What the Fork Are You Eating?: An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate

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9780399167966: What the Fork Are You Eating?: An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate

It's labeled "natural," "grass-fed," or "free-roaming;" yet it might be anything but. It's time to find out what you're actually eating...

When your groceries are labeled “low-fat,” “sugar-free,” and even “natural” and "antibiotic-free," it’s easy to assume that you’re making healthy choices. Yet even some of those seemingly wholesome offerings contain chemical preservatives, pesticides, and artificial flavors and coloring that negatively affect your health. In What the Fork Are You Eating?, a practical guide written by certified chef and nutritionist Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN, we learn exactly what the most offensive ingredients in our food are and how we can remove (or at least minimize) them in our diets. Sacks gives us an aisle-by-aisle rundown of how to shop for healthier items and create simple, nutritious, and delicious meals, including fifty original recipes.

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About the Author:

Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN,  is a culinary nutritionist—a certified chef with a master of science in nutrition from Columbia University. She is also an educator, speaker, consultant, and host of the radio show Stirring the Pot. Sacks is passionate about promoting wellness through food. After asthma, allergies, recurring bronchitis, and pneumonia shaped much of her childhood, she discovered how food could help her heal. She lives in Montauk, New York, with her husband, two active boys, and a yellow Lab.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FOREWORD

My dear friend and nutritional sounding board Stefanie Sacks is an impassioned food warrior—just listen to her wonderful public radio show, WPPB’s Stirring the Pot. She represents the yin and yang of healthy food advocacy—the love of delicious, nourishing food and the zeal for holding the food industry’s feet to the fire, blowing the whistle on the cheap sugar, fat, salt, and weird industrial chemicals getting poured into processed foods that dominate the supermarket. Now you, the reader, can make your voice heard with your fork.

I first met Stefanie almost twenty years ago when I was the director of nutrition at the Canyon Ranch spa in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. She had recently graduated from culinary school and was beginning her master’s degree in nutrition education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She sought me out, eager even then, because she recognized that we shared a common passion—we were both nutritionists (or, in her case, a budding nutritionist) who loved food and cooking. Back then, that combination wasn’t so easy to find!

Fast forward ten years, and I’m at the prestigious Integrative Healthcare Symposium in Manhattan listening to a presentation given by Stefanie and another cutting-edge nutritionist friend of mine, Mary Beth Augustine, MS, RDN, CDN. They emphasized the harms that the food component gluten, found in many grains and in so much of our food supply, could do to digestion and to overall health. This was before gluten had become a trendy nutritional hot-button issue. As someone who had once suffered from an undiagnosed sensitivity to gluten, I was impressed with their marshaling of the scientific evidence and the conviction they brought to their presentation. When Stefanie and I compared notes later on, we weren’t surprised to find that we’d both struggled with chronic unwellness in our earlier years. Like a lot of the most committed people in our field, we’d been to hell with our own health and we had found our way out by changing our diet. It’s that story that drives her passion to share what she knows with her clients and now her readers. It’s what steels her backbone to challenge the nutritional status quo.

I discovered Stefanie’s love of food and the joy she takes in being in the kitchen over these past five years leading nutrition and culinary workshops with her at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, one of the landmark wellness centers in the Berkshires. She also brings her knowledge and culinary toolkit to the national educational course I organize every year for the Center for Mind-Body Medicine called “Food As Medicine.” Stefanie, one of my “cooks on call,” leads food demos and shares insights with the conference faculty and participants.

A course taught by Stefanie is like no other. In one, we blindfolded the students to put them in closer touch with the sensory experience of food. In just about all of our shared workshops, she cranked up the music, and when we weren’t cooking, we were dancing. She was probably the most “tuned-in” person I’ve ever shared a kitchen with. Everything was beautifully organized. And she met each student where they were at, going over basic knife skills with the beginners so they could safely shed their fears and trading treasured recipes with the advanced students, some of whom had worked in professional kitchens.

In What the Fork Are You Eating? Stefanie has taken on a serious and daunting project—getting rid of the bad food in our diet and replacing it with what’s better—and made it manageable for a wide range of readers, neophytes and the nutritional mavens alike. In researching and writing this book, she’s become a formidable expert on the issues, one on whom I rely for the latest and best information (I brought The Swift Diet: 4 Weeks to Mend the Belly, Lose the Weight, and Get Rid of the Bloat into this world at about the same time Stefanie was working on this book; our regular check-in phone calls were to me, and I hope to her, an invaluable resource). But for all the knowledge she’s amassed, her approach is refreshingly practical—an “action plan,” she calls it. Her goal isn’t organic purity; it’s getting rid of the crap. This book reminds me of the courses we teach. There and here, Stefanie wields a sharp knife, zealously, and with love.

