Food for Thought

Demystifying Grocery Myths
Food for Thought

The good news is that we’re spoiled for choice in the grocery store these days. The challenge is understanding all the information around those choices.

Apparently, some of the items we buy on a regular basis may not be as bad for us, or as good for us, as we think they are.

Are nitrates really that much of a nuisance?
If you buy ham, bacon, hot dogs, sausages, or cold cuts, you’re probably worried about nasty nitrates. Nitrates relate to the synthetic food additive, sodium nitrate, which is used in processed meats to keep the pinkish colour, increase shelf life and prevent growth of bacteria. In recent years, there have been concerns that synthetic sodium nitrate may be a potential carcinogen in large doses.

Meats contain small amounts of nitrates already, and in most cases, if synthetic sodium nitrite is not used, producers will use a substitute—usually naturally-occurring sodium nitrates from celery juice. Since these alternatives are natural, meat manufacturers can describe them as “natural ingredients” on food packaging labels. Thankfully, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has regulations over the amount of synthetic sodium nitrate levels allowed in foods.

What’s the stink over food dyes in cheese?
Whether cheese is obtained from a cow, a goat, or a sheep, the colour can vary in hue based on milk type and an animal’s diet, in particular their beta-carotene levels. Decades ago, some cheese makers aimed for colour consistency to appeal to consumers and began to add annatto, a natural plant extract with similar properties to beta-carotene. Although called a ‘natural’ pigment, annatto is still a food dye and can potentially be the cause of sensitive or allergic reactions. The debate over the health risks of food dyes goes beyond cheese, so if you have concerns, keep your cheese choices to dye-free options.

Are brown eggs healthier than white ones?
In this case, the chicken definitely affects the colour of the egg, but the eggs themselves are identical inside. Brown eggs come from brown hens and white eggs come from white hens. On average, brown eggs are more expensive than white eggs because brown hens tend to be bigger and hence cost more to feed, not because they are superior in quality. What’s most important to look for is whether or not they are Grade A eggs, and if the producer practices humane farming methods.

Should we freeze out frozen fruit and vegetables?
Frozen food earned a bad rap before the science of flash-freezing and nutrient-sealing was properly understood. In off-season, frozen vegetables and fruits can actually be healthier than their imported fresh cousins. Frozen veggies and fruits are often picked at their prime, and flash frozen to allow them to remain dense in health benefits. Fresh options from other countries have the downside of being shipped from warmer climates, meaning they’re picked before they have reached their optimal nutritional state, and they lose a lot of their nutrition on their long journey. So when it comes to fresh versus frozen, consider the cooler option but remember to only keep your frozen vegetables for up to six months for optimal benefits.

Is extra-virgin olive oil extra bad for you?
It’s surprising given how common the use of olive oil is in cooking, but food safety experts increasingly recommend the use of alternate oils, especially at high heats. Olive oil contains all sorts of health benefits: vitamins A, D, K and E and antioxidants—and also has a lower smoke point than other oils (that is, the temperature at which nutrient loss occurs along with the release of toxic fumes and harmful free radicals). Those healthy benefits are literally burned out when the oil is overheated. Alternate natural oils—safflower, sunflower, coconut, avocado, and peanut oils—with higher smoke points, can be a safer alternative for cooking, but experts encourage the use of olive oil as part of a healthy diet in salad dressings and drizzled over vegetables.

In a world where knowledge is power, you can feel confident now that you’ve got both. Make your next purchase a powerful one. Tested by Alison R.

Tagged under food, health, shopping, cooking
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First published 2011.09.20

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