No, not that kind of free food! Not the kind that students and instructors seek out at opportunities across campus. Nor the free samples distributed on the floor of the IFT and similar Expos. I refer to foods missing a key ingredient or feature that is unacceptable to a segment of the population. Gluten free, lactose free, and sugar free are three of the most important products of the genre. How important are these foods? How can we design a diet around them?
Gluten free may be the most prominent of the free foods. Most restaurants have gluten-free menus or at least menu options. Some fast-food operations supply gluten-free hamburger buns upon request. Others let customers order a burger without the bun. The most obvious beneficiaries are people with celiac disease.
Others experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) look for gluten-free products as well. It is not the gluten that is the problem, it is the wheat oligosaccharides. Wheat-oligosaccharide-free does not appear on any product label or menu. Gluten-free is good enough. Still other consumers talk about a gluten sensitivity. We do not know if wheat contributes to conditions other than celiac disease or IBS. Early, some consumers believed that if gluten-free products existed, gluten must be dangerous. It is not clear how many people still subscribe to this theory.
Gluten-free products are by definition ultra-processed. Alternate flours and starches, like rice or corn replace wheat in gluten-free products. Most of these items contain more than one type of flour to achieve acceptable products. The property of gluten that is so difficult to reproduce is the light, fluffy texture of bread. Gluten is a protein that forms in dough from two other wheat proteins upon the addition of water. It stretches when exposed to carbon dioxide released by yeast or baking soda. That leads to the open spaces in wheat breads not found in breads made from other flours. Texture is an important sensory characteristic. Additives such as emulsifiers, fillers, and thickeners make these foods better. During my gluten-free years, I have noticed much improvement in the quality of available products.
Lactose free is another popular trend. More adult humans on earth are lactose intolerant than those who tolerate the molecule. Human milk contains lactose, but babies have few if any difficulties. Lactose is a natural constituent of milk from mammals that live on land. Lactose intolerance results in bloating, gas, and other digestive issues. The sugar is one of the compounds that contributes to IBS in some persons. A molecule of lactose consists of a molecule of glucose and a molecule of galactose. We can absorb both glucose and galactose in our intestines. We are unable to absorb lactose, if not broken down by the enzyme lactase. Instead, lactose ferments in the gut leading to undesirable consequences.
There are many ways to avoid lactose in the diet. One approach is to stop consuming all dairy products. Some cheeses and other dairy products lose their lactose during processing. Plant-based milks and their products are lactose free. Not all plant-based products provide the nutrition or flavor of their dairy counterparts. A lactose pill consumed before eating a meal containing milk helps prevent discomfort. Likewise, lactose-free diary products formed by pre-treatment with lactase is another solution.
I stopped consuming gluten and lactose in my diet to overcome IBS symptoms. I also stopped eating sorbitol-containing fruits such as apples and peaches. Thanks to the miracle of food technology, I am IBS free most days. My bowel movement sends me a compliance report every morning. There is a 2-4-day lag between cause and effect. Thus, it can be a mystery game to identify the offending food(s) consumed earlier in the week. There are many alternative foods available in a normal supermarket. Any dairy item with little or no sugar on the Nutrition Facts statement is low in lactose. None of the alternative cream cheeses I have tried measure up to my personal standards. Spreading a small amount of real cream cheese on my gluten-free bagel is better than no cream cheese at all.
Sugar free graces the front of product labels from soft drinks to candy to baked goods and more. Zero Sugar is now a more popular marketing term for many soft drinks. Diabetics watch their sugar intake to avoid elevated levels of blood sugar. Parents limit sugar that their children consume with particular attention to any hyperactive kids. Sugar calories accumulate too fast for many of us leading to weight gain and obesity. Dental caries (tooth decay) plague consumers of too much sugar. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich many be the single-most dangerous cavity producer. Jelly is 70% sugar. Peanut butter is an adhesive that binds the jelly to the teeth. Popular books and journal articles blame excess sugar for more chronic diseases. Think cancer, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome.
Sugar may be bad for us, but are sugar-free products worse? Should those of us who watch the amount of sugar we consume, forget about sweet taste in our lives? Of course, we can consume sweet fruits without guilt. Or can we? Fruits supply vitamins and minerals to counterbalance the effects of the sugar present. Or so we hear. But they contain the same basic sugars, glucose and fructose. It is so much easier to overdose on sugar from sweets than from fruits. That is except for very sweet fruits like bananas, dates, and mangoes. Added sugars may pose the most dangerous ingredients in processed foods. They come in the forms of table sugar, honey and maple syrup. Not to worry, when we add them at home they are culinary ingredients and considered safe. Is there a double standard here?
