Although the addition of nutrition labels to packaged foods has given consumers more information about what they’re eating, they are confusing in many ways. The food industry has fought the implementation of these labels and continues to fight each time there is an attempt to make them more informative for customers. Food manufacturers have greatly influenced the information provided on the label and they have made sure that the information most damning to their products is as misleading as possible.
Dr. Allen and I often write about whole foods. What exactly does that mean? The healthiest foods for your body are plants, which have been processed as little as possible. Why? Because each additional bit of processing, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can lead to a loss of nutrients. Whole foods are foods that you can picture growing in the ground or hanging from a plant. They are things our grandmothers would recognize as food. If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.
Why is this important? Because our bodies are adapted to eat whole foods in such a way that their combination of nutrients works well for us. And we’re not just talking about the nutrients we see on a nutrition label. There are many, as yet unknown substances in foods, which work together in ways we don’t fully understand, with the nutrients we do know about. They all work together like the many different instruments in a symphony orchestra, albeit in much more complex ways. When you eat a whole food, your body knows exactly how much to absorb of nutrients both known and unknown, to provide optimal nutrition to your body. Many of the healthiest foods don’t even come with nutrition labels.
When you eat processed foods, such as the seemingly healthy whole grain (but enriched) breakfast cereal below, it confuses your body. It has never seen this combination of chemicals in nature. Because this food has been processed, many of those as-yet-unknown nutrients have been lost. So manufacturers “enrich” foods, adding back some of the (known) nutrients that were lost during processing. These “enriching” nutrients look good on the nutrition label, but they are not the same as the real thing. So, it’s not just about looking for the term “whole grain” on the label.
Additionally, much of the fiber that makes us feel full, and is so important to feeding the gut bacteria that keep us healthy, has been removed. Preservatives are often added, to keep food from spoiling, but these kill some gut bacteria as well.
Have a look at the nutrition label on a box of Total “Whole Grain” Cereal and compare it to the nutrition label on a jar of oatmeal. The Total Whole Grain Cereal looks much more impressive, doesn’t it?
Although the Total Whole Grain Cereal looks like the winner, the nutrition label doesn’t tell the whole story. Although “whole grain” in the name sounds impressive, the product is highly processed. Nutrition labels says nothing about the level of processing and also fail to mention phytonutrients. These substances, critically important to our health, are often lost during processing. Phytonutrients are present in abundance in whole plant foods, and are often found in especially large amounts near the surface or peel, where they defend the plant from attack. Animal foods contain virtually no phytonutrients. They don’t need them; when animals are attacked, they fight or run away.
Your body often does not know what to do with the “enriched” nutrients added to make up for nutrients lost during processing. Either their chemical form is unfamiliar or unnaturally large amounts have been added. Or those as-yet-unknown, but important nutrients that are normally present in the whole food are lacking. The many nutrients in whole wheat (the full symphony orchestra) are not the same as the nutrients in enriched wheat (large parts of the orchestra are missing, but there are 10 times as many violins.) Important phytonutrients are often attached to the fiber, which is thrown out during processing. Some of the “enriching” nutrients end up in our urine. The added calcium is often deposited in our arterial walls, rather than in our bones as we had hoped. That is not a good thing.
This graph gives you some idea of how whole wheat flour compares to refined flour and enriched flour. The whole wheat flour wins when compared to refined and enriched flour. But we can do even better.
There is a continuum from most healthy to least healthy: whole wheat berries are better than cracked wheat, is better than whole wheat flour, is better than whole wheat pastry flour (more finely ground), which is better than enriched wheat flour. An entire apple (washed) is better than a peeled apple, is better than apple sauce, is better than apple cider, which is better than apple juice. The difference is in the amount of processing. More processed food means there's less left to eat for our vital gut bacteria.
Although you should look for “whole grain”, as shown here, the length and complexity of the ingredient list will give you a better idea of the level of processing the food has gone through.
So eat the oatmeal, which is minimally processed (preferably with fruit), instead of the Total cereal, which is heavily processed. Don’t worry whether you will reach 100% of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for the nutrients on the label. Humans have done just fine for centuries before nutrition labels existed. Eat whole foods when you can, and eat them in their least processed form. Eat fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains and mushrooms, and your good gut bacteria will thrive. And when they thrive, you will thrive!