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Is Our Food Safe?

Or is it loaded with contaminants, carcinogens and cholesterol?  Learn how food can builder your body or...?

by Jeff Everson 1991

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When I was a kid, food values were the last thing on my mind (which is not to say I didn't value food...indeed, I loved to eat, especially sweet stuff -- I still do). All normal active kids like to eat, but most kids never give a thought to the nutritional value of food or whether it's healthy.  How the food tasted was the only thing that counted.  In fact, even though I was into weightlifting, and other sports, I don't recall thinking about the nutritive values or safety of foods in high school or college either.  Even then, as a big kid, I stuffed my face all the time.

I grew up in the meat and potato years.  In the '50s and '60s nutritionists stressed three squares a day and most parents obliged (when they could afford it) with a typical breakfast of two fried eggs, orange juice (or Tang), cold breakfast cereal, a couple strips of bacon and toast.  You were also obligated to have a large glass of whole milk.

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Lunch usually consisted of meat or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a glass of whole milk, also with a smattering of potato chips.  Dinner was the big deal -- usually some mashed or fried potatoes, a vegetable salad, whole milk again and always a meat serving (hamburger, meat loaf, roast or stake were and still are popular).

Of course, the great American dinner wouldn't be complete without some vanilla ice cream and a heavy serving of chocolate sauce. 

Now everybody didn't eat that way.  The diet I described was one of middle class America.  My family was not big on meat and potato meals.   I grew up on peanut butter sandwiches.  Hamburger Helper and Spaghettios.  In high school and college I was into the egg/ice cream/whole milk scene for weight gain.  It was not unusual for me to drink 4-5 quarts  of whole milk a day.

As you get older though, and presumably wiser, you become more aware of your own mortality.  You begin to pay attention to your lack of ability to control thins that affect  your life.  You read about cancer-causing substances used in home insulation.  In the gasoline fumes you have breathed for years and in pesticides or preservatives in foods you eat.  You read about chemical dumping and sewage leaks into lakes, rivers and oceans.

Finally, you become aware of the scientific debates about cholesterol, fats and sugars -- about all the foods you have put into your body over the past 20-30 years.  You begin to wonder if your parents hadn't filled you up with so much meat, potatoes, eggs and whole milk, would you be healthier today, worse off or just the same?

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Debate over the nutritive values and healthiness of our food continues.  Most scientists studying diseases that my be related to our food (such as heart disease and stroke) agree that the majority of Americans (discounting the poor) eat too much -- too many calories, too much protein, too  much sugar, , too much sodium, too much caffeine, too much fat. A great percentage of middle-class Americans do not have any class in their middles, being the victims of too much grub and not enough exercise.

If Americans would eat only when they felt hungry and then stop eating when satiated (instead of continuing to eat), we probably would have a much smaller problem with heart disease and stroke.  Some longevity researchers, basing their conclusions on studies with rats, maintain that all Americans should cut their total daily calorie consumption 40%, Believing that deliberately under-eating contributes to a longer life.

If Americans would eat all types of foods, in moderation and in balanced amounts for what we need calorically for energy, growth and for tissue repair and maintenance, our diets would be both healthy and nutritious, but the problem is, most Americans don't eat for health.


The average American gets about 40% or more of his total daily calories from fat sources and consumes somewhere between 60-150 grams of fat each day.  Nutritionists believe this figure should be reduced to 30% (60-70 grams a day) or lower, while cholesterol should be less than 300 milligrams per day.  (Note: Competitive bodybuilders probably get about 10-15% of their total daily caloric intake from fat sources and their cholesterol levels are very low unless they are fool enough to play around with anabolic steroids).  People also need to be concerned about triglyceride levels (saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are all from so triglycerides.  Triglycerides are a form of fat, as is cholesterol).

For example, consider a typical McDonald's hamburger.

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Personally, I have nothing against McDonald's provender, having myself contributed quite heavily the the billions sold.  McDonald's estimates that their average burger contains around 20%fat by weight.  This figure, though, is irrelevant because, when the hamburger is cooked, 60% of the total calories in that burger comes from fat!

Although the fat in the hamburger weighs less than the protein, water or other nutrients found in it, when the hamburger is analyzed in terms of the calories from fat, protein or carbohydrate, fat calories are 60% of the total. Fat provides more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates (fat provides around 9 calories per gram).  Even the leanest of hamburger sold in markets is about 15% fat by weight.  When analyzed according to the percentage of total calories of that meat as fat when cooked and eaten, the best hamburger is still 50% fat!  And it's even worse if the bun is buttered or if your don't hold the mayo.

Now that is depressing.

