Supermarkets are one of the hallmarks of 20th (and now 21st) century American society. Many of us alive today cannot recall a time when we or our families went to open-air markets for our shopping, or harvested food from our own land; the supermarket has become ubiquitous. It’s easy to see that our food choices today are more expansive than they would have been in 1900, and if we hadn’t been brought up to expect such a colorful range of foods and food-packaging, we would be stunned by it. So many foods from around the world, available to us in one place, year-round. It’s amazing, but there is a deception within all this variety that deserves some attention: sugar is hiding everywhere, and it’s often not labeled as sugar.
Wheat, corn, rice, and soy are among the most heavily subsidized (read: made artificially cheaper through government meddling) foods in the country. As a result of their deliberately reduced price they find their way into a staggering number of products, mainly as fillers and flavor-enhancers. A scan of the ingredient labels in your cupboards will usually make this point nicely. Wheat flour, wheat gluten, corn starch, corn syrup, rice flour, and soy protein isolate abound, among many other derivatives.
Now let’s go deeper, because there is more going on here than meets the eye. Wheat, corn, and rice are grains, making them (from a nutritional perspective) another source of sugar, particularly when processed. In fact, when you begin chewing a piece of bread (or any other processed grain product), an enzymatic action takes place in your mouth that results in the formation of simple sugars. Puffed rice cereal and whole wheat bread have a glycemic index value similar to table sugar! You can eat cornflakes without sugar or sugar without cornflakes and get almost the same physiological effects! When it comes to processed grain products, the sugar values on the nutrition label are meaningless. The spooky reports of Americans eating over 100 pounds of sugar per person annually are only showing us half of the problem. As we sit smack in the middle of an epidemic of diabetes and obesity, it may be worth turning our attention to these hidden sources of insulin spikes and blood sugar surges.
So what’s the point? Think of the “variety” of foods in the Standard American Diet (and the supermarkets that make it possible) which contain grain flour, corn syrup, or other sugars. We are talking about burger buns, pasta, pizza, sandwich breads, wraps, noodles, snack crackers, cereals, cookies, chips of various sorts, “sports drinks”, low-fat yogurts, ketchup, pasta sauce, salad dressing…the list goes on and on. Grain products and refined sugars are everywhere in the S.A.D. and too much of anything is simply TOO MUCH; we are eating too much of the same substances that behave like sugar inside our body. The appearance of variety is an illusion.
The point then is not that we have to have a witch hunt and burn all grain/sugar products, rather, we must strike a better balance and introduce some real variety into our diets. Instead of eating 2 out of 3 daily meals heavy on the flour/corn/sugar with an oil and vinegar salad at lunch, why not flip it? Do you think our national health would improve if we ate more whole plant foods and/or top quality meats for most of our meals? How about if we swapped sugary drinks (including juices) for whole fruits and water?
For real variety in your diet, try out some of the whole foods you’ve never even picked up before. (Beets and fennel were my plunge into dark waters and now I love them!) Splurge on some superfoods and see what you think. There is a whole world of delicious, beyond the sea of grain and sugar, just waiting for you to hoist your anchors and discover it.