A healthy diet is key to healthy living, and Maine has many local sources for fresh produce, fruits, meats, seafood, and other items. But what about all those other products you buy at the store? How do you know which ones are good for you and which ones to avoid?
Read the label. It may have been written by local food scientist Bill Seidel, who went into business sixteen years ago as the owner and sole employee of Food Product Development Company. Using his PhD in nutrition, his master's degree in food science, and his experience as a food scientist at RagAº, Seidel maintains a brisk freelance business in product development and nutritional labeling. His insights will help you to know exactly what is in the food you eat.Who are your clients, and what do they want?
My clients come from Maine and all over the world - four thousand and counting. When I first started, the bulk of my work was in food product development for small entrepreneurs who made everything from tomato pesto to oatmeal cookies. Thanks to the nutritional-labeling regulations put in place in the nineties, the ratio has flipped. I now do about 90 percent nutritional labeling and 10 percent product development.How do these companies find you?
It's all word of mouth. I haven't advertised in ten years.
What's in your kitchen cupboards?
Same things you have in your cupboards, except for the tools of the trade: xanthan gum, sodium benzoate, citric acid, that sort of thing.As a consumer who finds nutritional labeling cryptic at best, I wonder if you can help me decipher them?
When looking at labels myself, I focus primarily on total fat and sodium. Current health concerns like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure were rare a hundred years ago. They're symptoms of our modern diet.
How do I look at total fat? Don't they break it down into two types?
Four types, actually: total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fats. I look at total fat because of the calorie content. But those other fats are important, too. Trans fats, for example, are basically man-made fats that have been linked to coronary disease.What do you mean by man-made?
I'm talking about the process of hydrogenation, which means taking regular vegetable oil and thickening it into a shortening. One of the byproducts of this process is trans fats. Trans fats are rarely found in nature; you'd have to drink a whole lot of vegetable oil to get trans fats out of it.How do I avoid trans fats?
Reduce your intake of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. You'll find these oils in products that come out of the large commercial bakery processors. I'm not talking about your corner bakery here. In fact, a lot of my clients who are medium-sized commercial bakeries have reformulated their products to eliminate trans fats, usually by substituting palm oil for hydrogenated oil.But isn't palm oil a "bad" oil?
In small amounts, it's fine, though high in saturated fat. But on the other hand, hydrogenated oil is high in trans fat. It's a lesser-of-two-evils scenario.
If the total fat number is low, do the specific types of fat really matter?
If the total fat number is low, then the product will most likely be low in specific fats. If the total fat number is high, then the specific fats can be higher - and you'll be getting more calories as a result. That's when I start to zero in on the specific fats and steer away from less healthy ones.
Bottom line: how much junk can I eat and stay healthy?
I'm not an alarmist. My food-and-nutrition professor at the University of Maine, Katherine Musgrave, had a mantra that has held true throughout all the food fads of the last twenty years: eat a variety of foods in moderation. So go ahead and have a Twinkie once in while, but not five a day.
Any other advice about reading labels?
Look at the serving size, which is mandated by the government. For example, the government thinks a serving size of barbeque sauce is two tablespoons, but most of us use far more than that on a steak. Your idea of a serving size can be pretty different from the official one, and you can overlook a lot of calories that way. A thousand calories is a thousand calories no matter where they come from. Fat calories might metabolize differently from sugar calories, but when you're done, it's all going to your hips no matter what.
Tell me a food-science war story.
I've labeled and worked on hundreds of products that you can find right now on the shelves at Hannaford or Shaw's, but I'm bound by confidentiality. However, I can tell you that I recently worked on a product recall by a major chain outside our geographical area. When people hear "recall" they usually think of food poisoning. But sometimes a product gets recalled for aesthetic reasons. In this case, the microbial counts were low - no problem there. But because of enzyme breakdown, the vegetables in the jar became mushy looking and unappealing. I recommended pulling the product because people would think there was something wrong with it.
And they agreed.
What's the weirdest food product you've worked on?
Chocolate body paint. It was chocolate-based, but because it also contained cream, shelf life was a problem. After I added some preservatives and acidulants to the product, the company introduced it to the public in this new formulation.Any feedback on how well it worked?
Well, they did send me some free samples.
For more tips on healthy living in Maine see "Naturally Nutritious,"
a list of natural food stores in Maine, "Farm Fresh,"
a list of farmers' markets in the area, and "Walk Your Way to Health,"
a compilation of walks across the state.