You could be eating sawdust -- and not even know it!
Let me explain.
On a recent plane ride to a medical conference, I started a conversation with the man sitting next to me to pass the time. I told him that I was a physician working in the area of nutrition.
He exclaimed that the new low-carb craze was a boon for business. I assumed he was in the food business -- but I was wrong.
When I asked him what he did for a living, he replied that he worked in the wood pulp industry.
So what’s the connection between wood pulp and low carbs?
As it turns out, cellulose -- an indigestible fiber starch -- is one of the main ingredients in processed low-carb foods.
And what’s another name for cellulose?
Yes, cellulose gives us those low net carbs that food manufacturers like to cite on labels.
The bad news: Cellulose provides no nutrition -- and maybe even a lot of gas. Termites can digest wood, but humans can’t!
This is just one example of how the food industry uses slick marketing techniques to confuse, coerce, and bamboozle you into thinking that you’re doing something good for yourself by buying their new “ health food ” products that are simply slightly modified junk foods.
They’re taking advantage of our nutritional naivety -- and this country’s labeling laws.
Want another example?
Just take a look at the new labeling laws for trans fats.
These unhealthy chemically altered fats are found in almost every processed food, even though they’re known to be one of the causes of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and dementia. Clearly, trans fats aren’t fit for human consumption and should be completely eliminated from our food supply.
So does our government protect us from these toxic fats?
Of course not!
Instead, through powerful lobbying efforts, the food industry was able to put a big loophole in trans fat labeling laws.
That means you can now buy the same old junk food -- with “zero” trans fats. But read the label’s fine print, and you’ll find the words “hydrogenated fats.”
The catch: Unless you know food chemistry, you probably don’t know that hydrogenated fats are the very same thing as trans fats!
Is this false advertising?
Well, not exactly.
According to the new law, manufacturers can claim that their products are trans-fat-free if they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fats PER SERVING (1/2 cup).
But we know that most people eat the whole box or package of food and rarely eat just one serving. Most packaged foods contain 2 to 4 servings, which are usually never shared.
That means you are getting a lot more trans fats per snack or meal!
Plus, another loophole in these labeling laws allows companies with a storehouse of printed labels to use them until 2007, even if they don’t indicate the amount of trans fats in the food. That means that a company could have printed a year’s worth of labels on December 31, 2005 -- so it can use them on foods with large amounts of trans fats for a whole year.
You think you’re getting trans-fat-free food, but you’re really eating trans-fat-FULL food!
And if you’re eating these foods on a regular basis (as the $33 billion that the food industry spends on consumer marketing helps ensure), then you’re still eating a lot of trans fats.
The government looks like it’s doing the right thing -- but you’re really just eating the same old junk with a new label that makes it look healthy.
The government wins -- and you lose!
Here’s one more example of how labeling laws hurt your health.
Remember the low-fat craze?
Americans fell for it hook, line, and sinker, guiltlessly eating boxes of high-sugar but “fat-free” Snack Well cookies -- which could actually be certified “heart-healthy” by the American Heart Association (AHA) because they contained no fat.
In fact, even a can of cola could be certified “heart-healthy” by the AHA because it’s fat-free!
There’s no doubt about it -- here is something very twisted about the food labeling laws, which are SUPPOSED to protect us.
But what they really do is protect the food industry.
We are duped into thinking that if we shop in a health-food store or buy foods that are labeled low-carb, or trans-fat-free, or low-fat, or heart-healthy, we are safe.
But the dangerous ingredients in processed foods come in many disguises.
That’s why my philosophy is based on eating unprocessed, organic, whole, real foods -- as close to nature as they were created -- whenever possible.
The best approach to buying and eating food is simple: If it has a label, don’t eat it!
Unfortunately, as we all know, that’s not always possible or practical. So here are some guidelines for being a more educated consumer and learning how to read between the lines on the labels.
==> Reading Food Labels: If You Really Have to Buy Something Processed
While the “if it has a label don’t eat it” rule is the ideal, consumer demand has led to the creation of many foods that are clean, whole, simple and that actually have clear labels. They tend to be found in whole-foods stores or the health-food section of your grocery store.
(By the way, if there is a “health-food” section in the grocery store, what does that make the rest of the food sold there?)
My general rule: Be a smart label reader.
Labels contain both the ingredients and specific (but not all) nutrition information. If the label lists any ingredients that you don’t recognize, you should likely stay away from it.
Follow these tips, too:
1) Don’t be duped by marketing.
