No preservatives, no pesticides, no additives, just pure whole food, the way nature intended. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? In practice, though, this “nutritional paradise” can be expensive and hard to find. Worse yet, in many cases it turns out that there’s no strong evidence for the superiority of health foods over standard supermarket fare.
That doesn’t mean that going natural for part or all of your diet isn’t a valid choice. You might wish to purchase organic or health food products to spice up your dinner table or to make substituting grains for meat a bit more palatable. Some people buy organic products out of concern for the environment. Others simply prefer the taste of natural foods and grains such as quinoa or couscous. Whatever the reason for it, however, your choice of organic or all-natural food won’t automatically make your diet healthier than it would be otherwise.
The fact is, you simply can’t assume that everything sold at a health food store is better than what you can get at the supermarket, or that labels announcing a product is “natural” or “organic” mean that it’s healthier. There are no federal definitions for those words and state regulations vary.
Both health food and conventional products have their pluses and minuses; which is best for you depends on your dietary goal. Do you want to reduce fat? Cut salt? Avoid artificial additives and pesticides? Eat less sugar and sweets? Read the small print on the label to see how each food stacks up. Health or natural foods may not be processed, for example, but could contain as much fat, sugar, or contaminants as their conventional counterparts.
Years ago, if you wanted to buy health food—a catch-all term for natural food, whole food, food grown organically, and food without additives, waxes, hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides—you would usually have to shop in special health food stores or small, natural-food sections of certain supermarkets. In most regions of the country, that is no longer the case. Because of increased public interest in—and demand for—these foods, many more supermarkets are carrying them. Be cautious, however. It’s often hard to distinguish them from more processed, additive-laden foods and they generally cost more. What you buy is always more important than where you buy it.
And what, exactly, should you buy? The key is to evaluate the caloric, fat, sugar, and salt content of each food, and to consider whether you are sensitive to any of its additives.
If you sometimes shop at your local health food store, you are far from alone. The trade publication Health Products Businessestimates that by 1999 there were about 8,700 health food stores in the U.S. with total sales of $8.8 billion. Natural foods are becoming increasingly mainstream.
Many healthfood products moved to traditional stores when mainstream firms bought natural food companies, and today’s health-conscious shopper can find most of his or her needs on ordinary supermarket shelves. As the big food conglomerates snap up more and more small natural food manufacturers, former “health foods” are becoming a major presence everywhere. That’s how rice cakes and fruit-juice sweetened preserves, for example, became grocery-store regulars.
With less processed, additive-free, organic food now featured in most supermarkets, natural food stores serve primarily as a source of variety. If your goal is to cut down on fat, sugar, and salt, you usually can find what you need in your local supermarket at a more reasonable price than elsewhere. But if you want a wider selection of whole grain breads or harder-to-find products like bulgur or miso (fermented soy paste), a specialty store is still your best bet.
Natural food stores may also outshine supermarkets in terms of their willingness to obtain products for customers’ special needs and their knowledge of unusual goods. But be wary of advice from health food store employees. While some clerks suggest that customers see their physician for serious medical problems, others are not so ethical. When volunteers of the Consumer Health Education Council in Houston surveyed 41 health food stores, asking about remedies for a fictitious HIV-infected brother, no less than 30 retailers reportedly claimed to carry products that would cure AIDS. Remember that employees may not be unbiased; always question what you hear.
Are Brown Eggs Better?
Some health food fans believe that brown eggs are healthier than white. Actually, shell color varies with species and breed of poultry, and has no effect on nutritional value.
Remember, “natural” has no standard legal definition, and “natural” food is not necessarily healthy anyway. “Natural” foods may contain additives and be as high in sugar and fat as similar supermarket products. Natural frozen desserts, such as Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, may be free of artificial ingredients but still be high in fat.
To be “natural” a food should be minimally processed and should contain no artificial additives or preservatives. By choosing such foods, you can avoid the extra fat, sodium, sugar, and additives generally used in processing. Some additives, such as sulfites, do pose hazards for some people. However, most do not; and aside from additives, no natural food has special health-promoting properties beyond its nutrients.