If you eat an average 8-ounce steak that's broiled and with all excess fat removed, along with a serving of mashed potatoes with a pat of butter and a couple spoonfuls of gravy, all washed own with a glass of whole milk, you'll be polishing off 80% of all the fat calories you need for a whole day, assuming you are an average 175-pound man with a total daily energy requirement of about 2,500 calories.

That is without any dessert or second helping of potatoes or any bread and butter, vegetables and butter, salad with fatty dressing or accompanying soup that man contain fat.  So it's easy to get als the fat you need in one average meal a day.

The typical American diet described earlier may be healthy in the sense that it provides all the protein, vitamins and minerals we need, but it may be unhealthy because it provides too much fat, too much cholesterol, too much sodium and not enough fiber.  A better diet might be fresh fruit, vegetables and cornmeal for breakfast, a large salad, fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains for lunch (without spreads) and for dinner,, fish, skinned turkey or chicken, fresh fruit, vegetables and a large glass of skim milk.  Of course, that sounds healthy (and is), but also boring.  Taste buds are our worst enemy.

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Drink skim milk.  It has 90 calories per cup, with about 1 gram of fat.  Instead of fries or has browns with your meals, order a baked potato using low-fat cottage cheese as a condiment.  Substitute low-fat cottage cheese for salad dressing.   Try low-fat yogurt as a substitute for mayonnaise.

East more vegetables without butter and fresh fruit and whole grains (use a minimum of spreads).  Cut way back on all forms of red meat, continue to eat baked or broiled fish (without accompanying sauces) and more poultry.  Eat the egg whites, but not the yolks.  Use egg substitutes.

Nonfat yogurt mixed with fresh fruit makes a great dessert, so does sugar-free gelatin.  Don't use cooking oils or products high in saturated fats.  This includes palm or coconut oil, butter and lard.  Monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats (like olive and peanut oils or sunflower oils respectively) are better.

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Be careful about eating foods that have no cholesterol, but are still very high in fat.  Some peanuts provide up to 70% of all their calories per serving as fat, even though they contain no cholesterol!

All these steps lower your fat and cholesterol intake.

What about protein levels?  If you are healthy, too much protein is not really a problem.  Your body eliminates excess protein.  It would rather eliminate and excess than convert it onto a triglyceride in the liver and store it as fat -- a much more difficult task.  Excess protein is a problem for many people because high-protein foods are almost always high-fat foods aw well.

If you concentrate on high protein, but from low-fat sources (tuna, egg whites, amino acid powder, skim milk, fish, skinned chicken or turkey), you will  not have any problem with excess weight gain from protein.  A high triglyceride blood level often accompanies high cholesterol levels (and particularly accompanies low levels of the protective HDL cholesterol) and can be cause by excessive alcohol and high sugar consumption.  A high triglyceride level correlates with obesity diabetes, hypothyroidism and kidney, liver and heart disease.

To keep your triglycerides in check, eat less cake, ice cream, sugary cereals, candy and the like.  Cut back on all forms of alcohol, including beer.

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Just as there has been heated debate over the nutritive values of our foods, so also has there been debate over food safety.  Over 280 million cases of food poisoning occur each year.  Rare indeed is the person who has not, at least once in the last year, suffered from an episode of upset stomach or diarrhea from contaminated food.

While you occasionally hear about large-scale food poisoning involving the food industry, most cases of food poisoning take place in the small restaurant or the home.  And most of this could be avoided by improved sanitation, handling, sorting and cooking methods.

Americans have recently become very concerned about potential cancer-causing agents in our food supply.  (And why not?  We've already learned they're in out homes, workplace, care fuels and water!).  Indeed hardly a day goes by when we don't read about some form of environmental contamination due to lead, mercury, arsenic or some such contaminant.

For what it's worth, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Ad ministration state that the cancer-causing risk from pesticides in our food is about one-in-a-million per person since the body is extremely adept at detoxifying low levels of contamination.  (What I want to know is just who are the volunteers for this sort of study?)

Besides pesticides, though there are naturally occurring carcinogens in our food.  Nitrosamines, at low levels, are found in mushrooms, wheat and dairy products.  And what about the lowly hotdog or smoked meats?  When you barbecue meats (blackening their skin), you create a chemical reaction, causing carcinogens to from on the surface of the skin.  Even broiled, fired or grilled meats create carcinogens.  Good advice is to not eat the skin of cooked poultry anyway since it is very fatty.

Scientists insist that despite the rare cases of pesticide problems (like alar with apples or all the hubbub over chicken contamination(, the real problem is not with chemicals or pesticides, but with bacteria viruses, molds and parasites.  These things can be controlled by minimal storage, sanitation, and proper cooking and handling.

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