I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at TEDx and the opportunity to lecture to some of the biggest companies in the world on a multitude of health topics, but last week I gave what I felt was the most challenging, yet rewarding lecture of my life. I spoke to the 5th grade classes for my twin sons, covering carbohydrates, insulin resistance and nutrition. I prepped hard for this one. How could I possibly engage a group of 5th graders for 45 minutes? I was pleasantly surprised. I started off with a set of tinker toys to show how glucose molecules link together to form carbohydrates. I showed my signature carbohydrate traffic diagram and explained the inflammatory effects of food with a picture of an NBA superstar with a sprained ankle behind me. I tried to restrain some of my excess energy and enthusiasm in an effort not to embarass my sons sitting among their peers. I might have failed a few times.
My wife Shally, a pediatrician, finished off with a nutrition demo to support the science I just presented. She piled up sugar cubes next to sugar-sweetened beverages to make an impact and I used the secret scanner (see below) to highlight which foods to avoid. The kids listened patiently and I was amazed that during the Q&A period they hit me with questions comparable to the mature and brainy employees I lecture to in Silicon Valley. So did I convert an entire room of 5th graders into healthy eaters and get them off their sugar addiction? Well…immediately after the lecture I had a group of students come up to us pleading if they could sample the sugar cubes from the display and eat the Froot Loops samples. I guess we still have some work cut out for us. Given that 80% of the foods on our grocery store shelves have some form of sugar in them and there are over 300 stealthy code names to fool you like agave nectar and jaggery , this isn’t a problem a single lecture is going to fix. However, Shally and I have felt rewarded to hear parents reporting that their kids are paying attention to the sugar in their foods and using the magical scanner I taught them about in class. We’ll have to keep working at this, 1 sugar cube at a time.
The Magical Scanner: EWG Food Score App
Trying to figure out what’s in our food and whether it’s healthy is a challenge. In my book, I recommend using a tool like MyFitnessPal to zone in on the sugar and excess carbohydrates of common foods we consume. This is a rough surrogate marker for the insulin load a particular food is providing. However, until now, I haven’t seen a tool that gets more in depth into how processed a food is. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) just released their Food Score database that now provides this information. Download the EWG Food Score App and you can use the barcode scanner to start x-raying your foods to see what’s really behind that gown (aka misleading package label). The scoring system breaks down a large and growing database of foods into 3 categories…Nutrition, Ingredients and Processing (see below) and then tallies up a composite score. This is like golf, where a lower score is better. I set a generic cutoff of 3.0 for the 5th graders telling them that foods with a score of 3.0 and above should be deleted from their breakfast bowls, lunch boxes and pantries. Keep in mind that if you are overweight and/or insulin resistant, eating excess amounts of some low scoring foods may be a threat to your health. This is a great tool, but no food scoring tool can be perfect given the variations in our individual risks and metabolic make up. What’s acceptable for an active athlete may be unhealthy for a sedentary, overweight prediabetic. Below is the database search field:
Most of us don’t need a tool like this. You should be able to pick up a package and read the ingredients and know right away when you see sugar, fructose and a bunch of unidentifiable ingredients that the food isn’t good for you. However, this tool is great for some basic foods that my patients refuse to acknowledge as unhealthy, like the nutrition bars they are absolutely addicted to. I always get asked, “which bars are the healthiest?” My answer is the ones that don’t come in a package and don’t taste sweet. In other words, even the best bar on the market is a processed chunk of sugar or some artificial sweetener which should be at most an occasional indulgence but not a staple glove compartment or desk drawer snack. For example let’s see below how “Kind” your Kind bar actually is. You can see a fairly significant score of 6.0. If you click on the dial for Nutrition, Ingredients or Processing, it will tell you which ingredients are concerning. For example, for the “Ingredient Concern” dial, it mentioned the possibility of arsenic contamination of the rice in the ingredient list. It’s not just about sugar and macronutrients. It’s about consistently exposing our bodies to artificial ingredients and potential toxins which trigger inflammation and destroy our healthy gut bacteria. Remember, inflammation is at the center of nearly every significant chronic health condition. Your Kind Bar may look kinder, but it scores just a tad better than a Snickers Bar with a score of 8.0. You get the picture. Try this on deceptively healthy looking foods that are a staple part of your diet like breakfast cereals. Remember, higher score–>more processed –>more potential inflammation.
One final shot I want to leave you with is the food category list. Wondering what the lowest scoring (aka least processed) food is within a particular category? Just click on the “Categories” drop down and then hone in on the subcategories. In the example below I selected “Cereals and Breakfast Foods” and then “Cold Cereals and Granola.” Hats off to EWG for doing this monumental work to help adults and kids become better informed consumers in an increasingly deceptive food world.