Occasionally we all have an urge to snack, no matter how health-conscious we may be. Recently, hit by a persistent sugar craving, I found myself nowhere near a health-food store, so I did what any other red-blooded American would do and stopped at a convenience store. The snack-food sections of stores these days are piled high with the grab-and-go, individually wrapped, calorie-packed, eat-it-at-the-steering-wheel foods that smell so yummy. Cruising past the chips, nuts and cookies, I found the stash of cakes, doughnuts and pastries that I knew were there. Yes! The end shelf was chock full of cellophane-wrapped yellow pound-cake slices, honey buns, bear claws and apple pastries, each with tiny beads of oil clinging to the inside of the wrapper indicating the contents would be moist and sweet like Mom's homemade cake. Just what I was looking for.
I let my eyes float over the racks, searching for just the right treat. Then I saw them—Red Velvet Bingles. Two crème-filled cakes, shaped like Twinkies, only red instead of yellow. The package was lettered in bold red, white and blue. An Uncle Sam hat perched on the "t" in "Velvet." Red, white and blue stars covered the package with one big star streaking across just under "Bingles." I realized that choosing Red Velvet Bingles would be the patriotic choice and obviously the "American" thing to do.
Then I made my second mistake. (The first one was stopping at the convenience store). I turned the package over to read the contents. Have you ever read the contents on a junk-food snack? Check this out:
Sugar, bleached enriched flour, (bleached) flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid, soybean oil, eggs, whey, partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening (soybean and cottonseed oils), nonfat milk, margarine (liquid and partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil), water, salt, nonfat dry milk solids, whey, soy lecithin, vegetable mono-and diglycerides. Preservatives: (may contain one or more of the following:sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, citric acid, calcium disodium edta. Colored with pigments of annaitto and tumeric and beta-carotene. Artificially flavored, vitamin A palmitate added. Contains 2% or less of each of the following: cream cheese (pasteurized milk and cream, cheese culture, salt, carob bean and/or guar gum), modified cornstarch, baking powder (baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate), egg whites, cocoa (processed with alkali), mono and diglycerides, salt, wheat gluten, cornstarch, calcium acetate, sorbitan monostearate, sodium stearoyl lactylate, natural and artificial flavors, guar gum, polysorbate 60, xanthan gum, egg yolks, yeast, corn syrup solids, artificial coloring (FD&C red No. 40), milk, soy lecithin, water, potassium sorbate (to preserve freshness). Manufactured in a facility that also processes products containing soy and tree nuts.
I may be missing something, but this seems a far cry from Mom's cake recipe of flour, sugar, milk and eggs. Gimme a break. I can't even pronounce most of this stuff, much less identify it. Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate? What on earth is that? (OK, I looked it up—derived from corn, soy, peanuts or milk, this additive, around since the 1970s, is commonly used to make cake and bread dough more uniform in texture. It adds to your sodium intake, but is officially considered a low-risk additive in small doses. Too much can cause kidney problems, water retention, allergic reactions and affect blood pressure according to HealthyEatingAdvisor.com.)
One thing I did recognize, though, is "partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening (soybean and cottonseed oils)," aka trans-fatty acids. These vegetable shortenings and margarines have been chemically modified to add hydrogen atoms, a process that gives them a long shelf life—good for the manufacturer, but bad for us. Studies have shown trans-fatty acids can lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol.
Then there's the cottonseed oil, the basic ingredient in original Crisco, which is touted by the National Cottonseed Products Association as "American's original vegetable oil … the standard to which other oils are compared." Sorry, I'm not quite ready to buy that. In addition to genetic modification, herbicides and pesticides, cotton is treated with defoliants before harvest. That's too far from organic for me. And I must not be the only one who has a problem with it. Frito-Lay's Web site has a special listing called "Products Not Containing Cottonseed Oil." Wonder why.
Try reading some labels yourself. You may find some without cottonseed oil, but almost every processed food contains partially hydrogenated oil of some type. If you can't identify the ingredients, you may want to pass. I didn't eat the Red Velvet Bingles. I settled for a cup of hot tea and some dried apricots. It's amazing how sweet they were.
Deborah Noel is the JFP's wellness columnist.