MomsTalk on Food: What Exactly Are We Putting Into Our Bodies?

In the fourth week of our write/respond series, Patch Mama Jillian talks about all of the "stuff" we eat in our food and the impact it may have on us and our children. The other mamas respond with their own stories. We look forward to hearing yours too!

Jillian Sallee

I love pickles.  Cucumbers with a little spice, yum.  So healthy, no calories, an easy add on to most sandwiches.  Do you know why most pickles are a deep yellow and green color?  They add food coloring to pickles to make them that way.  Don’t believe me?  Check the jar.

Benzidine is found in that food coloring in pickles. Did you know benzidine causes cancer?  The FDA has certified that benzidine can be found in Yellow #5 and Yellow #6.  Of course, they are only allowing it in a small amount, 1 ppb (part per billion).  The problem becomes, how much is really in there?  In 1993, 1995, and 1999 separate studies were done where doctors collected samples of food coloring from supermarkets and tested them for their benzidine content. The parts per billion ranged from 7ppb to 104 ppb with one as high as 941 ppb!  It’s scary to think that one of those bottles could be in your baking cabinet.

Food coloring, colors that make fruit punch red, that make M&Ms rainbow colors, that make popsicles orange, are made from petroleum, or crude oil, which is also the source of gasoline.  Along with food colors in food, there are also additives, flavorings and preservatives to make the food more attractive texturally and to make it last longer. According to Feingold.org one particular added flavoring, often found in cookies and candies, is vanillin.  Vanillin is the waste product of paper mills.  Companies use this undesirable by-product and turn it into this imitation flavoring because it’s so much more inexpensive than actual vanilla.  

So what?  If your food is a little cheaper, tastes and looks pretty good, what’s the real difference?  The difference has been a life changer in my family.  For the past five years we have followed the Feingold Diet.  One emphasis of this diet is to eliminate all colors, additives, flavors, and preservatives.  There are lots of characteristics that the Feingold Diet can help, but the one proven to be helped, 90% of the time, is behavior. I can tell when my kids are breaking down, tantruming more, have a short fuse, or can’t seem to settle their bodies, that it had to be something they ate.  We are pretty strict about our diet choices - but of course there are slip ups.  When we are at the Cape on the weekends, we might go out to dinner, get ice cream and we don’t have ingredient lists for all those foods.  I can see it in the kids’ behavior and how my own body feels.  We usually start Monday going “clean”, eating foods only on the Feingold foodlist.

There is so much to this diet that this article is not going to do it justice.  I wanted to share some basic facts about some of these things in all of our foods because I think people don’t necessarily know what they are eating.  Hopefully after reading this, you might see some behaviors in yourself or your children that you might want to change, and this diet is a starting off point.  All the information I related in this article came directly from Feingold.org.

Melissa Schools, with an always thoughtful response...

Sigh. I spent some time tooling around the Feingold website and my first thought is, “Ugh. Just what I needed to read before adding a new baby to the mix!”

My problem is that now that I’ve read it, I can’t un-read it. Now, my go-to favorite pregnancy treat- popsicles- chides me every time I devour one. Or a few. Whatever. Yes, I know I can buy the natural ones, but I love the old school feelings of nostalgia I get from those twin pops.

In the last eight years since our oldest son was diagnosed as gluten intolerant, our family’s eating habits have evolved for the better: many fewer carbs, no processed foods, fast food only once in a bright blue moon, lots of fruit and vegetables. Also in that time, two other sons and I have adopted a gluten free diet. I’ve toyed with the idea of going vegan, but we’re just not there, yet. Each of us loves a big, juicy burger. Plus, our favorite can’t-tell-they-are-gluten-free recipes rely heavily on butter and eggs. Mmmmm, butter…

When we lived in Pennsylvania, we enjoyed the experience of splitting a side of organic, grass-fed beef with three other families. (The farmer did all the work. We just paid for it and picked it up, already packaged into specific cuts. We also purchased several organic chickens there.) Since we’ve moved to Massachusetts, we haven’t gotten around to finding a place. Hey, four years have passed quickly!

Overall, I’m pleased with the general outlook of our diet. I actually welcome more information like Jillian has provided, especially in these last days of summer vacation when my kids’ behavior seems to be out of control. I like the possibility of successfully addressing a behavioral problem or a medical issue merely by modifying what I or my family members eat. It seems that it is becoming more common in this country (and other first world countries) for people to rely on pharmaceuticals to address health problems rather than take the time to improve their diets and to exercise.

There is definitely room for improvement in our food choices, but I assuage any guilt I feel about failures by reasoning that we’re still ahead of the general health curve and that there is always (God willing!) time to make those improvements. Now…it’s time for a popsicle!


Food for thought from Regina Martine...

I never heard of the Feingold diet before I met Jillian, but it makes perfect sense to me. I have always been very interested in food and where it comes from and how it is made, and although none of my kids seem to be directly affected by the additives and colors in food, I still try to limit how much of these chemicals they eat. A few years ago, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Then I saw Food, Inc. and learned more than I ever wanted to know about the food industry in this country. It seems that while we have been very successful at making food abundant, available and affordable, we have engineered and processed away everything that makes food nutritious and real.

It certainly makes sense that the most nutritious food will be the least processed and the closest to its natural form. However, natural foods like fruits, veggies, eggs and cheese don’t last long and need to be consumed while they are fresh. Food companies want to produce their items as cheaply as possible so they often substitute corn syrup for sugar and artificial flavors and colors for natural ingredients. Our bodies don’t even recognize these substances as food. Preservatives and additives allow food to have a much longer shelf life and be shipped to stores near and far without spoiling. We know what these chemicals do to our food, but what do they do to us? Do I want to put all these synthetic ingredients into my body or my kids? Not really.

