Food preservatives and chemicals
I'm a young cook and have been cooking for my husband and I for 3 years now. I enjoy it and see the advantages of home cooking in terms of saving money, healthy well being and food quality. I've started to make most of our food from scratch ( marinara, dressing, baked goods, etc) and am amazed by the benefits. As i step away from buying spaghetti sauce or bags of cookies, I also applaud myself on our decreased consumption of the sodium, HFCS, preservatives and chemicals found in processed items. But if someone asked me why I don't consume items with chemicals and preservatives, I wouldn't have an answer other than "Cause I know it's not natural and thus bad for me".
I'm looking for some concrete details and facts. I'm starting my own internet exploration but any knowledge you could share would be greatly appreciated.
P.S. My first post! Woohoo!
You'll never get concrete details and facts. Even the most basic 'natural" foods (like butter, sugar, eggs) are in a constant state of nutritional flux. We were told that butter is to be avoided at all costs - and then fed trans-fat margarine as a substitute. Only to have everything turn on its head when margarine, not butter, was found to be the villain. I listen to none of it.
What I do know is that you won't go too far wrong if you do the following:
- Eat food that is as close to its original state as possible;
- Learn to enjoy the natural - not artificially boosted - flavours of real food;
- Cook as much from scratch (and I mean scratch, not semi-scratch) as is feasible;
- Buy as few prepared items as you can - and be choosy when buying them (look for fewer ingredients, less words that you don't understand);
- Make your own basics - like broths and sauces;
- Allow yourself an occasion lapse;
- Shop organic if it's sensible and local if it's possible (organic junk food is still junk food);
- Don't be preachy - only informative. No one wants a newly converted food-nut to tell them how much healthier they feel; how much weight they've lost; how much money they've saved; how much kinder they are to the planet.
If you have an interest in cooking well and eating well, you'll naturally gravitate toward good, wholesome, non-chemical food. You don't have to explain it to anyone, really. When they taste the great things you cook, there's no need to give reasons. It will be obvious.
I'll try not to turn this into an inflammatory post. These threads often go to s*** when someone claims that all 'chemicals' are bad for you and then gets upset when someone else points out that is blatantly false. Still, there is reasonable discussion to be had about health concerns and food additives. But yeah, your go-to line - 'it's not natural and thus bad for me' is very problematic, not a good defense of your choices.
For one, it begs the question: 'what is natural?'
Sodium bicarbonate........baking soda**
Sodium nitrite....................curing salt.....pink salt***
(*of note, salt is probably not quite as bad for you as you've heard, but that whole debate is a mess - I'm not getting into it right now
**Also of note, baking soda was viewed skeptically as a 'chemical' additive when it was first introduced as an aid to baking. Now no one really thinks of it as one, even though nothing's changed
***Another interesting example - curing salt is very traditional and has been used for centuries. But recent data has shown that it's probably not too good for you. Which is sad, because cured meats are delicious)
The point is that one can't determine that something is 'unnatural' just by the name of it. Similarly, we also can't determine that something is good or bad for you based on whether it grows on trees or is synthesized industrially by some complex process. Deadly nightshade is far worse for you than a vitamin supplement pill, for an obvious example.
Ideally, 'chemicals' would be evaluated individually. For example, potassium sorbate, a common preservative, has a long history of safe use. A food coloring known as citrus red No. 2 on the other hand is a known carcinogen (actually, a lot of food colorings have especially poor records, as additives go).
All that said, I can think of several (IMO) very reasonable arguments in favor of avoiding processed food. Here goes.
- Very few people realistically research all of the thousands of food additives on the market. And given that some have been found to be bad for you, it is wise to avoid ingesting substances you don't know and don't understand. Basically, you're adhering to the 'if it didn't kill Grandma, it probably won't kill me' theory of eating. It's reasonable, and it lets you focus your energies elsewhere.
- Even industrially synthesized chemicals that have a long history of safety are produced via complex processes that are far from transparent. That manufacturing process is subject to change without notice, and is also subject to contamination from unknown substances. Of course, any food is subject to contamination, but industrial manufacturing adds an additional avenue to this possibility. Avoiding processed foods and synthesized additives removes this extra avenue.
- Just as important as what is added in to processed food is what is removed from it. Fiber especially is removed from many of the foods that otherwise contain it. Starches tend to be refined to the extent that they are far less healthy than they could have been. Various micronutrients seem to be depleted by the type of processing common to pre-made foodstuffs
- The fats in processed food have a much greater tendency to be unhealthy fats than those found in less processed foods. Unhealthy fats are cheap and thus appealing to industry. And the food industry in the US has successfully lobbied the government for what is effectively the ability to mislead consumers on their labels with respect to trans fat content (they can claim 0 trans fat when their products do in fact contain significant amounts of trans fat).
I could probably think of more, but that's a long post already.
A parting shot (and sort of a land mine on CH) - IMO, HFCS is not significantly worse for you than sugar. BUT sugar is worse for you (and bad for you in more ways) than has been commonly reported. So be careful - eating a lot of homemade baked goods, made with refined flour and sugar is not especially good for you, even though it's not 'processed.'
People have experienced weight loss and better health by consciously eliminating HFCS from their diet. But is that because the HFCS is bad for you, or worse than sugar, or because they end up eating less sugar overall, and less calories? Do people simply replace the American Coke with an equivalent quantity of Mexican Coke, or cut back on their overall consumption of sodas?
I suspect the same thing happens with attempts to eliminate 'preservatives and additives'. The overall change in diet is more important than presence or not of these chemicals. A problem with anecdotal evidence is that it is hard to separate the significant changes and effects from the incidental ones.
