Regardless of where you live, your country’s health guide recommends a balanced diet. We’re told from the time we're in grade school that for optimum health, make sure to include fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and milk in your daily diet. Many of us are pretty good at eating well, but our diets are also fraught with mutant foods — items not even close to being found in nature. Some of them may taste good, but they’re not doing much for our health — except deteriorating it. Want a good horror flick? Check out Robert Kenner’s film Food, Inc. In it, he sheds light on just how many of the foods we eat are highly processed. If this movie doesn’t encourage you to shed your poor dietary habits, nothing will.

Here’s a look at how, and why, these mutant foods have come to be part of a daily diet for many of us.

Why It Started

In decades past, everything was simpler — and so were foods. People ate meat, potatoes and vegetables and drank water and milk. But in the 1950s and '60s, as North American society changed in a number of ways, so did people’s eating habits. Traditional, unrefined foods began to take a back seat to newer, cost-effective products. Suddenly, people were busier, had less time to spend in the kitchen and turned to modern-day twists on traditional food. The Cheez Whiz era had begun.

The Cheez Whiz Era

In 1953, people stopped putting cheese on their toast in favor of Kraft’s new cheese food product, which contained some cheese, but it was also heavy with emulsifiers, preservatives and other highly refined ingredients. Such products as Cheez Whiz had benefits for both the manufacturer and the consumer. For the manufacturer, using a few natural ingredients and a handful of additives made the product cheaper to produce, which, in turn, meant higher profits. The preservatives in the product gave it a longer shelf life, which helped families make ends meet. Just as Cheez Whiz is a modern twist on cheese and an age-old favorite, other new mutant foods hit grocery store shelves as well.

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Sweet Aunt Jemima

When Aunt Jemima table syrup was introduced in 1966, it was a cheap, quick alternative to the lengthy process of tapping trees for sap to make real maple syrup. It was sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup and flavored with fenugreek. Often, little or no actual maple syrup is included, which is why these products have to be labeled as table syrup or maple-flavored syrup. Table syrup is cheaper and easier for a company like Aunt Jemima to produce, but that product also contains ingredients like sodium hexametaphate, a sequestering agent most commonly found in soap and photography products.

Marshmallows Anyone?

Like many other products, today’s marshmallows are a heavily refined version of the original concept. The marshmallow plant was actually used in the production of marshmallows many years ago, but now these sweet, gummy treats are among the most unnatural items found on grocery store shelves. Marshmallows contain sugar, modified corn syrup, gelatin, and other modified and unhealthy ingredients. The general public, however, doesn’t seem to care — according to the National Confectioners Association, Americans consume more than 90 million pounds of marshmallows each year.

Hot Dogs, Get Your Hot Dogs!

Most of us love hot dogs, but did you ever stop to wonder how they’re made? Let’s just say the production of hot dogs doesn’t begin with AAA beef. Rather, their creation is through the mechanical separation process — pork or chicken scraps, still attached to the bones, are forced through a machine to separate them. So when we bite into a juicy frankfurter at the ballpark, we’re actually eating ground bits of tendon, muscle fiber and other unappetizing parts of the pig or chicken. The news gets grimmer; as disgusting as mechanically separated meat is, it’s the most natural ingredient found in hot dogs. The rest of the dog is chock-full of tasty things like sodium nitrates.

Jell-O

Jell-O may be a favorite dessert, but one look at it will tell you this mutant food likely contains nothing found in nature. However, one key ingredient in Jell-O is natural — the gelatine that gives this product its jiggle is derived from the collagen in the bones and connective tissue of pigs and cows. These parts are ground and with the help of acid, are broken down until the collagen is released. Add heaps of sugar or artificial sweeteners, man-made colors and flavors, and you’ve got everyone’s favorite buffet dessert.

Health Risks

There’s still a lot of debate about the health risks of eating heavily refined and artificial foods — mainly because they’re new enough that we’re still learning how they affect us. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are staples in processed meats, and are in everything from hot dogs to deli ham. They’re preservatives, but research has shown that eating them in large amounts can lead to cancer. Artificial colors and hydrogenated oil are other chemical ingredients that are found in a wealth of foods today. With scary names such as blue 2 and red 3, these colors are common in nearly every type of candy, chewing gum, soft drinks, and other foods. Hydrogenated oils, as you probably know, contain saturated and Trans fats and are a cause of heart disease. Margarine is a common food in which you’ll find hydrogenated oils, which are also used in crackers, cookies and salad dressings. Hydrogenated oil, in addition to being highly refined and cheap to use, also acts as a preservative. That’s why your store-bought cookies will stay fresh for months, while homemade cookies might go moldy in a week if they’re left at room temperature.

Keep It Natural

Few people eat perfectly, but the best thing you can do is be a picky consumer. If you’re trying to stay on the road to health, be careful about what you’re buying. Read not only the nutritional information of each item you put in your shopping cart, but also each ingredient list. Many of today’s products contain highly refined ingredients and chemical additives, and if there’s one product you simply can’t live without, do the research and find out if its ingredients are health risks. Knowing the truth might change your diet in a hurry. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is incorporate as much fresh meat, vegetables and fruit into your diet as possible.