Processed Food Wars: Why the Stuff You Buy at Whole Foods May Be Cheaper Than You Think

Whole Foods Market

April 5, 2015, is Easter Sunday, the third day of Passover, and the four month-and-three day mark to the scheduled birth of my first baby (!!!). My wife and I won’t be finding out what we’re having because there are so few natural surprises in this world — why not enjoy the few that we can?

But I’m head-steaming angry today, even amid such beauty and hope for the future of my family, because on a tour of my own mother’s cupboard I found sample after sample of the substance that will be, I predict, the bane of Western health…and beyond, as the worst influences of our processed-food culture spread like a virus around the world to countries that lack or ability to medically intervene into the cardiac diseases and high cholesterol — what the Mayo Clinic calls a “double whammy” — that can be wrought by fake-food.

Let’s not be subtle; let’s name names: the culprits were cake mixessoup and dip mixes, and even a matzo ball mix (my heart broke that such an innocuous, nostalgic treat could be putrid) sold and/or distributed under the Manischewitz and Goodman’s brands.

I predict (here I’m doing so in writing, for unfortunate posterity if I end up being correct) that it will be the cause of a rash of very weird heart attacks by the time my generation and my parents’ generation reach their Golden Years. That substance is trans fat, which is principally unnatural as it appears in our daily diets — and that’s important, because do you know what else is almost entirely unnatural? Plastic. Would you want your children eating plastic? How about styrofoam (polystyrene)?

Trans fat is more complex than its name suggests. To the non-chemists among us, the name sounds jargony (“polyunsaturated,” anyone?), or perhaps like fat that has transformed from one substance to another. The latter is sort of true, but that’s not where the name comes from: it is a reference to the chemistry of the fat molecule involved — namely, when fatty acid chains exist in the trans configuration rather than the cis configuration.

This matters because, in the words of the American Chemical Society, “Although trans fats and saturated fats share several properties, research is showing that they behave differently as they are transported and metabolized in our bodies. The revised health concerns associated with the consumption of trans fats have led to bans in many communities and food industries, including several fast food companies.” The following is from a review article in the Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences:

Fatty acids constitute the main class of lipids in the human diet, being found in nature mainly as glycerol esters that originate triacylglycerols. In the vegetal and animal kingdoms, fatty acids generally have cis un saturations. In this form, the hydrogens bound to the double bond carbons are on the same side. In another possible configuration, called trans, the hydrogens are bound to un saturations. carbons on opposing sides.

Fatty acids with one or more un saturations. in the trans configuration are calledtrans fatty acids (TFA). To this class also belong monounsaturated trans fatty acids (MTFA), a group of fatty acids that have only one un saturation, which is necessarily in the trans form. Polyunsaturated trans fatty acids (PTFA), similarly to their cis counterparts, have two or more un saturations., either all trans or not (Dutton 1979, Wolff 1992).

The concern with the ratio of intake of foods containing high TFA amounts has grown in the recent years mainly due to the hazardous effects of these lipids on plasma lipoproteins that increase low density lipoprotein (LDL-c) and lipoprotein a(Lp[a]) levels and decrease the levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL-c). This condition contributes to increase the LDL-c/HDL-c ratio, which is considered an important indicator of the risk of development of cardiovascular diseases (Ascherio et al. 1999, Hunter 2005).Additionally, the high consumption of TFA during pregnancy has been associated to effects on intrauterine development (Decsi and Koletzko 1995).

It has also been observed a rise in allergic diseases upon the high ingestion of these fatty acids (Weiland et al. 1999). Based on these observations, it is advisable to reduce the amounts of dietary TFA. Thus, it is important to consider the TFA forming-processes in foods as well as the alternatives to minimize them. From this perspective, the aim of this paper is to discuss the production of TFA in vegetal oil refining and hydrogenation, meat irradiation, food frying, and bio hydrogenation.

Allow me to translate this quote into English: “Additionally, the high consumption of TFA during pregnancy has been associated to effects on intrauterine development.” This means “high consumption of trans fats can cause birth defects.” But, you might say (as my own mother did) the package says “zero grams of trans fat.” She said that means the food does not containtrans fats, and she’s in the clear, despite the fact that the list of ingredients says “partially hydrogenated _____[insert oil description here]______.” Or, you might think, but if the food has just a “trace” (Mom’s word) of trans fat, how bad could it be? The Mayo Clinic answers that question definitively:

In the United States if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the food label can read 0 grams trans fat. This hidden trans fat can add up quickly, especially if you eat several servings of multiple foods containing less than 0.5 grams a serving.

