Tuesday, September 20, 2011

8 Biggest Red Flag Words on Packaged Foods

Hi guys! Its been a long time since I posted something on this blog. I've been way too busy with college and work to do some investigative work of my own. But I came upon this surprising yet informative article about the legal definitions of food labels. Check it out:

8 Biggest Red Flag Words on Packaged Foods

  • by Reader's Digest Magazine, on Fri Sep 16, 2011 7:59am PDT

The words written on food packaging are a contract between you and the manufacturer, as mandated by the federal government via the FDA. Many food producers hire lawyers that help them craft words to get you to buy their products while toeing the line of legality. Here are a few common package proclamations that you should look out for, and what they really mean.

1. Health claims
Could a probiotic straw give immunity protection to a child? Are Cheerios a substitute for cholesterol-lowering drugs? The FDA doesn't think so. Foods are not authorized to treat diseases. Be suspicious of any food label that claims to be the next wonder drug.

2. Flavored
Both natural and artificial flavors are actually made in laboratories. But natural flavorings are isolated from a natural source, whereas artificial flavorings are not. However, natural flavors are not necessarily healthier than artificial. According to Scientific American, the natural flavor of coconut is not from an actual coconut, as one might expect, but from the bark of a tree in Malaysia. The process of extracting the bark kills the tree and drives up the price of the product when an artificial flavoring could be made more cheaply and more safely in a laboratory. That natural strawberry flavor you love? It could be made from a "natural" bacterial protein. Mmmm!

3. Drink and cocktail
The FDA requires that the amount of juice be labeled on a package when it claims to contain juice. The words drink and cocktail should have you checking the label for percentages and hidden sugars. But beware: even a product labeled 100 percent juice could be a mixture of cheaper juices, like apple juice and white grape juice.

    4. Pure
    100 percent pure products such as orange juice can be doctored with flavor packs for aroma and taste similar to those used by perfume companies. By now we all know about the use of flavor packs added back to fresh-squeezed orange juice like Tropicana and Minute Maid.

    5. Nectar
    The word nectar sounds Garden of Eden pure, but according to the FDA it's just a fancy name for "not completely juice." The FDA writes: "The term 'nectar' is generally accepted as the common or usual name in the U.S. and in international trade for a diluted juice beverage that contains fruit juice or puree, water, and may contain sweeteners." The ingredient list of Kern's, a popular brand of peach nectar, contains high fructose corn syrup before peach puree.

    6. Fat free
    PAM cooking spray and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray are fat free if used in the super miniscule and near impossible serving sizes recommended. PAM must be sprayed for ¼ of a second and the small I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray bottle contains over 1,000 servings! Even then it's not fat free it's just below the amount that the FDA requires to be identified on labels.

    7. Sugar free
    This designation means free of sucrose not other sugar alcohols that carry calories from carbohydrates but are not technically sugar. Sugar alcohols are not calorie free. They contain 1.5-3 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram for sugar. Also, certain sugar alcohols can cause digestion issues.
    8. Trademarks
    Dannon yogurt is the only company allowed to use the bacteria in yogurt called bifidus regularis because the company created its own strain of a common yogurt bacterial strain and trademarked the name. Lactobacillus acidophilus thrives in all yogurts with active cultures. Although Activa is promoted as assisting in digestion and elimination, all yogurts, and some cheeses, with this bacteria will do the same thing.

    Saturday, June 11, 2011

    The Truth About Calories

    Recently came upon a bit scientific but extremely informative article about calories from Men's Health. Thought I'd share this bit of useful knowledge. Credit goes to Clint Carter.

    You can't go anywhere without being confronted by calories. Restaurants now print calorie counts on menus. You go to the supermarket and there they are, stamped on every box and bottle. You hop on the treadmill and watch your "calories burned" click upward.

    But just what are calories? The more calories we take in, the more flab we add—and if we cut back on them, then flab starts to recede too, right? After all, at face value, calories seem to be the factor by which all foods should be judged. But if that were true, 500 calories of parsnips would equal 500 calories of Double Stuffed Oreos. Not quite. There's nothing simple about calories. Learn the distinctions and lose the lard.

    Myth #1: Calories Fuel Our Bodies

    Actually, they don't

    A calorie is simply a unit of measurement for heat; in the early 19th century, it was used to explain the theory of heat conservation and steam engines. The term entered the food world around 1890, when the USDA appropriated it for a report on nutrition. Specifically, a calorie was defined as the unit of heat required to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius.

