The food police are trying to help you – really!

So there I was this morning, mixing up a smoothie for breakfast. (Homemade kefir from Organic Pastures raw milk, nutritional yeast, a couple of egg yolks from pastured chickens, maca, fair-trade organic cocoa powder, and coconut oil. My husband walked into the kitchen, having finished his breakfast (steel-cut oats, butter, and crispy walnuts), and handed me the Health section from the Los Angeles Times. The featured article was titled “What’s Good for You,” and it’s all about the proposed changes to the nutrition information that’s thoughtfully been provided on every single food package since 1994.

The timing couldn’t have been better. I just finished listening to an excellent lecture about sugar by Robert Lustig, M.D., professor of pediatric endocrinology at UCSF.

And while the primary topic was sugar, he also discusses that ubiquitous nutritional panel – and the ways it obscures the actual nutritional content in various ways. Not to mention the politics that influenced the way the panel was created, leading to a significant amount of, well, let’s be nice and call it obfuscation.

I seem to have been catching up on my academic videos this week. A couple of days ago I listened to a couple of other excellent lectures by two other impressive academic figures. One was Morton Satin, Ph.D., talking about health and salt – and not in the way you’d expect. Salt as something that’s been badly misunderstood. Salt as a substance our bodies need, one that should rarely be restricted, one that contributes to longevity and health.

The other was Russ Bianchi, Ph.D., discussing high fructose corn syrup, and how it differs dramatically from garden-variety cane sugar in the way the body metabolizes it, not to mention the ways it’s used (abused, more like it) by industrial strength food processors. (By the way, lest you think these guys are crackpots sporting advanced degrees – and yes, they’re out there – Satin is a molecular biologist, was a chief industry executive at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and was heavily involved with Codex. Now he’s the VP of Science and Research for the Salt Institute. Bianchi has headed Adept Solutions, Inc., a global product development lab, for over 20 years, and has contributed to numerous books on sweeteners and their metabolic effects. So no fringe theorists here.)

So was I ever primed to tear into an article about taking something as silly as the existing system of nutritional information and making it even dumber – oh, sorry, I meant to say, more accessible to consumers?

Why change the nutritional labels, anyway?
I should say that the decision to change the approach to nutritional labeling came about because – surprise – very few people are actually reading it in the first place (even though in surveys, they all claim to be good students making good choices thanks to the wisdom of including nutritional info on that package of snack cakes). So the supposedly invaluable information is going to waste, at least for the roughly 90 percent of the population that really doesn’t pay attention to it one way or the other. By the way, they don’t pay attention to menu labeling, either, or school education programs about healthy foods, or pretty much any of the kindly public health education efforts currently out there.

According to the article, although FDA hasn’t yet come out with a specific plan, some food producers and chain stores with in-house brands have taken things into their own hands with a kind of “traffic light” system. You know, red light (bad), green light (good), yellow light (I guess this means iffy).  The hope is apparently to drive people from the traffic lights on the front  of the box around the corner to the side where our friend the nutritional panel will still be giving us the skinny on the fats, sodium, sugars, and such in the product.

Why am I complaining?
Well, who’s deciding what’s healthy? From what I can see, and from what I’ve learned and researched over the past umpteen years, “low-fat” does not equate with “healthy.” At least, not unless they’re going to tell me how that fat breaks down. Currently saturated fat is broken out – but trans fats are lumped in with the saturates. I’ve learned that saturated fats are actually pretty important in our diet, but trans fats are the devil. And too high a proportion of polyunsaturates (corn oil, canola oil, safflower oil, etc.) is highly problematic (rancid, oxidized omega 6 fats are not good for us).

“Low-salt”? Well, I defer to Dr. Satin. Just like the poorly-constructed and misinterpreted studies on fat going back decades, there are a bunch of poorly-constructed and misinterpreted studies on salt. Salt quality may be something of an issue here, as well: supermarket salt is just sodium chloride, bleached to make it snowy white and often with dextrose added (i.e., sugar). Traditional salt is simply dried out of clean seawater (or mined from ancient sea beds) and has all the trace minerals included in the mix, making it a far better choice. (By the way, conventional “sea salt” is little better than regular salt; you really want salt that is not blindingly white, but is grey or pink and ideally slightly moist.)

And the sugars? Well, thanks to some strategic pressure from food processors and the sweetener industry (do listen to that Lustig lecture, you will be fascinated), there is no differentiation between the kinds of sugars present nor between those naturally occurring in the ingredients and those added later. This is important. There are added sugars that represent a burden on the body (any sweetener with a higher percentage of fructose, like high-fructose corn syrup and – sorry, natural foods advocates – agave), and those that are a part of the original ingredient that are not so bad (lactulose [milk sugar] and maltose [starch], for instance). You won’t learn any of that from the nutrition label, rendering it pretty useless.

Case in point: When is yogurt not yogurt?
Food manufacturers use this whole situation to their advantage, along with savvy marketing skills. Think yogurt is healthy? Of course, that’s why sales of Yoplait are through the roof. Is Yoplait yogurt? Kind of. Let’s look at the ingredients in Yoplait Lowfat Strawberry Yogurt:

Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Low Fat Milk, Sugar, Strawberries, Modified Corn Starch, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Nonfat Milk, Kosher Gelatin, Citric Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, Natural Flavor, Pectin, Colored with Carmine, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D3.

Now let’s look at the ingredients in Stonyfield Plain Whole Milk Yogurt:

Cultured pasteurized organic whole milk, pectin, vitamin D3.
Cultures: S. Thermophilus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, Bifidus, L. Casei, AND L. Rhamnosus.

So is Yoplait yogurt? Technically – it says “cultured” right there on the label. But it doesn’t specify the cultures used. They can’t be very cultured, either, or this product wouldn’t need gelatin and pectin and corn starch to thicken it up. And look at all the sugar in the Yoplait – sugar is the no. 2 ingredient in volume, while high-fructose corn syrup is no. 5. No wonder sales are high – this stuff is candy masquerading as health food! So it turns out that 108 of the 170 total calories in this product are sugar. And no wonder it doesn’t really taste like yogurt, which, let’s face it, can be on the tangy side (and yummy because of it, too).

Now let’s look at the nutrition panels. Stonyfield shows that its plain whole milk yogurt has 12 grams of sugar per 8 oz. serving. Since there are no added sugars, this means that all 12 come from the milk itself. Yoplait comes only in 6 oz containers; the strawberry here has 26 grams of sugar. If you extrapolated that out to 8 oz, to make the comparison more even, it would have just shy of 35 grams! (By the way, I would have compared plain Yoplait with Stonyfield, but guess what? Yoplait doesn’t make a plain variety, what a shock.) Since lowfat milk has the same amount of naturally occurring sugars as whole, that means that 23 grams of sugar have been added to this “healthy” product.

Did the nutrition panel tell you that? I think you know the answer. We shouldn’t have to be chemists and mathematicians to figure out what is really in our food!

That’s why this new version of nutrition labeling really gets my goat. It’s not like it’s going to leave us any more informed than we were before. It’s “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” all over again, with the average consumer left just as much in the dark about the quality – or lack thereof – of the food they choose to consume.

What to do?
But there is a solution to all this. Don’t buy processed, heavily hyped, adulterated food! Buy ingredients as much as possible – things that don’t need nutritional labels in the first place. Buy simply processed foods, preferably with just a few ingredients that make sense for the food in question. Cook – it’s not that hard to make simple foods (my morning smoothie, for instance). Just don’t be fooled by baseless nutritional claims backed up by poor science!


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