If you think you’re getting one of your five daily servings of fruit and vegetables from the blueberries in your bagels, think again. This morning I read an article in the paper about how the blueberries in bagels and some breakfast cereals are nothing more than a carefully crafted blend of sugar, corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors, and a your favorite food dyes. Not blueberries? WTF?
What’s worse, the pictures on the packaging of these products suggest that the food inside is fruit-filled and wholesome. Not so. Furthermore, it’s not just one company randomly producing this offensive “food”. Fake blueberries can be found in Kellogg’s, Betty Crocker, and General Mills products, and the faux fruit is served up in everything from bagels and muffins to breakfast cereals.
Wow, where do I even start with this kind of information? I am asked regularly by my patients what they should be eating. There are a number of answers, depending on the patient and their current diet. However lately, I’ve been starting with something from author Michael Pollen (Food Rules, In Defense of Food, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma), who says that we should Just Eat Food. This seems like a no-brainer, but obviously it’s trickier than you think if you can’t even trust the blueberries in your blueberry muffins.
Food is nutrition in its natural state, harvested from the field, orchard, ocean, or the barnyard, not produced in a lab. When you read the labels on food packaging, it should contain ingredients that you recognize and might actually have on the shelf in your pantry or refrigerator. For example, oatmeal, string beans, and olives are food. Disodium guanylate, TBHQ, guar gum, and BHT are not food—you wouldn’t buy them individually, and you won’t open your cupboard looking for some.
In Chinese medicine, these foods that are not foods are a problem on several of levels. There is nothing in the ancient Chinese medical texts on foods processed with chemicals, dyes, and fake blueberries, simply because these things didn’t exist when the texts were written. However, a general concept of health according to the Chinese is based on the premise that humans reside between Heaven and Earth. Therefore, the elements that sustain us humans come from the air you breathe (Heaven) and the food you eat (Earth).
I’ll leave the topic of air and breathing for a future post. The subject here is about eating food that comes from the Earth. Simply put, eating and properly digesting healthful food that comes from the Earth is the source of all of your body’s nutrients and energy. So if you’re sustaining yourself on food that has been genetically modified, pumped full of antibiotics, chemically preserved, and artificially colored or flavored, you’re missing the concept of gathering your nutrients from Mother Earth.
In addition, one of the causes of disease in Chinese medicine is from poisoning. Centuries ago, this meant being stung by a scorpion or mistakenly eating a poisonous plant. However, today all the chemicals, preservatives, dyes, and artificial flavorings might also be considered a poison if eaten as a dietary staple.
Another issue is with something the Chinese call wrecked foods. These are foods that have gone bad, become stale or rancid and are similar to the refried beans in the back of your refrigerator which have grown a fuzzy blue top on them. Many of the foods produced today are made to sit on a grocery store shelf for weeks and even months. This is done by infusing them with preservatives, hydrogenated oils, and artificial ingredients, simply because real food won’t stand that kind of test of time. Real food is meant to be eaten within hours or a couple of days from the time it was harvested.
So how do you get more of that real food onto your plate? Here are a couple of guidelines (some mine, some adapted from Michael Pollen):
Foods with a single ingredient are pretty much real. Fish, cabbage, spinach, and lentils are all real foods. They don’t come with a label listing their ingredients.
Fruits and vegetables found in the produce section of your grocery store are foods. Products boasting that they’re made with “real fruit” are probably getting close to the fake blueberry dark side.
Products with a very long list of ingredients tend not to be food, especially if you can’t pronounce many of the items on the list.
Products that have only microwavable instructions for heating are moving into the gray area of not food.
Products that come in packaging with all sorts of health claims tend to be sketchy. You don’t see health claims on a bunch of spinach.
If it comes from your garden or could have come from your garden, it’s food.
This one comes from Michael Pollen: If your breakfast cereal changes the color of your milk, it’s not food.
And finally, one last bit of advice. If you want fruit in your cereal or muffins, buy the fruit, cut it up and add it yourself. As for the bagels, you’re probably better off buying poppy seed.