    To apply this concept to foods like sandwiches, scientists used to set food on fire (really!) and then gauge how well the flaming sample warmed a water bath. The warmer the water, the more calories the food contained. (Today, a food's calorie count is estimated from its carbohydrate, protein, and fat content.) In the calorie's leap to nutrition, its definition evolved. The calorie we now see cited on nutrition labels is the amount of heat required to raise 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

    Here's the problem: Your body isn't a steam engine. Instead of heat, it runs on chemical energy, fueled by the oxidation of carbohydrates, fat, and protein that occurs in your cells' mitochondria. "You could say mitochondria are like small power plants," says Maciej Buchowski, Ph.D., a research professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University medical center. "Instead of one central plant, you have several billion, so it's more efficient."

    Your move:

    Track carbohydrates, fats, and protein—not just calories—when you're evaluating foods.

    Myth #2: All Calories Are Created Equal

    Not exactly

    Our fuel comes from three sources: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. "They're handled by the body differently," says Alan Aragon, M.S., a Men's Health nutrition advisor. So that old "calories in, calories out" formula can be misleading, he says. "Carbohydrates, protein, and fat have different effects on the equation."

    Example: For every 100 carbohydrate calories you consume, your body expends 5 to 10 in digestion. With fats, you expend slightly less (although thin people seem to break down more fat than heavy people do). The calorie-burn champion is protein: For every 100 protein calories you consume, your body needs 20 to 30 for digestion, Buchowski says. Carbohydrates and fat give up their calories easily: They're built to supply quick energy. In effect, carbs and fat yield more usable energy than protein does.

    Your move:

    If you want to lose weight, make protein a priority at every meal. Adding them to snacks—especially before you exercise—can help too.

    Myth #3: A Calorie Ingested is a Calorie Digested

    It's not that simple

    Just because the food is swallowed doesn't mean it will be digested. It passes through your stomach and then reaches your small intestine, which slurps up all the nutrients it can through its spongy walls. But 5 to 10 percent of calories slide through unabsorbed. Fat digestion is relatively efficient—fat easily enters your intestinal walls. As for protein, animal sources are more digestible than plant sources, so a top sirloin's protein will be better absorbed than tofu's.

    Different carbs are processed at different rates, too: Glucose and starch are rapidly absorbed, while fiber dawdles in the digestive tract. In fact, the insoluble fiber in some complex carbs, such as that in vegetables and whole grains, tends to block the absorption of other calories. "With a very high-fiber diet, say 60 grams a day, you might lose as much as 20 percent of the calories you consume," says Wanda Howell, Ph.D., a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Arizona.

    So a useful measure of calories is difficult. A lab technician might find that a piece of rock candy and a piece of broccoli have the same number of calories. But in action, the broccoli's fiber ensures that the vegetable contributes less energy. A study in the Journal of Nutrition found that a high-fiber diet leaves roughly twice as many calories undigested as a low-fiber diet does. And fewer calories means less flab.

    Your move:

    Aim to consume at least 35 to 40 grams of fiber every day. That being said, not all fiber is created equal.

    Myth #4: Exercise Burns Most of Our Calories

    Not even close

    Even the most fanatical fitness nuts burn no more than 30 percent of their daily calories at the gym. Most of your calories burn at a constant simmer, fueling the automated processes that keep you alive—that is, your basal metabolism, says Warren Willey, D.O., author of Better Than Steroids. If you want to burn fuel, hit the gas in your everyday activities.

    "Some 60 to 70 percent of our total caloric expenditure goes toward normal bodily functions," says Howell. This includes replacing old tissue, transporting oxygen, mending minor shaving wounds, and so on. For men, these processes require about 11 calories per pound of body weight a day, so a 200-pound man will incinerate 2,200 calories a day—even if he sat in front of the TV all day.

    And then there are the calories you lose to N.E.A.T., or nonexercise activity thermo-genesis. N.E.A.T. consists of the countless daily motions you make outside the gym—the calories you burn while making breakfast, playing Nerf football in the office, or chasing the bus. Brandon Alderman, Ph.D., director of the exercise psychophysiology lab at Rutgers University, says emerging evidence suggests that "a conscious effort to spend more time on your feet might net a greater calorie burn than 30 minutes of daily exercise."

    Your move:

    Take frequent breaks from your desk (and couch) to move your body and burn bonus calories.

    Myth #5: Low-Calories Foods Help You Lose Weight

    Not always

    Processed low-calorie foods can be weak allies in the weight-loss war. Take sugar-free foods. Omitting sugar is perhaps the easiest way to cut calories. But food manufacturers generally replace those sugars with calorie-free sweeteners, such as sucralose or aspartame. And artificial sweeteners can backfire. One University of Texas study found that consuming as few as three diet sodas a week increases a person's risk of obesity by more than 40 percent. And in a 2008 Purdue study, rats that ate artificially sweetened yogurt took in more calories at subsequent meals, resulting in more flab. The theory is that the promise of sugar—without the caloric payoff—may actually lead to overeating.

