Friday, December 18, 2009

Decoding the Food Industry: Breakfast

This entry is a continuation of the grocery guide set up in last week’s blog entry, “Hello!”  I’m going to try to visit as many grocery stores (and farmer’s markets, when possible), in order for you to be able to make the most educated choices possible on your shopping trips.  However, in the interest of practicality, for the next few entries on this topic I’m will to focus on comparing foods often found on sale at large-scale grocery stores with healthier—and often simpler and cheaper—alternatives.

Breakfast is ironic.  We’re always been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it’s the one that most of us skip.  Breakfast is probably the easiest and simplest meal to make with just a few ingredients and relatively little time.  And while there seem to be a plethora of breakfast options in the grocery stores that claim to be nutritious, very few of these choices are actually good for us.  As Western eaters, we may have actually bastardized breakfast foods.  First, let’s examine the benefits of eating a good breakfast.  The following is summarized from the Mayo Clinic website.  Eating breakfast:
•    Regulates your hunger so you are less likely to overeat during the rest of the day.  Skipping breakfast—i.e. not eating early in the day—increases your body’s insulin response, leading to increased fat storage and weight gain.  In effect, skipping breakfast makes you more likely to gain weight.
•    Keeps you on track to make healthy choices.  Studies have found that people who eat breakfast tend to have a healthier diet and healthier body weights than breakfast skippers.
•    Gives you the energy you need and increases your physical activity level during the day.  After sleeping, your body needs to replenish its energy, so eating a good breakfast helps your body energize so you don’t feel lethargic.

Breakfast is my favorite meal.  In short, I’m a cereal fanatic.  Not only did I grow up with the understanding that eating a non-sugary cereal for breakfast in the morning was a healthy choice, cereal has continued to be a staple in my diet.  That is, until recently.

I hate to break it those readers who aren’t aware of this, but we’ve largely been misinformed that cereal is good for us.  Even sugary cereals and breakfast pastries such as Pop Tarts now claim to have whole grains, increased fiber content, and boost immunity.  Cereal is also cheap, there’s always a brand on sale at the major grocery stores, sometimes for as less than $2/box.  At the suggested eight servings per box, that’s a pretty cheap meal.  Some grocery stores even offer free gallons of milk when you buy a certain number of cereal boxes.

According to Frances Moore Lappé in her revolutionary book, Diet For A Small Planet, the primary motive of men who started two of the biggest cereal companies, General Foods and Kellogg’s was to make people healthier. Dr. Kellogg, who lived in the late 19th century, was even a vegetarian.

So what happened to cereal? Taking knowledge from Lappé’s book and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the big-business corn industry probably had a lot to do with it.  The rise—and government support—of big farms, or agribusiness, has led to cheap prices for corn derivatives, enriched grains, and soybean products, has led food companies to use these ingredients to produce food more cheaply and make them last longer on the shelf.  Cereal, and many other foods, has become more a matter of economics than a reflection of Dr. Kellogg’s original intent.

I decided to examine the ingredients list in several Kellogg’s cereals that seemed like they would be healthy breakfasts.  Here are a few ingredients to watch out for when looking at cereals:

High fructose corn syrup: According to Pollan, Japanese chemists “broke the sweetness barrier” when they invented this additive.  It’s sweeter than sugar and the most widely produced derivative of corn.

Sugar: Still a common additive to cereals.  The higher sugar and high fructose corn syrup are on the list of ingredients, the more is in your cereal.  This creates a quick peak and low trough in your morning—and daily—energy and hunger cycles.

Soybean, canola, and palm oils, particularly partially hydrogenated types: These oils are not that good for us, especially after they have been processed.  They contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, contributing to an unhealthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.  When these oils are processed, particularly hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, they increase our bad cholesterol and decrease our good cholesterol, contributing to heart problems.

Lots of additives or ingredients you can’t pronounce or understand: Any additives are less than ideal. When we enrich grains such as wheat, we remove valuable nutrients from them.  Food companies often add these—and other vitamins—back into the product, but we can’t reap as many benefits from these foods as we can from eating whole foods containing naturally occurring nutrients.  Other additives include preservatives, flavorings, and chemicals that aren’t healthy for us.

Let’s look at a few examples of Kellogg’s cereals:

Raisin Bran:
Whole wheat, raisins, wheat bran, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, malt flavoring, niacinamide, reduced iron, zinc oxide, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D.

