form of EDTA. The process of manufacturing this food ingredient starts with the synthesis of EDTA. Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is made from the chemical reaction of ethylenediamine, formaldehyde, and sodium cyanide. The salt form of EDTA is synthesized by the addition of calcium and two sodium ions.
This is definitely not something I’d like to eat with my fresh vegetables. How about you?
So we’ve come to the end of the list. A list that is much more complex than it initially appeared. Once we’ve looked into the way these ingredients are grown and manufactured, we can make a choice. Do we really want to eat this questionable convenience food? What is our health worth? What is the health of our environment worth? Do we want to subsidize corporations’ profits at the expense of our well being?
What can we do?
With this particular convenience food, it’s easy to transition to making our own by using non-GMO oils like olive, sunflower, or nut oils. Cold pressed and organic is best. By definition, organic food can’t be genetically modified.
Add in vinegar–there is a whole array of vinegars that we can experiment with for different flavors.
Sprinkle in spices—again the possibilities are endless. Grow our own or choose organically grown if possible.
and a pinch of salt.
Simple, quick, and tasty.
Of course, this is a simple food to make on our own. But as we become aware of the cost of the corporate food system on our health and environment, we can begin to choose more healthy and sustainable food. What are some of your favorite healthy alternatives for processed convenience foods? I’d love to hear about what you’re eating!