By Jodi A. Shaw
Recently, a friend asked me for my “secret” to a healthy diet. I was confused, so she explained how she admired my food preparation practices and efforts to eat organically. I was still confused, so she added, “You never seem to have to worry when there’s food crisis.”
She was referring, of course, to the listeria outbreak, which has so far resulted in 19 deaths. But she might just as well have been referring to a number of other current food fiascos which threaten our well-being.
For example, also in the news is Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that hardens plastic and makes items containing it shatterproof. Widely used in food packaging, BPA has been under the microscope and surrounded by much controversy for some time. In April, the FDA announced that BPA is “safe and that exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects.” However, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (September 17, 2008) suggests otherwise. The study concluded that people exposed to BPA may be at increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
An argument is also circulating that BPA, an “estrogen-like endocrine disruptor,” could be responsible for health problems in children and teenagers, such as early puberty, originally blamed on hormones in meat.
Then a few nights ago I was watching TV when a commercial for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) came on. Sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, the commercial promotes the safety of HFCS, a cheaper-than-sugar substitute used to enhance the flavour of cookies, candy, soft drinks, and other sweets. It is, the commercial tells us, “fine in moderation.”
Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, provided me my first real understanding of HFCS. In her book, What to Eat, she explains how chemists treat cornstarch with enzymes to convert it into corn syrup, then treat the syrup “with other enzymes to convert some of its glucose to fructose — about 42 percent.” This is further treated to create syrup that is 55 percent fructose.
Nestle cites several studies (admittedly controversial) that have linked HFCS to obesity, as well as insulin resistance in diabetics. She criticizes diets high in HFCS and the food it is found in — junk food. For their part, the Corn Refiners have launched a website, sweetsurprise.com, to “change the conversation about high fructose corn syrup.”
Whether they succeed or not, they’re unlikely to allay a general suspicion that, if we really are what we eat, we’re in big trouble. So what’s my secret? What’s the key to a healthy diet?
I recommend food. Processed meat is not food — it is a product manufactured to resemble food. HFCS is not food, it is an ingredient. True, it used to be food, but was treated by chemists to become something else so it could be added to products that are not food. (Twinkies, anyone?) To avoid hours on the Internet reading all the new studies and research, simply eat real food. Apples, broccoli, potatoes, oranges . . . It takes more time and effort to prepare meals from scratch, as opposed to putting something in the microwave or to “open package, eat,” but my friend was right — I have yet to panic when there’s a food recall or controversy.