Nutrient content and the Goldilocks effect

When I was young, one of my favorite bedtime stories was Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Apparently there are several versions of the story that date back to the 19th Century, but the one I remember was of a little girl, Goldilocks, who enters the house of the three bears and finds the freshly prepared porridge in one bowl to be too hot, one to be too cold and that in the third bowl to be just right. She has similar experiences with three chairs and three beds. I apparently ignored the unauthorized entry to the bears abode, the contamination of the porridge in the bowls and the vandalism associated with breaking the baby bear’s chair. The moral of the story was that there were at least three situations that we face when making any choices in life—too much, too little or just right. To that end, I offer an updated fable titled Emma Locks and the Three Foods.

Emma Locks was invited over to Aiden’s house to study up for their big test coming up in math. After studying for about two hours, Emma and Aiden were asked if they would like a short food break. Aiden’s mother had just prepared some macaroni and cheese. Emma, coming from a sheltered background, had never tasted mac and cheese before, but she had heard about it. She asked his mother if it was healthy, and his mother said it was very healthy as her recipe called for whole-wheat macaroni and low-fat cheese. After another hour of studying they were interrupted by a marvelous odor coming from the kitchen. This time it was Aiden’s dad who had just prepared some fresh-baked bread. It was too tempting to resist. His dad told her that homemade bread was far superior to anything you could buy in the store! After completing their studying, Aiden asked Emma if she would like a cupcake for the road. Although she was not that much into sweets, Little Miss Locks ate the treat assured that it was sweetened with very little sugar and mostly honey. She left with a very sweet taste in her mouth but unsatisfied with what she had learned about the food she had eaten. Obviously, she was a victim of too little information!

To become enlightened, Emma decided to google it. First she learned that mac and cheese was one of the worst foods kids could possibly eat with too many carbs, too much fat, dangerous food dyes, and gluten. She also read that by using gluten-free, whole grain macaroni and low-fat cheese, that it could be made healthier. One source said, however, that anything labeled low-fat had to be bad. Moving to online news about bread, she found that bread is at the top of the list with respect to gluten, refined flour kills (the whiter the bread, the quicker you’re dead), and bread is the number one source of sodium in the American diet. The cupcake also contains gluten and lots of sugar both in the cake and the icing. Honey and maple syrup can be used to substitute for table sugar in many recipes, but they are almost all sugar and they are not so good for baking into cupcakes. Still, most of these concerns were made about processed mac and cheese, bread and cupcakes. By making these foods at home using healthy recipes from the internet, she read that she could continue to enjoy these foods. As far as chemical ingredients go, she saw that all foods are made up of chemicals! Instead of being better informed, Emma felt confused and now suffered from too much information!

emma-locks-one

What Emma Locks bought at the supermarket.

She decided to go to the supermarket just down the street from her house to see what she could find out about what was in the processed foods that matched those she ate at Aiden’s house. She found a healthy mac and cheese that was organic. She looked at the Nutrition Facts and found that a serving had 280 calories and the various daily values for nutrients. It gave her some fiber, protein, calcium and vitamins. On the downside there was more saturated fat and sodium than she wanted. She made it up and shared it with her little brother. She actually ate more than a serving, so she actually got more of the good and not-so-good stuff than it said on the package. She also noticed that there were only nine ingredients with only one sounding like a chemical and no artificial colors. Next came the bread. She chose the potato bread, because it has the best flavor of breads on the shelf. It was only 100 calories in a slice, but she ate two slices. It was very low in fat and provided several vitamins, but it had more sodium than she would like. It had more than 20 ingredients, and many of them sounded like chemicals. When it came to the cupcakes, as expected, they were high in sugar, total fat, saturated fat and even had more sodium than you would think. There were so many ingredients, she didn’t even want to count them, and many were unpronounceable.

emma-mac                           emma-brea

Product labels for the mac and cheese, potato bread and cupcakes Emma bought at the supermarket.
emma-cup

It seemed like Emma Locks found the right level of information on the food labels. It gave her the nutritional information she craved without the contradictory stuff that she found on the internet. She was not concerned about gluten or chemicals as ingredients. What she wanted was straight-forward information on nutrition and ingredients. After both she and Aiden aced their math tests, they broke into his parent’s top secret recipe file on his dad’s laptop. All three recipes were from healthy offerings on the internet, but it took some help from an online site for analyzing recipes and some guessing to be able to compare the home products to the processed alternatives. The homemade mac and cheese appeared to have a little less calories than the processed food but more protein, fiber, fat and saturated fat. It was not possible to tell if it had more or less salt and vitamins. The freshly baked bread had more calories, fat, saturated fat, protein and much more sodium per slice but had only seven ingredients. The slices of the homemade bread were bigger than those in the store-bought loaf, but she ate two slices at a time in both places. Now the cupcake she ate at Aiden’s had less sugar and calories per serving but more fat and saturated fat as the national brand. Both contained more sugar than she should have in a whole day.

What Emma Locks learned from her experience was that there is just too much information about specific foods on the internet and much of it is contradictory. She also learned that there is too little information when trying to cook at home. What looks to be a healthy recipe might not be all that healthy when you seek out the nutrition facts. To find out what is really in a food, the label on a processed food has close to the right amount of information. As far as how much she enjoyed the food, she had to admit that the homemade versions tasted better, but they were also much more work for whoever fixed them. To be truthful, she is really not that into cupcakes or even mac and cheese anyway. She learned that even bread has a lot more sodium than we need, so she plans to cut down on the amount of bread she eats.

The moral of the story is that you can learn a lot from a nutrition label, and home cooking is not always as healthy as it seems.

Next week: Review of The Case Against Sugar

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