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Food Labeling Nonsense

Posted May 19 2010 9:47am

A few days ago I posted an article that had to do with the  pitfalls of reading nutrition labels, and how companies have made it so hard to even know what it is your food that that FDA is considering revising the regulations. Well, apparently there is even more to be on the lookout for than what I originally posted. The  Daily Green  recently had an article about the same topic entitled  9 Food Label Lies. Basically they added the following things to look out for when you are shopping for food and reading nutrition labels:

  • Made with Whole Grains - the example the article lists is Thomas' English Muffins vs Thomas'  Hearty Grains  English Muffins. The article points out that although it is true that the heart grains english muffins have whole grains in them, the ingredient is listed third on the list of ingredients, and thus it makes up an insignificant portion of what is in the english muffins. In fact, some companies that offer whole grain options (and advertise them as the healthier option) use caramel coloring to mimic that lovely brown color that whole grains really produce. My mother recently told me that she'd read an article about that coloring, and all this time (my whole childhood) she'd been buying wheat bread thinking it was better for us, when really it is brown because of the added coloring (not all wheat bread, but the kind we ate was).
  • Ingredient List - you'd think this would be the one case where the manufacturers would have to be truthful, right? Not likely. According to this article, many manufacturers use different kinds of a similar ingredient (ie. sugar) so that they can list them separately. That way, instead of sugar (or HFCS) coming up as the first ingredient on the list, it spaces them out and something else is the first ingredient so you think you are getting less sugar. 
  • Serving Sizes - I've already touched on this one a little bit, as it really irks me! The article points out that many of these serving sizes were developed when the serving really was that small - when cokes came in 8oz bottles, for example. Nowadays, that is not the case, and so the serving size is unrealistic based on the package that the food comes in. Who drinks a 20 oz Coke in 2.5 sittings? Or as the article says - 11 Ranch Doritos. My guess is, if you are sitting down to eat Doritos in the first place, you're not stopping at 11!
  • Omega - 3s - the article touches on a concept that I have read elsewhere as well. Certain foods are allowed to place health claims on their packaging, but not allowed to actually link it to any health benefits. This way, your mind links the two together, but the actual packaging does not. For example, we have all heard that omega-3s are beneficial for heart health (among other things). However, the FDA does not allow foods high in omega-3s to put a claim on them saying that they are good for heart healthy unless they are also low in saturated fat and other risk factors. Thus, foods like eggs which are high in saturated fats are not allowed to make this claim. So instead of leaving off the fact that they contain omega-3s, eggs put the statement on there, but do not add any sort of health information. They let your brain link those two together. It is kind of a roundabout way of making the claim, but not at the same time, and is rather deceiving (although I am not against saturated fat, and still eat eggs, it is still avoiding the FDA criteria in a way).
  • Made with Real Fruit - often times on packaging that says made with real fruit, the main ingredient that could even be associated with fruit is fruit juice concentrate. This hardly counts as a serving of fruit, since it really is more like a serving of sugar, so the idea that something is made with fruit and thus you want to feed it to your children can be deceptive. Key thing to remember - if it real fruit it either a) won't have any packaging at all (like apples) or b) it's ingredient list will say - ingredients: cherries (in the case of dried cherries). If it has other stuff added in, most likely it is filled with sugar. 
  • 0 Trans Fat - We touched on this one in  last week's article  as well, and boy oh boy does it bother me! This particular article states that many times manufacturers remove trans fat from the product and just replace it with saturated fat because the public is so anti trans-fat at the moment. This may be true. I am not inherently against saturated fat, but I do think you have to look where it is coming from. It can come from healthier sources, like eggs, or unhealthy sources, like processed foods. Likely if you are in a situation where the manufacturer replaced trans fat with saturated fat, it is probably processed food and should be avoided. I also hate that 0 trans fat could really mean there is some trans fat in there but just less than 0.5g per serving, but since I already went down that road, I am going to end rant and move on. If you want to read more about that,  read last week's article. 
  • Free Range Eggs - similar to "all natural" free range has a pretty lose meaning, and can vary depending on the company that you are dealing with.  The  Eco-Label Center at GreenerChoices  says that the only requirements for something to be labels "free range" is that the birds be given  access  to the outdoors for five minutes per day.  This doesn't even necessarily mean that the chickens  go  outside, but merely that a door is opened for them to have the opportunity to go out (although after spending their entire lives inside, most birds would not at that point choose to go out). I see free range labels all the time on eggs, and it really bothers me that it is such a misleading term!
  • Fiber content - basically the beef here is that added fiber to foods is not digested in the same way that natural fiber is. Thus, added fiber to random foods such as ice cream is not really going to do a dang thing for your cholesterol or your overall health. Basically the article says that the fiber that is added to things so that manufacturers can brag about its fiber content are just low calorie fillers that allow them to market to a wider audience. If you are looking at upping your fiber content, try to get it from natural sources such as whole grains, veggies, fruit, and beans.
  • The last one on the list is all about health claims. It goes along with the omega 3 claim, but is basically summarized as saying that food manufacturers skirt the labeling laws of making health claims on foods by doing it in a roundabout way. They also focus more on what is  added  to the foods in terms of micronutrients, rather than the whole picture of what the food contains (most of the time, tons of sugar). The example the article used was Kellogg's children's cereal. Even though they are close to 40% sugar (!!) they are fortified with vitamins, so Kellogg's labeled them as "supporting your child's immunity." I, for one, could find much healthier ways to support my child's immunity, but whatever. This claim was actually removed from the boxes by the California attorney general, but other claims like it abound. As Michael Pollan said in one of his books, watch out for foods that make health claims. The healthiest foods often don't have any claims at all, and if manufacturers are trying to convince you it is healthy, it probably isn't.

I hope this list helps you to combat the minefield of label reading! I know it can be overwhelming and extremely frustrating, but don't get discouraged. Try to remember the golden rule of grocery shopping - shop the perimeter. Aside from things like frozen foods, most of the perimeter foods are fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, and dairy. This greatly cuts down on the amount of label reading you have to do (although of course you still have to do some, like in the case of the free range eggs) and it makes it a more manageable task. Good luck!
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