Food for Thought: Don’t Be Fooled by -Free!

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As seen in Haddam-Killingworth Now

I know April Fool’s Day has come and gone, but I thought it was a great time to dive into the “foolishness of –free.” I’m not talking free as in it doesn’t cost anything; I am referring to foods that say they are Fat-free, Gluten-free, Dairy-free, and Sugar-free. The food industry wants to fool you into thinking that if it’s “-free” it’s a health food and most people believe this to be the case. So let’s break it down one by one.

For many years the “Fat-free” foods were all the rage, but then new studies came out claiming that fat doesn’t make you fat and is in fact good for you. Whew, that was a mouthful! There are still some pre-packaged foods out there touting their “Fat-free” status, but have you ever read the ingredients? Yikes, sometimes I’ve seen fake fats made from chemicals that are actually used to make yoga mats! I don’t know about you, but I prefer to sit on my yoga mat and wouldn’t consider consuming it no matter how hungry I got. Ok, so in all seriousness, the other ingredients can be quite alarming as well with higher sugar content, or even high fructose corn syrup, which is one of the primary culprits for our obesity epidemic and type II diabetes. I encourage you to read the food labels and if you can’t pronounce it, or you don’t know what an ingredient is, then it is likely not good for you.

Our bodies need fat to stay healthy, but only in moderation and a very small ratio to the rest of your diet. I prefer to get my fats through whole foods, like organic nuts and seeds; nut butters that do not have added sugars or salts; chia, flax, and hemp seeds; and the ever versatile avocado. On occasion for an added fat I will use olive, avocado, or sesame oil, but very sparingly. Some folks believe in using coconut oil, but I’m on the fence, as the research goes both ways on this one, so it is on my only now and then list for special treats.

Gluten-free is on the rise and more and more products are popping up everywhere, even on menus at restaurants. We need to ask ourselves, why are so many people becoming sensitive or allergic to gluten, which is in most bread, pastry, and many other pre-packaged foods. Of course if you have celiac disease then gluten-free is a must, but that is only a small part of the population.

Just to be a bit radical here, I don’t believe that in most cases that it is the gluten causing the problem. Bear with me here. I believe that in the US our grains have become so overly processed, overly refined, and chemically treated that it is greatly affecting our microbiome (your gut) from being able to properly digest your food, which in turn is causing unwanted and chronic inflammation throughout the body. This isn’t a free license to indulge in a bunch of bread, it is simply raising a red flag that I think more folks need to be aware of.

So let’s talk the good, the bad, and the ugly. Good “gluten” grains are best sprouted and in their whole form and may include wheat, rye, faro, spelt, einkorn, emmer, or barley (these are not suitable if you have celiac disease or a wheat/gluten allergy). If you have been off grains in general or following a gluten free diet then take it slowly introducing these sprouted whole grains a little at a time. A sampling of grains that are gluten-free, unless cross-contaminated via machines used to process grains with gluten, include rice, oats, quinoa, amaranth, millet, and buckwheat. So another good alternative to grains is organic nut fours like almond, or a chickpea flour. I use these in baked goods or in yummy crusts. These have no added ingredients and are a minimally processed food.

Moving onto the bad and the ugly… The replacement flours that are pre-packaged and gluten-free are generally not organic and the grains are treated with chemicals and are full of overly refined white rice, a variety of starches, like potato, corn, and tapioca, and fillers & emulsifiers. These gluten-free substitutes wreak havoc on blood sugar and can cause a whole host of other digestive issues. Many of the gluten-free cookies, waffles, and other packaged foods have the same issue as the fat-free items, too much junk that simply put, it’s not good for you! So if you want to try going gluten-free for a week or two, don’t run out and fill your pantry with prepackaged gluten free foods that have ingredients bigger than your thumbnail.

MOOving on to dairy-free… Rather than getting into all the reasons why I don’t think dairy is a good thing for anyone, I would like to chat a bit about the dairy-free options swamping the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Not to sound like a broken record, but we have much the same issue with too many ingredients that are commonly used as emulsifiers to thicken plant-based milks. I encourage you to not only consider the list of ingredients, but to look for organic options. Many of these plant-based milks are made from almonds, which are treated with a chemical during growing and processing, unless they are organic. That’s a hefty dose of not so good for you in a bottle. Making nut milks at home is easy-peasy and only requires some soaked nuts, clean water, a high-speed blender, a milk bag, a jar, and a wee bit of sea salt. You can watch a nut milk demo online for the “how to” of making nut milk. It is a cleaner and cheaper way to get a healthy plant-based milk!

Last, but not least is Sugar-free, or also known as “no sugar added.” This usually means the product has been sweetened with an artificial sugar. As I’m sure you have heard by now, artificial sugars are a toxic ingredient and can cause all kinds of health issues. I am actually surprised that they are still allowed in our food supply. Common issues I have seen from consuming these artificial sugars include migraines, chronic headaches, fatigue, digestive upset, heart palpitations, and weight gain. Some artificial sugars have even been linked to cancer. In my opinion the only sweeteners that are safe, with little or no side effects and that do not raise blood sugar, are stevia (organic liquid is best – I like Stevita brand) and monk fruit. Two others that don’t raise blood sugar and are generally safe to consume are erythritol and xylitol, but both of these may cause digestive upset if used regularly.

If you are not dealing with blood sugar issues and are not diabetic, then other natural sugars consumed in moderation are fine. My go-to favorites are pure maple syrup, raw local honey, and coconut palm sugar. The food industry is starting to catch on and you can find some pre-made products in your local health food store with these natural sweeteners, so be a label reader, or better yet, make your own goodies and freeze them in small batches for that occasional sweet treat!

So my foolproof way to steer clear of the “–free” phenomenon is to be a food detective and if you see free on the packaging, read the label and know what you are consuming, or buy simple, pure ingredients and make your own at home!

If you have a topic you’d like to learn more about, please email me at Until next time!


Janet Verney