“If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it”, she said. It was a radio interview and the guest (not a registered dietitian) was giving tips on how to eat “healthy.”
Being a dietitian, this is advice I often hear and sometimes I’m asked if this is a good rule to live by. I agree that it is ideal to try and focus on minimally processed, whole foods but, in reality most of us are going to be buying some processed foods. So, why do we vilify ingredient lists that have words we don’t recognize?
Sometimes, what we don’t know can seem scary. In some cases, the unfamiliar sounding “chemical” names of ingredients are just very specific names for common household ingredients that you might use regularly in your cooking and baking. The word “chemical” is often used as a synonym for artificial, industrial and toxic when in fact, all matter (living and non-living) is made up of chemicals. For example, have you ever added lime juice to guacamole or lemon juice to apple slices to keep them from browning? When you do, you’re adding the chemical citric acid (which can sound pretty daunting on a label) but, it’s actually found naturally in citrus fruits. Citric acid acts like a preservative to keep foods from moulding quickly or browning before you are ready to eat them.
Don’t get me wrong I really do believe that knowing what you’re eating is an important factor in healthy eating but, I also have confidence that Health Canada carefully regulates what additives can be added to the foods we eat. For me, other important considerations include: where did the food come from? how was it made? and is it found in one of the four food groups?
While it can be helpful to read food labels, it’s also useful to make choices guided by general principles of healthy eating. We don’t need to be able to pronounce every single ingredient to make healthy choices. Not only can this result in a much more satisfying experience, it can also make it easier to make healthy food choices that you actually enjoy.
“Food” for thought – here are a few commonly questioned ingredients in foods that sound scarier than they are:
|Examples of a few common ingredients or components of food||Description, use and potential function|
|Sodium bicarbonate||Main active ingredient of baking soda. Used to leaven products or help grain products ‘rise’. Also used to help stabilise canned products.|
|Acetic acid||Vinegar! Often used in preserving and pickling foods. Helps control the pH of products for food stability and increase shelf life.|
|Ascorbic acid||Vitamin C! Can be added as an anti-oxidant to improve shelf life of a food or to fortify a food such as breakfast cereals.|
|Citric acid||A naturally occurring acid in fruits, such as lemons and limes. Often added for flavour and pH control for food stability and improved shelf life.|
|Lecithin||A naturally occurring compound found in both animals and plants. It was first found and isolated from egg yolks but, now can be commonly extracted from sources such as soybeans. Among its many roles in non-food and food products, it’s commonly used as an emulsifier which helps keep foods from separating, such as in margarine.|
|Guar gum||Natural “gum” that comes from the guar plant (the seed endosperm, specifically) that can be used in all kinds of food and non-food applications. It can help foam, thicken and hold moisture in many products from beverages to baked goods.|