Processed foods. Years ago, I wasn’t worried about them. Like most people, I knew eating out at fast food places too often was unhealthy. But thinking about what the term processed foods meant was not on my radar. I went to the store and bought my staples each week and went about my day. Back then I didn’t know that my beloved animal crackers were a processed food. I also didn’t know they were a source of inflammation for my body.
I had a true love affair with animal crackers. I can’t even begin to think of how many bags I consumed over the years. Before kids, after having kids – didn’t matter, they were a staple in my pantry.
20 years ago, I was in the ‘eat low fat’ camp to stay healthy. This snack said ‘Low Fat’ on the front. It was like a match made in heaven.
Animal crackers seemed like the perfect on-the-go snack. They didn’t need refrigeration and seemed to fill me up between meals. I was completely unaware that those processed food ingredients were negatively impacting me.
When There’s More to This Than Meets the Eye
You know that feeling when something’s too good to be true. It wasn’t long before I began to notice my stomach would bloat each time I ate animal crackers. I’m not talking a little bloat, but a reposition the belt bloat.
Eventually, a light bulb went off and I accepted that it was time to move on from this love affair.
Little did I know that this was the beginning of me connecting the dots. Processed foods were triggering a gut reaction.
So what gives?
Understanding Ultra-Processed Foods
The more I learned about processed foods, the more I began to understand my how they affect my body.
Historically, processed foods included any food altered from it’s original state. Nowadays, the term ultra-processed has entered the scene. It was created to further define the next-level of processing.
Basic processing can include techniques such as heating, canning, drying or pasteurizing. What’s important to note here is that a large number of our foods are ‘processed’ in some fashion. This confirms the statement that “not all processed foods are unhealthy”.
That said, some foods that go far beyond the basic processing to earn the badge of ultra-processed. This term was established by a team of Brazilian nutritionists conducting a study in 2016 that linked foods with cancer. In their study, they defined ultra-processed foods as: “industrial formulations with five or more ingredients.”
Ultra-processing is next-level. This stage involves adding flavors, additives, chemical preservatives, sugars, oils, fats, and salt. In short, these are the foods you’ll find packaged and placed in the middle aisles of the grocery store.
Marketers are Good at What They Do
I bought animal crackers because they were low in fat, had zero trans fats, and zero cholesterol. It seemed like the perfect snack, wouldn’t you agree?
Well, my friend, I’m here to share with you what I wish I had known way back then.
Marketers use terms like low fat, zero trans fat, zero cholesterol to sell products. And boy did they work on me! Here’s the hard truth: manufacturers are in the business of making money. They are not concerned whether the food is healthy or not.
Manufacturers hire amazing marketing teams who do their job well. They create beautiful designs, use buzz words to attract, and meet labeling requirements.
So most people, like me, look at the label for animal crackers and think “OK! This is a healthy choice!” and drop it in their cart.
But to know the FULL STORY of what you’re eating, you have to read the label AND the ingredients list.
When it Comes to Your Inflammatory Response, Ingredients Matter
Let’s take a look at the ingredients found in these beloved animal crackers. FIVE out of the NINE shown are inflammatory. That’s over 50%! And on top of that, they lack fiber. Bottom line, animal crackers are void of nutrients and will add MORE FUEL to your inflamed body.
Understanding their impact is critical for those battling chronic inflammation. Let’s break them down.
Enriched flour – ultra-processed wheat flour. Though enhanced with synthetic vitamins and minerals, this refined flour is inflammatory.
Soybean Oil – this refined vegetable oil is high in omega 6 fatty acids. While our body requires these fatty acids, our western diet provides more than we need. Vegetable oils are widely used in processed foods. Though it might seem harmless in this one food, there’s a cumulative effect that takes place. Vegetable oils are often used in processed foods, restaurant cooking, etc… It quickly adds up to HIGH levels of this INFLAMMATORY oil being in our diet, wreaking havoc on our guts.
High Fructose Corn Syrup – an artificial sugar made from corn syrup. Studies show this artificial sugar increases inflammatory markers. High intake over time can lead to a wide range of diseases and illnesses.
Salt – while a little in life is ok, be mindful of how much and how often you take it in. Most canned and processed food contains it.
Natural Flavor – a flavor additive created or altered from a natural plant. This lab-produced ingredient enhances flavor and drive sales. Many manufactures can use this as an anything goes option to drive the bottom line of their business. Meaning, it operates as a smokescreen to hide other addictive, harmful ingredients.