Whole grain or enriched products are much more nutritious than refined versions and usually are no more expensive. For example, converted or refined white rice contains few of the nutrients present in brown rice. Precooked rice not only lacks many of its original nutrients, but is much more expensive in the bargain than unprocessed rice and much less nutritious. (See the box on Grading the Grains.) The same is true of speciality breads. Enriched French or Italian breads cost up to three times more than whole grain bread with similar or better nutritional value.
In the cereal aisle, the situation is more complex. Many popular cereals have added nutrients and some offer 100 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance—usually at a premium price. If your diet is adequate, however, this costly enrichment is unnecessary. On the other hand, some “natural” granola cereals, while free of unneeded enrichment, contain far more sugar and saturated fat than their processed counterparts. For example, 1/4 cup of Quaker 100% Natural Granola cereal packs an average of 7 grams of sugar, 5 grams of fat, and 2 grams of fiber. One cup of General Mills Total or Wheaties beats Quaker on all counts, with 3 grams of sugar, 1 gram of fat, and 3 grams of fiber. However, there are some health food products that are both better and no more costly. Although Kellogg’s Low-Fat Granola is lower in fat than most granolas, Health Valley Fat-Free Granola sells for about the same price, but has no fat at all. (See the box on “The Best for Breakfast.”)
Plant proteins such as grains, beans, nuts, and peas offer a low-fat, meatless way to get some needed protein. For instance, any of these trendy grain products can help you cut the fat in your diet while contributing to your protein requirements:
The Word On Oat Bran . . .
If you have been wolfing down fiber-laden oat bran muffins every morning in hopes that your cholesterol will drop, maybe it’s time to stop. Researchers have found that oat bran fails to lower cholesterol of young women. Among the foods studied:
By itself, all this oat bran reduces cholesterol by so small a percentage (five percent or less) that it is hardly worth the effort. Filling up on bran will cut your cholesterol level if it leaves no room for other, fattier foods. But it won’t reverse the effects of a cholesterol-rich diet.
Amaranth: When cooked, amaranth has a slightly crunchy porridge texture with a corn flavor. Try it for breakfast topped with maple syrup. It looks like golden poppy seeds.
Barley: Individual grains look like smooth pearls. Barley is usually refined and is not sold as whole grain.
Bulgur: These tan-colored granules of cooked, dried, and crushed wheat have a nutty flavor. Bulgur keeps well when stored in a cool place inside a porous container; its food value is equal to that of whole wheat. Use it like rice: in broth, for example, or with black beans and corn.
Couscous: Sometimes called Middle Eastern pasta, these tiny yellow granules of finely cracked wheat have the texture of rice. Sales of this popular grain have more than doubled in recent years.
Millet: Often used as a tasty base for meat or vegetarian chili, millet has rounded, ivory-colored beads.
Quinoa: A birdseed-shaped, mild-flavored grain, pale ivory to tan in color, quinoa can be used as a rice substitute. Before cooking, be sure to rinse it thoroughly under cold running water to remove its bitter coating.
Roasted buckwheat groats: These small brown pyramid-shaped bits are also known as kasha. They are used in cereal and many eastern European dishes.
Grading the Grains
The Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) calculated a “score” for each grain by adding up its percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for nutrients plus fiber. There is no RDA for fiber, so CSPI used the Daily Value (DV), of 25 grams.
For example, a five-ounce serving of quinoa has 9 percent of the DV for fiber (9 points), and 20 percent of the RDA for magnesium (20 points), 4 percent for vitamin B6 (4 points), 8 percent for zinc (8 points), 14 percent for copper (14 points), and 18 percent for iron (18 points). That adds up to a score of 73.
Potatoes and pastas are included for comparison. Pastas are made from grains, and are quite healthy. The ten grains with the highest scores are CSPI’s “Best Bites.” Grains are ranked from highest to lowest score. Potatoes and pastas are not considered in awarding the “Best Bite” title.
Copyright 1994, CSPI. Reprinted from Eating Smart Shopping Guide, CSPI, 1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009-5728.
