By Dr. Mercola
You've probably heard that avoiding processed foods is one of the keys to staying healthy, but do you understand why, exactly?
Scottish author Joanna Blythman has written a behind-the-scenes exposé book, Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets, that delves into the details of what makes processed food the antithesis of a healthy diet.
If you have any concerns about the food you're eating, this is a must-read book. It will radically increase your appreciation of just how processed your food really is and enlighten you to many of the deceptive tricks the industry uses to fool you.
It's quite challenging to avoid processed foods as nearly all of us eat at restaurants occasionally. The only question is how much? After you read this book, I guarantee your motivation to avoid processed food will skyrocket.
Joanna is an award-winning investigative journalist, and that background served her well as she literally went undercover to get the inside scoop on what's really going on in the processed food industry. She actually carefully worked her way in and became an insider able to attend many of the member-only conferences.
"I have been writing about food for over two decades," Joanna says. "I've written six other books. They've dealt with the production side of food: how and what goes on in fields, what goes on in farms, how to tell a good chicken from a bad chicken, that kind of thing.
But I just knew that we weren't getting the full story. It wasn't about the production end. It was at the processing end.
We know quite a lot about how chickens are reared for our tables, but we don't know very much, or anything really, about how chickens nuggets are produced in a factory. I knew that we had to get to this information about processed food."
Getting such information is easier said than done, considering how the food industry has created a near-impenetrable wall of security around its manufacturing activities.
Companies hide behind the rationale that processing methods are trade secrets, and that they're merely protecting proprietary information from competitors.
"They've gotten away with that for years. What that means is that unless you're a food industry insider, you're just not going to know what's happening behind the scenes," Joanna says.
So, to get the inside scoop, Joanna assumed a fake identity and managed to convince a smaller food manufacturer to provide her with a professional cover. Using that cover, she got an inside look into the "core" of the food manufacturing industry. And what she learned was surprising to say the least.
For starters, what non-insiders do not know is that there are a multitude of chemicals used in food that do not have to be in any way disclosed, as they're considered "processing aids." So besides preservatives, emulsifiers, colors, and flavors, which are generally listed, there are any number of others that you'll never find out the details about.
"I realized that there's so much going on behind the scenes of food manufacturing. Most consumers, we haven't got a clue, and we are not allowed to know. You can't even trust things that would seem to be the healthy choice," she says.
This is disconcerting, as many health conscious consumers now take the time to carefully read food labels. But what Joanna's research reveals that there's an array of additives that will never make it onto the label.
Surprising Truths the Processed Food Industry Hides from You
Do you eat processed meats like hamburgers, thinking you're eating mostly real beef? Chances are you're way off in your assumption. One type of meat process involves soaking butchered carcasses in hot water with added enzymes. This has the effect of releasing about another five percent of meat-like substance from the carcass.
This is then added into cheap burgers, sausages, and other processed meat products. Enzyme-treated blood products are also routinely added to lower-end processed meat products.
"What really got me were the things that seemed to be really natural... For example, I was amazed to find that there is a kind of coloring known as the cloudifier. It makes your juice look as though it's got more real fruit juice in it because it creates that hand-pressed, natural look," she says.
Enzymes are used in a number of different ways in food processing. For example, when eggs are pasteurized, they lose their color. An enzyme is therefore added that brings back the color of the egg.
There are at least 150 enzymes being used in food manufacturing, and they're rarely ever listed on the label. According to Joanna, there's typically at least one enzyme-modified ingredient in every processed food. Breads usually have five enzyme-modified ingredients.
Enzymes by themselves aren't intrinsically toxic. They're merely functional proteins composed of natural amino acids. But what they do is they mask and deceive you about the underlying process, fooling you into believing that you're buying something that you really aren't.
"The classic one is a mature cheese flavor. If you matured cheese the proper way, then you have cheese. You keep it for three months or six months, even longer, to develop that nice, mature flavor. But you can do that in a few days with an enzyme. You can create a fake flavor."
Most Processed Food Is an Imitation of the Real Thing
The goal of food technologists is to reduce the amount of real ingredients by finding cheap substitutes that mimic the authentic food. In doing so, chemicals and processes are used that turns the end product into something that looks, smells, and tastes like "good food," but really is anything but. Rarely is real butter used for example, because it's expensive. So they use additives that make the food taste like butter, but at a fraction of the cost.
"But they will still put in enough butter that they can put on the 'made with butter' label," Joanna notes. "Another thing I discovered is that most processed food wouldn't look at all attractive if it didn't have colorings added. It would be gray and beige...
Flavorings do two jobs in processed food. They cover up the unpleasant taste that comes as a result of processing. Flavor masking is one of the main reasons why food industries use flavorings. But they also use flavorings to try and give food flavor when it's been through a manufacturing process that has totally stripped it of flavor.
They have to try and add back something that sort of resembles the flavors that have gotten lost. Because food processing is high temperature and high pressure. Something has to be done to them to make them taste better again. That's the logic of flavoring and coloring."
