The Truth About Your Food

Simpler is always better.

Think about it: Would you rather have your job made simpler, or more complicated? How about your relationship? Your finances? Those instructions to assembling your new IKEA bookshelf?

Simpler, right?

Okay, how about your diet? Wouldn't you prefer to make your diet simpler as well? Especially if you knew that simpler was also healthier? Then why do so many of us insist on choosing the most complicated foods we can find, when the simplest foods are always better?

Case in point: Let's say you had a choice between two seemingly similar products. Both had about the same number of calories, and had similar tastes. Based on these ingredient lists, which would you choose? 

Beverage #1: Water; high fructose corn syrup; concentrated juices of orange, tangerine, apple, lime and/or grapefruit; citric acid; ascorbic acid; beta-carotene; thiamin hydrochloride; natural flavors; modified food starch; canola oil; cellulose gum; xanthan gum; sodium hexametaphosphate; sodium benzoate; yellow dyes #5 and 6.

Beverage #2: Fresh-squeezed orange juice.

If you picked beverage #2, you'd be getting three times the vitamin C and about one-eighth the sodium, as well as a nice hit of calcium. But if you picked #1, then you'd be getting a nutritional cocktail made up primarily of water and high fructose corn syrup, with a variety of scary surprises. (Canola oil?!)

Yet many of us pick #1 on a regular basis—those are the ingredients for Sunny Delight original, by the way—because we seem dead-set on complicating our diets. And complicated is always bad. Simpler is always better. (Speaking of nutritionally empty drinks, watch out for these gut-busters with ingredients most of us could never, ever pronounce—this shocking list of the 20 Worst Drinks in America. Take them in even as a weekly treat and you could be adding an extra pound or two of belly fat a month.)

Check out the four popular processed foods below. Each violates the Eat This, Not That! cardinal rule—which is to say, they're just too complicated. Wait till you discover some of the junk we found hiding in each. 

 

What's Really In …
NACHO CHEESE DORITOS (11 chips)
150 calories
8 g fat (1.5 g saturated)
180 mg sodium

The concept is, well, sort of brilliant: Nachos and cheese without the hassle of a microwave. Or even a plate, for that matter. You just tear open the bag and start snarfing. And as a parting gift, Dorito's leave your fingers sticky with something that looks like radioactive bee pollen. Now here's the question: Do you have any clue what's in that stuff? Here you go:

To create each Dorito, the Frito-Lay food scientists draw from a well of 39 different ingredients. How many does it take to make a regular tortilla chip? About three. That means some 36 ingredients wind up in that weird cheese fuzz. Of those 36, only two are ingredients you'd use to make nachos at home: Romano and cheddar cheeses. Alongside those are a cache of empty carbohydrate fillers like dextrin, maltodextrin, dextrose, flour, and corn syrup solids. Then come a rotating cast of oils. Depending on what bag you get, you might find any combination of corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, and sunflower oil. Some of those will be partially hydrogenated, meaning they give the chip a longer shelf life and spike your heart with a little shot of trans fat. (The reason you won't see this on the nutrition label is that FDA guidelines allow food manufacturers to "round down" to zero.)

And then, after the fats and nutritionally empty starches, there's a seasoning blend, which includes things like sugar, "artificial flavoring," and a rather worrisome compound called monosodium glutamate. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the flavor enhancer largely responsible for the chip's addicting quality. The drawback is that it interferes with the production of an appetite-regulating hormone called leptin. A study of middle-aged Chinese people found a strong correlation between MSG consumption and body fat. What's more, the FDA receives new complaints every year from people who react violently to MSG, suffering symptoms like nausea, headaches, burning sensation, numbness, chest pains, dizziness, and so on. Talk about radioactive bee pollen.


What's Really In …
SUBWAY 9-GRAIN WHEAT (6")
210 calories
2 g fat (0.5 g saturated)
410 mg sodium

Okay, so you're probably not in the habit of ordering a la carte bread loaves at Subway, but there’s a good chance you've eaten at least a few sandwiches built on this bread. The good news is that Subway actually delivers on the nine-grain promise. The bad news: Eight of those nine grains appear in miniscule amounts. If you look at a Subway ingredient statement, you'll find every grain except wheat listed at the bottom of the list, just beneath the qualifier "contains 2% or less." In fact, the primary ingredient in this bread is plain old white flour, and high-fructose corn syrup plays a more prominent role than any single whole grain. Essentially this is a white-wheat hybrid with trace amounts of other whole grains like oats, barley, and rye.

So outside of the nine grains, how many ingredients does Subway use to keep this bread together? Sixteen, including such far-from-simple ingredients as DATEM, sodium steroyl lactylate, calcium sulfate, and azodiacarbonamide. But here's one that's a little unnerving: ammonium sulfate. This compound is loaded with nitrogen, which is why it's most common use is as fertilizer. You might have used it to nourish your plants at home. And Subway does the same thing; the ammonium sulfate nourishes the yeast and helps the bread turn brown. What, did you think that dark hue was the result of whole grains? Hardly. It's a combination of the ammonium sulfate and the caramel coloring. Seems like Jarod might frown on that sort of subterfuge.

Of course, in terms of calories, Subway's still one of your best allies in the sandwich game. But here's an even better idea: Whip up one of these 25 best sandwiches in America at home in minutes. You'll save calories, money, and precious time.

 

What's Really In …
ORIGINAL SKITTLES (1 pack)
250 calories
2.5 g fat (2.5 g saturated)
47 g sugars

They're sweet, chewy, and brightly colored. Now, what are they? Well, the basic formula for each chewy neon orb is a gross mashup of sugar, corn syrup, and hydrogenated palm kernal oil. That explains why every gram of fat is saturated and each package has more sugar than two twin-wrapped packages of Peanut Butter Twix.

So those three ingredients plus a few extra fillers are basically all it takes to get the general consistency and flavor, but to achieve that color spectrum, Skittles brings in a whole new list of additives. When a Skittles ad tells you to "taste the rainbow," what it's really telling you to do is taste the laboratory-constructed amalgam of nine artificial colors, many of which have been linked to behavioral and attention-deficit problems in children. A few years ago the British journal Lancet published a study linking the artificial additives to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children, which prompted the Center for Science in the Public Interest to petition the FDA for mandatory labels on artificially colored products. The FDA's response: We need more tests.

In the meantime, there's a very large-scale test going on all across the country, and every Skittles eater is an unwilling participant. And that doesn't even factor in the blood-sugar roller coaster you go on when you ingest a Skittles' bag worth of sugar.

Of course, Skittles look like broccoli, nutritionally speaking, compared to the foods on our new must-know roundup of the 20 Worst Foods in America. Read how there could be more than a day's worth of calories, sugar, and heart-harming trans fats—in a single fast-food or chain-restaurant meal! (More importantly, learn what you should eat instead.)

 

What's Really In …
TACO BELL MEXICAN PIZZA
540 calories
30 g fat (8 g saturated)
1,020 mg sodium

It's Italian, it's Mexican, it's . . . well, it's got a whopping 64 different ingredients, so it's hard to tell just what exactly it is. On the face of it, this meal doesn't look too bad. There are two pizza shells, ground beef, beans, pizza sauce, tomatoes, and three cheeses. Nothing alarming, right? Even the nutritional vital signs, while high, compare favorably to most fast-food pizzas. It only gets scary when you zoom in on what it takes to stitch those pieces together. That's when you see all of those 64 smaller ingredients, including an astounding 24 in the ground beef alone. Yikes.

Now, some of those ingredients amount to little more than Mexican seasonings and spices, but there are also loads of complex compounds such as autolyzed yeast extract, maltodextrin, xanthan gum, calcium propionate, fumaric acid, and silicon dioxide. Any of those sound familiar? That last one might—if you've spent any time at the beach. But chances are you normally refer to it by its common name: sand.

That's right, sand is made from fragmented granules of rock and mineral, and the most common of them is silicon dioxide, or silica. This is also the stuff that helps strengthen concrete and—when heated to extreme temperatures—that hardens to create glass bottles and windowpanes.

So why exactly does Taco Bell put sand in the Mexican Pizza? To make it taste like spring break in Cancun? Not quite. As it turns out, Taco Bell adds silica to the beef to prevent it from clumping together during shipping and processing. The restaurant uses the same anti-caking strategy with the chicken, shrimp, and rice.

Is it unusual to add silica to food? Yes. Is it dangerous? Probably not. The mineral actually occurs naturally in all sorts of foods like vegetables and milk.

Even so, you can save hundreds of calories if you just make your pizza at home, with this simple recipe from our latest book, Cook This, Not That! Kitchen Survival Guide. 
 
In fact, learn how to cook restaurant meals at home--and save up to 3 pounds a week!--with these 15 simple and delicious meals that can help you lose weight . . . fast! Discover favorite foods that can whittle your middle in just minutes a day.
 
And get daily food and nutrition secrets with your FREE weekly Cook This, Not That! and Eat This, Not That! newsletters. It'll be like having your own personal weight-loss coach and nutritionist!

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