I explained to my mother, with confessed consternation at her naivete (she was an oncology nurse, and my father is a diabetic kidney transplant patient so she is not a stranger to the labyrinths of American healthcare), that FDA labeling rules are the products of intense lobbying effort. But on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, it may be relevant to point out that “denial is more than just a river in Egypt”: like many families who grew out of the Eastern European shtetls, our health history reads like Gray’s Anatomy (the book, not the show), with everything from familial hypercholesterolemia,diabetes mellitus, a couple different cancers, and congestive heart failure…and those are just on my father’s side; Mom’s side includes Tourette’s Syndome. We also inherited an extraordinary physical resilience — my paternal grandmother has her 90th birthday tomorrow, and Dad’s Dad turns 93 on Thursday. I’d like to walk down the same long-lived path but I’m not sure I’ll have the chance. Can a childhood filled with poor food choices be reversed?

At just eight years old (fifth grade) I was prescribed into a hospital-affiliated “fat camp” — and the only reason I stopped taking Lipitor (when I was about 28 years old) is because I had begun experiencing the nasty side effect of muscular catalysis. I can’t ascribe those results entirely to a childhood fondness for video games and Kraft Singles, but I can say they didn’t help. Consider: Kraft Singles cannot even legally be described as “cheese.” Shouldn’t the “processed cheese food” description be a giveaway that “maybe this substance isn’t great for kids to eat — even if they love its cute, convenient package?”

As I have aged, and now that I’m staring at the forthcoming birth of my own child, I have taken charge of my nutrition. (I still don’t sleep enough, but such is the plight of the entrepreneur.) I don’t obsess about organics — they strike me as something of a racket —but my wife and I avoid buying anything edible that contains substances we don’t immediately recognize as “food.” We were thrilled to find that, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, Whole Foods is actually less expensive than Safeway on many staple items such as milk, bread, juice, certain cereals, and natural meats and cheeses.

But in myriad ways the damage is done: because I was a fat child, I have more adipose tissue to deal with than I hope my kid will. Translation: I’m always likely to be fatter than he or she will (hopefully) be, because I have more fat cells than he or she (hopefully) will have. A 2008 article in Nature described findings from research done in Sweden: “The discovery suggests that the process of weight gain may be fundamentally different in adults and in children. Adults who gain or lose weight may do so through changes in the size of the fat cells, also called adipocytes, that constitute fatty deposits in the body. Children, on the other hand, may put on extra fat by increasing the overall number of these cells in the body. This may mean that people who got fat during childhood may find it more difficult to shift the weight later in life.” National Geographic adds: “Spalding’s stunning results help to explain why so many overweight and obese people find it very hard to lose weight. Having built up a large supply of fat cells that is constantly replenished throughout adult life, they’re already at a disadvantage.”

[A childhood friend once said that I would “always fight against my weight.” I didn’t believe him, and I was disappointed to think he may have be right.]

“Already at a disadvantage.” What a shame that would be! My child isn’t even born yet. If there’s one thing I — like you, I’m sure — am committed to, it’s ensuring that my unborn child has every chance possible to succeed. Will he or she be rich and famous? Will he or she be gregarious and powerful or reserved and introspective, or a combination thereof? Will he or she go into law or medicine, or the military or public safety, or technology or banking or politics or education or wine-making or retail or the study of the human mind or the arts or astronomy? I have no idea, and I’m in no rush to find out; here’s hoping that my daughter or son will seek and find inspiration. But I’ll stop at nothing to obliterate unnecessary blockages — and that includes within her or his arteries. En garde, Processed Food Industry.(You won’t like me when I’m angry.)

Jonathan Feit is the CEO of Beyond Lucid Technologies

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11 replies »

  1. Corporate food America is corrupting “organic” with more and more “additives” or “processes” that the FDA allows to dilute the meaning, intent and core of the organic label.

    See http://www.cornucopia.org/ for much more information.

  2. The food industry externalizes the cost of bad nutrition, at least in this country where congress was long ago purchased; other countries have banned trans fats, BGH and GMO’s. Sadly not here and with one of the major parties full of climate change deniers and creationists, unlikely anytime soon. Like you, for much of my adult life I was too heavy though fortunately I changed how I eat-basically low car and paleo-and now weigh near what I did in high school.

  3. Semi-tangential: I’ve heard that Whole Foods is adjusting prices down anyway in many categories thanks to pressure from competitors, including (interestingly) Trader Joe’s …