GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND -- As you may have heard, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute last week released new guidelines for cholesterol levels for all of us. The institute says we should have less of the waxy substance that likes to clog up our arteries.
During the last year or so, I have become a lot more conscious and sophisticated when it comes to recognizing the bad things in foods largely because I think more about what makes up those foods. In my other life, for instance, a thick, juicy steak was composed of sliced cow. I now know that's not exactly right: It's composed of cow and fat, and animal fat helps raise the levels of cholesterol in the blood. Education is so nice.
Because of this new sophistication, the announcement of revised cholesterol guidelines set me to thinking about the ingredients in commercially prepared foods that can work to elevate our blood cholesterol -- specifically saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. Commercially prepared foods, generally speaking, are anything God didn't make whole. He, for instance, made cows, peanuts, and hot Bahamian peppers, but He didn't make nondairy creamer, crunchy peanut butter and Twinkies.
I am sure you, too, have learned to recognize many of the made-by-God foods that contain a lot of cholesterol and/or saturated fat. But if you are like me, and aren't too good yet in recognizing those ingredients in commercially prepared foods, I think you will find this little nutritional educational project of interest.
A nutritional scavenger hunt. The idea is to become familiar with the ingredients of the commercially prepared foods you like the best, the ones in your kitchen. You'll find the clues you need on the product labels. Look for cholesterol and fat, for sure. And, since you're going through cabinets and the refrigerator once, look for salt and sugar, too. You will find them in the most unlikely products and in doses that may surprise you.
As you look, pay special attention to similar products from different manufacturers. Such as two makes of peanut butter. Peanut butter isn't peanut butter, as you will find.
What labels will tell you. Most products now give you two types of useful data on their labels: nutritional information per serving and a listing of product ingredients. The nutritional information is pretty straightforward. By portion size, it analyzes those things in a product that have a nutritional impact -- such as calories, carbohydrates, fats, protein, sodium, cholesterol, vitamins, and minerals.
The "ingredient" labeling is a little more devious and seems to use words probably developed with the cooperation of the Pentagon's office of public affairs. But that's okay. With a little practice, you will be able to make sense of them. Ingredients, incidentally, are listed by weight, so pay particular attention to the goodies at the top of the list.
Some things to look for on labels:
1. Cholesterol. Products low in cholesterol are beginning to say that specifically, but products high in cholesterol don't exactly advertise the fact. For instance, frozen quiche or spinach souffle' will obviously list eggs, which contain cholesterol, as an ingredient. But they probably won't include cholesterol on their nutrition information labels.
2. The different types of fats. They are as different as night and day in their health implications. Saturated fats come from animals and a few plant sources. Eating too much saturated fat promotes higher levels of blood cholesterol. Animal fats usually are identified as animal shortening, beef fat, animal fat, lard and the like. The saturated fats from plant sources include coconut, palm and palm kernel oil, as well as cocoa butter. Too many words like that on your labels, and your body isn't going to like you.
Even that innocent word "vegetable" can be bad for you if the word "hydrogenated" is anywhere near it. The word hydrogenated or hydrogenation turns a good fat into a bad one by making it more saturated, more like animal fat. And any saturated fat, animal or vegetable, helps to raise blood cholesterol whether the product contains any cholesterol or not. That's why tub margarine, for instance, is better for you than stick margarine. Neither have cholesterol, but the stick margarine is higher in hydrogenated vegetable oil -- saturated fat.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are better for you, as long as you eat them within recommended guidelines. These fats don't seem to trigger the same cholesterol-raising mechanisms in our body and in some cases may work to lower blood cholesterol. Unhydrogenated (liquid) safflower, sunflower, and corn oil, to name three you'll find on the labels, are high in polyunsaturates.
The most important thing for you to remember when you are thinking about cholesterol and labels, therefore, isn't the word cholesterol -- that's usually more obvious -- but any word that indicates saturated fat. And "hydrogenated" vegetable oil says it as surely as a wonderfully fatty slab of roast beef.
Ingredient labeling at times indicates that a product may be made with either animal or vegetable shortening or with or without hydrogenated oils. Manufacturers are allowed to "either/or" you on this pretty important point so that on any given day they can use whatever ingredient is available or is the cheapest without having to change labels constantly.
That doesn't help you too much, but seeing the "either/or" can make you think before you buy next time. Look for a similar product, which lists specific ingredients.
3. Sodium. When doctors speak of lowering your salt intake, they really mean lowering your sodium intake. But because we use the word "salt" virtually interchangeably with sodium, advertisers of some products have found nice ways to say or imply "salt-free" even though their products contain lots of sodium. You therefore need to look for any ingredient with a "sodium" derivative word attached to it (such as baking soda or sodium aluminum phosphate).
Also look for these terms: baking powder, brine (just salt and water), broth or bouillon (usually high in sodium), or MSG (that famous monosodium glutamate found in oriental cooking, among other foods).
4. Sugars. All sugars are simple carbohydrates. And most of us think all carbohydrates are real good for us. That's why a manufacturer will be very happy to list the number of grams of carbohydrate in his product.
But simple carbohydrates don't give us the vitamins and minerals and other nutritional values complex carbohydrates such as carrots or rice give us. They simply contribute to your spreading waistline.
The manufacturer won't normally make that distinction for you, however. Simple carbohydrates will be lumped with the more productive kinds. (Cereal boxes are beginning to be praiseworthy exceptions.) So if you see a lot of the following words near the top of an ingredients list, you can bet that an awful lot of carbohydrate grams are coming from sugars rather than from nice things like vegetables: corn syrup, brown sugar, honey, invert sugar, maple syrup, molasses, cane syrup. Or, any term ending in "ose" -- sucrose, fructose, dextrose, glucose, or lactose. Or, terms ending in "tol" -- things like sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol are simply the alcohol form of glucose.
Why can't this be simpler? It could be, of course. Nutritional information could actually be given in words a normal person can understand, and the real meanings of such phrases as "low in fat," "no cholesterol" and "no salt" could be defined. But perhaps that would take the fun out of it.
So, why not shop at a "natural" food store? Because their foods aren't any better. Contrary to what your local health food store may tell you, prepared and processed foods are not necessarily bad for you. It's how they are prepared that makes the difference. Comparing labels will point you to the good ones, and the good ones in your regular store will always cost you less than a similar product in a health food store.