    "Too many people are counting calories instead of focusing on the content of food," says Alderman. "This just misses the boat."

    Your move:

    Avoid artificial sweeteners and load up your plate with the bona fide low-calorie saviors: fruits and vegetables.

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Don't Let The Label Fool You

    You're at the supermarket to pick up a loaf of bread. Scanning the rows of bread, you wonder which brand of bread to buy. You pick up the two brands closest to you to compare. One says "all natural, 100% whole wheat" the other says "100% natural, multi-grain". You glance at the other packages and see a rehash of the same label. Before you get frustrated with which bread to choose, take a second and think: Is there such thing as "unnatural" bread? How about 50% natural? Sounds absurd, of course. The bread looks natural, tastes natural, and the label says "all natural." So it's natural...right?

    It all depends on what you mean by "natural". Most people associate the word "natural" with "unprocessed" or "healthy". But the FDA has yet to define the term "all natural" and its variants. So in truth, the label "all natural" is meaningless, as is a host of other undefined terms, such as "made with real fruit" or "made with whole grains"; just sprinkle a bit of "real fruit" or "whole grains," and you got yourself a healthy sounding label.

    Educated Consumer 1: "I've already heard about this in the news so I won't get tricked by these labels."

    Oh don't worry. The food companies have a few other tricks up their sleeves.

    Take Froot Loops for example.

    As expected, Froot Loops has the "NATURAL Fruit Flavors" label. On the top right hand side, you'll see the list of a number of nutrition facts that highlights how little there is of the "bad" nutrients and how enriched it is in the "good" nutrients. It looks healthy, and indeed, it matches the numbers in the Nutrition Facts label. But looking at the other information in the Nutrition Facts label, you'll see that the serving size is 29 grams. Do you see what's wrong? I'll give you a minute... still don't see it? Okay, 13 out of the 29 grams serving size is just sugar (About 45% of each serving size is sugar)! Even if you already knew instinctively that Froot Loops is just a big bowl of sugar, the point is that many food products have these labels that juxtapose the "good" and "bad" nutrients to create the illusion of a healthy product.

    Educated Consumer 2: "I do look at the Nutrition Label, so there's no need to worry."

    Or so you think. Let's go back to the Froot Loops example. How big is a 29 gram serving size? Heck, I had no idea until I Googled it; 29 grams is about the weight of a slice of bread. I don't know about you but most people I know, eat at least 2 slices of bread sized portions of cereal (Do you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with just one slice of bread? I think not). Point is that food companies use nonsensical measurements of serving size to make their nutrition stats look healthy (or at least make it seem not as unhealthy as it should be).

    Educated Consumer 3: "I have this handy iPhone app that converts the nonsensical serving size to a more intuitive one, so that I can see the real nutrition facts."

    If you're like Educated Consumer 3, then you probably think that you're food-label savvy, and in fact you are; the majority of Americans don't even look at the Nutrition Facts label. But there are a couple of things that you might have missed.

    1) Why is the daily % values missing for sugar? More importantly, how much sugar should you be eating? Without getting too scientific, glucose is different from a thousand other sugars that end with an "-ose" and some are healthier than others; natural fruit sugar is healthier than high fructose corn syrup. But the FDA does not discriminate among the different sugars making it hard for scientist to set a daily % value for sugar. Still, you can get a sense of how much added sugar is in your food by looking at how far up the sugars are in the ingredients list.

    2) How can 0.4 grams of trans fat not equal 0.4 grams of trans fat? Simple. You pass a law that makes it so. FDA and USDA Nutrition Guide states that, "If the serving [of trans fat] contains less than 0.5 gram, the content, when declared, shall be expressed as zero." So hypothetically, I can sell frozen packages of chicken nuggets at one nugget per serving, and because each nugget is only at 0.49 gram of trans fat I can pretend each one has no trans fat, and slap the "0g of trans fat" label on the front of each package. But at this point, you're too smart to get tricked by my chicken nugget shenanigans...right?

    Personal Thoughts/Experience

    You're probably a bit paranoid, as I was, after I read up on these interesting tid-bits. Maybe you're thinking: What's the use? They'll always find someway to outsmart us. Perhaps you're thinking this is useless since you're still young and should enjoy it while you still can. But when a loved one suffered and died because of heart disease, then it becomes personal. Now is the time to develop healthy eating habits. We must educate ourselves to keep pace with food companies and take control of a vital aspect of our lives for our sake and our loved ones.

