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Two (more) good reasons for cutting back on processed foods

If you haven’t weaned yourself off processed foods yet, two recent articles may (finally) get you started.

Both articles deal with what food manufacturers add to their products.

It’s not appetizing reading.

Selling salt
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a great article on how the processed food industry is scrambling to persuade the government — and consumers — that proposed new regulations for limiting the amount of added salt in their products is a bad, bad idea.

The industry claims that despite the link between salt (sodium chloride) and high blood pressure, the “virtually intractable nature” of our appetite for the compound (those are the words of the food giant Kellogg) will make us resist consuming less of it.

Americans have certainly developed a taste for lots and lots of added salt.  We currently, get 80 percent of our salt from processed (and restaurant) foods. The other 20 percent comes from salt we add ourselves to our meals — and from the sodium that’s found naturally in many foods.

But even if you're one of those few disciplined people who diligently adhere to the current safe-to-consume daily recommendation for sodium — about 2,300 milligrams, or a teaspoon of salt — you may be getting too much of the stuff. Experts seem to be agreeing that for most Americans, a safer recommendation would be no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily.

This spring, after three decades of wrangling with the issue and trying to get the food industry to voluntarily reduce their salt content, government officials seem to be on the verge of setting strict guidelines for the salt levels in processed foods.

“[T]his is a moment of reckoning for salt,” writes Times reporter Michael Moss.

But it's not over till it's over, as the saying goes. Reports Moss:

[T]he industry is working overtly and behind the scenes to fight off these attacks, using a shifting set of tactics that have defeated similar efforts for 30 years, records and interviews show. Industry insiders call the strategy “delay and divert” and say companies have a powerful incentive to fight back: they crave salt as a low-cost way to create tastes and textures. Doing without it risks losing customers, and replacing it with more expensive ingredients risks losing profits.

Here’s where we get into the unappetizing stuff. Without salt, company scientists told Moss, many processed foods would have a “warmed-over flavor” that can make meat, for example, “taste like ‘cardboard’ or ‘damp dog hair.’ ”

If you’re a Cheez-It fan, you may be interested to know (or maybe not) that without salt, the “golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.”

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Moss adds, also tasted metallic sans salt, while Eggo waffles “evoked stale straw” and the “butter flavor in the Keebler Light Buttery Crackers, which have not actual butter, simply disappeared."

There are other yummy details in Moss’ article. You can read it in full here.

Selling snake oil
In its June issue, Forbes magazine explores other ingredients food companies add to their products, although in this case it's so they can make often highly questionable health claims about them.

In essence, say reporters Matthew Herper and Rebecca Ruiz, these foods are “masquerading as drugs”:

The world's biggest food companies are stuffing ostensibly beneficial bacteria, omega-3 fatty acids and other additives into packaged foods. They are funding clinical research in order to justify health claims — often deliberately vague — that blur the line between nutrition and medicine. The foods promise to boost immunity, protect your heart and digestive system or help you sleep. In some cases, like the ProBugs kefir, manufacturers aren't adding new ingredients but merely repackaging old foods with bold new health claims.

It’s become a huge business ploy. “More than 2,000 so-called functional food brands generated $31 billion in U.S. sales [$160 billion globally] in 2008, up 14% from 2006,” report Herper and Ruiz.

"We're going through a revolution in food," says Thomas Pirko, president of Bevmark consulting, whose clients include Coke, Kraft and Nestlé. "It's a whole new consciousness -- every product has to be adding to your health or preventing you from getting sick." If you find the perfect additive, he adds, "you get rich."
But most of the claims "are completely unsubstantiated," says Steven Nissen, head of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. "Medical attention does not come from a Cheerios box." Designer foods can be a way for clever marketers to lure people away from real health foods — fresh fruits and vegetables. "It plays on our psychology," says Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma.” "We want to consume sugar; we want to consume fat; we want to consume salt. These products give us an excuse to binge."

The article, which you can read in full here, details the questionable claims behind some of the more popular additives, including pomegranate juice, plant sterols, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and quercetin.

Many of the products they mention I’ve never heard of, including Nestle’s $42-a-six-pack (!!) supplement drink Glowelle, which claims its added antioxidants protect the skin from moderate sun exposure.

Even at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, $42 would buy you a lot of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.

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Comments (1)

Regarding the dubious health claims in processed foods, I couldn't help but be amused to learn in the Strib business section recently about the wonders of "high fiber" pop tarts. For real! One of the big food companies in town has isolated some sort of fiber from some weird food and are injecting it into all sorts of foods to make the high fiber claim.