When substituting grains for meat, be sure to include legumes such as beans or peas in your daily menu. Legumes and grains contribute different ratios of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to provide the entire complement needed by the body. Legumes keep well in your pantry and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Many provide iron, zinc, and B vitamins. (See nearby box, “The Bean Bag.”)
Tofu, a curd made from soy milk, is a bean-derived product that has provided low-cost protein to East Asians for 2000 years. A quarter-pound of tofu has 85 calories, 8 to 10 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fat, most of it the better unsaturated kind. The same amount of cooked chicken breast with skin has 223 calories and 8.8 grams of fat, (2.5 grams of which are saturated). A quarter-pound of untrimmed, choice porterhouse steak delivers 346 calories and 25.1 grams of fat (10.1 grams saturated). Because it’s a plant product, tofu contains no cholesterol at all.
The Bean Bag
All beans are nutritional powerhouses, but some are a bit more
For example: A cup of cooked lentils has 57 percent of the DV for fiber (57 points) and 19 percent of the NARDA for potassium (19 points). It also has 81 percent of the RDA for folic acid (81 points), 16 percent for magnesium (16 points), 33 percent for iron (33 points), 23 percent for copper (23 points), 15 percent for zinc (15 points), 25 percent for protein (25 points), and 16 percent for vitamin B6 (16 points). That adds up to a score of 285.
Small differences in score (25 points or less) are meaningless. Potassium and vitamin B6 values are included in each score but don’t appear on the chart. Numbers are for canned or cooked dried beans. Beans are ranked from highest to lowest score.
Copyright 1994, CSPI. Reprinted from Eating Smart Shopping Guide, CSPI, 1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009-5728.
Most herbs are safe, but some are not. The same applies to herbal teas. While most suppliers of herbal products have good safety records, it’s always best to check with a health care professional before adding an herbal remedy to your diet. The wrong herb—or combination of herbs—can have unpleasant, even dangerous, effects.
For instance, certain herbal teas are reported to have caused serious liver disease. They contain pyrolizidine alkaloids, toxins that cause inflammation of the veins that drain blood away from the liver, a condition that can lead to scarring and obstruction. Comfrey-pepsin capsules, (a remedy for indigestion) and MU-16 (a tea containing comfrey) have been found to harbor the toxin. In one report, a woman who took comfrey-pepsin capsules and drank three cups of the MU-16 tea a day because she liked the taste, ended up with liver disease. Tests of the tea and capsules she consumed revealed that both contained pyrolizidine alkaloids.
Chaparral, promoted as an antioxidant, has been linked to two cases of acute hepatitis. Germander, groundsel, skullcap, mistletoe,and senna, have caused liver damage and death. Plants such as woodruff and tonka beans contain blood thinners. Patients taking anticoagulant medications, such as coumarin and warfarin, should avoid products containing these plants or their extracts. Teas prepared from senna, buckthorn, and pokeroot can cause severe diarrhea. Mandrake, lobelia, burdock root, and jimsom weed can lead to dry mouth, blurred vision, dilated pupils, and delirium. Some herbs are contaminated by dangerous plants. Sassafras tea has cancer causing properties and legal restrictions have been placed on the use of safrole, (a component of the oil of the sassafras tree bark) as a food additive. Ginseng can cause high blood pressure.
Most people associate the kosher label with purity, and the kosher food business is booming: Sales reached $46 billion by 1999. This growth has little to do with religious conviction, and everything to do with rigid standards.
Kosher meat has to pass inspection by a bodek, or Jewish food evaluator, who typically rejects more meat than does a federal official. A kosher label means that this inspection has been conducted. It also indicates that animals are slaughtered according to certain Old Testament directives and thoroughly drained of blood. Kosher and government inspectors look for different things: A bodek would not approve an animal with a blemish on the lung, whereas a government inspector likely would mandate that the lung alone be discarded. Lung scars have not been shown to pose significant health hazards, however, so this does not necessarily mean that buying kosher guarantees better protection from disease. Conversely, a government inspector checks an animal’s glands for signs of infection that could pose public health problems, while bodeks are not trained to examine glands.
