Tuesday, January 10, 2012

You Put WHAT in My OJ? Some Thoughts on Food Labeling and Public Perception

I've been making some pretty radical diet changes.

It started small (no artificial sweeteners), moved into what seemed impossible at the time (no high fructose corn syrup), and is an organic process that grows and changes just like my family. At the moment, we're focusing on sending whole food snacks to daycare (the hardest, if you have tips, please share) and cutting out anything with ingredients we don't recognize as food (xanthan gum has been the most difficult culprit). I've also started drinking only water. We don't always get it 100%, but I'm pretty impressed with our progress--plus I feel healthier.

Some people get defensive when I talk about these changes. I think I get it. I have this friend who studies differently than I do. There have been times when he has turned down offers to hang out because he had work to do. And there were times when I started to feel defensive. Maybe I even said to myself "Who is he trying to impress?" But the problem wasn't him, it was me. I was looking at his efforts to reach his goals and imagining that he was trying to get me to reach his goals, too. But he wasn't. And my goals aren't the same as his. We want completely different career paths, for one thing.

So, I don't care what other people eat, and I'm not saying that I've got magic answers. I'm just doing what makes sense to me. So, I'm in no way trying to get people to make changes to their individual lives. We are all just trying to do our best, and my default is to think that people are smart and fully capable of making decisions for themselves.

That said, I've been spending a lot of time reading labels, and I've come to the conclusion that even smart, fully capable people are being misled and bamboozled by the marketing and nutritional information on food. While I think everyone is fully capable of making decisions, I think it is the food industry's responsibility to give us the information to make those decisions. And they are falling far, far short of what I think should be the minimal standard of transparency and clarity. To demonstrate:

Day 271 Ummm Orange Juice
From Happydog
Orange Juice- Orange juice sounds healthy, right? In fact, it makes all kinds of healthy claims right on the carton. Just look at this Tropicana homepage. It says in big, bright orange letters "100% Pure & Natural Orange Juice." What could be wrong with that?

When I think "100% Pure & Natural Orange Juice," I imagine someone squeezing an orange into a glass. But maybe that's just me being naive, it's not like Tropicana claimed to be that pure. Oh. . . wait. 

Okay, but how far off can it really be? Shockingly. It can be shockingly far off, as this California lawsuit demonstrates. Angelena Lewis is suing Tropicana for their misleading labeling. 

This ABC report shows that orange juice from top brands (including Tropicana, Florida Natural, Simply Orange, and Minute Maid) is stripped of oxygen and then stored in tanks for months before hitting the shelf. As you can imagine, that process takes out the flavor, so the companies put "flavor packets" back into the orange juice. What's in a flavor packet? According to Alissa Hamilton (who has a book on the subject of orange juice) in this post at Civil Eats  

Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature. The packs added to juice earmarked for the North American market tend to contain high amounts of ethyl butyrate, a chemical in the fragrance of fresh squeezed orange juice. . . 

The formulas vary to give a brand’s trademark taste. If you’re discerning you may have noticed Minute Maid has a candy like orange flavor. That’s largely due to the flavor pack Coca-Cola has chosen for it. Some companies have even been known to request a flavor pack that mimics the taste of a popular competitor, creating a “hall of mirrors” of flavor packs. 
Genetically Modified Meat
Again, I'm not staking a claim on whether it's okay to eat genetically modified food. I'm not saying that this science should be stopped, and I'm not saying there's no validity to claims that GM food could be the way to prevent starvation and famine. All I'm saying is I want to know what I'm eating.

And I'm not the only one saying this.  The #right2know tag on Twitter has more updates on this movement, but the point is pretty simple; we, as consumers, have a right to know what's in our food. I don't even understand why this is an argument. So, I went looking for an answer as to why we shouldn't label food. I found this press release from Monsanto:

Some might ask what the harm would be in requiring the labeling of products. U.S. labeling laws are based on health and safety. Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence. Ensuring that such labeling is accurate would also put a huge burden on regulatory agencies.A better question might be: What would be the benefits of labeling products containing GM ingredients? Individuals who make a personal decision not to consume food containing GM ingredients can easily avoid such products. In the U.S., they can purchase products that are certified as organic under the National Organic Program. They can also buy products which companies have voluntarily labeled as not containing GM ingredients. The law allows for voluntary labeling so long as the information is accurate, truthful and avoids misleading consumers about the food. Monsanto supports both options. 
Mandatory labeling of food containing GM ingredients might seem like a no-brainer. However, once you consider the facts, it becomes clear there is no sense in mandatory GMO labeling.
This argument makes no sense to me. It's just avoidance and deflection, the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I trick. It didn't work in third grade, and it doesn't work now. There's no reason that we shouldn't know what's in our food, and there's no reason we should have to work so hard to figure it out. (For more on this topic and its political complications check out this NPR post, or this post from Forbes contributor Michelle Maisto).