What You Need to Know About the Clean Label Concept
She also exposed the industry concept of "Clean Label." The food industry realizes that consumers don't like long chemical-sounding names on the ingredients list. These names are known as "label polluters."
To avoid having to list the chemical names of additives, they invented a Clean Label concept, which is aimed at removing all the old additives and long chemical names, and replacing them with ingredients that sound better. "Carrot concentrate" instead of "coloring" is one example of a Clean Label swap.
A related issue is the extraction methods used for these healthy-sounding extracts. While antioxidants are healthy, plant-derived antioxidants are typically extracted from the whole food using toxic organic solvents like hexane, which you cannot remove. Those solvents remain in the ingredient, and they're not required to disclose any of this.
Perception Is Everything
The processed food industry is primarily driven by the perception of wholesomeness. The moment the food industry finds out that a labeled ingredient is perceived poorly, they will either rename it, or find an alternative that may be just as bad, or worse, that doesn't have that negative association.
"Perception is a really good word for understanding what the food manufacturing industry is up to," Joanna says. "They have this thing called perceived naturalness. Their whole job is to try give you ingredients that sound natural, but actually aren't the same as natural. Another one is fresh-like quality. The industry doesn't talk about fresh any longer. They talk about a fresh-like quality.
There are number of technologies that they can use behind the scenes and mainly on labels that will give products this fresh-like quality. Everything [related] to naturalness and freshness is being manipulated constantly.On my desk, at the moment, I have some chocolate chip muffins that I bought six weeks ago. I've got them on my desk and they have not changed in any way. They look identical. I'm keeping them as a sort of science project to see how they eventually, if they ever, change."
There's actually a whole section in the book dedicated to processed baked goods. Many grocery stores now have bakeries, where fresh bread is baked every day. But what many do not realize is that nothing is baked from scratch.
As Joanna says, these bakeries are little more than "tanning salons" for processed frozen products pre-cooked in factories thousands of miles away. Another factoid: When baked goods are sold loose this way, they do not require an ingredient label. So that's another way they can get away with not disclosing what the ingredients are.
"One of the reasons I started writing the book is because I knew that if I made a muffin at home, it didn't taste anything like a bought one. I wanted to find out why. It's really interesting to find out why because the ingredients are completely different and the processes are completely different. And these are great lies perpetuated by food manufacturers—that what goes on in the factory is just a scaled up fraction of home cooking. But that really is a lie. It's quite a different activity."
The Foxes Are Watching the Hen House
If you're like most people, you probably think there's someone somewhere looking out for the consumer's best interest. If something is sold as food, it surely cannot be hazardous. Can it? In truth, it just might be... More often than not, government oversight committees are usually manned by members of the industry, who have a vested interest in commercializing these chemical ingredients; or they're academics who appear on first glance to be independent but actually, in their day job, are getting a lot of funding from food companies.
Most of the research used to establish safety is also done by the industry itself, which structures the research to show that its products are safe. What's worse, no one is really looking at the health effects of exposure to toxins from processed foods.
"What happens to people who eat large quantities of processed food, maybe people who really based their diets on that? No one is doing any research on that," Joanna says. "There are all these assumptions that chemicals are fine in small quantities, but that's not really looking at the cocktail effect for people, particularly children, who are obviously more prone to being affected by chemical overload. No one is looking at that at the moment."
Avoiding processed foods is one of the most important changes you can make if you want to improve your health or prevent or address disease. If there's any question in your mind at all as to the reasons for reverting back to whole, minimally processed foods, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of Joanna's book, Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets as it will radically increase your understanding, and secondarily your motivation and desire to avoid these toxic foods.
As an undercover insider, Joanna reveals details about the food processing industry that you simply cannot get anywhere else. Read it, and pass it around. Create awareness that will eventually, hopefully, inspire more people to make the switch to a more wholesome, health-preserving diet. If we don't buy these foods, food manufacturers will have to stop producing it, and healthier whole foods will again become the norm.
As Joanna says, "we've got to catch up with the industry because they really bypass our comprehension of what they're doing to our food. The take home message for me is that, in Europe, we have this idea that processed food is getting better. Everything is going a little bit not more natural, and actually, that's wrong.
And we really can't trust our regulators to get it right. We have to adopt our own, what I call PPP: Personal Precautionary Principle. You are the only person who's going to really bother to think about these issues to deal with your food. You can't rely on anyone else doing it for you."
In the future, Joanna is considering writing another book on food processing, delving into newer processing technologies and synthetic biology, called SynBio. The use of completely artificial biology is also disconcerting, and an area that is as unregulated as the old Wild West.
Synthetic biology is basically like an extreme form of genetic engineering, which obviously carries a number of unknown risks. And, like genetically engineered foods, most people have no idea synthetic biology is even used, or that they may be eating it on a regular basis. To learn more about Joanna's work, see her website, JoannaBlythmanWriting.com. It contains all of her journalism, covering all of her seven books.