Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Let's Get Real.

Garbage is everywhere and one of the junkiest places…the grocery store. Wading through big business food industry garbage is one of the hardest tasks for the average American eater. What does all natural mean? What is the difference between organic and natural? What is high fructose corn syrup anyway? Why does everything have added fiber?

I have been thinking about how to broach this topic for a while and now seems to be the perfect time. It is summer in Chicago, and one great parts of summer: farmer’s markets are back. But before I tell you how important it is to support your local farmers, we need to discuss just what you are getting when you venture into that “supermarket” in your neighborhood.

Just like most businesses, the food industry’s goal is to get your dollar. They go about it in many ways, but one of the most effective strategies is in the marketing of their products. Because Americans are bombarded with health information from all sides, certain buzz words catch people’s attention and therefore create the perfect marketing attack for big business food. Organic, all-natural, no high fructose corn syrup, and added fiber are just a few buzz words. But what does it all really mean? AND how does it all affect your health?

Let’s start with organic. According to the USDA, organic is defined as: “Food produced without: antibiotics; growth hormones; most conventional pesticides; petroleum- based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” Most people choose organic food for the cleanliness of the product they are getting. Organic food is not only better for the environment, but it is better for your body. With that said, the US government does not have highly strict rules on organic food big business. You can still find processed food that is labeled organic (yes, there is organic high fructose corn syrup).

Another big touch point is all-natural food. How can something be all-natural and not organic? Good question. Unlike organic food that is regulated through the government (meaning something cannot be labeled organic unless it hits government set standards), labeling something “all-natural” is up to the producer of the product. Government has not defined “all-natural” products and has no regulations on the label. All-natural products are NOT necessarily organic (most likely nowhere near it). The term, in most cases, is a marketing tool. Do not get fooled (btw… high fructose corn syrup is considered a “natural” ingredient).

What is the deal with high fructose corn syrup? HFCS, as people like to call it, is a processed sugar made from cornstarch. It used to be found mostly in soda, though today you can find it in almost every processed food. Go to the bread section of the supermarket and try to find a loaf without it… it will take you a while. Why is it so bad? There are many studies that link HFCS to the rise of obesity in the United States. Why? The reaction the body has to processed fructose is detrimental to our health. It messes with insulin levels, hunger signals, muscle development and more, all leading to an inability of the body to properly process sugar. Companies are now catching on to the fact that people are aware of these studies and in turn staying away from products made with HFCS. Though I highly recommend staying away from these products, the reason is not because of HFCS specifically. The reason is that these products have added sugar. Understand that too much sugar, not matter whether it is HFCS or pure sugar cane is bad for the body. PERIOD.

Why does everything have added fiber? Obviously, we all must have a pooping problem. Also, high fiber diets have been linked to helping prevent heart disease and other dietary health issues. Learning this news, food companies quickly packed as much fiber as they could into processed food in hopes that we would consider the box of Coco Puffs healthier for us than we originally thought. Bottom line… you get NATURAL fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Stick to eating those instead of the Fiber One bars (which have HFCS in it).

How does this all relate to farmer’s markets? If you are confused on what you are getting in your local supermarket, you won’t be at your local farmer’s market. Everything is grown in season and not in a chemical plant, whether it is organic or not, it is fresher (and better for the environment) than the organic tomato you would get at Whole Foods (that traveled thousands of miles on a train, a train that emitted tons of fossil fuels in to the atmosphere, just to be delivered to your local Whole Foods). Finally, you are supporting your local farmers, who have made a conscious decision to go the less popular route and deliver fresh, healthy, properly harvested food to people. Big business food companies can’t say the same.

Make an effort this summer to buy some local food, support healthy eating, and cut out some of the processed food from your diet. It might take a little more effort, but your body will thank you.