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.