Warning: supermarket shopping can be hazardous to your health

Posted by
January 24, 2012

Despite offering shoppers what may seem like an unlimited selection of items, the supermarkets of today are deceptively stocked with scores of ersatz and redundant products that have been deliberately designed to entice you. Along with test-tube replacements for real food ingredients that have been developed by laboratory chemists, most of their appeal is the work of ad agencies that have mastered the art of the sell.

That’s why in his book In Defense of Food, Author Michael Pollan calls on us to “eat food” – a  statement so simple, it needs some explanation.

In the chapter “Food Defined,” he gives what he calls “rules of thumb” to help the confused shopper select real foods versus what he refers to as  “foodish products.”

Pollan’s first tip, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” (or, he adds, maybe even your great, great, grandmother), touches on just how long fake foods have been a part of the supermarket landscape. British nutritionist John Yudkin, goes even further back in history, Pollan points out, by advising, “Just don’t eat anything your Neolithic ancestors wouldn’t have recognized…”

His next “rule of thumb” should be familiar to many following the issues we’ve been reporting on here at Food Identity Theft:
“Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number or that include, D) high fructose corn syrup.”

These, he says, are “reliable markers” that the foods you are considering consuming have crossed the line from “foods to food products.” Certainly many decent foods can contain more than five ingredients, but you get the point. Pollan mentions bread, which is also one of my favorite examples. It may look like bread and even smell like bread, but as I’ve mentioned here before, there is no excuse for bread or rolls with an ingredient label long enough to run down the entire side of the package. Bread should basically consist of just four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.

“Avoid food products that make health claims,” says Pollan. Why? “…For the most part it is the products of food science that make the boldest health claims,” he says, citing one of the first fake-food replacements – margarine. Margarine, as you may recall, was touted as the “healthy” replacement for butter, until everyone (including the Food and Drug Administration) finally acknowledged that all those trans fats were causing heart disease in folks at an alarming rate.

“Get out of the supermarket whenever possible,” Pollan advises, adding that “you won’t find any high fructose corn syrup at the farmers’ market.”

A good point, except that sometimes there is no farmers’ market readily available. So for those of us confined to supermarket selections, here are some of our own Food Identity Theft tips:

  • Don’t be fooled into buying tomato products that are made from concentrate and masquerade as “fresh” with pretty pictures of red, ripe tomatoes.
  • Don’t count on the truthful nature of front-of-package claims such as “No MSG.” Read the ingredients, and know what you’re looking for.
  • Don’t believe “nutrition facts” claims that a product contains zero trans fats if the ingredients  include any hydrogenated oils.
  • Don’t get tricked into believing “100 percent pure” orange juice is really the equivalent of freshly squeezed orange juice. Despite such claims, “not from concentrate” varieties are apt to have flavor added and be anything but fresh.

And remember the original supermarket shopping rule: don’t shop when you’re hungry. That’s when you’re most susceptible to appetizing pictures, descriptions and displays.

The legacy of a truth-in-labeling pioneer

Consumers lost a powerful advocate with the passing of Jack Samuels, founder and president of the Truth in Labeling Campaign (TLC), on January 15th.  Jack was a dedicated, knowledgeable and articulate spokesman, providing consumers with “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about MSG.”

A health-care professional himself, Jack suffered from an acute sensitivity to MSG; a condition so severe that exposure to the substance could cause him to lose consciousness (in a sense, he was almost like the ‘canary in the coal mine’ – reacting to toxic substances at low levels). Well before Jack and his wife Adrienne founded TLC in 1994, they went searching for answers about his sensitivity. In the process they found out about the power of the glutamate industry, and that it was virtually impossible for consumers to rely on the government to provide accurate information when it came to MSG in processed foods.

Shortly after  TLC was formed, the Samuels joined with physicians, parents and researchers in filing a Citizen Petition with the FDA, asking that all MSG found in processed foods be declared on the label. Predictably, neither that petition nor a subsequent lawsuit failed to result in any such improvements. But Jack and Adrienne continued on in a grass-roots effort to inform consumers on their own about the toxic potential of MSG, and where it is hidden in food, pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, protein drinks and infant formula.  Their efforts to promote public awareness took the form of websites, blogs and Facebook pages, all dedicated to the idea that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food.

Even though Jack didn’t quite manage to bring about the reforms he hoped for, no one has done more to educate consumers, healthcare professionals, government officials and anyone else who would listen about the health risks of monosodium glutamate and other ingredients containing processed free glutamic acid. In so doing, he helped inspire a widespread movement dedicated to achieving truth in labeling. And that’s about as good a legacy as anyone can leave.

Thanks, Jack — you will be missed.