Read that ingredient list (and check it twice)

Posted by
December 23, 2013


It’s that time of the year again when supermarkets are filled to o’erflowing with “goodies” of every description, even as health experts warn about how overindulgence can quickly result in our becoming overweight.

But are excessive calories really the worst health risk posed by all these holiday temptations? Or do the insidious ingredients lurking in many of them represent a far greater threat – especially considering how these, too, can add up to hefty doses of noxious additives that, unlike extra calories, can’t simply be “worked off”?

On a recent trip to the supermarket, we made a point of looking at the actual contents of some of the “traditional” treats being offered by various processed food manufacturers — and the more we read the less inclined we were to want to indulge in them at all, let alone overindulge. (You’ll find some better ideas before this blog is done, so stay with us.)

Don’t leave these cookies out for Santa

To find an example of the kind of packaging humbug that makes its appearance at holiday time, one need look no further than Little Debbie Christmas Gingerbread Soft Cookies –  the ones in the bright red box that depicts Santa Claus enjoying them on his ‘cookie break’, along with the slogan “Unwrap a Smile this Christmas.”  But if you look at the ingredients listed on the back, rather than the “festive gift tags” that distract from them, you’ll find partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil – the very  oils that the Food and Drug Administration is currently proposing be phased out due to the artery-clogging trans fats they produce.

There’s also the petroleum-derived  preservative TBHQ, which has resulted in such symptoms as vomiting, delirium and collapse after consumption of just a single gram, and five different artificial colors – the same number that resulted in hyperactivity and diminished learning ability in baby rats in studies performed at Yale’s Institute of Pediatric Neurology.

In fact, artificial colors are a standard ingredient in many of the Christmas cookies you’ll find in  supermarket displays and bakery sections – as are partially hydrogenated oils, even though the food industry claims their use has been reduced in recent years. And if you think opting for more expensive ones will necessarily guarantee you better ingredients, you may well be mistaken.  The boxes of Silver Lake Season’s Greetings Holiday Cookies we found, for instance, go for $19.99 apiece, yet contain six varieties of synthetic dyes (two yellow, two red and two blue for holiday cheer) along with artificial flavor and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) — that cheap, laboratory sweetener that studies have linked to obesity and diabetes.

Fruitcake, of course, continues to be a traditional favorite, despite all the jokes made about it — and Tastykake offers an “old-fashioned” one that looks like it could be the perfect holiday dessert or snack item.  That is, until one does a quick scan of those ingredients, and finds they include high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, and  TBHQ (one of seven preservatives) — stuff that definitely wasn’t part of those old-fashioned family fruitcake recipes.

Unhealthy additives can even sneak into your oven

Seeing what goes into many of these so-called “old-fashioned” and “traditional” processed treats, of course, motivates many folks to do more of their own baking.  And if you’re one of them, you’d better watch out for the same types of ill-advised ingredients that one finds in those alluring packaged products.

Does your holiday to-do list include baking an old-fashioned cherry pie, perhaps?  Well , for starters, there’s the question of what kind of pie shell to use.  Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent – the “Nilla Pie Crust” made by Nabisco/Kraft with “real Nilla wafer crumbs” — will automatically turn your homemade pie into a repository of additives that include high fructose corn syrup, heart-unhealthy partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and more of that preservative TBHQ.  As for the filling — well, there’s always Duncan Hines “Original Country Cherry Pie Filling and Topping,” which, along with “20% more cherries,” will add an extra dollop of HFCS, along with some artificial red coloring (in case those cherries aren’t naturally red enough).

Or maybe you find the idea of homemade brownies a more appealing sweet holiday treat — especially if they’re made with Pillsbury’s “Holiday Funfetti Premium Brownie Mix,” which comes complete with two kinds of partially hydrogenated oil — palm kernel and soybean — and another five artificial colors (including three “lakes”), as well as artificial flavor and bleached flour.

Not to be overlooked, of course, is eggnog, that jolliest of seasonal beverages that can also add to your overall overload of cumulative holiday health hazards if you don’t bother glancing at the ingredients on the carton before you buy it.  Hood Golden Eggnog, to cite just one example, lists HFCS as its third ingredient, along with three artificial colors, artificial flavor, and carrageenan, a seaweed-based thickening agent that studies have shown can cause inflammation in the human colon.

Carageenan, in fact, is probably the most common additive used in eggnog –  including some organic brands, such as the low-fat version put out by Horizon Organic.

But you don’t have to ingest a whole bunch of nasty “badies” in order to enjoy some genuinely good holiday goodies.

Healthier ways to enjoy the sweetness of the season

Cookies: Instead of all the ones that feature health-endangering trans fats and deceptive dyes, how about trying Pamela’s All Natural Cookies (which are also gluten-free), something from Mary’s Gone Crackers organic cookie line or perhaps some Mi-Del organic ginger snaps?

Brownies: Why not bake up a batch made with Hodgson Mill Brownie Mix, the only ingredients in which are turbinado sugar, whole wheat pastry flour, cocoa, milled flax seed and salt?

Home-made pie: For a ready-made graham cracker pie shell, try Arrowhead Mill brand, and for a more traditional pie, check out the new Bob’s Red Mill Pie Crust Mix, which, just as the package says, is “easy as pie.” And if it’s cherry pie you prefer, some Eden Organic Cherry Pie Filling would be preferable.

Eggnog: If this is a holiday favorite of yours, you can still enjoy it without the carrageenan by buying Organic Valley Eggnog.  A great alternative to conventional eggnog is the eggnog-flavored kefir now being offered by Lifeway. Kefir is a probiotic “smoothie” which is also 99 percent lactose free.

As with Santa, all it takes to “make the season bright” when it comes to treats is knowing good from bad, along with reading that list (of ingredients, that is) and checking it twice.