Nutritional Health

When ‘free’ just isn’t free

“Fat free!”“Sugar free!” “Gluten free!”

We see these claims in bold letters on many of our packaged food products. They let us know that something we may not want is not in that box or container. What does it actually mean when something is “free” of something? “Fat free” means that any semblance of natural fat has been removed from a food. Milk is a typical example of this. For the past 65 years or so, we’ve been told that fat is “bad,” that it makes us fat and it gives us heart disease. Thankfully, today we are learning very clearly that this is not the case. Fat is an important macronutrient that is essential for many of the functions of our body, including hormone production and function, brain and heart function, and even the very lining of every cell that makes up our body.

In food production, when one thing is removed, it needs to be replaced with something else to give that food a better taste and/or consistency. If you grew up drinking whole milk but then switched to skim milk, or even 1 percent, you probably had to go through an adjustment period because the version without fat was really watery. You may have noticed that it was sweeter, too. More like sugar-water than milk. That’s because, when fat is removed from dairy, it actually becomes more of a carbohydrate than a balanced food of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

Have you seen the jugs of skim milk letting you know that the milk within is “fortified” with vitamin D? Did you know that Vitamin D (and vitamins A, E, and K) are fat-soluble vitamins? This means that they don’t get properly absorbed and utilized without fats. Go check your label. If you drink fat-free milk fortified with vitamin D, you are not getting that important nutrient because there is no fat to carry it and help it get assimilated. Essentially, you are flushing that vitamin D down the drain. Whole milk, especially if it is from grass-fed cows, has all the macro and micronutrients intact, including the fat-soluble vitamins that are already a part of that whole food.

Let’s look at “Sugar Free.” We all know that sugar isn’t good for us, right? So it’s a good idea to take it out of foods. Remember, if one thing is taken out, it must be replaced by something — or at least a different version of that something. Did you know that there are over 600,000 processed foods on the market today. That’s 600,000 more than there were just 150 year ago! Of those 600,000 processed foods, over 80 percent have added sugar in them! And we wonder why we are having health crises in epic proportions. At last count, there are over 80 different names for sugar that food manufacturers use to make us think a product contains less sugar than it does. Any word that is labeled as a “___ malt,” “___ juice,” “___ syrup” or with words ending in “tose,” like “lactose, or fructose, or “tol,” like sorbitol or xylitol, are all different forms of sugar. Pretty sneaky, huh? Manufacturers can get away with this because of loopholes — that they created — in labeling practices. Become a label detective to truly understand what it is you are puttying in your body.

“Gluten-free” is a big buzz word these days. It has become more and more apparent that the protein gluten, that is found in wheat and other grains, truly is causing a myriad of health problems for people. Some, with a true allergy to gluten called celiac disease, must abstain from gluten in all forms at all costs. The new label, “Gluten-free,” on the one hand, makes it easy to see what products should be avoided, but on the other hand, opens up a whole new mess of chemicals and ingredients added to foods that have no business inside a body.

When you become a true label detective, it will become more and more apparent that the words used on food products have more to do with marketing to get you to buy those products than they do with the health benefit of those products. When you stick to real food, you know what you are getting. A head of lettuce doesn’t need a label. It is naturally gluten free, fat free and sugar free. So when you want to be “free” of something in a food, reach for an actual food, not a food product in a box. Your body will thank you.

Jeni Hall of Dublin is a board certified nutritional therapist practicing in the Monadnock region. Her mission is to empower you to heal your own body and keep it healthy. See, for more information.

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