A kosher designation indicates nothing about nutritional value. Kosher hot dogs, for example, contain nitrites (sometimes associated with cancer) and lots of fat. Kosher meat may also have slightly more sodium, since salt is used to remove excess blood. Jewish inspectors examine products other than meat, but unlike government inspectors, they are not necessarily concerned with adherence to sanitation standards.
Orthodox and conservative Jews, and even certain rabbis, disagree on the acceptability of certain kosher symbols. These are the most widely approved:
If you see another symbol and buying kosher is important to you, check with a rabbi.
An Organic Sampler: What Price “Natural”?
Source: Environmental Nutrition, May 1993.
Driven by fear of pesticides and additives, the organic food market has ballooned. According to The Hartman Group, a marketing firm that specializes in natural products, organic sales are doubling every 3.5 years, from $1 billion in 1990 to about $5 billion in 1998. Yet for most people, pesticides clearly pose little threat. Organic food still accounts for only a tiny share (2%) of the total U.S. grocery bill.
How real is the danger? Of the 350 pesticides allowed on food crops, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers 70 to be possibly or probably cancer-causing; however, many nutrition experts say pesticide residues are insignificant in most people’s overall diets. Pesticides exceed safe and acceptable levels in only a tenth of 1 percent of conventionally grown food. In up to 50 percent, there’s no trace of common pesticides to be found. Simply washing produce and peeling fruit and vegetables removes most of what little remains. Avoiding imported products also cuts the chance of exposure.
Organic farming may further reduce the problem—but not by much. Shifting winds and water run-off can carry the chemicals from one field to another. As a result, some studies have found pesticide residues on organic and conventional foods to be similar. Meanwhile, organic fertilizers, while chemical-free, may carry disease-causing bacteria.
The Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) hires independent farm inspectors to certify that growing practices meet California standards—the strictest in the country. OCIA’s seal has won worldwide respect. In addition, the U.S. Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 established a National Organic Standards Board to suggest guidelines. Processed foods containing at least 50 percent organically produced ingredients by weight (excluding water and salt) can use the word organic on the principal display panel—but only to describe the organically produced ingredients. Most experts believe that to be called organic, foods should not be waxed, artificially dyed, or sprayed with chemicals. Organic animal foods should come from animals raised without antibiotic or hormone treatment and prepared for market without the use of chemicals.
Avoid Imitations: When you do purchase organic products, you’ll want to be certain you’re getting your extra money’s worth.
Health food stores may be more likely than supermarkets to have packaged, quick-to-prepare products that are also additive-free. However, you need to read the fine print to be sure. You also have to remember that additives are not necessarily bad. Some, like vitamin fortifiers, enrich foods. Others prevent or slow spoilage; produce uniform color, texture, aroma, flavor, and appearance; standardize thickening or stabilizing; preserve foods; and improve color or texture in the cooked product. A federal law prohibits use in food of any amount of a substance shown to increase the lifetime risk of cancer by as little as 1 in a million.
Some experts, such as Michael Jacobson, M.D., director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC, argue that many additives have not been tested well enough to ensure safety. Some provide inexpensive ways of adding color and flavor when natural ingredients could do the job. Advocates of natural foods often argue that since many additives are unnecessary, and some may not even be safe, there’s no reason to eat them. Most nutrition experts, however, stress that with a few exceptions, most additives make long-distance shipping and safe storage possible and pose little or no danger.
Here are some of the ingredients that manufacturers are routinely permitted to add to their food products.
A Caution About Artificial Sweeteners and Children…
For safety’s sake, avoid giving saccharin-containing products to children under 2. Although studies of people who use saccharin have not uncovered any significant risk of cancer, the sweetener has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals. Young children may be more susceptible to such effects. Older children should also avoid artificial sweeteners. Mannitol and sorbitol can cause diarrhea. Table sugar, on the other hand, is as likely to calm children as to make them hyperactive, according to several studies.
Sweeteners: Products labeled “no sugar added” may still contain sweetening in the form of fruit juice or malt flavoring; diabetics, in particular, should note this fact. Remember, too, that baked goods can be sugar free, yet contain plenty of fat and calories.
