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.

1 comment:

  1. Hey DTruong, great to see that you've updated this blog! Very interesting information. I look forward to reading more of your writing!