By: Anne Guzman, PCG Nutritionist
In a perfect world we would have time to cook and eat whole foods at every meal. However, that’s not always a reality for many athletes, especially when working full time and training. Often athletes who are on the road and looking for a bit more convenience, choose BOXED CEREAL for breakfast. It’s simple, it’s crunchy and it’s tasty. But what’s really in it and should it be in you?
The purpose of this article is not to scare you away from eating processed foods, nor is it just another article with the message “everything you eat these days can give you cancer.” The purpose is simply to shed some light on some of the ingredients that we can easily avoid and should avoid when buying boxed cereal and other processed foods.
Most athletes find it difficult to reduce their overall simple sugars and increase whole foods in their diets – to optimize recovery and health. Avoiding cereals with chemicals can be a great first step for improving your nutrition. Once you find a few good options you can stick with those when convenience calls. Here are some of the top ingredients I would avoid on your ingredient label when purchasing your cereal. (Not to worry! There are still a lot of cereals to choose from that don’t have these in them!)
BHT/BHA: (BHA) butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) - BHT is a preservative. It is used to prevent rancidity in foods with fats/oils. Although most studies have been done with rats, mice and hamsters, it has been shown in several studies to cause cancer. Although controversial, the evidence seems strong enough to have caused the banning of BHT in the UK and in California (where it is listed as a carcinogen).
As well, BHT is banned from baby foods as it has been linked to hyperactivity, and well we know that ONLY BABIES have this problem!? BHT is an approved preservative as far as the FDA is concerned. Several studies that have concluded that it is “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen” (Department of Health and Human Services). BHT is also used in jet fuel and embalming fluid as well as many familiar skin products. The Material Safety Data Sheet for BHA looks like this:
- Do NOT let this chemical enter the environment.
- Ingestion causes abdominal pain, confusion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting.
- The substance may have effects on the liver.
- The substance is harmful to aquatic organisms.
I suggest not eating BHT/BHA in your breakfast cereal when there are BHT and BHA free options. Just read the labels! You may be surprised how often these 3 little letters pop up! Even in “healthy” cereals.
Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Whoa! Make room for the blood to run through your arteries! Stop eating artery clogging fats! Start reading labels! Don’t get sucked into the label claims. Just because a product says “0 grams of trans fats” it DOES NOT mean it is TRANS FAT FREE (free of hydrogenated oils). In fact the FDA has allowed this claim to be made as long as the product has less than half a gram (.49g) of trans fats per serving. Sneaky!
Making serving sizes smaller in order to sneak in more hydrogenated oils is a slick move as well - who only eats a ½ cup of cereal? Cereal adds up if you are eating it often and especially in the portions that an athlete would consume. If you see partially hydrogenated oils on the label, avoid the product altogether.
That “Rainbow of Fruit Flavors” may just be making your kids crazy! Think there is real fruit in that cereal? Think again! Most are simply “colored” like “strawberries”, yet a real strawberry never came close to that box! Colors and dyes are used to brighten up the bland colors of processed foods and certain hues have been linked to more serious ailments.
A Journal of Pediatrics study linked Yellow-5 to hyperactivity in children. Canadian researchers found Yellow-6 and Red-40 to be contaminated with known carcinogens, and Red-3 is known to cause tumors. Many people have allergic reactions to food dyes. How about we just stick with cereal based on ingredients instead of colors? Who are we kidding! If you are looking at the stamp on the Froot Loops box that says “”Source of Fiber” as your guiding light…keep reading.
Because the food coloring isn't quite enough toxins for one box, manufacturers will also load in the sugar to slam your body into a dazed food coma after a “healthy” bowl of cereal. We all know that plain old sugar has no nutrients. Yet it tops the list of ingredients. Often disguised as sucrose, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup, maltodextrin, cane sugar, brown rice syrup or molasses to name a few. Most cereals have several.
Try finding a cereal without sugar listed on the label. Not a simple task. Now don’t get me wrong, sugar is not always a poor choice. For the athlete, sugar is essential for performance. But when off the bike I would still limit added sugars, however some are acceptable. If I’m going to eat sugar off the bike I’d prefer it to be from fresh fruits where they are consumed in tandem with fiber and nutrients - the way nature intended them to be.
Look for minimum amounts of added sugars on the ingredient list; a serving size with under 10 grams of sugar per serving. Ideally the serving size is ¾ -1 cup. If it’s ¼ cup size serving chances are you will be eating at least double that amount. The examples at the end of this article will be close to this recommendation.
Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP)
Ah! It’s not just the chicken balls and egg rolls giving you headaches! HVP is a flavoring agent. It’s produced by boiling foods such as corn, wheat or soy in hydrochloric acid, then neutralizing it with sodium hydroxide. This breaks down the protein in the vegetables into building block amino acids; so far not so bad.
The problem is that the remaining liquid is glutamic acid. We are more familiar with this in the form of its sodium salt, MSG or monosodium glutamate. I’m sure you've seen many Chinese restaurants with signs saying “NO MSG”. Not everyone is sensitive to MSG; however it is an established cause for triggering headaches. MSG intolerant people can also experience rapid heart rate, nausea, chest pain and facial pressure or tightness.