Low Fat Granola:
Whole oats, whole grain wheat, sugar, corn syrup, raisins, rice, glycerin, palm oil, molasses, modified corn starch, almonds, salt, cinnamon, nonfat dry milk, high fructose corn syrup, polyglycerol esters of mono- and diglycerides, malt flavoring, niacinamide, zinc oxide, alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), reduced iron, guar gum, BHT (preservative), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), vitamin B12, and vitamin D.

Whole barley, whole oats, raisins, whole wheat, dates, milled corn, almonds, rice, brown sugar, sugar, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, malt flavoring, salt, high fructose corn syrup, distilled monoglyceride, alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), niacinamide, reduced iron, calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, BHT (preservative, vitamin B12, vitamin D

Whole Grain Pop Tarts:
Whole wheat flour, enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), sugar, soybean and palm oil (with TBHQ for freshness), polydextrose, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, whole grain barley flour, contains two percent or less of glycerin, molasses, inulin from chicory root, salt, corn starch, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), wheat starch, cinnamon, gelatin, caramel color, soy lecithin, vitamin A palmitate, niacinamide, reduced iron, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), folic acid

Smart Start:
Rice, whole grain wheat, sugar, oat clusters (sugar, toasted oats [rolled oats, sugar, canola oil with TBHQ and citric acid to preserve freshness, molasses, honey, BHT for freshness, soy lecithin], wheat flakes, crisp rice [rice, sugar, malt, salt], corn syrup, polydextrose, honey, cinnamon, BHT [preservative], artificial vanilla flavor), high fructose corn syrup, salt, honey, malt flavoring, alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), niacinamide, zinc oxide, reduced iron, sodium ascorbate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), calcium pantothenate, yellow #5, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), BHT (preservative), vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, beta carotene (a source of vitamin A), vitamin B12, vitamin D

A few ingredients highlighted that deserve more explanation:

Dextrose: A corn derivative and sugar substitute.
Glycerin: A colorless, odorless, sweet-tasting liquid used in soaps and pharmaceutical products.
BHT: a fat-soluble organic compound used as a food additive, as well as in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, jet fuels, rubber, petroleum, electrical transformer oil, and embalming fluid.
TBHQ: A petroleum product that comes from butane (most commonly used for lighter fluid).  According to Pollan, it can be used in our food in very small amounts, as ingesting even one gram of it can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.” Five grams will kill a human.

So what do we eat for breakfast?  Needless to say, I don’t eat cereal much anymore. Here are a few recommendations.  As a general rule, try to eat a combination of a complex carbohydrate and protein for the most sustained energy and healthiest effects on your metabolism.

•    If you can’t give up cereal, try natural cereals brand such as Kashi, Nature’s Path, Barbara’s, and Bear Naked. You’ll notice that these cereals have far fewer ingredients, in general lower sugar content (most of them are sweetened with barley malt or brown rice syrup instead of cane sugar and corn derivatives), and fewer if not no additives. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods also make their own brands of cereals like these that may be more affordable, as the above brands are often pricey if they’re not on sale.  I like to view cereal now as more of a treat, so when I eat cereal, I eat these types.  Adding low-fat milk, soymilk, or almond milk will give you your morning protein.
•    Oatmeal, grits, or polenta.  Just make sure you get the most natural types you can find, as they contain the most nutrients and fiber.  These grains take some time to cook, but if you soak them overnight, they will only take a few minutes in the morning when you’re likely to be rushing.  Adding a little natural sweetener is OK, but you can keep that amount in check and still have a great tasting breakfast by adding cinnamon and fresh or dried fruit.  I also add flaxseed to my oatmeal for omega-3 acids and sesame seeds for protein.
•    Whole grain toast with peanut butter or other nut butters.  Just make sure that the bread you’re buying doesn’t have any of the additives we discussed above.
•    Whole grain pancakes or whole wheat French toast, for a special breakfast.  Yes, you can still indulge a little.
•    Add a fruit, and skip the juice.  Just look at whole fruits as a much more efficient—and lower sugar—way to get your vitamins and minerals than juice.  Follow the organic recommendations from last week’s blog entry.
•    Herbal teas provide many health benefits, however, I can’t start my morning without coffee.  Caffeinated beverages are not that healthy for you, but it’s far better than drinking soda or any other sugary drink.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and concerns on this complex issue.  Happy breakfasting!

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