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The true ingredients behind the listed words

By Lauren Olson, March 3 2020 —

Food and eating — in the immortal words of Avril Lavigne, “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?” Food and eating really shouldn’t be complicated. Eat food, nourish your body, be alive and well. The thing is, food isn’t just food these days. Food has become food products, often disguised as healthy options that are discreetly made up of questionable components that our bodies don’t actually recognize or know what to do with. Food companies have figured out that if they label something with trending keywords — think “vegan,” “gluten-free,” “no artificial flavours” and even “organic”— people will assume those words mean “healthy” and won’t miss a beat in tossing those items into their shopping carts. The thing is, just because something is “sugar-free” doesn’t mean it’s healthy. In my mind, when I see a label boasting about the lack of any demonized ingredient, the first thing I question is the replacement ingredient. 

I’ll preface the rest of this article with full disclaimer that I’m not a nutritionist, a doctor or technically an expert at anything that I’m talking about. I’m a self-educated, regular human who has made an effort to listen to podcasts about nutrition, read a lot of books and do a lot of experimenting on my own self with what types of foods work best with my body. I’m an obsessive ingredients lists reader and on a personal crusade against certain added ingredients. Basically, I’m just interested in being healthy and, in all honesty, I feel passionate about spreading the word because I think a lot of people are trying to be healthier these days and it’s so easy to get caught by marketing traps that are extremely misleading. 

I wanted to highlight a few popular food items that I’ve noticed are on the radar right now and that I think people need to pay a little more attention to what is actually in them: meat substitutes, bars and non-dairy milk alternatives.

Starting us off, meat substitutes. As a former vegetarian — I didn’t eat meat for six years — I get it. People who don’t eat meat are looking for something to replace it with, of course! Lately, certain brands of no-meat burger replacements have blown up and everyone is raving about how good they taste, and that’s exciting. However, what is actually in these pretend burgers? Has anyone even looked at the ingredients? I did. Sure, there’s no meat. But you know what is in those “burgers”? Highly processed oils such as canola or sunflower, “natural flavours” — which are “derived from something in nature,” yet still are extremely processed, include chemicals and are known neurotoxins. Oh yeah, they’re also designed to make the food taste extravagant so you’ll activate the “happy, feel-good” receptors in your brain when you eat them. It is worth noting that because everything is so processed there are likely no inherent nutrients left in anything.

In my opinion, eating real food makes way more sense than eating these science experiments loosely called “food.” Now, I’m not saying if you’re a vegetarian that you’re dumb and should eat meat. But, I am saying that these meat substitutes are highly-processed food products and our bodies don’t necessarily know what to do with them. So, my suggestion is to read ingredients lists and simply make an informed decision on what you’re choosing to put into your body. There are meat substitutes that do have a much shorter ingredients list and there are ways of making your own high protein dishes at home. It might take a bit more effort, sure, but in my humble opinion, it’s well worth the effort to give your body real food as opposed to these brand-new products that have no evidence of long term health advantages. Verdict: Have them occasionally, but don’t make them a staple in your diet. 

Next up, bars. I am the first to admit, I love bars. They’re convenient, they taste so good, there’s an unreal selection and variety available nowadays and they boast all sorts of nutrients and healthy snack rights. Once again, however, ingredients should always be read. The problem with bars is they are typically very processed and contain elements that have to be included to hold the shape of the bars. Things like agave syrup, palm oil, tapioca syrup and dates are often used and maybe they’re generally okay ingredients, but they do rack up a high sugar count. Bars also tend to be home to those sneaky “natural flavours.” These are one of my personal crusades, and a follow-up article about these pesky flavours is in the works, but in the meantime to reiterate — natural flavours are not as innocent as they sound. The word “natural” is one of those buzzwords that marketers use to make consumers think they’re making a healthy choice. Again, I’m not trying to scare anyone off bars completely. I am suggesting that if they’re a food group of their own in your diet, perhaps rethink that! And always read your ingredients and try and choose bars that have fewer ingredients and decide for yourself which ingredients you’re willing to consume and which ones are non-negotiable. 

Finally, non-dairy milk alternatives. Similarly to bars and pretty much everything you eat, with milk alternatives it just comes down to reading the labels and using some common sense. Again, look for suspicious sounding things *cough, cough* natural flavours and other ingredients that make you wonder, “What is that?” One thing many milk alternatives contain are emulsifying agents. Examples of these are soy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, carrageenan and guar gum. These little guys are added to keep the texture of the “milk” homogenized to prevent separation of ingredients. There’s nothing technically wrong with these agents, but personally I wonder if those ingredients are making the milk product hold together, what are they doing in my stomach when I drink a cup of oat milk with my breakfast? My common sense asks me why would I use a brand that uses these extra ingredients when there are brands out there that don’t? To me it’s about simplifying. The less ingredients, the better. Also, consider mixing up your pretend milk beverages occasionally. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, believe it or not. Drinking too much almond, soy, rice, oak, coconut or cashew isn’t proven to be bad — to my knowledge — but it makes logical sense to me that you may want to ingest with caution. 

So there you have it. A bit of food for thought — pun very much intended — and hopefully some inspiration to do yourself and your body a favour and just pay a little closer attention to what you’re feeding yourself. Critical thinking, without getting into over analyzation territory, is a good thing. Especially when it comes to your health. 

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