I enjoy working out, but I’m not meticulous about my weight. When I do gain a little bit, society goes easy on me. Nobody seems to care when a guy has a little bit of pudge. Still, I try not to eat food that’s been heavily processed because I know it’s not healthy. I learned my lesson the hard way with the sugar substitutes in diet soda years ago.
I like to know what’s in my food, but wouldn’t say I’ve been obsessed with reading food labels. If a deli pizza looked good, I’d buy it and eat it without reading the ingredients. A few months ago, that practice got me into trouble.
I ate a personal sized flatbread pizza made by the deli at a local supermarket, and it made me sick. I knew it wasn’t caused by the bacteria that grows due to being mishandled. I’ve experienced my fair share of foodborne illness. This was different. This was a gut-wrenching feeling of intestinal bloating and I just felt “off.” I dug the pizza wrapper out of the trash and scanned the ingredients to see if there was something I could identify as the culprit.
I saw a few ingredients I wasn’t thrilled about having in my body, but the rest were familiar. Perhaps a little too familiar. I stopped at the ingredient carrageenan not because I was concerned, but because I couldn’t figure out why it would be in pizza. After researching carrageenan in pizza, I became concerned. I knew it came from some kind of sea plant, so I thought it was safe. Besides, the pizza was organic.
Until I dug into it, I didn’t know carrageenan causes inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract for many people. It’s a common ingredient in many organic foods, so I didn’t think it was that harmful. I was wrong, and that made me want to know what other ingredient-related assumptions I was wrong about.
So, for a week, I read the list of ingredients for everything I ate. If I pulled something out of the fridge or cupboard, I read the label before consuming the product. I also researched everything I didn’t fully understand—even common sense ingredients like “fructose” and “natural spices.”
It’s somewhat easier to avoid preservatives by eating vegan foods.
Everyone knows if you end up in the hospital, the trick to getting better food is telling them you’re vegan. Your menu will be limited, but you’ll get a safer meal.
I thought I’d apply this logic to my shopping adventures. If I bought vegan foods, they’d have fewer ingredients and would be less likely to contain preservatives.
I went straight for the peanut butter, which ironically isn’t made from butter or nuts, since peanuts are actually legumes. It’s tasty, and that’s all that matters.
After reading the labels of six different brands, I learned that a jar of peanut butter isn’t always vegan. Sometimes, manufacturers add honey instead of sugar, making it suitable for vegetarians but not vegans—honey is an animal product, by vegan standards. I settled for a jar of organic peanut butter sweetened with coconut palm instead of sugar or honey. It must be difficult to be vegan when you shop at a grocery store if you can’t just grab a jar of peanut butter without reading the label.
Operation read all food labels revealed some surprises.
It’s hard enough navigating the aisles of a grocery store with an organized list. Having to pick up every package and read ingredients easily tripled the length of my shopping trips.
Each time I went shopping, I wrote down all the ingredients I wasn’t familiar with and promptly researched them when I got home. What I discovered made me sick. For instance, I found out Brominated vegetable oil is banned in more than 100 countries, but it’s perfectly legal to consume in the U.S.
In the U.S., sports drinks use brominated vegetable oil to make the food dye stick to the liquid. It’s the same ingredient used to prevent couches and carpets from catching on fire. Excessive consumption can cause organ damage and heart disease.
The Biggest Lesson of All
The biggest lesson I learned from reading food ingredients for a week is that I had stored a bunch of ingredients in my memory as “safe” simply based on my familiarity with reading them. After seeing them on so many labels, harmful preservatives like TBQH didn’t make me blink.
Perhaps the strangest revelation was that some potato chips, including Pringles, aren’t made from potatoes. I think I’ll stick to slicing my own potatoes and frying them in a pan. As for the rest of my food, I see a small vegetable garden in my future.
This content is sponsored by Larry Alton.
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