    Saturday, May 1, 2010

    The Seat of Death?

    Everyone knows that they need to eat right and get enough exercise to be healthy. That should be enough...right?

    Not so according to a growing body of research that shows that even if you eat the recommended amount of servings in the food pyramid and exercise for an hour it is not enough to prevent obesity and heart related diseases. The number one culprit/public enemy number one for the onset of such diseases is sitting?! How could such a mundane activity such as sitting be the leading cause of obesity?

    The scientific explanation is that we have special enzymes in certain muscles of our bodies that never tire when we stand up, and one of those enzymes called lipoprotein lipase converts fat into energy and LDL (the bad kind) into HDL (the healthy kind). When you sit, those muscles that are used while standing are relaxed and enzymes like lipoprotein lipase are essentially shutdown, allowing fat and LDLs to collect and build up in the bloodstream. Indeed, sitting is the second most passive activity (Sleeping of course is the most passive). What's surprising is that the people who workout everyday and eat a balanced diet but sit a lot still have obesity problems. It's as if sitting negated your workout.

    Now don't jump to the conclusion that sitting is evil and that I must stand all the time. The problem is that the average American spend about 9 hours a day sitting. Lets assume that you had 8 hours of sleep and an hour workout. In those remaining 15 hours, you still need to burn the majority of your 2000 calorie diet. (Unless you are Michael Phelps who can burn 1000 calories per hour). Sitting for more than half of the remaining 15 hours will not get you to break even point, and slowly the daily excess calories accumulate around your waistline.

    Personal thought/experience

    After I finish a meal my parents often tell me to stand up for about an hour and their reason is, "because it's good for you." I would ask for further explanation and they would reiterate their statement in a different form: "because sitting after a meal is bad for you." Since this was such a minor thing, I did what was told without inquiring further into the matter. A few years later I find out that my parents were right after all.

    My personal guideline is to stand up every other hour. I know this sounds weird but I put my laptop on a ledge that is adjusted comfortably to my height while searching the web, watching Youtube clips and writing this post. Not only is standing healthy but it helps me not fall asleep, especially if I need to stay late to study for finals.

    Friday, April 2, 2010

    "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" and tag, you're it!

    There is this new T.V. show called "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" and it is about a guy named Jamie Oliver who is on a mission to change the unhealthy eating habits of the people who live in America's unhealthiest town: Huntington, West Virginia. He's not just some random idealist who has good intentions and doesn't know what he's doing. Instead he's a successful food health reformer in Britain; he ran a campaign that successfully secured about $380 million for school food programs.

    Despite his successes in Britain, I believe there are a few more problems that Jamie has or will face in America. First and foremost is the high cost of making healthy meals. According to the person in charge of the school's food "the invoices are double what we normally spent here." In America, leafy green vegetables and fresh fruits are indeed more expensive than fried potatoes and processed meats. A possible reason is that it's still too hard to process leafy green vegetables and fruits. For example, orange plantations still need people to do the strenuous and tedious task of handpicking oranges from the trees. Another possible reason is that leafy green vegetables are not subsidized by the government. Corn and soybeans that are used to feed cows, pigs and chickens are heavily subsidized by the government. In 2005, the government allocated about $9 billion to corn and soybeans. The other $8 billion were allocated to cotton, wheat, tobacco, diary, rice and peanuts.

    Second is the current recession. Almost every firm is suffering from this recession except for two big companies: Walmart and McDonald. Through decades of aggressive advertising, these two companies are one of the most famous companies in America and have made their products synonymous with cheap, affordable goods. So naturally more people would turn to these two companies to save money.

    Third is the economic and political power of these fast food companies. Let's say Jamie's idea of cooking a nutritious, affordable and tasty home-cooked meal takes hold in America. That means less people will eat at fast food restaurants or visit less frequently, which translates to lower revenues. Since their future livelihood is at stake, the fast food industry would find ways to stop Jamie's food revolution from taking root: they can buy out politicians, lobby against any unfavorable legislations etc.

    The power of information/education has enabled us to take down the powerful tobacco industry by revealing the ugly truth to people about the health dangers of tobacco, which led to a push in legislation to ban smoking in public places. So no matter how big the obstacles are we must educate people that the short term savings made by buying fast food will cost people even more in the future because of all the exorbitantly expensive medical bills people need to pay for medication and surgeries.

    Please watch the first episode and second episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. Share this with your friends and family. Do your part by signing this petition to help improve the food in America's school cafeteria.

