Thursday, April 29, 2010

Convenience Food Tips

I have to start out by apologizing for not writing for a while. The truth is I have been fighting off a cold. I hate getting sick, especially when I feel like I take good care of myself. But germs do get the best of us sometimes and all we can do is rest and take care of ourselves, and be patient. So aside from not feeling up to blogging, I haven't been cooking anything to blog about. My husband has graciously taken over dinner duty while I have been out of commission. He is actually a great cook, but not very experienced with planning meals. He mostly resorted to things within his repertoire or leftovers and things we had in the freezer. We even ordered take out one night.

While I still believe that when most people say they don't have time to cook, it's really just a matter of not knowing what to make. Most of the meals I make my family take between 20-30 minutes, I save more elaborate meals for company and holidays. Granted I really enjoy cooking and do it often enough that it comes easily to me. I think if you can make a commitment to cooking for your family and work on building up a repertoire of fast meals, you really can cut out most processed "convenience" foods from your diet. But if this last week of being sick proved anything, it proved to me that sometimes you really do need to have a few convenience items on hand. And I understand that people live busy, hectic lives, and sometimes you come home from work to hungry family and you're so tired you just want to pull something from the freezer or pantry and have it practically make itself.

Just for definition's sake, when I say convenience food I mean any food you buy that has been processed, from cereals to frozen pizza. Even juices, baking mixes or canned soup. Anything more than just pure, whole ingredients.

Most people have heard the line "if your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, don't eat it." But the truth is we have been processing our food for a long time. And while more chemicals started being used in food processing after World War II, some things have been around for a lot longer. The best way to approach processed foods is to be an educated consumer, and be wary of marketing that companies use to sell their products. I recommend eating as little processed foods as possible to really be eating nutritiously, but whatever the level of processed foods included in your diet, there are some things to look out for. And this can be overwhelming so start with one or two items each time you go to the grocery store. The next time you go really look closely at the cereals or breads your family buys and pick out some you feel good about giving to your family. On the next trip pick one or two other items, and then little by little you can makeover your grocery list and feel confident that you know what you are feeding yourself and your family.

Tip #1 Don't Trust the Front of the Package
Companies know that people want to feed their families good food, and so they use words like "natural", "sugar free", "low sodium", "fat free" and "light" and a whole slew of other adjectives to describe their food. The problem is that there are a lot of loop holes around what these words mean on food labels. So basically, just ignore the front of the package.

Tip #2 Read the Nutrition Facts Label &
Look for Calories, Calories from Fat, & Sodium
This will help you get a general idea about the real "healthiness" of a product. Remember to judge calories by serving size. Something may seem okay, but then the serving size is very small. Calories are not the "be all and end all" of nutrition, it's just a good idea to have a general awareness of how many are in foods, especially processed foods. Calories from fat should always be less than or equal to 20% of total calories. Fat is okay, we need it, just in the right amounts. Sodium is kind of the kicker here. In general we should consume between 1200-1500mg of sodium per day. On average, Americans consume between 3000-5000mg/day. And most of that is from processed foods. The best way to reduce your sodium intake isn't to cut back on how much you salt your food at the table, but to reduce the amount of processed foods you eat. Look for a 1:1 ratio of sodium to calories on the nutrition facts label. Anything more that that and you may want to reconsider the product.

Tip #3 Read the Ingredients List
In case you are not aware of this, ingredients are listed in descending order according to weight. Meaning the more of something there is in the product, the higher up on the list it will be. The first ingredient is the most plentiful in the product. Make sure you are getting what you want from a product. If you want something whole grain (and you do) but whole grain isn't listed until the middle of the label, unless there are only a couple of ingredients, chances are you want to buy something else. Personally, I think the less ingredients there are, the better. I also like knowing exactly what the ingredients are. If I don't recognize something, I don't buy it. Who wants to have to carry a dictionary when buying food? Also beware of added sugars. A rule of thumb, if sugar is one of the first three ingredients, put it back. Might as well just eat a a few sugar cubes. There are a lot of different kinds of added sugar and names for sugar. If something ends in "ose" it is most likely a sugar, and don't forget High Fructose Corn Syrup. Sugar has many disguises. I'll have to devote a blog to sugar, but for now I will try to keep it simple.

Tip #4 Food Additives to Avoid
Food additives are a huge subject. There is a ton of research out there on the dangers of some additives and I highly recommend looking into it for yourself. In the meantime please avoid: Propyl Gallate, Glutamates (MSG), Nitrates or Nitrites, BHA/BHT (this one is already banned in infant and baby food), and Potassium Bromate. Colorings to avoid: FD&C Blue #1, FD &C Blue #2, FD&C Red #3, FD&C Yellow #5, FD&C Yellow #6. A lot of these additives (and more) have been linked to ADD/ADHD, have been shown to be carcinogenic, can cause various ailments etc.

Tip #5 Be wary of Fat and Sugar Replacers/Substitutes
Again a huge area where I recommend doing your own research. Personally, I don't eat sugar or fat replacers. Period. As for fat, again it's something our bodies need to function properly, not just for energy and to build cells (every cell in the body uses fat) but also to absorb certain vitamins properly. While we don't need a lot of fat, we do need some, and eating foods that contain fat replacers or substitutes don't give us what we need and may be detrimental to our health. As for sugar substitutes and replacers, these have been shown to be neurotoxins, as well as having other detrimental effects on our health. I don't want to eat these things and I don't want my family eating them either. We all enjoy sugar and fat, they're yummy. And we do need them in moderate amounts. If you feel you have an issue with eating too much fat or sugar, it may not be the easiest thing to do, but you will benefit in the long run by simply reducing the amount you eat versus looking for alternatives. Some of us may have conditions where we really have to watch the amount of fat or sugar we intake. And again, if we are trying to do the right thing for our health by cutting out sugar, why would we want to risk our health by eating something dangerous in a different way?

These are just some general guidelines. Use them how you see fit to judge the products you buy and consume. I encourage everyone to do their own research, and if you have more questions, please feel free to contact me. Some good places to start:
Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger
A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives By Ruth Winter, M.S.
An A-Z Guide to Food Additives By Deanna M. Minich, Ph.D., C.N.

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