If you've heard it once, you've heard it half a million times ... before you buy a new food product, look at the label and read the ingredients. Unless you're a food scientist, though, it's hard to know what's what. Do you have any idea what butylated hydroxytolune is? And what about Blue Dye 1? It's not for Easter eggs, that's for sure.
Health expert Stephanie Baker, founder of CredibleCravings, a company whose mission focuses on a more healthful community, says Americans are becoming more informed about ingredients in store-bought foods at the same time that the scientific community is becoming more educated about nutrition and its role in optimal health.
"Consumers are beginning to pay more attention to the items we put in our carts. And we are becoming more savvy with new food items and are seeking out ingredients within them that provide our bodies with quality nutrients to fuel our individual lifestyles," she says. An optimal diet is one rich in organic produce, grass-fed meats, wild seafood and quality fats from foods such as avocados, she adds.
When your schedule pushes you to reach for a prepackaged food product, here are a few tips to help you navigate the labels. Read beyond the nutrition facts into the ingredients listing. A product can have a fairly attractive nutrition facts panel: low (or zero) sugar, high protein content, moderate calorie count but can have harmful ingredients lurking within. Five ingredients to look out for are:
• Partially hydrogenated oils are the primary source of trans fats in many products; however, this is not necessarily transparent on the nutrition facts panel. Products that incorporate under a half gram of trans fat per serving (0.49 grams) can claim to be trans-fat free. If there are eight servings in a package, you may be ingesting close to 4 grams of artery-clogging trans fats without even knowing it. Look for partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient fact panel. If you see it, put it down.
• Food dyes, such as Blue 1 and 2, Red 3 and 40, and Yellow 5 and 6, have been linked to countless health concerns. Blue 1 has been linked to the inhibition of nerve cell developmentp; Red 3 is known to cause tumors, and Yellow 5 has been linked to hyperactivity in children. If you see those on the label, put the food back on the shelf.
• Artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, saccharin and aspartame may hide sugar grams from the ingredient listing, but they do more harm than good for your overall health. Additionally, studies suggest that artificial sweeteners actually make people more likely to keep eating sweets. It is best to incorporate sweetness from whole food sources such as fruits or sweeten with honey.
n Refined sugars, especially high-fructose corn syrup, have been linked to increased risk of diabetes, obesity and other metabolic disorders. High-fructose corn syrup, a highly processed form of glucose converted into fructose, is especially important to cut out of your diet completely.
• Artificial preservatives, such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytolune (BHT), are used to extend shelf life. BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants generally used to keep fats from becoming rancid and are found on the ingredient listings of a wide range of common food products, including granola bars, chips, cereals and gum. These compounds have been investigated for impacting the neurological system of the brain, altering behavior and as potential carcinogens.
• "Seek out whole food ingredients that provide your body with nutrients to fuel your lifestyle," Baker says. "Every time you eat is an opportunity to nourish your body. Calories devoid of nutrients do not help you optimize your health; in fact, they do just the contrary."
Here are five whole-food ingredients that Baker says are some of the best to incorporate into your diet:
• Sweet potatoes: These root vegetables are rich in vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. Vitamin A is needed for optimal eye health, immune health and normal growth and development. Vitamin C aids in collagen formation and plays an integral role in the functioning of the immune system. Plus, both vitamins A and C are antioxidant nutrients that help protect cells and defend against free radicals, molecules that can lead to cell degradation and can contribute to heart attacks, stroke and cancers. Potassium maintains normal fluid balance in the body, while fiber -- with adequate fluids -- supports healthy digestion and intestinal regularity.
• Chia seeds: A fantastic source of the minerals calcium, phosphorus and manganese as well as fiber and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds give the gift of healthy fats, specifically alpha-linolenic acid, which, with omega-3, has been strongly linked to good heart health.
• Olive oil: Bursting with healthy monounsaturated fats, which have been linked to benefits in cardiovascular health, olive oil also contains natural plant-based polyphenol compounds that offer both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.
• Almonds: In a one-ounce serving of almonds (about 20 to 25 almonds), you can find a good amount of protein and fiber and the minerals calcium and magnesium. Additionally, almonds are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
The following cake, from the Food Network's Giada De Laurentiis, has it all -- vitamin C from the oranges and monounsaturated fats from the olive oil and almonds.
Almond Citrus Olive Oil Cake
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons orange zest
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted, coarsely crumbled
Powdered sugar, for sifting
2 tablespoons grated orange peel
3/4 teaspoon orange blossom water, optional (available at Whole Foods, see note)
3 oranges, segmented
2 pink grapefruits, segmented
To make the cake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil an 8-inch cake pan. Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar, eggs and zests in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Beat in the milk. Gradually beat in the oil. Add the flour mixture and stir just until blended. Stir in the almonds. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Place cake pan on baking pan to collect any possible spills. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 35 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool for 15 minutes. Remove cake and place on serving platter, top side up. Sift powdered sugar over the cake.
To make the citrus compote, stir the orange peel, blossom water and 2 tablespoons of accumulated juices from the segmented fruit in a small bowl to blend. Arrange the orange and grapefruit segments decoratively in a wide shallow bowl. Pour the blossom water mixture over. Cover and let stand 15 minutes for the flavors to blend.
To serve, cut the cake into wedges and spoon the citrus compote alongside.
Note: After making this cake, I discovered it's just as good without the compote, but the compote does make for a lovely presentation. If you cannot find orange blossom water, you may substitute about 3 teaspoons, or to taste, of orange liqueur, such as Triple Sec.
New on the market
Today's manufacturers of cooking products are always looking for ways to make our lives just a bit easier. Here are several new items available in local stores that will do just that.
• The Imusa Citrus Juicer has an easy-to-use, one-lever operation for juicing lemons and oranges. It is available at Bed, Bath and Beyond, in store and online, for $24.99. Use one of store's 20 percent off coupons and bring the price down to around $20.
• The Cookina Barbecue Reusable Grilling Sheet offers home cooks nonstick, easy-clean and healthy grilling. Place the reusable grilling sheet over the grill to cook dishes without having to use oil or needing to clean the grill afterward. It's available at Home Depot for $14.99.
• The T-fal OptiGrill is a good choice for apartment living or rainy summer days and cold winter nights. It features a cooking sensor that helps ensure meat cooked how you want it -- rare, medium, well-done -- by automatically adapting to the thickness of your food. You'll find it at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $179.99. Once again, a 20 percent off coupon will come in handy on this one.
• The Imusa Quesadilla Maker does all the hard work of making quesadillas for you. Simply place a tortilla topped with your favorite ingredients, layer another tortilla on top and close the lid. Kids will love making their own. Have quesadilla night one night each week -- it makes for a fun family dinner. The maker is available at Target for $29.99.
Contact Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.