Let me start out with a confession: Sometimes I think about foods as “good foods” and “bad foods“. I know, I know, foods aren’t supposed to fall into those categories and it’s much more popular to say “all food is good, in moderation” but here’s the thing: I think there are some bad foods. I’m not saying you should ban them from your existence but let’s call a spade a spade. Here’s how my perspective has changed: A “bad food” isn’t bad because it has a lot of fat and calories and a “good food” isn’t a good food because it has a label telling you it’s healthy. I totally fell for the 100-calorie-pack-fake-food craze in college. I ate this weird plastic tasting peanut butter. I liked packaged food because I could flip over the nutritional information and count those darn little calories. (Some college students save up for beer money, I saved up for Crystal Light money.) Since those times, things have changed a lot. I’ve learned a lot about food and nutrition. (I even got my health coaching certification!) I recently read a book that made me ponder a new aspect of food: flavors.
The Dorito Effect looks at how science has bred vegetables for things like size, speed of growth, shelf life, etc. but hasn’t looked at the effect it has on flavor. Apparently, things like tomatoes, broccoli, and even chicken have actually be diluted in flavor. Things literally don’t “taste as good as they used to” because we’ve made them that way. It’s kind of crazy to think about! It also looked at how, because of this, the food we do eat is so full of added flavors. If you’ve ever flipped over the box on basically anything processed then you might see an ingredient that’s listed as “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor”. Now, I’m well aware that artificial flavors probably aren’t something I really want to be eating, but the optimist in me thought that maybe natural flavors were some proprietary blend of things truly “natural” things. A little lemon? Some cilantro maybe? Nope. Turns out, natural flavors and artificial flavors are the same thing. They’re chemicals. The difference is how they’re extracted. That means the “natural flavor” in your cherry popsicle is actually just a chemical that makes you taste cherry, even when there is no cherry in it. Here’s how the FDA defines natural flavor:
“The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Not to go all crazy “Food Babe” conspiracy theory on you, but doesn’t it make you stop and think why do we have all these flavors added to our food? Obviously we know that a banana Laffy Taffy isn’t made with real bananas, but if I’m eating pumpkin almonds, I want it to taste like pumpkin because there is actually pumpkin in it… not because there is an extract of a chemical compound that simulates the flavor of pumpkin.
Sure, there might be some studies out there that say these flavors aren’t going to harm us… ad maybe that’s true, but they’re certainly not doing us any good. And I can’t help but think about how a handful of grapes doesn’t taste quite as sweet and delicious after you’ve just had a grape flavored popsicle. Weird, right?
So what does all this mean?
I’m not saying I’ll never eat a package of Ritz crackers again just because it comes in a plastic sleeve and has that fake buttery flavor. (I literally just had some on an airplane this week) but I’m rethinking what “good food” is. While I know I can’t stuff my face with pizza every night, I feel good knowing the pizza from Stuzzi is handmade and the ingredients are real food. I know that real food can satisfy me in a way those chemically enhanced foods can’t. So while I might put foods on a good list or a bad list, I’m trying to be more aware of the types of ingredients I’m eating, not just the calorie counts on the label. Michael Pollan summed it up well with this popular quote: