In light of the upcoming holidays and all the goodies that will be available to munch on and share, I thought this would be a timely warning as well as a little bit of humor. It’s almost time for those annual make-them-and-break-them New Year’s Resolutions, so we can add this to the list of things we want to get done in 2017!
One of the newest podcasts I’ve been listening to is Alan Misner’s 40+ Fitness. (Yep, I fit that demographic! Yikes!) It was episode 181 with Jeff Scot Philips, author of Big Fat Food Fraud and it was an enlightening look at the health food industry. Years ago, I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and it was a long time before I could even look at a fast food restaurant! Unfortunately, I got over that, but I do eat much less of it now than I did before. (FYI: the book is way more informative than the movie- not really about the book, I think!) I am ordering Mr. Philips’ book: I think it will be a great complement to Schlosser’s fast food exposé.
Of the many shocking topics discussed on this podcast, the one I found most frustrating was the fact that food labels lie to us. The manufacturer designs the labels and lists the ingredients and there is no agency (according to what I heard in the podcast) that regulates the accuracy of the ingredients list. This is the label that we consumers RELY ON to decide if this is something we want to consume! Mr. Philips made the comment that a lot of consumers are trying to avoid MSG (monosodium glutamate) and so instead of putting it on the label as MSG, they call it something else (like “hydrolyzed vegetable protein”) put that on instead. Joe Consumer comes along, reads the label: “cool! no MSG!” and buys it. Except that he is getting MSG because the label lied to him.
Labels are designed for marketing, as Mr. Philips pointed out. Cereals always say they are low-fat, because they want you to focus on that instead of the fact that they usually have a lot of sugar in them. Alan Misner made a joke about “free range Twinkies” because it’s accurate: the Twinkies haven’t been caged up. It’s silly, but it’s also like pointing out that your milk is gluten-free or that your cabbage was raised on an all-vegetarian diet. Really?! Yes, these are silly but they are not that much of a stretch from what manufacturers really do put on the labels. They are designed to catch your attention and, like the magician on stage, divert your attention from what they are actually doing and getting you to focus on what they want you to see. Yes, chocolate bars are gluten free, but they are full of sugar. Yes, the pasta is low-fat, but it’s full of starch (essentially sugar once it hits your GI tract). The same is true for the pasta sauce: they might point out that it’s got healthy olive oil, but it also has a lot of corn syrup (more sugar).
One of the other ways manufacturers fudge the labels is by changing the portion size. If they want to lower the calories per serving (Less than 300 calories per serving!), they make the servings smaller. Instead of 12 ounces of juice, it’s 8 ounces. I noticed it when the yogurt containers went from 8 oz to 6 oz to 5.3 oz. Calories per serving dropped as low as 120, but then it’s almost three ounces less yogurt. The amount of “sugar” also dropped.
I was really not surprised that manufacturers change the names of the ingredients to shy away from putting a hot button food ‘bad guy’ on the label. (The latest is high fructose corn syrup.) I’ve had friends with allergies who carefully peruse labels for their allergens and all the ways it can be hidden on a label. The yogurt is another good example. My dog likes it and when I buy it, I usually give him a little, but the artificial sweeteners aren’t good for dogs (like sugar alcohols, aspartame and sucralose) so I was checking the label to see if it had any. I was initially looking for those products and not finding them, I noticed I didn’t see “sugar.” What I did see was “evaporated cane juice”- sugar.
The practice of re-packaging the truth is particularly distressing when it comes to transfats. As the host Alan pointed out on the podcast, transfats are man-made fats that your body cannot expel. Once you eat them, they are stuck in your body FOREVER. Every transfat you’ve ever eaten is still in your body, and now that the government has realized they are unhealthy, they are getting manufacturers away from them. Once the amount of transfat is less than one gram per serving (<0), the manufacturer is allowed to say it has “No Transfats!” but what they may not point out to you is that the package of whatever you are looking at contains 4 servings, so you could be getting almost 4 grams of transfats if you consume the entire package.
Whenever you buy something packaged you are taking the risk that the manufacturer is telling you the truth. You should not have to be a food detective to determine if something is safe or healthy for you to eat. This is one more reason to eat as much whole, non-GMO, and organic foods as possible. Eggs, even though they come in a box and have a label, are essentially a whole food. The same is true for your fruits, vegetables, and most meats. Choosing foods that are non-GMO, grass-fed, free-range/ cage-free, hormone & anti-biotic are all good, but the bottom line is anything that doesn’t come in a package is probably healthier than something that does. Broccoli doesn’t have to tell you it’s hormone-free and is low fat. Even when it does come in a bag, the only thing on the ingredients list should be: broccoli. Opting for whole foods is a small step towards being healthier and you don’t have to wait for the new year to start. Learning to be a savvy label detective is something else you can do, whether you decide to eat more whole foods or not. Next time you go to the grocery store, watch out for the lies on the labels, and watch out for those free-range Twinkies, too!