I have taken a small break from blogging due to some unforeseen events that I had to take care of first. Now I am back and decided to write about a subject that I’ve been thinking about for what seems to be the longest time. Food labels.
It appears that food manufacturers tend to make food labels claims that need to be taken with a grain of salt. In other words, plain misleading. I will go over a few of these.
1. ‘Healthy’ Food.
What exactly is ‘healthy’? Raise your hands if you know the answer. Food and Drug Administration is baffled about this and is looking for the public input.
Most of the claims about general categories of foods, such as fruit and vegetables to maintain good health are actually dietary guidance rather than health claims, hence not subject to authorization by FDA. Therefore, food manufacturers can state whatever they please in order to promote their products and this is largely unregulated.
Sounds confusing? You are not alone.
FDA is currently in the process of redefining nutritional claims on food labeling, and is working on an updated definition of ‘healthy’.
I’ve always been big on checking Nutrition Facts Panels when buying just about anything. The first thing I’m looking for is carbs. The next is fat content, and after that, an expiration date. Haven’t noticed too many folks do the same, though. Most of them just grab a gallon of milk and out on their merry way. I on the other hand, want to make sure that the milk won’t go bad on me in a few days. It may be just me.
By the way, fat content in milk is to be discussed later.
In fact, you can’t rely on what some if not all food labels claim. Statements such as ‘healthy’, ‘low fat’ or ‘good source’ of this substance or the other can turn out to be a sales gimmick that is intended to nothing more than to sell a product. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that all that the food labels are trying to accomplish is to sell me something. Such as for example, ‘vitamin water’ sounds like a pure sales pitch. Or ‘smart chicken’ as was recently advertised in a local grocery store flyer, priced at mere $5 for a pound and two ounces. Or ‘premium’ anything.
Of course, all of these have a price tag attached accordingly.
Does celery ever come in a variety that is not crisp? Farmer’s Market — come on now, it’s just a name of a company. Seedless cucumbers — what is the point? I understand seedless watermelon but cukes, of all things? Give me a break.
Dietitian Pick — now this is creative. A real dietitian came along and picked this head of iceberg lettuce. I know that is right.
2. All Natural.
I don’t know who coined this term but FDA doesn’t define it. This means that food makers can do as they please and won’t get in trouble. It leaves lots of room for interpretation every which way. For example, if a food is labeled natural, it can still contain high fructose syrup — high carbs — while the food makers claim that since it comes from corn, it’s ‘healthy’.
Natural chicken can be actually injected with sodium or saltwater in a process called plumping. This is done in order to enhance flavor and, you guessed it, to increase weight of the meat before it’s sold. If this is done, the label will state “flavored with up to 10% of a solution” or “up to 15% chicken broth.”
In fact, it is very rare that a package of meat or chicken comes with a Nutrition Label printed on it; most of the time there’s none. I checked a package of chicken thighs that I had bought earlier today; it does have a Nutrition Label on the bottom but you need to flip it over in order to see it. Once the label is not in the plain view, I take it most folks won’t bother to look for it. Mine happened to have it and it doesn’t state anything about added solution or broth. Now that I know, I can’t help but wonder about meat purchased at the deli counter — it doesn’t even come with a nutrition label. This is something that had never occurred to me up until now.
Consuming too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and other problems, especially for those who were told to cut down on salt intake. Buy plumped chicken and you’d be looking for trouble, albeit inadvertently.
How I wish that I had my own chicken farm.
In part 1, I have discussed the use of ‘healthy’ and ‘all natural’ statements on the food labels. Now I will talk about the labels that claim low or no fat or sugar.
3. No Sugar Added.
This sounds rather confusing, because it prompts you to think that the product contains no sugar at all. If you have diabetes, you might want to buy it for this very reason. Now wait a minute.
