Top Foods to Avoid #5: Snack Cakes

Patients often tell me, “I love food,” and I respond with, “Well I love food so much I majored in it!” As healthfully as this dietitian eats now, she hasn’t always behaved.

In the soda blog I professed my old honey bun habit. Well, it’s time I also confess how I used to indulge in Little Debbie® Swiss Cake Rolls®. As much as I used to love those little sugar-packed cakes, I love myself and my family too much to let them in my front door these days. Our health is just too important—yours is, too.
You may be wondering, “How can a dietitian really understand my love affair with snack cakes?” Trust me, I get it! They’re super sweet, super cheap, super quick, and will keep for a long time (if somehow they go uneaten for more than a few days). Let’s tackle this reasoning, point by point.

“Super sweet.”
Ever wonder why those Zebra Cakes® are calling your name and not the nutritious apple? Manufacturers deliberately make foods “hyper-palatable.” In other words, they have scientifically perfected the flavors to be super-satisfying and powerful, usually by adding lots of sugar, fat, and salt. These added ingredients, especially sugar, ignite your internal rewards system and your pleasure pathways, making you want more—just like an addiction. The more sugar, fat, and salt they add, the better it tastes, the more we eat, and less we prefer more nutritious sweets, like fruit.

“Super Cheap.”
According to the USDA, corn and soybean were two of the top five biggest money-makers for American agriculture in 2014. Since the US produces so much of these products, they’re especially affordable ingredients for food manufacturers. If you look closely, you’ll probably find these two ingredients in one form or another on the nutrition labels of your packaged foods. Let’s take a look at Swiss Cake Rolls®. You’ll note SIX different forms of corn or soybean here:

INGREDIENTS: Sugar, Corn Syrup, Water, Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid), Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil with TBHQ to Preserve Flavor, Dextrose, Palm and Palm Kernel Oil. Contains 2% or Less of Each of the Following: Soy Flour, Cocoa, Soybean Oil, Eggs, Corn Starch, Whey (Milk), Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate), Emulsifiers (Sorbitan Monostearate, Polysorbate 60, Soy Lecithin, Mono- and Diglycerides), Salt, Colors (Yellow 5, Red 40, Blue 1), Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness), Egg Whites, Natural and Artificial Flavors.”

“Quick.”
Today’s society values convenience and immediate gratitude. Don’t feel like making a snack? Just insert your money and push a button. But what is the real cost of convenience? It’s far more than the $1 you spent on your vending machine snack. What’s really at stake is your health and the health of your family. Despite what some nutrition labels might tell you, the partially hydrogenated soybean oil found in many snacks is significant (the reason it’s listed at 0 grams is usually because it barely falls short of the 0.5 grams required to label it). Harmful trans-fats like partially hydrogenated oils can increase inflammation in your arteries and wreck your cholesterol levels. Save your dollar and spend five minutes preparing a more wholesome snack. Your family will thank you.

“Shelf–stable.”
Another confession: I did really badly in organic chemistry. So when I started researching TBHQ—an additive used to preserve flavor—it brought back some bad memories. Apparently, TBHQ is short for “tertiary butylhydroquinon.” It’s fat soluble, mixes well with corn oil and soybean oil, and is added to some foods to help extend their shelf life. There are limits to how much can be used in our food (thank goodness!), as it has been associated with vision problems in humans as well as liver enlargement and convulsions in rats. Though these kinds of additives may make it easier to buy in bulk and store foods for a while, it’s worth it to weigh the health risks and opt for a healthier, unprocessed option, like fresh fruits or veggies.

That concludes our Top Foods to Avoid series! I hope this helped you think critically about some of the foods that may be in your diet, and steered you on the path toward a healthier you!

View the entire “Top Foods to Avoid” series.

– True Health Clinical Health Consultant Stacie Wheatley, MA, RD, LD
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