Part I of II
Up and down grocery store cereal aisles brightly colored boxes covered with over-the-top buzz words and playful cartoon characters abound. It is a combination that is gold for the country’s big three cereal manufactures.
Using words like ‘healthy,’ ‘vitamin enriched’ and ‘all natural,’ while employing kid-friendly icons like Kelloggs’ Tony the Tiger, Cheerios’ Buzz the Bee or the eponymous Count Chocula, a sugary sweet vampire, to appeal to children, cereal sales in the U.S. are booming. Sales are expected to hit $11 billion dollars this year. Lucky charms, indeed.
But what actually is in your cereal? Or what is in any number of other foods, for that matter? Does ‘healthy’ actually translate into ‘good for you?’
An estimated one third of all consumers don’t actually know what is in their food. And who could blame them? Many additives are indecipherable and unknown to anyone but a chemist. A host of ingredients are unpronounceable, mysterious or simply foreign.
But no one is hiding what we are eating — the government mandates it. The ingredients are right on the nutrition label on the side of the box, jar or can. And, sugar may be the most common, least understood and, perhaps, most dangerous additive used by the food industry.
“It drives me crazy,” says Molly Shockley, a nutritionist at Boulder Nutrition. “We want sugar to be far down the list (of ingredients). The further down the better.” But there for the world to see on most breakfast cereals — and often at the top of the listed ingredients — is sugar, in one form or another.
In a perfect world, Shockley would get her wish. Sugar would be far down the list of ingredients or gone altogether from our foods. Perhaps one day it will. But not any time soon.
American’s sweet tooth for sugar or sweetening agents in processed foods — along with the food industry’s unrelenting desire to flavor food — makes this relationship seem like an unbreakable bond.
As a nation, Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar, in one form or another — sodas, candy, fast foods, even ostensibly healthy foods like granola bars — each day. It all adds up to nearly 70 pounds of sugar each year.
A can of cola, for example, contains nine teaspoons of sugar. Drinking just one can of soda each day equals 32 pounds of sugar in a single year.
But sugar is camouflaged in words like glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose or dextrose. If a word ends with the ‘ose’ suffix, it is likely some form of sugar.
There is also corn sweetener, corn syrup, cane juice, malt syrup or honey, added to processed foods. By any other name, it is sugar. But the sweetener found most frequently in foods and on nutrition labels is HFCS, high fructose corn syrup, an additive 55 percent fructose, 45 percent glucose; sugar.
The price Americans pay for their sugar consumption is adding up, most especially in healthcare costs. And, while some are already paying the price — which is being exacted in weight gain or some other health related issue — experts say it won’t be long before the bill comes due for millions of others.
Nutritionists like Shockley say sugar, which has no nutritional value, adds unnecessary calories to food without adding nutritional value. It also contributes to over-consumption, a path to weight gain and obesity. Researchers also believe it may play a role in a number of health issues including cancer, asthma, heart disease and diabetes.
“I have to know what’s in the food,” says Mike Kelley, a board member of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Kelley was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in his early thirties.
Before he was diagnosed, Kelley led an active life and ate pretty much what he wanted. But after noticing changes in his body, including a nearly constant thirst, his doctor ran tests that determined he was diabetic.
While he didn’t change his entire lifestyle, he did change his diet. “I watch carbohydrates and sugars. I now have to measure out what I eat,” he says. Carbohydrates convert to sugars and that can lead to unnecessary weight gain.
His case is not unusual. A 2011 Yale University study linked excess sugar consumption to increased fat production in the liver and subsequent development of diabetes.
Diabetes is now the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. It also can lead to a number of serious health issues including heart attack, limb loss, blindness, renal failure and shorter lifespan.
Today, Kelley reads the labels of what he buys. He controls what he can, but can’t control everything. “It’s much worse when we’re eating at a restaurant.” When working overseas, in Hong Kong and Tokyo, “it was really hard knowing what was in food.”
While diabetes may be one of the worst diseases connected to the food Americans consume, it is worse for Latinos. Nearly twice as many Latinos will get a diabetes diagnosis than non-Hispanic whites.
The Department of Health and Human Services also says Latinos will die at a disproportionately higher rate — 1.6 times more frequently — from diabetes than non-Hispanic whites.
Dieticians like Shockley say it is important to read labels. Know, for example, how much salt — sodium — is in your food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams — about a third of a teaspoon — of salt each day.
But salt, which has been linked to high blood pressure and stroke, is used as a preservative in everything from cereal to chocolate to cheese.
Shockley says incorporating more grains, fruit and fiber into a daily diet is a good short and long term way of ensuring good health. “I also try to avoid foods with hydrogenated oils,” she says. They are additives used to prolong shelf life. “They actually turn into trans fat,” a substance that can contribute to artery blockage. They are listed among the ingredients.
Not all food additives are necessarily bad say nutritionists. But minimizing them in a diet can lead to a healthier life. Shockley says a good rule of thumb is if you see an ingredient you can’t read, understand or never heard of, put it back and find something healthier.