Our lives hinge on trust.
When we drive, we trust the people around us to operate the thousands of pounds of steel that are under their control responsibly and in accordance with traffic rules. We trust experts in a particular field to give us accurate information about subjects that we don’t have the time or resources to fully understand ourselves.
And we trust that the food we eat contains the ingredients it says it contains, is handled in a way that is sanitary, and aligns with the standards of its claimed attributes (e.g., nut free, organic, free range, kosher).
Food quality has not always been so controlled, however. An excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle paints a vivid picture of Chicago’s meatpacking industry before federal regulations existed:
“There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers, and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs.
“There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.
“This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.”
Feeling a bit queasy? You aren’t alone. The novel’s details, which Sinclair gleaned over weeks spent touring Chicago’s stockyards and slaughterhouses, created such public outrage that they led to the passage of food-safety legislation that same year.
Sinclair’s intent had been to move readers to consider the tragic lot faced by The Jungle‘s protagonist, an immigrant laborer, but it was disgust that stuck in the back of their throats. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair would say after the book was published, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
The stomach is a powerful place to be hit. And though we’ve come a long way since poisoned-rat sausage, food quality in the U.S. still has its faults—which is why it’s important that we continue educating ourselves as consumers about what exactly we’re putting in our bodies.
Reader’s Digest did the work of collecting insights from company executives, marketers, and food scientists about what’s really up with our food. Some of the secrets they found may just change the way you eat.
Things are not always as they seem
“Manufacturers can hide things under natural flavoring,” says Jason Burke, founder of the grass-fed beef jerky company New Primal. “When I started in this business and was interviewing possible partners, I was shocked at the amount of deception. Manufacturers and copackers would ask what ingredients I was using for preservation, and then they would tell me, ‘You know you can use X or Y—just call it natural flavoring on the package. No one will know.'”
This is why we need disinterested outside parties monitoring the behavior of food companies. Humans’ tendency toward in-group favoritism is a well-known phenomenon, and this can easily translate into corruption when an in-group holds any kind unchecked power.
Go for whole grain, not multigrain.
By now, you’ve probably gotten the message that bread with “grain” in the title is nutritionally superior to white bread. Refined grains, such as the flour used to make white bread, have been processed in such a way that key vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, protein, and fiber are no longer present.
Staring down a loaf of multigrain bread, you might imagine that it’s still got all the good stuff intact. But as nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge tells Reader’s Digest, it’s a trick!
“The term multi-grain usually means a product is not a healthy choice,” she says. “People confuse it with whole grain, but all it means is that several kinds of grain were used. The first ingredient should be whole grain.”
“All multigrain means is that the product contains more than one type of grain—they may be refined and stripped of their natural nutrients and fiber,” registered dietitian Carrie Dennett tells The Kitchn. “If you like the idea of multigrain breads and other products, make sure that those grains are also whole grains. Read the ingredient list and look for the word whole before each type of grain or flour listed.”
Nutritionist Jennifer Adler advises in The Kitchn to “look for claims like 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain” and she says that “[t]he first ingredient on the ingredient list should be a whole grain.”
Can’t pronounce an ingredient? Look it up.
You’ve likely heard before that you shouldn’t eat foods with ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Although it certainly won’t hurt you to stick to whole foods that don’t require an ingredients list—especially long, unfamiliar ones—this advice doesn’t always hold up.
“I think that reflects an ignorance of chemistry and nutrition,” says food scientist Kantha Shelke. “Take riboflavin, cobalamin, and pyridoxamine. They’re big words and sound like things you don’t want in your food, but they are actually all forms of vitamin B, and skipping them can be detrimental to your health.”
“Instead of being scared of ingredients you don’t know,” she advises, “educate yourself.”
Be skeptical of organic.
If you’ve ever decided to “go organic” and almost passed out at the cash register once your total had been rung up, you know that buying groceries this way is not an option for everyone. Many have assumed, though, that this would be the ideal way to eat if they could afford it.
This isn’t necessarily true.
“Organic foods are the new kids on the block, so producers are fighting aggressively for market share,” says Bruce Chassy, a food safety and nutrition scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. “One way they can increase sales is by convincing you that all chemicals are bad, [genetically modified organisms] (GMOs) are bad, pesticides are bad—and some of that has no basis in science or fact. That makes it very confusing for consumers.”
The benefits of buying organic have been regarded with skepticism for a while, but a 2016 meta-analysis of data pooled from more than 200 studies did suggest that organic food may be more nutrient dense.
Keep in mind that there is always a lot of room for murkiness in labeling, though, so when you decide that you do want to buy something organic, be sure to educate yourself about what you’re really purchasing.
Before you shell out so much cash for that extra-virgin olive oil…
Olive oil is expensive, but we continue to buy it because it’s delicious and, we assume, good for us. Before you spend a lot on a big old bottle of the stuff, though, make sure it’s the real deal.
“Your extra-virgin olive oil may actually be a lower-grade oil,” says Dan Flynn, executive director of the University of California, Davis Olive Center. “In our research, approximately 70 percent of bottles pulled off supermarket shelves were either rancid or did not meet the criteria for the extra-virgin grade.”
He advises finding quality stuff by looking “for a dark glass or tin container, which protects the oil from light, and a harvest date, which better producers often include on the bottle.”
Into Greek yogurt? You should know about this.
It’s no secret that companies will do lots of shady things to save time or money, and yogurt companies are no different.
“Watch out for Greek yogurt that is not authentically strained,” warns Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. “Some manufacturers will use add-ins instead of straining the yogurt to make it thick. How to tell: If you see either whey protein concentrate or milk protein concentrate on the ingredients list, the company is taking shortcuts.”
(No) surprise: Approach meat with caution.
When it comes to buying and consuming meat, it pretty much comes down to choosing the lesser of the evils, of which there are many. If you’re like me, you know that nitrites and nitrates are bad, but you’re not really sure why. Apparently, manufacturers of hot dogs, cold cuts, and bacon have caught on to this ignorance and are trying to use it to their advantage.
“When the label on meat says no nitrates or nitrites added, that’s incorrect,” says Joseph Sebranek, professor of meat science at Iowa State University.
“Most of those products take celery powder, which is very high in natural nitrates, and convert it into a chemical that, in the lab, is no different from the traditional version.”
The trouble appears to lie with cured meats generally. “One concern about processed meats is that nitrites can combine with compounds found in meat at high temperatures to fuel the formation of nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens in animals,” reports the Associated Press.
“It’s a chemical reaction that can happen regardless of the source of the nitrites, including celery juice.”
If you’re more of a seafood person, make sure you’re checking out its country of origin. Beware, specifically, of shrimp. According to Dave Love, a researcher at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:
“The FDA inspects less than 2 percent of our seafood imports, while the European Union inspects 20 to 50 percent of theirs. Since 90 percent of our seafood comes from other countries, banned drug residues and unwanted contaminants could be getting in. If you can, choose domestic seafood (the FDA requires that seafood be labeled with its country of origin), especially if you buy shrimp, because when it is inspected, it fails more than other products.”
Above all, eat more fruits and vegetables
When in doubt, there is one golden rule of health that has never gone out of style: Consume more produce.
“It can get overwhelming with all the advice that’s out there, but the number one basic step you can take is simply to eat more fruits and veggies,” says Bruce Bradley, former marketing executive for General Mills and the author of Fat Profits. “If you want to go further, cook more.”
And go eat a salad.