For all practical purposes, there is no real difference between white sugar, brown sugar, honey, corn syrup, and concentrated apple or pear juices. Honey contains only trace amounts of B vitamins, iron, and calcium. Blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of calcium and iron, but only if used in larger amounts than most people accept. Health food brands using sweeteners other than sugar and corn syrup provide little extra benefit, but typically cost a good deal more.
Salt: A “No Salt Added” label doesn’t mean the food is not inherently salty. It may still contain plenty of sodium and therefore be inappropriate for someone on a low-salt diet. The term “low sodium” means the product has no more than 140 milligrams per serving, “reduced sodium” means at least 75 percent less sodium than a similar conventional food.
Oils: Many snack foods sold in health food stores contain heart-healthy nonhydrogenated oils while conventional snack foods often contain partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed, or canola oils. Even partial hydrogenation, which is used to solidify oils, can make fat more damaging to the heart.
MSG: Foods containing this additive need only be labeled if the MSG is 99 percent pure. Therefore, if you are sensitive to this substance, you may get a reaction from a food you think is safe. MSG, an ingredient in Chinese food and certain seasonings, can cause a throbbing headache, aching joints, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, numbness, weakness, and heart palpitations in certain people. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein usually contains up to 20 percent MSG. To minimize exposure to this additive, eat fresh foods rather than processed ones, read labels, and avoid all food that comes with a “flavor packet.”
The Best For Breakfast
This chart lists nutrition numbers for one ounce of cereal. Remember, though, that surveys show that most people eat 3/4 ounces (about a cup) of light cereals—like Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes—and two or three ounces (1/2 to 2/3 cup) of dense cereals—like Grape-Nuts or granola. We have added, in parentheses following each name, how many cups of cereals equal one ounce. That way, you can figure out how much is in a serving of your cereal. For example, 1/3 cup of Kellogg’s Bran Buds weighs an ounce. So if you typically eat about two-thirds of a cup, multiply the numbers in the chart by 2. “Best Bite” criteria: (1) predominantly whole grain, (2) at least 2.5 grams of fiber, (3) no more than two grams of fat, five grams of sugar, or 250 mg of sodium, and (4) free of BHA, BHT, and aspartame. Within each category, products are ranked from highest to lowest fiber.
All information obtained from manufacturers.
Copyright 1994, CSPI. Reprinted from Eating Smart Shopping Guide, CSPI, 1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009-5728.
Sulfites: These chemicals are used as preservatives in wines, dried fruits, and dried potato products, such as mashed potato flakes. About five percent of asthmatics have difficulty breathing within minutes of eating a food containing sulfites. The reaction can be fatal and requires immediate treatment at an emergency room. Sulfites occur naturally in almost all wines. Those bottled after mid-1987 must have a label stating that they contain sulfites if they have more than 10 parts per million of the additive. Organic wines are not necessarily sulfite-free, however most beers no longer contain sulfites. Although shrimp is sometimes treated with sulfites on fishing vessels, the chemical may not appear on the label. Avoid shrimp if you are allergic to sulfite. In 1985, the federal government banned addition of sulfites to most fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh-cut potatoes and dried fruits are exceptions.
Antibiotics in meat: Antibiotics are given to animals to increase growth as well as to treat and prevent diseases. Regular exposure to low levels of antibiotics makes disease-causing organisms, such as salmonella, resistant, or less likely to respond, to those medications. Some of these antibiotic-resistant organisms can pass from animals to people. Farm and food workers are thought to be at risk, but researchers do not really know how often this happens.
Some health advocates have also warned of possible allergic reactions to antibiotic residues in meat. However, testing shows that most meat is antibiotic-free, and when a drug residue is found, the quantity is minute.
BHA and BHT: There is considerable controversy about whether these preservatives are safe. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are antioxidants that help keep oil in food from becoming rancid. Laboratory experiments with BHA have produced tumors in rats and hamsters. The cancer-causing potential of BHT is not so certain, with some studies showing an increased risk of cancer, and others finding a decrease. Some organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest believe these additives should be gradually eliminated from the food supply. Government regulations require manufacturers to list both BHA and BHT on the labels of foods in which they appear.
