Just three ingredients are found in most processed foods: wheat, corn, and soy. In fact, a person on the standard American diet will usually have at least one of these in every meal, snack, or beverage. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
How common are these three ingredients?
These big three modern food constituents are almost universally found in a typical supermarket. Consider the oft-repeated advice to shop the periphery of the store, where the produce, meat, and dairy are usually found. What is left in the vast middle of the store, in addition to nonedible items such as soaps and paper products, is almost exclusively processed foods.
Picture the edible contents of the middle of the store, and mentally remove everything that has corn, wheat, and/or soy. Some of these are sneaky, so you’d have to do some label reading. You would find that there is very little left – maybe beans, rice, and some oils and vinegars; also some but not all canned fruits and vegetables since corn syrup is frequently used as a sweetener, even for vegetables such as corn that are expected to be sweet. Everything else has these three foods in them in some form: corn syrup, soy protein isolate, soybean oil, wheat flour. In fact, since almost all commercial food animals are fed primarily on corn and soy, cheap sources of calories, the meat and dairy sections would be mostly emptied out as well.
But we have so much food variety
There are many thousands of so-called foods and food products in the typical supermarket, with more joining the list by the month. It sure looks like there’s a lot of variety here, but let’s take a closer look. There are thousands of species of animals and plants providing food worldwide and over time, plus different breeds of animals and different varieties of produce such as apples, lettuce, and tomatoes. However, in the US, four crops – corn, soybeans, and wheat, and to a lesser extent rice – provide about two-thirds of our calories. One or more of these is found in nearly all processed food, usually as a major ingredient. Corn, wheat, and rice are grains, and soy is a legume, but they are all seeds, so a diet comprised mostly of these four foods is limited indeed. The lack of nutritional diversity and quality in conventional animal feed is passed on to people in the quality of the meat they eat.
What forms do these three foods take?
Wheat is found in almost all breads, baked goods, pizza, and pasta, unless specifically labeled otherwise. Almost all flour is wheat, as are products made from it.
Corn is found in cereal (along with wheat), corn syrup (high fructose corn syrup as well as regular) is used as a sweetener, cornstarch is a common thickener in soups and gravies, and many foods are fried in vegetable oils that include corn oil. If you avoid obvious sweets such as candy and soda, you might still be getting a lot of corn syrup added to ketchup, yogurt, pasta sauce, and salad dressing. Corn is even a common binder and filler for tablets and capsules, including nutritional supplements, although supplement buyers at CAM are aware of this and avoid corn-based supplements.
Take chicken nuggets, for example: these consists of a surprisingly small amount of chicken, which is corn fed; modified corn starch that glues it all together, and corn flour in the coating batter. Leavenings, lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, and the golden coloring are also derived from corn. And all of this is fried in an oil mix that prominently features – what else? – corn oil. The nuggets are then usually served with a sauce of some sort that is sweetened with corn syrup. And chicken nuggets are a fairly typical example.
Both wheat and corn are used as breading on such things as fish sticks, and as cheap filler in such edibles such as fast-food hamburger patties, hot dogs, and taco meat.
Soy is found most obviously in soy sauce and tofu, but is also in textured vegetable protein (TVP, or fake meat), infant formulas, processed meats, high protein energy bars, and vegetable broth.
You would have to be a very determined label reader to avoid these three ingredients.
What are the problems with these three ingredients?
These three are among the most allergenic ingredients in most diets. Part of the allergic potential is due to the fact that a person, unless she or he is very careful, takes in any or all of these with every meal. Continual exposure to any material vastly increases the potential that you will become allergic to it.
In addition, these three ingredients are almost always genetically modified (GMO), which helps to keep the prices down and make them desirable to food manufacturers. GMO foods aren’t what our bodies are designed to eat, and some sort of reaction is almost inevitable, whether or not you are aware of it.
There are a lot of reasons that processed food in general isn’t good for you. Soy can be made into a wide variety of products. If you take something that looks and tastes like a lima bean and make it look and taste like anything from bacon to ice cream, you’d better believe there’s a whole lot of processing going on.
Even if there were nothing wrong with these foods, if you eat a typical diet, you may be eating so much of these three things that you are seriously sacrificing variety. According to nutrition author Michael Pollan, on a per person per day basis, wheat contributes 768 calories, corn 554, soy 257, and rice 91. Since this total is more than what some people can eat without gaining weight, it becomes clear that there simply isn’t much room for anything else.
What can you do?
Become aware of the hazards of eating a diet high in these three ingredients. Learn some of the other words for these ingredients, from TVP to MSG to modified food starch to vegetable oil, and avoid foods with these on the label. Better yet, eat foods that don’t need labels in the first place, such as fresh vegetables and meats.