Sugar-free sodas sweetened with artificial sweeteners are unacceptable to many processed-food critics. The tide is turning as diet drinks become a recommended way to reduce sugar in the diet. Buyer beware, though, when consuming sugar free baked goods, candy and gum. Look at the ingredient statement. If sorbitol, xylitol, or other sugar alcohols are present, proceed with caution. Most sugar alcohols end in -ol. Excess consumption leads to bloating and massive gas production!
I consume sugar-free products, with a particular preference for sugar-free beverages. Almost 40 years ago I received a diagnosis of chemical diabetes. It is now called pre-diabetes. I have kept my diabetes under control by diet since my initial diagnosis. I have had a 20-plus ounce soft-drink habit for over 60 years. If I had continued drinking sugar-sweetened beverages at that rate, I would be dead by now. Sugar-free beverages saved my life. I abstain from fruits high in sugar or sugar alcohols. I also steer away from processed products sweetened with sorbitol, xylitol, etc.
Fat free products are not as popular as the products described above. Fat is no longer the villain in nutritional health. Refined carbs are now the main problem with American diets. Fats, with an emphasis on saturated fat, were the cause of heart disease. We learned that there are good fats and bad fats. We were also told that we need more omega-3 fats and less omega-6 on our plates. Recommendations still center on reducing fats in our diet. The emphasis now shifts to insulin resistance. Lost in the discussion is that fats pack twice the number of calories per ounce than carbs or protein. Do fats contribute to obesity and chronic disease or do calories no longer matter?
One of the problems with low-fat and no-fat items is flavor. Much of the flavor in meat resides in the fat. Deliciousness bursts from the translucent blob of pure fat on a steak! Likewise, the underside of the skin of fried chicken exudes culinary ecstasy! Marrying fat and sugar in multi-ingredient foods enhances eating pleasure. Think homemade brownies, bakery sweets, or chocolate bars. Food product developers can wring every last bit of flavor when adding a little fat to a formulated food. Fat-free foods present flavor challenges that are difficult to overcome.
My diet over the years has been on the low end of the fat spectrum. Low-fat milk, lean cuts of meat, and margarine comprised my day-to-day eating pattern. Special treats like pizza, fast-food, and ice cream were minor components of my diet. More recent changes in diet affect my food choices. Gluten-free pizza is not as good as real pizza. Butter and cheese invade my daily dietary choices increasing the level saturated fat. Lactose-free ice cream is as good as real ice cream but with fewer flavors available.
Preservative-free is not a term used as much as in years past. It was a simple term to signal additive-free. Now the term used is clean label. The opposite of a food with a clean label is an ultra-processed food. Massive correlation studies link ultra-processed food to a host of chronic diseases. This way critics do not need to cases make about specific additives. They only claim that most additives are suspect and condemn any products containing them. The irony in all this finger pointing is table sugar. Sugar is the ingredient most demonized in ultra-processed foods. It is the most purified, fractionated, reductionistic ingredient produced by food manufacturers. It is also considered the molecule we consume most damaging to our health.
A few years ago, you may remember toxicity associated with bisphenol A (BPA). Toxicologists said it was not a threat to human health. More exposure to the molecule did not affect the body’s response. Endocrinologists disagreed saying the dose response was not the issue. They claimed that BPA affected the fetus in the womb at a critical time in the developmental process. Both sets of scientists painted a credible picture of the effects of the molecule. Debate became so heated that the FDA and two other agencies set up a detailed protocol. It sent samples to both top toxicology and endocrinology labs. Labs receiving the samples did not know the molecules or doses they received. EPA evaluated the results from the different labs. It declared the toxicology explanation the winner, and BPA disappeared from the headlines.
We still have product labels that declare themselves to be preservative free. Any such product that contains sugar or salt is not accurate. Sugar and salt are the most effective preservatives in processed or homemade foods. Next to sugar the most excluded molecule is caffeine (trimethylpurine dione). When not condemning ultra-processed products, food activists decry unpronounceable ingredients, a scaremongering technique.
A personal reflection on free food. It would be nice to live in a world where everyone tolerated gluten and lactose. Bread, pizza. and ice cream were three of my favorite foods. It would be nice to live in a world where sugar and fat could provide pleasure without consequences. Did my wayward ways in youth cause my problems with gluten, lactose, sugar, and fat? Maybe. Have I sacrificed years of my life because I ate too many processed foods? Maybe not. Free foods provide people like me an opportunity to enjoy a social life with foods. For that technology I am grateful.
Next week: Why are we so fat and Italians so skinny?