Fat-free substitutes: Nutrition authorities view these as safe and, in themselves, an effective way of reducing fat intake. The problem comes when you eat a fat-free dessert, then “reward” yourself with an extra dish of real ice cream. You probably won’t lose weight this way.
Tartrazine: This food coloring may cause a skin disease called atopic eczema in susceptible children.
In recent years, scientists’ new-found ability to alter living organisms by tailoring their genes has been the source of much controversy and dread. The technique can be used to mass-produce exact replicas of natural substances like hormones, or even create new strains of existing plants and animals. Many experts view recombinant gene technology as a powerful new way of improving food safety, quality, and quantity. Opponents label all gene-spliced crops “Frankenfood” and battle their introduction on grounds ranging from the possibility of allergic reactions to their potential effect on Monarch butterflies. To date however, despite a steady litany of warnings and alarms, they’ve advanced no evidence of any actual harm.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made history in November 1993 when it approved rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), a genetically engineered growth hormone marketed by Monsanto, to boost milk production. That made rBST the first gene-tailored agricultural product to be approved for general use. The product duplicates BST, a cow’s natural growth hormone. Injecting the hormone every 14 days increases a cow’s ability to produce milk but does not affect milk quality.
There is no difference between natural and recombinant BST. Neither the biotech nor the natural version appears in milk and, in any event, the hormone is inactive in humans. The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) insist it poses no threat. An FDA-authored paper reviewing 120 studies over 30 years attested to the hormone’s safety. Milk from cows treated with rBST is identical to that from untreated cows and is equally safe. The FDA does not permit firms to say “free of BST” on their labeling—although a label can read, “from cows not treated with BST”—and manufacturers need not identify products made with milk from rBST-treated animals. Opponents of rBST want the government to mandate such identification, but the requirement would be almost impossible to enforce, since rBST does not appear in the treated animals’ milk.
A main argument against rBST is that it makes cows more susceptible to infection of the udder, thus increasing the need for antibiotic treatment and the chance of antibiotic residue in milk. The AMA says only insignificant amounts of antibiotics find their way into cows milk. However, humans drinking such milk theoretically could develop resistance to antibiotics. The FDA checks all milk shipments for drug residue and pulls contaminated products from the market. States also check milk for antibiotics.
In early 1999, Canadian health officials completed a comprehensive review of the scientific data available on the effects of rBST in humans and animals. The panel failed to uncover any health concerns with regard to humans. Specifically, they concluded that eating products from rBST-treated animals does not increase the risk of cancer, that there is little likelihood of antibiotic resistance, and that the potential for allergic reactions is small. The committee, however, decided to not approve the use of rBST in Canada because of its unfavorable safety profile in cows: the drug increased the risk of udder infections by 25 percent, of infertility by 18 percent, and of lameness by up to 50 percent.
Calgene’s Flavr Savr “MacGregor’s” tomato, introduced in mid-1994, is slower to turn mushy than other tomatoes because genetic manipulation has neutralized the gene that causes softness. Two-thirds of cheese manufacturers in the U.S. use a genetically engineered enzyme called chymosin to coagulate milk. Chymosin mimics rennin, a natural animal enzyme formerly obtained by scraping the stomach lining of slaughtered calves. In the research pipeline are potatoes that absorb less fat when fried, squash that resists a damaging virus, and herbicide-resistant beans.
Companies must consult with the FDA before introducing genetically engineered foods if (1) there is a possible safety hazard or, (2) the alternative offering is dramatically different from, though as safe as, the existing product. For example, although the FDA does not require that all genetically engineered food be so labeled, any significant changes in nutritional content must be noted.