—KATHIE MADONNA SWIFT, MS, RDN, LDN

INTRODUCTION

Having immersed myself in the world of food, nutrition, and health since the ripe age of fifteen, I have been there, done that—raw, vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, special medical diets including cleanses, and yes (I am ashamed to say so), even fad diets. Let’s call it my years of necessary research. As a result, I am proud that I have become a true moderationist—I don’t follow any one food theory or fad, I don’t eat 100 percent organic, I eat some packaged foods and I eat not-so-healthy foods once in a while (a good potato chip is my vice, even the occasional gummy bear—more on this later). But at the same time, I practice no-nonsense nutrition—meaning I don’t buy into any of the hype; I believe in real food, not phony food (as in highly processed food); and I tell it like it is, always coming from a place of facts and basic logic.

Suffering from asthma, allergies, recurring bronchitis, and pneumonia shaped much of my childhood, and I was determined to find an alternative to the multiple inhalers, allergy meds, steroids, and antibiotics I regularly consumed. In a nutshell, the medications that were supposed to be helping me were actually destroying me. Based on my experience as a summer chef in my local Montauk health food café, I discovered ways I could use food to help me heal. Challenged to the core, but finally getting well, I learned two things that shaped my life as I now know it:


   • I truly understood the power that food has to influence a body’s ability to heal, recover from chronic illness, and stay well.
   • I began questioning why more people didn’t know about this, and even if they did, I wondered whether they would have the knowledge and skills to make the shift that I did.

As I figured out how to turn my food passion and fascination into a career, I also discovered my mission: to teach what I’d learned in my idiosyncratic no-nonsense nutritionist way.

I am a culinary nutritionist—a certified chef with a master’s of science degree in nutrition from Columbia University. I am also a certified nutrition specialist (CNS) and a certified dietitian nutritionist (CDN). Many clients call me a food therapist. A doctor who suggests dietary change as a part of the prescription for healing typically hands over a single sheet offering minimal guidance. I work with clients to take this “nutrition prescription” into the kitchen—we chat, shop, and cook, as I aim to do with you in this book.

What the Fork is a digestible read. You may move through it quickly or take it in stages. Either way, hopefully you will benefit from the information and tools offered. Learn about the things in your food or being done to your food that are just not cool with the Top-Rated Terminators, including what they are, why they are “bad,” and how to avoid them with the Better for You Alternatives (to whet your appetite for your trip to the market in Section Three). Then let’s feng shui your food with Pantry Rehab before I help you navigate the grocery store, from decoding Nutrition Facts, ingredient lists, health claims, and funny (and not-so-funny) food lingo to aisle-by-aisle actionables in Supermarket Strategies. And last but not least, learn to love what you eat in Meal Rehab—you’ll get tips on how to balance your plate as well as recipes to die for.

I am not a doctor or dietitian drilling down on a weight-loss solution; I am not offering a polemic on a food system gone awry (though you will get some serious insight on that here). Rather my intention is to give you enough information to push you to question What the Fork you are eating while also giving you the tools to start to do something about it. Never forget that small changes in food choice can make big everyday differences. I promote a more conscious way of choosing food—what could be bad about that?

Before taking a close look at what the fork you are eating, a little background on how the federal government regulates food is necessary. Perhaps this will shed a little light on why many of the Top-Rated Terminators are in your edibles in the first place.

The 411 on Food Regulations

Today, your food is regulated through the joint efforts of several agencies. In a nutshell, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps an eye on all the plants that are grown and animals raised in their natural habitat, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that your products (and drugs) are safe for consumption. As there are many harmful chemicals added to food, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also gets involved to ensure that these substances remain at subtoxic levels so everything you ingest is positively protected.

It all started in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln established the USDA, marking the beginning of some level of food regulation. Then in the early 1900s, as more products began to hit the market, so did many untested chemicals in food. These included borax (a mineral and salt that has a mild toxicity level) and formaldehyde (a gaseous compound of high toxicity), both of which were added for preservation without consideration or knowledge of potential health consequences. Thanks to Dr. Harvey Wiley, chief chemist of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry, Congress allocated funds to start testing the true safety of food products (with the scientific tools that existed at the time).

