Posted by: godandchocolate | February 10, 2010

The Cheeto Principle: Checking Out Food Labels

For a few different health reasons we’ve started to take positive steps towards changing how and what we eat, and trying to opt for what the pros call “nutrient-dense” foods. You know, the kind of food God gave us: growing on trees, bushes, and in the ground; grazing in the fields; swimming in the seas.

I haven’t posted yet about some of the changes to the way we eat that we are trying to make. I say “trying” because, well, it’s easier said than done: there is a ton of information out there, a lot of it contradictory, and we just don’t have the financial resources to start spending boatloads of money on grass-fed beef and free range eggs and organic produce and good milk. (Plus, it’s not even clear to me what the best course of action is for each of these groups, so I’m doing research online and in grocery stores and farmer’s markets to see what is healthy and doable for us.)

So basically, I can’t yet articulate a full-fledged nutritional philosophy for you. My husband and I have started with what we call “The Cheeto Principle”: if none of the substances composing a so-called food bear any resemblance to something that occurs in nature or a food that has been traditionally eaten by people, it’s not worth eating. A corn puff fried in vegetable oil and coated with a powdered cheese product is not food; don’t eat it.

Getting started living by the Cheeto Principle (or, if you will, more of a “real food” lifestyle–though I clearly don’t qualify for that moniker just yet!) required the itty-bitty baby steps of looking at the ingredients lists of foods we eat and using that information to make informed judgments about what is OK to eat (for now, at least) and what we should avoid.

A lot of ‘real foodies’ suggest going through the pantry and fridge and tossing, willy-nilly, the foods with unpronounceable ingredients and other sketchy stuff like high fructose corn syrup and soy products. Some even say to ditch anything with more than FIVE ingredients listed on the label. As convinced as I may be that these highly-processed industrial food products are not good for me, I can’t bring myself to just pitch groceries. There are starving children in India, and I’m going to throw away that box of cake mix or rice-a-roni out of fear of hydrolyzed whatchamacallit and ___ corn ___? I don’t think so.

So my method has been a bit different. Criticize it if you will, but here’s what I’ve been doing for a few months:

1. Staying away from the grocery store aisles. Produce, meat, milk, bread, butter–all of these things are found on the outside walls of the grocery story. The processed crap is all in the middle, tempting you with the tunnels of carbs. I just avoid the temptation, unless I have an express reason to be in the aisle (like walnuts, or canned tomatoes, or spices, or yeast). If I do have something that is packaged that I still eat, I just pay more attention to labels and try to buy what seems better, whether or not it’s called ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ or whatever other marketing ploys they’re using these days.

2. Attacking my pantry with a red sharpie. Yup. Like I said, I don’t want to throw away the food, but I do want to be mindful about what we’re eating. So I went through and put a line through all of the weird ingredients in the pre-packaged foods we have in our pantry and fridge. Based on my totally non-scientific gut reaction to the ingredients, I then marked the package with ‘X,’ ‘OK,’ or ‘?’.

The X group: Hungry Jack syrup, Ken's salad dressing, Betty Crocker frosting and cake mix, Ritz crackers, Nature's Way Rice-a-Roni (Italian Cheese & Herb flavor), International Delight non-dairy creamer, Maull's BBQ sauce.

Notice all the red lines through the ingredients lists. They were just a little too funky. And all of these foods are really just ‘convenience’ foods that we don’t need to be eating and for which healthier alternatives exist. Looking at this picture, I also know that there are a lot of things not pictured that I just automatically don’t buy or try not to use as frequently (such as canned/boxed broth, boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soups, shortening, white bread…).
In that bottle of Hungry Jack syrup, the first ingredient is (well, not surprisingly) SYRUP (SUGAR SYRUP AND HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP). We can just as easily use real maple syrup, and with the infrequency with which we eat pancakes or waffles, it shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. The salad dressing tastes funky and has a few bizarre things in it that probably contribute to the odd taste, and there are plenty of easy, simple salad dressing recipes out there that I’m starting to try. Homemade balsamic vinaigrette is yummy! I’ve tried my hand at cakes and frostings made from scratch, and ditching the mixes will save money and force me to use that cake flour I’ve bought. I’m sure there’s a perfectly suitable rice-a-roni substitute out there (right? there must be!), and the International Delight (which is basically flavored OIL…blah!) just allows me to drink the coffee that I know I shouldn’t. BBQ sauce…well…I’ll start a search for high fructose corn syrup-free BBQ sauce when our grill isn’t covered in snow.
: Krusteaz banana nut muffin mix, Nature Valley granola bars, Barilla pasta, store brand quick oats, Martha White corn muffin mix.”]These guys range from totally fine (the only ingredients in the quick oats are “whole rolled oats”), to acceptable for us (I make my own pasta, but don’t usually have the time), to maybe-I-should-reconsider-but-I’ll-take-my-sweet-time (the baking mixes and granola bars). Everyone is going to have their own stuff in this range, and that’s fine. I mean, you can’t just wake up one day and never buy another yummy, sugary, convenience food. It takes time. So here I am, taking my time. The baking mixes here really aren’t necessary–I’m sure I can easily make corn muffins, but I’m just used to the handy bag or box in the pantry that I can whip together as an afterthought when we’re having chili or tacos. And the Krusteaz mix…well, that’s the first time I’d ever bought it, and the muffin on the front enticed me (along w/ the coupon-sale combo, ever enticing for a frugal shopper!). I figure that the granola bars are still better than cookies–homemade or storebought–and my husband likes to eat them for lunch. So they are here for now.

The ? group: ketchup, Hershey's syrup, Nature's Way Rice-a-Roni parmesan and romano cheese flavor, Skippy peanut butter, Smuckers grape jelly.