Hiding the Sugar

Food labels require companies to list the ingredients of their product by weight. This allows them to sneak in some sugars by using multiple types of sweeteners in a single product, cutting the weight of each individual one and moving it further down the list. Since we're trained to pay attention to the top ingredients in each list and because so many processed, packaged products have tons of ingredients, we might not notice that a single ingredient actually contains multiple types of sugar. 

This article from A Sweet Life (a website for diabetics) analyzes a couple of different products, and shows us a chocolate chip bar with the following ingredient list:
Granola (whole grain oats, brown sugar, crisp rice (rice flour, sugar, salt, malted barley extract), whole grain rolled wheat, soybean oil, dried coconut, whole wheat flour, sodium bicarbonate, soy lecithin, caramel color, nonfat dry milk), corn syrup, semisweet chocolate chips, brown rice crisp, sunflower oil, oligofructose, polydextrose, corn syrup solids, glycerin. 
Contains 2 percent or less of water, invert sugar, salt, molasses, sucralose, natural and artificial flavor, BHT, citric acid
If you picked up this package, you might see that granola was the top ingredient. Great! And the main thing in the granola is "whole grain oats." But let's look at that list again, this time with the sugar and sugar alternatives bolded. 
Granola (whole grain oats, brown sugar, crisp rice (rice flour, sugar, salt, malted barley extract), whole grain rolled wheat, soybean oil, dried coconut, whole wheat flour, sodium bicarbonate, soy lecithin, caramel color, nonfat dry milk), corn syrup, semisweet chocolate chips, brown rice crisp, sunflower oil, oligofructose, polydextrose, corn syrup solids, glycerin. 
Contains 2 percent or less of water, invert sugar, salt, molasses, sucralose, natural and artificial flavor, BHT, citric acid
(Fun side fact: oligofructose is also known as fuctooligosaccharide, which is--all anger over food labeling aside--one of the most fun words I've heard in a while.) 

Another way the sugar thing is frustrating is that many people have started to give HFCS the side-eye (and considering some of the research on the topic, they probably have good reason). Marketers are wising up to this, so in addition to lobbying for a name change, they've also started using other products that do the same basic thing but don't have the baggage attached to them: enter high maltose corn sugar, which is also known as maltodextrin and which--I found as I started looking more closely at labels--is in a lot of foods that purport to be healthy and don't have HFCS. 

As the Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss (a website that is very well-written, accessible, and interesting and that I highly suggest you check out if you are interested in fitness or diet advice), points out sugar is sugar. So I'm not trying to unnecessarily vilify HFCS. I'm trying to say that the peaks of health trends might not be getting us to the real problem, and if HFCS is a problem, then HMCS probably is, too. And the way our food is labeled makes it easy to overlook that. 

I'm not an expert on food science, but I am a frustrated consumer. For me, getting away from poorly labeled food has ultimately meant getting away from most food with labels. At first, that was really hard, but with some help from recipes and tips from sites like 100 Days of Real Food, Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss, and The Gracious Pantry, it's coming together. 

What about you? Is food labeling ever a barrier to your health goals? Am I just being too picky?


  1. This really opened my eyes!

  2. My SIL is a well-respected food educator and national presenter (simplybeingwell.com - but this isn't a commercial for her *laugh*). She would say just about any food that comes packaged with a label is dead food and to actively get away from packaged food is a victory toward being well. Good for you!

  3. Just Jane, thanks, and I'll check out your SIL's site.

  4. I'm not sure I've ever commented before, although I just love reading your blog. :)
    I don't think you're being too picky, and I completely agree that food labels are tricky to read and purposefully misleading. Now that I've read the fun books on food (like Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma) and seen a few docs (like Food, Inc.), I've tried to cut out processed food whenever I can. It's left me with a lot fewer labels to scrutinize.

  5. Thanks, Diana. Glad you like the blog!

    Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma was actually the first thing I tried to read when I started looking at my eating habits. At the time, my eating habits were so bad that reading the first ten or so pages of the book left me scared to eat. I stopped reading it and picked up his book In Defense of Food Instead, which was a more accessible (and less terrifying) place to start. Now that I've made some changes, I think I'm going to try Omnivore's Dilemma again.

  6. Food is one of my hot button issues, and I totally agree that you're not being picky. Like you, I went through a phase a few years ago (right after reading Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma) where I felt really paralyzed by my food options. This fear was exacerbated by some of my husband's health and dietary problems. After offending several people, we've tried to reach a happy medium--we eat organic, whole foods when we can, but we try not to be the annoying scolds when, for example, we go to our respective homes for the holidays.

    Being label conscious also has other benefits. For example, we are much more respectful of our food and those who produced it, and as such, we waste much less than we would if the food was, say, GM from an industrial scale farm. Does this mean we also pay a lot more for it, yes, but if that means a farmer is getting a fair share and that, in turn, he or she is using ethical practices in producing the food, then this a winning situation all around. Good for our bodies, good for the producers, good for the food, and good for the environment.

    Have you read any Wendell Berry? I highly recommend him on the subject of food, food production, and spirituality.

  7. You might like to red Sweet Poison by David Gillespie. It is fascinating.