It’s safe to say this so-called ‘healthy snack’ of mine has long since hit the curb.
What I Eat Instead for Snacks
You can find ultra-processed foods at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack time. When you decide to make changes, it can feel very overwhelming. Do not let the overwhelm cause you to become stuck. Start small and commit to making ONE change to one snack. Doing so increases the likelihood of success. You will build momentum changing other meals throughout the days and weeks to come. Here are some swap ideas for healthy, fiber-filled, anti-inflammatory snacks:
mixed raw nuts
an apple with almond butter
dairy-free yogurt with homemade granola
sliced veggies with hummus
1/2 avocado with cucumber slices
As you begin to swap ultra-processed foods for fiber-filled foods, your gut comes back to life. Why? Fiber-filled foods feed your good bacteria. In turn they send out inflammation-reducing compounds and everyone gets happy!
Bottom line: Decide if you want to add fuel to your flames or start taming them so you can get your life back. Check labels and read the ingredient lists on the backs of all ultra processed foods. When we know better, we do better.
Sometimes, things are too good to be true, especially when it comes to food.
Listen to your gut and body – it’s giving you signs as it’s trying to get your attention.
Ultra processed foods are where manufacturers add flavors, additives, chemical preservatives, sugars, oils, fats and salt.
Marketers are in the business of selling products, not providing healthy foods
Become your own advocate and health investigator, read labels and ingredient lists.
Pick one meal or snack to start with as you make changes to your processed foods
Join my Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle Support Facebook Group, click HERE to join. Here you’ll stay in the know and ahead of curve for your inflammation game
Ahh…there was nothing quite like the taste of a PB&J after a long day of swimming or chomping into the yumminess during my school lunch breaks…I have fond memories enjoying peanut butter growing up. Back in those days, there were fewer brands to choose from. However, today there so many!
On a recent trip to the grocery store, I paused as I came to the peanut butter section. It both amazed and overwhelmed me looking at all the options. How do you know which brand is providing the best quality? Some brands claim to be made with ‘Real Roasted Peanut taste’ or ‘Natural’ or made with ‘No additives, Sweeteners or Hydrogenated Oils’. What does all that really mean? Is it as simple as trusting the claims shown on the front packaging? Uh…unfortunately, no.
My goal as a health coach is to guide you in your anti-inflammatory lifestyle, providing clarity amidst the confusion. On the surface, this post appears to be about peanut butter. In reality, its largely about the conversation of reading labels and recognizing pro-inflammatory ingredients that aren’t serving your body well. That said, we start somewhere and today we’re starting with peanut butter! I put together a little comparison of two well-known brands (one of which claims to be ‘Natural’) and a ‘cleaner’ store brand. In keeping the playing field even, I made sure to stay within the same price-point, showing that you don’t have to spend a lot to make healthy changes to your diet. Prices range from $2.22 – $2.98.
Curious to know which peanut butter would I ultimately grab if looking for the least inflammatory option, for under $3.00? Read on to learn my thoughts on the ingredients and marketing strategies! And don’t forget to grab the FREE Inflammatory Ingredients Guide down at the bottom of the post! It’s the perfect quick reference shopping guide as you begin to kick inflammatory ingredients to the curb.
Before we dive into the comparison, let’s consider what causes us to typically reach for one brand over another. Bottom line, it’s a strong marketing strategy. Marketing teams work hard to make their brand stand out, to be the most visually appealing, make the biggest claims for health, etc. Food manufacturers, on the other hand, are in the business of selling products. Their concern isn’t necessarily about using the healthiest ingredients, it’s more about getting the biggest bang for their buck. They’ll hire marketers and graphic designers to highlight whatever increases their product sales the most. So more often than not, you’re drawn to whichever brand did their homework the best. It might look good and say the right things on the front of it’s packaging, but is it really made with quality ingredients? I know how overwhelming it can be to stand in front of shelves lined with the same type of product,
but, the one and only way you’re truly going to get the best quality product is by reading the ingredients list!
Now on to my peanut butter spread comparison!
Jif Reduced Fat Peanut Butter
Right off the bat, FOUR ingredients jump out to me: corn syrup solids, sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oils and mono and diglycerides (a.k.a. fillers). So let’s break these down.