    Personal thoughts

    I was deeply moved by Jamie's talks and actions to help people become healthy. I started to tear up on the part where he got frustrated and emotional about the insurmountable obstacles he has faced. Jamie is truly a selfless guy; he left his family and mother country to help a foreign country where he is treated like an alien.

    I remember the very same types of junk food that were served at my elementary: oblong shaped pizzas, french fries, nuggets etc. Luckily I come from a family that prefers to cook food from scratch. Also my parents didn't mind bagging a bit of what they cooked that day and walking a few blocks to my school. So I rarely consumed school food. I remember I had a Russian friend named Eugene. He would frequently ask me for some of my homemade food and I'd share it with him. I can tell he preferred my homemade food over school food because he always had that gleam in his eyes when I opened my lunch box. But I didn't have enough for both of us so he still had to eat school lunch just like most school kids. At least after lunch we were able to go out for recess where we would play ball, freeze tag and other kid games. Now schools have cut back on recess so that kids can have more class time. I understand that it may seem intuitive to increase class time so that teachers can cover more material and supposedly increase test scores but how can kids study more when they are physically unfit to do so? Most schools get approximately 45 minutes of physical education and that is not enough exercise for kids. (FDA recommends at least an hour of moderate exercise everyday) Also an added benefit of recess is that it gives kids an environment where they can practice social/communication skills. Yes there is some bullying during recess but recess isn't the reason why people get bullied. Kids get picked on by bullies in the hallways and stairways in schools where there is no recess. In other words, bullies will always find other places to pick on kids with or without recess.

    Conclusion: Reinstitute recess in all schools and support Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.


    Monday, March 15, 2010

    Will soy products emasculate you? What about cow milk?

    I've recently been told that soy milk has estrogen that cause men to develop feminine qualities. My first reaction was disbelief/denial but later I couldn't help but get scared that the many years I have spent eating tofu and drinking soy milk will cause me to lose my semi deep voice and develop women-sized breast! I immediately got back home and frantically read a ton of articles regarding this subject. Article after article warned about the "evil soy bean" that will not only destroy your health but bring down our whole society by making our kids gay. After a good hour of searching, I finally made up my mind about the subject in one word: Moderation. Reason: Not enough evidence to determine the consumption of soy products lead to emasculation. More research is needed in this area.

    Here's a list of articles that I thought were noteworthy from both sides of the aisle:


    Edit (3.18.2010): I've been reading some of people's comments on this issue and there was this one comment that really got me thinking about the bigger picture. One commenter brought up the issue of cows being injected with growth hormones as well as estrogen. Another reader, named Beto, responded by stating:
    "C'mon, get real dude! This site, westonaprice.org, has for many long years been promoting highest quality
    animal quality flesh and dairy products, which are healing/strengthening for the humans consuming them, and less damaging for the planet from low impact, green practices on such farms & businesses. "

    The problem with this statement is that even though the Weston A Price Foundation is a more reputable source than others, the organization is indeed run by humans and therefore is not infallible.

    Then he started talking about the health benefits of raw milk:

    "I've always had mucus coating my mouth,& in my sinuses & throat after consuming commercial cow's milk and cheeses since childhood. And I drank LOADS of commercial milk until age 15 throughout my entire childhood. When I was in India for 6 months in 1997 @ age 32, I noticed the fresh, unpasteurized, non-homogenized daily milk and curds(yogurt) I consumed caused me ABSOLUTELY NO MUCUS and was an important and yummy part of my daily diet there! Unfortunately, most Indians are consuming mass produced dairy products similar to ours and the family cow has largely disappeared. Though it can be searched for & found obviously there. I was vegan/vegetarian for 17 years, and I got weak, thin & pale from deficiencies. Now I eat a modified Primal diet I can live happily with: I eat a lot of veggies, some nuts,some coconut & olives and olive oil, some fruits and very little grains. I eat generous amounts of avocados, wild seafood, organic organ meats, some raw dairy, and loads of organic spices and medicinal mushrooms. I am happy and healthier than when I was in the latter part of my veganism."
    If raw milk is so healthy why aren't people buying them instead of regular and soy milk? The reason is raw milk (at least in NYC) cost $5 for half a gallon!
    (Source: http://www.uddermilk.com/shop.php#35) I can buy a whole gallon for even less than $5. Beto mentioned earlier that "goat milk & goat yogurt/kefir have loads of health benefits & none of the allergenic properties of cow's milk." But goat milk is even more expensive than raw milk: $8 for half a gallon. So for the majority who can't afford specialty diary products and must stick with cow or soy milk, which one is better?

    Even though more research is needed, lets say that soy milk did have harmful health effects. But it is well known that cow milk has it own set of "evils". So I believe the real question is which one is the lesser of the two evils?