How Processed Foods Can Affect Us

How are we being affected by processed foods?  So many of the foods available in the grocery stores today contain additives, artificial ingredients, artificial colors, chemicals, stabilizers, thickeners, fillers and artificial flavors, or something called “natural flavors” that the manufacturers don’t identify.  Those additives can be potentially harmful to our health, especially for people with sensitivities, people with a medical condition or a family history of certain medical issues, or when eaten in excess.

But equally troubling is the fact that many children and teens have no idea that spaghetti sauce doesn’t have to come out of a jar (made with corn syrup!), real cheese is not a blinding gold color and salad dressings can be made without sugar.  They don’t know that soup doesn’t have to come in a can, and a family meal doesn’t have to come from a box or a bag or a drive-through window.

Processed foods are modified or processed for specific purposes.  Some foods contain tasteless fillers to take up space and save money (those fillers replace real ingredients that would cost a lot more money).  Some contain excess salt.  Savory foods (like salad dressings, pasta sauces, meat and rice dishes) can contain sugar in several forms which we have  become used to and now expect.  Many are processed to create a dependence on the foods and an addictive taste.

And too many foods contain a chemically modified substance called a “free glutamate” that goes by a lot of different names.

Lately, as a result of trying to learn more about processed foods, I’ve been studying glutamates.  There are “free glutamates” and “bound glutamates”.  Without “bound glutamates”, which are essential amino acids, our brains wouldn’t function properly.  It all has to do with how brain cells transmit signals, and bound glutamates help that process happen in the right way (our metabolic and digestive systems also rely on these amino acids to stay healthy). Glutamates are found in their natural, good, “bound” state in many foods such as cheese, milk, tomatoes, mushrooms, meats and fish.  I know, it sounds like the free glutamates should be the good ones (because free is usually a good thing, right?), and the bound ones sound like they’re the bad ones, but the reason they’re called “bound” is that they are bound to a protein which allows us to properly digest and use them.  Free glutamates are kind of running around out of control, like a dangerous dog that’s gotten loose and can’t be caught, so you can think of it that way.

Chemists found a way to free the glutamates, to alter them and artificially isolate them.  These free glutamates create excessive cravings and dependencies, and that feeling of wanting more (like when you suddenly realize you nearly ate the whole box instead of the recommended one-ounce serving size). The free glutamates add taste, flavor, a certain feeling of being satisfied, excitability, and then they make us want more and more and more. We can’t properly process or use them in this free state, and in fact they may be harming us. In excess (and for some susceptible people), they have the potential to damage nerve cells and brain cells and brain function.

Many of us are familiar with Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).  It’s a free glutamate, artificially manipulated to un-bind the natural glutamate.  Some people say it gives them a headache, some people claim it has no effect on them whatsoever, and some researchers are now claiming that these free glutamates are damaging our brains.  MSG is only one of the free glutamates, however.  This site contains a list of free glutamates and how they may appear on food labels:

Researchers have observed that 50 or 60 years ago or more, people consumed some free glutamates, but in extremely limited amounts. Eating a fast food meal was a rare thing, and there were not many convenience or processed foods.  That has drastically changed, and so has our health (obesity, diabetes, autism, ADHD and other health concerns are on the rise).  On a single can of cream-of-something soup available today, there can be three sources of free glutamates!  And with manufacturers suggesting that we make family meal time “quick and easy” by using a different can or boxed mix every night, how many of these free glutamates are we eating?  And what about the diet sodas, dinner-in-a-box, packaged seasoning mixes, dinners that are shelf-stable, grocery market deli food, and fast food as a regular daily lunch or supper?  (The next time you’re picking up a deli container of potato salad in the store, ask for the ingredient list at the deli counter and they’ll print one for you – I read a potato salad ingredient list from a national grocery store chain.  Corn syrup and sugar are on the list FOUR separate times, as well as THREE separate mentions of xanthan gum and a list of mostly chemical ingredients that was twelve lines long.  Whatever happened to potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, chopped cucumbers or celery, some real mayonnaise or plain yogurt, Dijon mustard and maybe a couple of herbs?)

Some well-respected organizations that provide support to patients and caregivers who are facing serious debilitating and degenerative neurological diseases are researching a possible connection between free glutamates and the diseases’ progression or even possible causes.  There’s a word for it: excitotoxicity.  If you look that up, you’ll read many cautions about free glutamates and the addictive cravings they create, neurological disruptions that they may cause, and possible links to neurological and psychological conditions and degenerative diseases.  There are countless websites that are designed to provide support and help to migraine sufferers and people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Alzheimer’s Disease, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  The majority of these sites, it seems, address dietary concerns and stress the importance of avoiding processed foods in general, and free glutamates in particular.  Some sites claim that strictly avoiding free glutamates (along with other healthy eating habits) can possibly slow the diseases’ progression, and some say that, in certain cases, some symptoms can be alleviated. Some sites claim even more dramatic positive results. No one says it’s a complete cure, but there’s a lot of focus on these free glutamates, their presence in so many foods, the hidden ways they can be labeled (a food product can say “no MSG” but still may list several other free glutamates in its ingredient list.   That’s like saying there’s no blue paint on the walls, there’s only purple, but purple = red + blue!) and their possible connections to, or even causes of, these neurological conditions.  The research appears to be centered around both glutamates from foods, and the way some people’s brains use glutamates.  Now, I realize that a quick internet search about diseases can provide some pretty weird results (some rather obvious quack cures, claims of pricey “cures”) but this free glutamate research is not advocating buying anything except fresh food, or trying to sign you up for a delivery of anything to your door or sell you a pill or oil or book.  It’s just the opposite: the researchers are imploring us to simply eat real food and avoid the processed stuff.

When you’re watching a family TV show, pay attention to how many commercials involve making dinner ‘fast and easy’ so that the family can sit and eat.  Just dump a box or bag in the slow cooker, or throw the contents of a seasoning packet on the food, or use a different can of soup or jar of sauce every night to make ‘memorable’ meals.  We’re encouraged to pick up a container of something on the way home and serve it without even considering what’s in it.   Cooking together can be as meaningful as eating together.

fresh vegetables

So, let’s change things.  Let’s serve real food, and cook together, even if it’s as simple as a fried egg or oatmeal from real oats, or a salad with a simple homemade dressing of olive oil and vinegar and fresh herbs. Let’s collect some basic recipes for homemade soups, or ways to make homemade healthy versions of things we use most.  Look in your pantry or on your shelves.  What do you rely on?  Do you have a collection of seasoning packets?  Cans of cream soups for pouring over chicken?  Boxed mixes?  Let’s figure out how to make those meals simpler and healthier.  There’s no need to give up tacos – just take 5 minutes to make a batch of the homemade seasoning.  You don’t need to give up favorite meals – just make them healthier! If there’s something you use frequently, and the ingredient list looks pretty suspect and full of multi-syllable chemical-sounding words, feel free to ask me about it and I’ll help you find a homemade, easy way to make it or something else that you can use that will be healthier and simpler.

I’m not a scientist, and I don’t claim to understand all the research behind these additives, but I do know that the food on our tables is becoming less natural and real and pure, and more artificial and processed, and we’re becoming dependent on sugar and addictive artificial flavors.

Let’s help our kids taste food that isn’t the colors of a preschooler’s neon finger paints, disguised with fake stuff, or bio-mechanical-astro-chemical-geo-modified (yeah, I made that up) and altered so that it will still be shelf-stable long after the shelves have collapsed and disintegrated.

That’s pure foodishness.

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