Monday, June 11, 2012


I have been thinking about choices lately: choices to change your circumstances, your disposition, your habits, even the direction of your life. It is a rather big concept to wrap your mind around if you think about it in too much detail, but when you consider that life is full of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “tipping points,” each decision a person makes has the potential to impact the chain of events that comprise their life’s journey. Arming yourself with accurate information about how your body works, and what kinds of fuel are best for it can be one of the most impacting tipping points ever.

A recent NutriGrain ™ Bar commercial shows the same woman, in split screen, making two choices for breakfast: a pastry on one side of the screen, a NutriGrain ™ bar on the other. The pastry-choosing woman, then goes on throughout her day to select less healthy foods and activities than her NutriGrain ™ choosing counterpart, like opting for the elevator rather than the stairs, a fast food sandwich for lunch rather than a salad. The idea is that if one were to begin their days with these bars, one would automatically be making better choices about everything else. Not so fast. While this is true, to a certain extent, I do not believe that NutriGrain ™ bars are THE tipping point on the scale of healthy vs. not. They sure sound better than PopTarts ™ but that is just want their manufacturer wants you to think.  NutriGrain ™ bars were part of my journey when I was searching through the seemingly ever-changing information regarding “healthy eating” that the media loves to confuse us with. The name is what hooked me, coupled with the pictures of fresh fruit and a stalk or two of grain, it looked the part, too. What’s in a NutriGrain ™ bar that makes them so nutri, anyway???

Perhaps, like I once did, the woman in the commercial is beginning to consider her health, and the word “Nutri” coupled with the “Grain” is appealing, but a look at the ingredient list for their Strawberry bars reveals that they contain 42 ingredients – many of them are not commonly found in the average kitchen pantry. “Natural and artificial flavor” is an industry term used supposedly to protect recipes, but actually is a blanket that hides chemicals in foods. Food manufacturers use chemically enhanced flavoring agents because they are much cheaper than the actual foods that contain the desired flavors. They make lemony foods taste lemony-er, chicken foods and sauces taste chickeny-er. This “natural and artificial flavor” ingredient is right there in the mix, as well as 5 different types of sweeteners. How many of us use multiple sweeteners when cooking something at home?

Read further into the list and you will find “caramel color.” Sounds fairly benign. Caramel is just burnt sugar, right? It is important to not confuse CARAMEL COLOR with CARAMEL. While caramel IS made by heating sugar, giving it a cooked taste, caramel color is completely synthetic. It is also known by its chemical name 2-acetyl-4(5)-tetrahydroxybutylimidazole, or in shorthand, THI. I think those wise folks who manufacture food realized that “caramel color” fits easier on the food labels (AND sounds much friendlier) than 2-acetyl-4(5)-tetrahydroxybutylimidazole does. Lengthy scientific name aside, one major reason to be suspicious of this additive is the fact that in animal studies, fairly small amounts of this ingredient have been shown to depress the immune system and to alter the shape and function of the thymus gland, according to Dr. Elson Haas in his book Staying Healthy with Nutrition. The thymus gland’s primary role to is process lymphocytes (aka: T-cells) – the white blood cells that make sure the bodily systems like immunity are functioning properly, protecting us from bacteria, viruses and even cancer… in other words, the thymus gland is pretty important. Protect your thymus, skip any foods that contain caramel color!

The last “red flag” ingredient I want to highlight in these supposedly healthy bars is Red #40 (aka: Allura Red AC). It’s used in foods, drugs and cosmetics, and is believed to cause cancer in animals. Foods containing dyes like Red #40 are believed to cause allergic reactions and other toxic effects, including behavioral and attention-related issues.

Being contentious about food choices and their influences on our subsequent food and lifestyle-related decisions ARE important, but don’t stop there! Read beyond the front of the box. Look at nutrition information AND ingredient lists. Begin to decipher the names – those that sound harmless and those that are unpronounceable – so that you REALLY know what you are eating. A good rule of thumb is to only consume processed foods that contain 5 or fewer ingredients AND only if they are ingredients that a normal human (from 50 years ago) could store in their kitchen pantry.

My advice to that NutriGrain ™ woman in the commercial (or the one looking at this computer screen): Don’t settle! Ditch those bars for some real food consisting of, or made a with, real ingredients – a piece of fruit, a smoothie, or when pressed for time, a LARABAR

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