Food Labels 101
When you stir the pot, you can see exactly what’s in the soup. It’s the same with food labels. But, instead of a ladle, being label savvy is your tool with which to separate the turnips from the meat and potatoes. It doesn’t hurt to turn up the heat on the food industry either. Toward that goal, we present some of the most common food labeling tactics that feed little more than marketing spin to consumers.
There’s a lot of fat to chew when it comes to food labels. What we mean is, poorly defined labeling standards permits marketing spin to dominate the package space, masking or diminishing the actual contents inside the box or can. You might recall the popular fast-food chain that used the slogan, “Where’s the beef?” in the 1970s. The analogy this question makes to how you interpret food truth in food labeling today should leave you asking, “100 percent beef what?” There’s also a myriad of marketing terms tossed in the mix that are designed to get the product off the shelf and into your cart, like “trans-fat-free,” low-salt” and “high-fiber.”
Who’s Minding the Store?
There are, of course, certain regulations in place that protect consumers from unsubstantiated health claims on food labels. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to give regulatory definitions to specific words like “natural.” So, even though they often appear on food labels, they lack significant meaning. Similarly, loose labeling standards allow the use of words on food packaging that suggest a structural or functional health benefit in a round about way, like “supports immunity” or “contains hearty-healthy fiber.” A cake mix might contain real chocolate, real fruit filling and whole wheat among its ingredients, but that doesn’t mean it can strengthen your immune system, ease joint pain or help to prevent heart disease just because these items supply trace amounts of phytonutrients that may.
Do you labor over the fruit juice isle, turning each brand around to read the specific ingredients – and their concentration in the mix? If not, you might be basing your purchasing decision on acceptance of the claim made on the front label as fact: “Contains real fruit juice.” Okay, but how much of the juice is obtained from real fruit? The truth is on the back label and, unless “100%” appears without the added disclaimer “from concentrate,” the product may only contain 10% fruit juice and the rest is nothing more than water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup with a little red dye No. 40 tossed in for color. Here’s more food for thought: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines fruit juice concentrate as sugar, not fruit. Ergo, this product is more liquid candy than juice.
The “made with real fruit” ploy appears on lots of other products, such as toaster pastries, fruit rollups, cereal bars, etc. No doubt, foods like these are handy for on-the-go mornings and snack breaks. So are bananas, grapes and apples. In other words, if you want to get more fruit into your family’s diet, then buy the real thing in the form of fresh produce.
The American Heart Association and U.S. General Surgeon have declared that a diet high in fiber reduces the risk of heart and colon disease. However, not all fiber is equal. In fact, some of the fiber added to many types of foods these days is really a load of … starch. According to a reported issued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in March 2010, these so-called fibers are actually powdered agents known as maltodextrin, polydextrose and inulin. Granted, these compounds are derived from plant-based sources, such as corn, rice and chicory, but do not necessarily afford the same health benefits as natural fiber, namely that from whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. In effect, these fiber substitutes are more fillers than anything else.
One of the most important pieces of information found on a food label is how many calories are in each serving size. Yet, the calorie count is usually in smaller print than everything else and the serving size given is typically unrealistic, if not difficult to figure out. For example, a soda that comes in a 12-ounce can might tout only 90 calories per serving. But closer inspection of the label reveals that there are two and one-half servings per can. So, this food actually contains more than twice as many calories than what was deceptively presented on the label. Until labeling standards recognize that few people limit themselves to a certain number of chips, or consider a single can or snack an item to be shared between three people, these are the things you need to watch out for. The same “per serving” shtick applies to “fat from calories,” which in reality minimizes the impact of the total caloric content of the product.
Suggested Side Bar
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately two-thirds of adults and 18% of children being the ages of 12 and 19 in the U.S. are overweight. The medical cost of this growing epidemic is estimated to be $147 billion each year.
In a speech at the National Food Policy Conference, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said that food labeling protocols have “…not been substantially addressed since the FDA implemented the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, more than 16 years ago.”
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