Although some consumer “advocates” want all gene-tailored foods removed from the market, to date there have been no reports of any adverse health effects whatsoever—despite growing use of genetically altered ingredients in a wide array of products. In fact, a 1999 study conducted by the editors of Consumer Reports showed that American grocery shelves are already laden with such products. A DNA analysis found genetically engineered ingredients in all of the following:
- Infant formulas: Enfamil ProSobee Soy Formula, Similac Isomil Soy Formula, Nestle Carnation Alsoy
- Soy burgers: Boca Burger Chef, Max’s Favorite, Morningstar Farms Better ‘n Burgers, Green Giant Harvest Burgers (now called Morningstar Farms Harvest Burgers). McDonald’s McVeggie Burgers also showed genetically engineered ingredients.
- Ovaltine Malt powdered beverage mix
- Bac-Os Bacon Flavor bits
- Bravos Tortilla Chips Nacho Nacho!
- Old El Paso 12 Taco Shells
- Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix
Irradiation exposes food to gamma, beta, or x-rays from cobalt 60 or cesium in a closed room. This breaks chemical bonds in organisms such as insects and bacteria, thereby killing the pests so they cannot cause spoilage or food hazards.
Some people associate irradiation with nuclear power. However, cobalt 60 reportedly cannot explode. Food irradiation uses much lower energy levels and generates far less heat than does nuclear power. The World Health Organization and more than 30 countries have approved food irradiation to help ensure food safety. Other nations have banned the practice. The FDA permits its use on fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, and spices.
Irradiated foods other than spices must display a special logo. The process can disinfect wheat, block sprouting in white potatoes, decontaminate herbs and spices, control trichinosis in pork and salmonella in poultry, slow ripening of fruits and vegetables, and kill insects in produce. However, because of widespread fear of irradiation in this country, few foods other than spices are treated this way here.
Researchers have been studying food irradiation for at least 40 years; it may be the most carefully examined food preservation process in use today. Because most radiation passes through food rather than remaining behind, a majority of scientists familiar with the procedure feel that it probably poses no danger and may have some benefit.
Irradiation has been used for years to sterilize medical equipment and consumer products. Half of all sterile medical supplies undergo irradiation as do cotton swabs, contact lenses, saline solutions, tampons, and teething rings. There is more controversy when it comes to food. Opponents argue that irradiation leaves nonradioactive byproducts. Experts disagree about whether these substances—which are also found in an estimated 90 percent of unradiated foods—can be hazardous to humans.
Some people object to radiation on principal. However, in some cases, irradiation may be safer than other decontamination processes. Nonirradiated spices, for example, are treated with ethylene oxide, a toxic, explosive, cancer-causing gas that poses dangers to workers, may pollute the air, and can leave a residue. This same substance was used to sterilize medical supplies until irradiation took its place.
All commercial preservation methods destroy some nutrients. Irradiation reduces vitamin and mineral content by 10 to 15 percent, a figure that compares favorably with other techniques. For example, some nutrients are affected more by irradiation than by pasteurization; others react the opposite way. At the irradiation levels allowed by the FDA, there are no nutritional differences between irradiated food and products preserved by other means.
Irradiation can kill the dangerous salmonella bacteria found in as much as 60 percent of U.S. poultry. It also destroys the bacteria that causes trichinosis and kills E. coli, the organism that caused 500 cases of illness in people eating undercooked hamburger at fast-food establishments in the Northwestern U.S. in 1993. Some people claim that the amounts of radiation needed to kill all the salmonella in a heavily infested animal would reduce poultry quality to an unacceptable level. However, even a reduction in the amount of salmonella is better than no treatment at all, and makes proper refrigeration and cooking that much more likely to work.
While irradiation retards spoilage in some food, it makes others less marketable. For example, it speeds decay in produce with high water content, such as lettuce and peaches. Milk and other dairy foods give off unpleasant odors after irradiation. It may also alter the color of green vegetables. However, because allowable radiation levels are so low, changes in color, taste, and odor in foods coming to market are usually undetectable.
The good news is that the food you find in supermarkets is as healthy as the products available in most health food stores. There are legitimate reasons to spend more for organic, natural, and whole foods than for conventional products; but a major difference in nutritional value isn’t one of them. To make healthier choices, check the fine print on labels. You may have to sort through a wealth of sometimes incomplete or misleading advertising claims, but you probably don’t need to change your diet radically.