“No sugar added” doesn’t mean that the product is carb-free or calorie-free. It is sometimes being confused with sugar-free; in fact, there’s a bunch of websites that do just that. The problem is that some foods have sugar in them naturally, such as for example, milk or fruit, so anything containing these two can’t be sugar-free. Besides, no sugar added products can still contain additives with high glycemic index such as Maltodextrin.
Maltodextrin is made of corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat; it’s a common food additive used for expanding the volume of processed food and for increasing its shelf life.
It has 4 calories per gram which is the same as table sugar. However, maltodextrin has a high glycemic index, almost twice as much as table sugar does. GI of maltodextrin is 110, compared to 65 of table sugar. This means that it can raise the blood sugar levels very quickly. Per FDA, Maltodextrin has to be listed in the nutrition panel as what it is, a carbohydrate.
This doesn’t automatically mean fewer calories; in fact, sugar-free products still have some sugar in them. By FDA definition, sugar-free foods can have less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. They however still have calories and carbs from other sources. One of such sources are sugar alcohols that taste just as sweet as sugar while having half the calories.
Most sugar alcohols have no effect on blood sugar. Some of them however are actually carbohydrates that are well absorbed by the body and can cause blood sugar spikes such as Maltitol. Sugar alcohols can also act as a laxative so keep that in mind when indulging.
Sugar-free products can also have artificial sweeteners that don’t affect blood sugar directly but can affect insulin sensitivity nevertheless.
When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, I started buying sugar-free products thinking that I was doing the right thing. One of the first such products was sugar-free pancake syrup that tasted as sweet as its sugar-containing counterpart. For a brief while I was proud of myself for being able to find a product that is sugar-free and just as sweet. This however was short lived when I had a seemingly unexplained blood sugar spike after eating hot cereal with ‘sugar-free’ syrup. I then took a close look at the Nutrition Panel and low and behold, it listed a few carbs including Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol; corn syrup and molasses. All of the above are carbs.
After having contacted my nutritionist, I was advised to stay away from everything that ends with ‘ol’ (sugar alcohols). From now on, I will never take the statement ‘sugar-free’ for granted but will read the labels first and then decide. A lesson learned.
Here now, a bottle of pancake syrup; didn’t the label say “sugar-free”? Yes, it did but the Nutrition Facts panel states Sugars – Yes, and the amount of 8 grams. This is per serving size that mind you, is a quarter of a cup.
Most if not all of us consume a few times over this in one sitting. No, really. A quarter of a cup is a little bitty thing. Most folks will use at least a cupful of it. Then all the seemingly ‘healthy’ content goes out the window.
Ever seen a commercial with a pile of pancakes buried under a huge mound of syrup? There goes your serving size.
5. Low-fat or fat-free
Many of us associate zero trans fat or fat-free claims with healthy, which is exactly the outcome the food manufacturers are trying to achieve. And the truth is, while some foods are naturally low in fat, such as fruits and vegetables, processed food is another story. Fat-free versions of food replace fat with sugar which is no better and eventually gets stored in your body as fat anyway. The keywords to look for are corn syrup and fructose.
Fat-free products are loaded with sugar, and sugar-free are loaded with fat. Here you have it, a no-win situation.
Nutritionpedia website has posted these two labels side-by-side, one is regular, the other, fat-free.
As you can see, the fat-free product contains about three-fold more sugar than the regular version of the same product. Not only would one serving size of the fat-free food have more calories than the full-fat version but you may be tempted to eat two servings because it comes across as healthy.
By FDA standards, low fat means less than 3 grams of fat per serving size and fat-free, less than 0.5 grams. How much is the serving size? This is what the food manufacturers are playing with. One vs two cookies as a serving size or slices of bread likewise, can make all the difference. And who is eating only one cookie? When you or your kids eat more than one, all that low fat content per serving size goes out the window.
THE BOTTOM LINE: sugar-free products are loaded with fat, and fat-free, with sugar. To make sure that you are in fact eating healthy food, you need to do your homework. Check the label of a fat-free or sugar-free product and compare it with the full-fat or full-sugar version. This of course will take some time.