“What is that?” The look of disgust mixed with scorn was unmistakable on my fifth grade classmate’s face as she looked across the table at the contents of my lunch box. “It’s just peanut butter,” I replied, glancing around at the other now interested faces as I pulled out a ziplock bag of carrots to dip in the soupy brown spread. “That is SO gross!” was the consensus. “I dare you to eat it!” they taunted. I flushed and lowered my eyes, but I was used to it. Between my sprouted grain bread, fruit-on-the-bottom organic yogurt, and organic cheddar puffs, a little peanut butter experiencing oil separation was just another item to be added to the lengthy list of weird food I brought to school every day.
During my middle school years, dissecting food labels in search of organic ingredients was a foreign concept in most American households and was years away from becoming the mainstream trend it is today. At that time, the only grocery store that sold organic products in Columbia was Rosewood Market, and none of my friends had mothers who shopped there. I went home every day begging to please just be sent with a Lunchable, but to no avail. I was fated to eat natural peanut butter with only two ingredients (peanuts and salt) versus the popular commercial brand’s smooth, creamy spread with eight, several of which were rather difficult to pronounce.
My mother came by her health standards honestly. My grandmother was far ahead of her time as an unusual combination of a classy, traditional Southern lady with an inner au natural granola when it came to health and nutrition.
“What are you eating?” she asked me one summer as I skipped into the kitchen munching on a snack. “Cheerios!” was my enthusiastic reply. “No,” she smiled, taking the box from my hand. “In addition to whole grain oats, you are actually eating cornstarch, sugar, salt, and tripotassium phosphate. Do you know what that is?” I shook my head, my eyes widening. “You should always know what you are putting in your body,” she continued, “and anything you can’t pronounce on the label probably isn’t good for you.”
While the trials of preservative-free food plagued my middle school days, in high school the lunch tables turned, and my healthy spinach and turkey wraps became the envy of my peers. I also came to experience the difference food made on both my scholastic and athletic performance when I made commitments to stay away from ingredients like white flour during exam week or a basketball tournament.
Having some knowledge of what is in my food and how it affects me is certainly an incentive when choosing what goes in the cart at the grocery store. In this issue, dietitian Lightsey Jett offers some insight on page 30 into correctly reading food labels and decodes some of those long words that grace so many ingredients lists. While eating truly natural food 100 percent of the time is nearly impossible, understanding what we are eating will at least allow us to make better, and more informed, choices.