In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. It prohibited misbranded or adulterated foods, drinks, and drugs as well as the addition of color that masked inferiority in foods and even some colors that were poisonous. The concept was great but there was one major problem: There was no mandatory premarket testing of foods, so how could the government ensure true safety? Food was still a free-for-all.

But in 1914, after several amendments to the Pure Food and Drug Act (including regulations on what colors were safe as additives and how to label foods), the government finally decided that it was critical to show the effect that a chemical additive had on humans. Now the industry had to be accountable for the compounds they were slipping into your food.

However, even with these directives in place, food companies did their darnedest to dupe the consumer with chemicals and inferior ingredients. Take Bred Spred—an imitation jam introduced in the 1920s. According to FDA historian Suzanne White Junod, PhD, “There wasn’t a single strawberry in the jar. It was made of coal tar, artificial pectin, artificial flavors, and grass seeds.”1

Yet Americans didn’t really care, as they didn’t know any better—Bred Spred was packaged to perfection and cost less than the real deal. The 1920s marked the beginning of an era when packaged goods like Bred Spred gained supermarket shelf space.

In 1933 the Food and Drug Administration was birthed out of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry, and in 1938 the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) was introduced to protect the consumer from deceptive foods. However, it seemed that unsavory substances were still getting into edibles, prompting the 1958 Food Additives Amendment, whereby manufacturers of new food additives had to establish said ingredients’ safety to the satisfaction of the FDA before use.

Just so you are clear, according to the FDA, a food additive is a substance that has no proven track record of safety and must therefore undergo testing for approval by the FDA before it can be used in a food. However, there are plenty of ingredients in the foods you eat every day that are not defined as additives by the FDA, but as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) because they have been:


   • deemed “safe” by FDA scientists for intended use based on “published studies, which may be corroborated by unpublished studies and other data and information” and
   • used in food for a long period of time (with no “scientifically based” concerns); thus their use is exempt from FDA approval.2

On those studies that support the FDA in deeming a foodstuff safe (see item 1 above)—in 1973 the FDA granted propylene glycol (PG) GRAS status for its use in foods such as confections and frostings, frozen dairy products, seasonings, nuts, and nut products to keep the moisture in. It can also be found in nonfood items including cosmetics, detergents, paints, and coatings. While PG appears to be safe at low levels, it is important to note that in 1996 PG’s use in cat food was banned because it causes a type of anemia that damages hemoglobin.3 But according to the FDA it’s safe for your eats—funny, because it is forbidden in food in Europe (the folks overseas are a little more stringent about what they ingest).

While no long-term research has been done on PG’s side effects when consumed in food, a 2010 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed that the presence of PG in indoor air (from water-based paints, for example) was associated with asthma, allergies, and sensitization in children.4 If PG in air can trigger a reaction, could it have some sort of effect when swallowed? Basic logic should tell you that you should run for the hills when you see this ingredient in your food.

Most of the Top-Rated Terminators (TRTs) have GRAS status, while a select few are considered additives by the FDA and require premarket approval. Others are either regulated by other government agencies or not regulated at all (as you will learn in the pages ahead). But any way you slice it, the TRTs will forever be controversial among government; food industry (Big Food); industrial agriculture (Big Ag); and the biotech, science, and health communities at large. The message here: Just because the federal government declares an ingredient safe and secure for your precious body doesn’t mean that it is.

Now, here’s the lowdown on the Top-Rated Terminators so you can start to make educated decisions about what goes in your mouth—a chance to make a difference in your health.

Edible Regulations—Can You Stomach This?

There are hundreds of substances that go into processed foods without formal approval from the FDA. While you may believe that this federal agency is meticulously monitoring your food, it is not. In other words, companies are typically the ones calling the shots as it relates to an ingredient’s safety and its use for consumption. How the Food and Drug Administration Lets Food Safety Slip Through the Holes is a wonderful infographic created by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and consumer advocacy group whose “twin missions are to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being.”5

For animals like cattle, pigs, and poultry, the picture is equally as bad, if not worse. A recent report from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), an organization founded in 1951 with the goal of alleviating the suffering of animals caused by people, suggests that claims touting “sustainably produced” on meat and poultry are anything but transparent. After three years of requesting documentation from the USDA from producers touting “Humanely Raised and Handle...

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