I agree, you can find justification for any argument on the internet. However, it seems obvious to me that putting chemicals and other substances designed in a lab into your body is not good for it. It's not "real" food, and only came about to assist with the major move towards convenience, fast and cheap foods, which is starting to experience a big boomerang effect as people realize these "foods" are not good for them on many levels, from health to waistline to pocketbook to some other more serious illnesses. Who is to say that the rise in things like autism or Alzheimer's cannot be attributed to some of the maniuplation of the food system in this country, to replacing real food with flavors created in a lab, the ultra-processing of food changing it's very chemical makeup? I'm not saying you can provide a causal link, but as human animals, we were not designed to eat things made in a lab, we were designed to eat and process real foods.
I do think 'everything in moderation' is important. There's a place for Cheetos or Starbursts or whatever your vice, as long as you're generally doing well the rest of the time and eating real food.
I think this is an interesting question and I don't think it's a can of worms (although I de-lurked here only recently, myself). I do know that if you search the internet, you will find plenty of data to support your opinion. I share your opinion and have found plenty of information that shows that eating whole foods from scratch have all sort of health benefits, from better concentration when not consuming additives and preservatives, to maintaining a healthy weight when not consuming HFCS. Some are studies and some are just anecdotal stories, but there are concrete details out there. You WILL find them as you do your own internet exploration.
Like you, we are conscientious about not eating these things and I HAVE been asked why we don't. The easiest and absolutely truthful answer that I give is my own anecdotal evidence. I just say, "Since we stopped eating processed food, we've all felt so much healthier. I haven't had to go to the doctor for 4 years, my husband has been able to stop taking all of his medications for diabetes and cholesterol, and my daughter, who also rarely gets sick anymore, has been doing better than ever in school. For us, it's worth it."
Gardencook, you said,
"Since we stopped eating processed food, we've all felt so much healthier. I haven't had to go to the doctor for 4 years, my husband has been able to stop taking all of his medications for diabetes and cholesterol, and my daughter, who also rarely gets sick anymore, has been doing better than ever in school. For us, it's worth it."
That's our story in a nutshell, as well. In our experience, the better and more chemical-free the food, the better the health. The better the health, the fewer trips to the doctor. The fewer trips to the doctor, the fewer prescriptions get written (unfortunately, drugs seem to be practically the only tool in their toolbox). The fewer prescriptions taken, the healthier we are. It all works.
I think that you and gardencook suggest solid explanations to offer to people, but what about the fact that there is no control to compare to? In other words, if others suggest that you are merely experiencing a placebo effect and their family is perfectly healthy eating "normal" foods, how do you respond? In thirty years of avoiding refined sugars, I have seen some serious defensiveness from others when I merely explain that simple element of my diet
It doesn't matter if it's a placebo effect or not. Our result is still the same and there is solid proof (my husband no long "diabetic" nor does he have high cholesterol).
How I would respond is, "How do you know you will not feel even better if you eat a non-processed diet?" They cannot prove a negative. Unless they try it, they cannot say it won't make them even healthier than they currently are. The old, "don't knock it 'til you tried it" argument.
LOL, this is me telling my mother-in-law that there is no evidence real cream is bad for her (we were discussing what's "bad" for you). she replied that her coffee mate non-dairy pumpkin creamer IS "real cream," as if I were insulting her and not referring to the fact that real cream comes from cows.
Welcome to CH! I hope you didn't step into a landmine w/ your first post since this can be a hot topic and generate heated responses. You'll find studies online that show they're bad for you, studies that show they're not. I've yet to find peer reviewed studies that have shown that sodium for healthy adults is bad for them or that HFCS is bad for you. Generally, I find that food that contains them are more processed than I like and don't taste good as a result. OTOH, I love Cheetos as much as the next person.
Overall, I find it easiest to avoid the topic w/ friends altogether. "I like the way my food tastes. Thanks" without passing judgement, even if it's only perceived by them, on what they eat. People don't want or need to be told what they enjoy is bad for them.
Hope to see you on the Home Cooking board. It's a great place to learn, share, discuss cooking.
Do people ask you why you "don't consume items with chemicals and preservatives?" I must admit no one has ever asked me that question, though I eat/cook very very little that contains them. If you just don't make a big deal about it, it usually doesn't come up--at least that's my experience.
No they do not. But I like to have a basis for my opinions, just like I like to know the facts before I make a political or any other decision. Rather than making a big deal of the situation, I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I read Chowhound for fun, I don't read topics such as 'In-N-Out vs. 5 Guys" in case someone throws me an unexpected fast food question.
I encourage your exploration and research. Please share anything interesting that you find. Nevertheless, I do not think that you will come across much that constitutes "concrete detail and facts" - particularly if, by that, you mean any data showing a causal connection between preservatives and chemicals and adverse health consequences.* Frankly, there is no financial incentive to even engage in such projects from a research point of view.
That being said, however, I am generally in accord with your philosophy and practices. I am an old cook and have been doing this for many years. For me, it's basically common sense. If something is not necessary to put into something I consume, then why ingest it? Even if it is only 1% likely to cause harm - it's just prudent and rational to approach it that way.**
Anyway, welcome to Chowhound. I hope that you find participation useful, educational, and enjoyable.
*Research on Corn syrup and obesity/diabetes may be an exception to this.
**I generally feel the same way about many things. Say, global warming, for example. Maybe humans are not responsible, but doesn't it inherently make sense to reduce greenhouse gas emissions just in case?