According to the FDA, product labels have to identify MSG as an ingredient only when it is directly added to food. It does not have to be identified as an ingredient when it is a by-product of another process, in which case the FDA allows it to go unrecognized. The word “hydrolyzed” is what you should be seeking. Why not just skip the “flavor enhancer” and choose a cereal that has a flavor of its own, from its actual ingredients? Imagine that.
Brace yourself for this one folks…that berry flavor comes from the delicacy of beaver anal scent glands! Yes my Canadian National Symbol, the beaver, has secretions in your cereal box! And we apparently can’t get enough of it! Castoreum is one of those “natural ingredients” used to flavor food. It’s not necessarily harmful (time will tell!), but let’s just say the idea of consuming copious amounts of this doesn't sit well with me.
I included it for interest’s sake. Castoreum is a substance made from beavers’ castor sacs, or anal scent glands. The beaver glands produce potent secretions that help the animals mark their territory in the wild. Don’t ask me how the food industry figured this one out? I mean seriously, “hey, do you think those beaver gland secretions could add a nice raspberry flare to our cereal?” But they did. The food industry uses 1,000 pounds of this ingredient annually in foods; often vanilla or raspberry flavored foods. In other words stay away from the raspberry flavored cereal, unless you find you consider this normal cuisine?
Who doesn't love caramel? This color gets its own special section. Unlike when I used to watch my mom make her famous homemade caramel, by melting butter in a saucepan with some brown sugar, the stuff in colas is produced by chemical companies reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperatures. This process creates 4-methylimidazole (4-MI). 4-MI has been shown in studies (by the Toxicology Operation Branch, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) to cause leukemia as well as cancerous tumors in the respiratory system.
You may have heard about this in the news as recently as this year. Why? It is found in most cans of soda as well as many of your cereal boxes. You can find caramel color in many unassuming cereals such as Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Caramel Nut Cereal. Here’s the ingredient list: Milled corn, sugar, roasted peanuts, contains 2% or less of malt flavoring, brown sugar syrup, salt, molasses, caramel color, natural and artificial flavor, annatto color, BHT for freshness, wheat starch.
Again, if there is evidence of a chemical causing cancer, why take the risk? Just find products without these coloring agents in them.
As if there aren't fake boobs and there isn't enough Photoshop in this world, it appears we need MORE “artificial!” It’s not rocket science to deduct that the little pink and blue packets full of chemicals we dump into our foods to make up for their lack of flavor are not good for our health!
Artificial sweeteners are anything that is used to replace regular table sugar (sucrose). If you are going to go sweet, do the real thing - it’s the better option. The FDA approved the additive Acesulfame Potassium even though the tests done to determine its safety did not meet the FDA standards and caused cancer in lab animals, which increases the probability that it will also cause cancer in humans (Watch the documentary Sweet Misery for the full story).
Personally, I would choose real sugar over an artificial sweetener any day. Sweeteners will only add more toxicity to your body in the form of some ridiculous concoction that for some reason someone made for a society with many people who seem to feel that the sweetness of a real medjool date, a fresh mango, raisins and raw honey are not good enough, or sweet enough! We have become too accustomed to the taste of artificial flavorings. It’s time to get back to tasting REAL FOOD.
Here are a list of “Artificial Sweeteners”:
- Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Acesulfame Potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
- Saccharin (Sugar Twin, Sweet'N Low).
- Sorbitol falls under the list of “sugar alcohol” but is worth a mention as it can cause a lot of gas for many people.
Remember you can add your own sweetness with fresh berries and bananas. I much prefer cereal with fresh berries than with loads of sugar in the box ☺! Check out the “health” section in your grocery store for your best options (These cereals don’t have any artificial sweeteners, colors or flavors; have over 3 grams of fiber per serving and reasonably low to no added sugars).
- Nature’s Path Kamut Puffs Ingredient: Puffed Kamut. (That’s IT!)
- Bob’s Red Mill Original Whole Grain Natural Granola
- Jordan’s Organic Muesli Dried Fruit Nuts and Sunflower Seeds
- Uncle Sam Original Cereal Ingredients: Whole wheat kernels, whole flaxseed, salt, barley malt
- Barbara’s Bakery Shredded Wheat: Ingredient: Whole wheat
- Newman’s Own Sweet Enough Flakes and Strawberries Cereal
- Erewhon Crispy Brown Rice Cereal Original
The bottom line: don’t just pick your cereal without looking at what you are eating. It seems that everywhere I turn more and more people are popping up with allergies and health issues. It would come as no surprise if a lot of these chemicals were part of the problem. If we can take small steps like reading labels and avoiding these potentially harmful chemicals from invading our bodies that we are so blessed to have and to perform with as athletes, we will be heading towards better health!
Stay tuned “what the artificial scent in your cereal is doing to your love life…”
BHT, a few sources:
This article has been reprinted from Pez Cycling News Online. Anne Guzman is a regular contributor to Pez Cycling News Online.