Corn syrup solids, a.k.a. dried corn syrup, a.k.a. SUGAR: there’s no two ways about it, sugar is sugar. It doesn’t matter what fancy name you give it, they all lead to the same damaging effect in your body. Studies show too much sugar over time can lead to increased inflammatory markers. When it’s listed as the second ingredient for a food product, unfortunately, you’re getting a lot of it per serving.
Sugar: wait, we just talked about sugar above and here it is again listed as the third ingredient. Eating an excess of sugars in beverages and foods can have a negative impact on your overall health. It can drive up inflammation, lead to weight gain, blood sugar fluctuations, increase the risk of heart disease among many other things.
When you have chronic inflammation, it will only add fuel to the fire that’s already burning.
Fully hydrogenated vegetable oils: Any time you see this ingredient on the list, you should pause and reconsider the purchase. Although it’s considered to be a “better alternative” to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (PHOs…which are basically trans fat and as of June of 2018 are no longer allowed in our food), they may prove to be just as unhealthy. There is another oil modification process that’s being used called interesterification. It’s a process that provides the same functional properties manufacturers are looking for regarding texture, spreadability, extended shelf-life, etc. But the problem is, long-term health ramifications are not well known. Early studies are showing that they may be as unhealthy as trans fats.
Bottom line, if you can find a peanut butter free from any type of hydrogenated vegetable oil, I’d go for that.
Mono and Diglycerides: These ingredients are additives that act as emulsifiers. They help blend the water and oil together, improving the texture and stability of the product, along with extending shelf-life. Here’s the deal, mono and diglycerides contain small amounts of trans fat. Wait, what?!?!? Didn’t I just say trans-fats are banned from our products? While that’s true, there’s this one little loop-hole that manufacturers can skate through. As long as the trans-fats are less than .5 grams per serving, manufacturers are in the clear and don’t have to note it on the label. The only way you’ll know which products are in alignment with your health goals is to read the ingredients.
Central Market Peanut Butter
Ahhh…looking at this ingredient list just makes me smile. 🙂 Peanut Butter with one simple ingredient….dry roasted peanuts. How good is that?? A brand with simple ingredients and a label that delivers on the claims it makes! No added sugar, no added preservatives, no added fillers…just wholesome peanut butter. Open the jar, give it a stir and enjoy without worrying if it will drive up your inflammation markers – unless you’re allergic to peanuts, then just focus on the label reading strategies here! ;).
Skippy Natural Peanut Butter
First, what I like about this list: it’s small AND I can pronounce all the ingredients!! The fewer ingredients in a product the better chance you’re getting closer to a real food item. That said, there are three ingredients that cause me to choose another option. Let’s dig into why.
Sugar: for the same reasons listed in the Jif peanut butter comparison, sugar is a pass for me here. It’s an added element you just don’t need and being the second ingredient, your per serving dose is quite high. Do we really need sugar with our peanuts??? Sugar is present in almost every processed food we eat. Make cuts where you can and you’ll start to see a huge improvement in how your body is feeling and living day-to-day!
Palm Oil: this oil is showing up more and more as a ‘better alternative oil’ in manufacturing. However, its controversial and the verdict is still out on whether it’s truly healthy or not. Its added to peanut butters as a way to keep the oil from separating and settling at the top. Hmmm…so if I just plan to stir my peanut butter before loading up the knife I could have it without the added oil?? Something to consider.
Salt: Here I’m being a little picky. While it isn’t a huge amount of salt, there are other brands that offer less. Salt is another ingredient added in abundance to a lot of processed foods. Without even knowing it you can be over-consuming it. Excessive salt in your diet can lead to issues with your heart health. You have more control when you’re salting your own food. What if you were to buy a low sodium option and add a sprinkle if you’re truly missing it? Something else to consider.
Which Peanut Butter Would I Choose as Part of My Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
So there you have it – a comparison of two brands you’ll find in most stores along with a generic store brand. Can you guess which one I’d go for? If you answered, HEB Central Market store brand, you’re correct! It’s a simple, clean and only one ingredient product and under $3.00. It makes this health coach smile!
Learning to look for pro-inflammatory ingredients gets easier the more you do it. If you found this article to be helpful and you’re to up your label-reading game, download my Inflammatory Ingredients Guide. It’ll help you navigate the grocery store as you work towards decreasing the inflammatory ingredients in your pantry.