Remember, the front of the label is food marketing at its most clever. It is designed to seduce you into an emotional purchase and may contain exaggerated claims.
2) Look for quality ingredients.
High-quality organic whole foods are now available in packages, cans, and boxes.
3) Check the order of ingredients.
The most abundant ingredient is listed first and then the others are listed in descending order by weight. If the real food is at the end of the list and sugars or salt are at the beginning of the list, beware.
4) Consider what’s NOT on the label.
Foods that are exempt from labels include foods in very small packages, foods prepared in the store, and foods made by small manufacturers.
5) Look for additives or problem ingredients.
If the product contains high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, put it back on the shelf. As I explained earlier, simply looking at the level of trans fats can be deceptive; you need to look at the actual ingredients to sniff out these dangerous fats.
6) Look for ingredients that don’t agree with you.
Identify food ingredients you are sensitive or react to, such as gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, tree nuts, or peanuts. Be vigilant about reading labels, as these ingredients are often “hidden” in the foods you least suspect. The labeling of common allergens is not always clear or helpful.
7) Investigate unfamiliar ingredients.
Search the Internet to find credible sources of information about any unfamiliar ingredients on the label before you buy. These include such as carmine, Quorn, and diacylglycerol. Credible Internet sources tend to be government or educational sites, which end in “.gov” or “.edu” rather than “.com.”
8) Discover if any “functional-food ingredients” are being added to the food product.
Though they may be helpful, more often than not, they are “window dressing” present in small amounts, and with minimal value -- except to the marketing department of the manufacturer. Examples of this include live active cultures added to high-sugar, high-fat yogurt or vitamins and minerals added to gumballs!
In other words, it’s best to get healthful, functional-food ingredients from their whole-food sources, rather than as additives to otherwise nutritionally empty foods.
9) Finally, ask yourself: Would your great-grandmother have served this food?
Before you analyze the numbers, ask yourself if this food could have been served at your great-grandmother’s table. She only served real food.
==> Understanding Nutrition Labels: Think Low GL and High PI
Glycemic Load (GL) is a measure of how quickly a food enters your bloodstream. The lower the GL, the better your health.
Phytonutrient Index (PI) means the amount of colorful plant pigments and compounds in food that help prevent disease and promote health. The higher the PI, the better.
Here are some questions to ask when you read nutrition labels:
1) Is this a typical serving?
For example, a cereal label may give the nutritional profile of a 3/4-cup serving when your typical portion is really 1 1/2 cups. Worse, the label may say that it contains 2 or more servings, when most people consume the whole amount in the container or bottle. Have you ever known 4 people to share one pint of Hagen Daaz ice cream?
2) Are the carbohydrates high GL or low GL?
Remember, the total amount of carbs is less important than where the carbs come from. If they are found in foods with a low GL and high PI, they will have a very different effect on your appetite and weight than foods that are quickly absorbed and have few nutrients and fiber.
3) Where’s the fiber?
It is one of the main factors that determine GL, and fiber can also give you a clue about the PI of a food. Many packaged foods contain no fiber, while some healthy items such as oils, spices, and herbs are naturally void of fiber. If convenience items such as soups, entrees, or snacks are missing this key fiber factor, leave them on the shelf.
4) What are the total carbohydrates?
Remember, the type of carbohydrates is what matters most. If they are from whole plant foods that contain plenty of fiber or have a low GL, their effect is very different from fiberless foods. The same amount of carbohydrates from a can of beans and from a can of cola affects the body in very different ways.
5) Where are the good fats?
Monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats should dominate this category, with minimal amounts of saturated fat and zero trans fats (present on foods labels from 2006 on).
Unfortunately, omega-3 fats are rarely listed independently on labels, but are listed as part of the polyunsaturated fat family. Other polyunsaturated fats -- like corn oil and safflower oil -- are less than healthful but also show up in this section of the label.
This list of rules may sound daunting, but once you begin analyzing food labels, you’ll quickly get a feel for what’s good and what’s not – and your body and mind will thank you for that for years to come.
Try heading to the grocery store and reading labels with your new perspective.
Now I’d like to hear from you:
How have you been confused by labels thinking you were getting something healthy only later to find out it was not?
Have you had any challenges eliminating trans fats from your diet?
Are you surprised or shocked by any of the current nutritional labeling practices?
Do you have any other suggestions that you’ve found to work at reading food labels or choosing the best foods in general?
Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below -- just click on the Add a Comment link.
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