Now these guys are giving me even more trouble than that X group. They are problematic because (a) they have funky ingredients that I KNOW we shouldn’t eat, but (b) their use is deeply ingrained in our diets. I mean, who can eat a burger without ketchup? What would my childhood have been like without PB and jelly or chocolate milk? These are the hard questions of life, my friends. These are the ones for which I’m going to really be searching for an alternative and stretching myself to try something new (like natural peanut butter, sans that sketchy hydrogenated oil).

3. I will use this information in future meals and shopping trips. I won’t buy any of the red-X stuff, and I’ll look for alternatives to the OK and ? stuff in the form of recipes and other products. For example, if I make a box of rice-a-roni, the rest of the dinner will be composed of a salad, roasted veggies, and meat. If I use a cake mix, I’ll be darn well aware of all the bizarre things in it–more incentive to use that cake flour I’ve got sitting in the cupboard.
Fad diets always fail, so do diets where you change up a bunch of things all at once. So baby steps are where it’s at for lasting nutritional change…and this is where I’m starting. I’ve already come a long way, and only have this relative handful of sticking points (well, there are a few other things that aren’t pictured…).
We’ve never bought Cheetos–I’m sure we can get to the point where we no longer buy cake mix, or -gulp- conventional peanut butter!
Any advice for baby steps to a healthier, more natural, nutritionally-dense diet? Am I on the right track?
{This post is part of Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop. Go check out Kelly’s awesome blog, which I’ve been avidly reading as I start to make nutritionally wise changes for our family. Oh, and be sure to visit the other blogs featured on this Real Food Wednesday!}
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Responses

  1. I think that you are taking a very realistic approach. I wouldn’t say throw it out. Once you know what’s in it, but it’s in your cupboard anyway, I’d say choke it down and don’t buy it again :).
    By the way, Trader Joes has organic ketchup that’s maybe still a little high in sugar, but 1. you will know what all (6) ingredients are and 2. has no HFCS, which pretty much all non-organic ketchups do. And it’s 1.69 for a bottle.
    Peanut butter is another easy switch- there are lots of good natural p.b.’s out there with peanuts and salt as the only ingredients. Adams Natural is a good brand. TJ’s also has one.
    Good luck on your journey to real food! One step at a time!

    • Thanks for the input, Chanelle. Trader Joe’s is still much of a mystery to me…for the longest time I thought their “gimmick” was organic/natural food, but I’m not so sure that always holds. They do have great prices on a lot of more specialty ingredients that we like to use or have on hand (like pitted kalamata olives, real vanilla, tea…), but if I go there on the weekends it’s just crazy and I don’t get to read labels closely. I’ll definitely look into their ketchup and PB for when we run out.

      With peanut butter, is the texture really different? Do they make creamy peanut butters, or all they more of the ‘crunchy’ type? And can it just be stored in the cupboard or does it need to be refrigerated?

  2. love your cheeto principle! that’s pretty much where we’re starting, too:) baby steps add up.

  3. Rachel, to add to Chanelle’s comment, there is also organic chocolate syrup w/ no HFCS! It’s still got that nasty old yummy SUGAR, but at least it’s a little better than the Hershey’s. 🙂

    Yes, this is all a big journey, just take it slow – you’re doing great! I love the idea of using your red sharpie on the stuff in you’re pantry.

    LOVE your blog name!

    Thanks for joining in on RFW, good to “meet” you. I subscribed to your site so I can follow your progress.

    Kelly

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kelly! I’m so glad to hear that there are more-acceptable versions of the foods we love. Ketchup, chocolate syrup, and BBQ sauce…who knew? 😉

      Thanks for all the great tips over on your site and for sponsoring RFW–I always learn so much and am definitely going to keep participating!

      Rachel

  4. Chef Hymie Grande (www.chefhymiegrande.com ) is the first and only bottled BBQ sauce to carry the seal of the American Diabetes Association on the label. It has no high fructose corn syrup, no processed sugar, it is all natural and vegan friendly. It is produced at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgton, NJ by Jamie Failtelson, a.k.a. Chef Hymie Grande of Carlstadt, NJ. 5% of proceeds go to the American Diabetes Association.

  5. Thanks, Rachel, now I have a weekend project. haha

    My dear hubby and I have been working on diet, especially for him and his health, but he’s still more likely to resort to BK in LaFortune then to pack a healthier lunch. We have a lot farther to go than you two. But, you’re right, it’s all about those baby steps.

    • Haha, weekend projects are always good, right?

      I do have to say that I’ve only really had the time to focus on this stuff since I’ve been at home. When we were both working and doing the school thing it was really tough, though I do think it’s possible to make small changes. And yeah, the only way I can encourage my husband to eat a healthy lunch is by taking the time to pack it for him. Otherwise he won’t eat anything at all, or he’ll end up grabbing something from one of the cafes at school. I don’t expect every busy wife to do that, but it works for us right now, and I like to 🙂

  6. Trader Joe’s may become your best friend – they have an organic chocolate syrup and a BBQ sauce and ketchup, all HFCS free. We prefer Heinz Organic ketchup, b/c my hubby is a ketchup snob, but their ketchup is great if you’re a Hunt’s gal. Their creamy organic peanut butter is very good, we stir it up and store it in the fridge, and it spreads directly from the fridge. It doesn’t taste like Jif, but we get our jelly from TJ’s (of course), and the combo is husband-approved.

  7. Great post, Rachel! Haha…it’s like we were talking about. I second Mary Liz’s comment…the hubbies are the hardest to convert. But little by little, our diet is improving. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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