I try to stay away from over-processed foods as much as possible. My general rule is that all the ingredients listed on a package should be things I recognize, can pronounce and I could potentially buy in the grocery store. Does this mean my kids never have blue vanilla slush or Skittles? No.  I just try to keep it to a minimum and keep the rest of their (and my) diet as natural as possible.

I really like this blog  — it is a great resource about avoiding processed food and feeding your kids a whole, natural diet.


Last but not least, a word, or 700, from Tasha Schlake Festel...

Food is a big topic of conversation in our house. There are a few reasons we talk about it so much:

1)    Each of my children seems to have at least one hollow leg that they would like to fill with snacks.
2)    My daughter has never met a piece of sugar she didn't like and has unfortunately inherited my nearly insatiable sweet tooth.
3)    I want my children to have strong, healthy bodies and a healthy relationship with food.
4)    Learning how to make good choices will set them up for success.

The "good choices" thing is open to interpretation. Not everyone has the same ideas of what is and isn't healthy. While Jillian makes excellent points and I'm sure we could benefit from reading labels the way she does, that part of "healthy eating" is really far down on my list of concerns, for better or for worse. I check for sugar and carbs. I keep grains to a minimum. I try to "shop the perimeter" of the grocery store and focus on fresh, rather than processed, foods. If it's in a box, I try not to get it.

My husband and I drastically changed our eating habits a while back - me, about a year ago, him, a year prior to that. We eat like cavemen. Well, cavemen that like lattes, salami (yes, I know that's processed) and cheese. We don't worry much about fat content. In fact, I never buy low fat anything. Ever. We eat few grains and processed sugars – not easy for a baker! – and we have a lot of meat, fruit, veggies and cheese.

While I know Jillian has enjoyed the behavioral benefits of the Feingold diet, my family has enjoyed the benefits of following a modified "paleo diet." I used to feel like I was 80 years old when I woke up in the morning, every joint sore, feeling headachey and exhausted. I have never felt healthier, stronger or more alive than I do since making this change in my diet. And my blood work all indicates that I am the picture of health.

My kids still have goldfish crackers, donuts, PB&Js, pasta, and cereal. They are kids, after all. But those foods have become much less prominent in their diets and they have benefitted. When I get lazy and throw some Spaghetti-O's at them for lunch for too many days, I can tell the difference. They get sluggish, moody, whiney, and seem to need to eat constantly. Getting back on track with food makes a huge difference.

We all have our own issues to address dealing with food – behavior, energy, weight control, overall health – and each family will have to find what works. I'm excited that, for now, we've found something that works in our home, and I hope that you have all done the same in yours.

Happy eating!

Jillian Sallee August 30, 2012 at 04:57 PM
That's a great point, Kate. There are so many healthy options in all of the foods that we eat. Everyone has slip ups, and as you know, we try to follow to the best of our ability. If we are at a birthday party, however, and they are serving cupcakes with food coloring, the kids are allowed to have them. We know the inevitable meltdown will happen but we go "clean" and then things go back to normal. It's not even just behavior, it's the chemicals that we don't want in their bodies either, regardless of their behavior modifications!
Jane McGrath, CHHC August 30, 2012 at 05:06 PM
I applaud you Victoria, and all the other moms out there, for their innate healing wisdom that lives within them. I raised 5 children (all now graduated from college), control my Rheumatoid Arthritis without prescription medication, and went back to school to become certified in holistic health coaching - although experience has been the best teacher! Many people feel lost in a maze of guesswork surrounding healthy food for both themselves and their families. It's easy to become too lackadaisical about our choices in unsupportive environments where fast, packaged and take-out foods are way too convenient. The grocery store shelves are filled with more than 45,000 items, many of which are processed, packaged items wrapped in bright shiny packages filled with sugar, unhealthy fats and additives. Our knowledge has become blocked by our magnetic attraction to foods that are engineered to tempt our taste buds, but neglect our health. We no longer instinctively know what to eat. So “think outside the box” like so many moms are doing here. Also realize that no one diet is right for everyone or every family. There is a learning curve, so give yourself credit for making any dietary changes – small changes can make BIG differences. Eating whole, real foods like the ones your great grandmother would recognize should be a pleasurable experience you and your family enjoy every day and one that does not break the bank! Jane McGrath, CHHC jane@wholetruthnutrition.com
Tasha Schlake Festel August 30, 2012 at 09:16 PM
Any suggestions on finding natural food coloring that won't affect flavor for things like frosting? I'd love to get away from the artifial stuff, but often the *color* is a key part of the design. Vibrancy is not easily achieved with natural coloring, from what I know. I'd love advice on this! Thanks.
Marcia August 30, 2012 at 10:25 PM
Our sons grew up on the Feingold diet and now raise their children on it. Any food out there can be dye free and we were 100% dye free, etc. Slipups were only accidents. The Feingold Assoc. website is awesome. There's also a Feingold Facebook page and a Yahoo group: http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/Feingold-Program4us/
Jillian Sallee August 30, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Tasha, I'd check with the Whole Foods bakery department, all their cakes and cookies are vibrant and beautiful and the colors are natural. They also sell the basic food colors in the store but because they are natural they don't last too long. They might have some tips!


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