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Even nutritious foods packaged in new and improved ways can be bad for you in the long run if you don't read labels carefully, say experts.

With all of the advances in food preparation, it's easy to eat too much, too fast.

When consumers eat traditional foods in a newly processed form — from peanut butter sliced like cheese, to the dozens of forms of soy products, or portable yogurt eaten out of a plastic tube — they may not realize that many of these ready-to-eat foods could have decreased nutritional value, and sometimes, increased calories and fat than whole grains, and unprocessed fruits and vegetables.

Dr. James W. Anderson, a professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington believes that the easier any food is to prepare, carry and eat, the more likely you are to eat it. And the more you eat, the more weight you can gain.

"Processed foods contribute to weight gain," Anderson said. "I think that consumers need to be more sophisticated. If you're concerned about fat, less than 30 percent of your calories have to come from fat."

Can Eating and Running Ever Be Healthy?

New and different food forms — such as the tube yogurt and candy-like bars infused with protein — can be good ways for people on the go to pack in important nutrients, such as calcium. But don't overdo it, say the experts.

Joanne Larsen from Dietitian.com, a Web site that offers nutritional advice, says the tendency is to grab fatty foods on the go, mainly because they are easy to eat, provide quick energy, and can trigger the brain's "feel-good response to carbohydrates," she said in a recent e-mail.

"Food forms are made to respond to American lifestyles," she wrote. "Additional ingredients/processing can be used to make convenient forms or packaging. Convenience packaging can help increase consumption of nutritious foods like yogurt or milk as well as high fat, high sugar foods."

The so-called protein bars, Larsen says, could help you put on pounds, too, whether the protein comes from an animal or vegetable-based source.

"Consumers should look at the nutrient content on food labels. Protein should [account for] between 10 and 20 percent of calories [consumed in one day], fat around 20 to 30 percent, [and] carbohydrates filling the remaining 50 percent," said Larsen.

"Bars or shakes with higher protein will taste nauseating and pure amino acids just don't taste good period. Bars with less fat will not be satisfying so that hunger will return within two hours."

Consumers also should scrutinize the labels of these bars. "Good sources of protein should come from milk, egg or soybean and may be listed as casein, whey, albumin, egg white, yolk, or soy protein and should be the first or second ingredient. If sugar or corn syrup solids is listed first, then the bar is just a candy bar in disguise."

Larsen also finds that people who eat the bars often may look for something else to eat in addition to the bar. Even if a bar is nutritionally balanced enough to be a full meal, it takes 20 minutes for a message to get to your stomach from your brain to tell you that you're full. A little bar doesn't always fill a person up right away.

But the most important developments that make all of these convenient food forms mainstays in the American diet is the work researchers have done with artificial food flavorings.

Without food flavoring, processed foods would lose their taste — and ultimately marketing appeal.

However, she said that many processed foods contain more nutrients — folic acid-fortified breads and pasta are good examples — than would be found in raw foods due to enrichment or fortification.

"Not all processed foods are bad for you, just [the ones that are] high fat, high sugar processed foods, which should be limited to infrequent use."

"Very few consumers cook from scratch with basic, simple food ingredients because the American lifestyle doesn't have time on the fast track to life," she said. "Processed, conveniently packaged foods that can be eaten out of hand encourage Americans continue their fast track-lifestyle."

Soy Pros and Cons

One of the most popular and malleable food sources today is soy. Nutritionists say the chemical compounds that makes soy powerful — isoflavones — have qualities that could reduce risks of heart disease, problems related to osteoporosis, breast and prostate cancers, and possibly some additional benefits for pre-menopausal women.

Nutritional experts say people can get the benefits of soy by consuming about 25 grams of soy protein a day. Although usually food labels don't give an exact amount of soy protein in a food source, Anderson says it roughly amounts to about a handful of soy nuts, or a scoop of soy protein powder added to your morning glass of juice.

But with everything from soy hot dogs, to burgers, to cheese and tempeh bacon, which form of soy is the best? Anderson says consumers should choose products that have "isolated soy protein" listed on the label's ingredients rather than "soy concentrate," says Anderson.

Here's why: Isolated soy protein products are washed with water, and they retain up to 90 percent of the soy's isoflavones and other healthy properties, Anderson says. However, some products use soy protein concentrate, a form of soy that is purified with alcohol to take away some of soy's "offputting characteristics" (such as stomach upset).

The best way to get the benefits of soy and its isoflavones into your diet is to use tofu or tempeh ("Although I realize that they take an acquired taste," Anderson says), but using isolated soy protein powder mixed in juice also works. Or, a handful of soy nuts makes a good snack, he said.

As far as some of the other soy products, such as soy hot dogs and veggie burgers, many of them are considerably lower in isoflavones, so it's necessary to check the food labels carefully for the soy protein isolate, if you want the full health benefit.


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