Trusting Food Labels?

I used to eat whatever I fancy at the moment, whether it be a 20-piece pack of Oreo cookies or a large bag of popcorn, just because I used to be athletic and burned so many calories a day that I simply did not gain noticeable weight. Coming to college, however, changed everything. The freshmen 15, although exaggerated, was still telling some truth as it pointed out the problem of weight gaining in college.

Whether weight gaining is good or bad roughly depends on two criteria: 1) whether this gain constitutes a healthy increase in weight and 2) how the weight was gained. Being more physically active prior to my college years, combined with less access to unhealthy food and influences, I lived happily with a healthy weight (which is at ideal weight for a person with my gender, height, and age). Coming to college meant increasing access to high-calorie, sugar-rich, and fat-packed food, being around students who consume high levels of unhealthy food to relieve stress, and becoming more sedentary without much time for physical activities. All these added to contribute to unhealthy weight gains.

I don’t oppose to weight gain. In fact, healthy weight gaining is essential for development and growth. But gaining weight through eating unhealthy food causes some concern for me because this weight gain, even if little, signifies the accumulation of other unhealthy products within the body, such as cholesterol and excess adipose tissue (in comparison to the lean muscles mass that should be ideally built in the case of a weight gain). Risks for health consequences such as high blood sugar, diabetes, kidney and heart diseases could all increase with consumption of unhealthy food. So  weight gain itself does not constitute the problem, but rather, unhealthy weight gain through the ingestion of unnatural and unhealthy food is.

To become a healthier eater and to keep tags on the food I eat, I learned to read food labels through my nutrition class, determined to keep certain unhealthy ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and cholesterol, out of my diet. Unfortunately, having read food labels for almost a year now, I was very disappointed to find my efforts more futile than I had believed. In “Six Meaningless Claims on Food Labels,” published on the New York Times on January 28, 2010, Tara Parker-Pope, a prolific writer on health-related topics, alerted me to the meaninglessness of some food label claims. Excerpting from the 122-page “Food Labeling Chaos” report published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Parker-Pope “explores misleading food-label lingo, noting that some commonly used phrases have ‘almost no meaning.’” Today, it seems even “Healthy” and “Contains Antioxidants” no longer have concrete and tangible meanings.

To illustrate the meaningless of certain food labels, Parker-Pope gave several examples of commonly seen phrases and examined what they really mean. First, I found “a good source of fiber” to no longer mean fiber from fruits and vegetables, but rather artificial fibers extracted from chicory roots or powders of polydextrose. It has not been proven that either of these artificial fibers confers health benefits, such as lowering blood sugar or cholesterol, defined by the phrase “a good source of fiber.” Therefore, next time out grocery shopping, I will definitely read more carefully the ingredients section of processed food that claims to contain “a good source of fiber.” I for one do not want to eat “mystery fibers.”

Believing that eating a food that was “made with real fruit” would take care of at least half a serving of the fruits I need to consume each day, I sometimes substitute a real fruit with an on-the-go pack of fruit gushers that claims to be “made with real fruit.” However, what I was eating contained so much more corn syrup and sugar than even juice concentrate, let along real fruits, that the “made with real fruit” label now seems like a glaring mistake or worse a red flag for the quality of the food. Although I will not analyze the “made with whole grains” phrase in detail, I will mention that it has a similar quality to the real fruit phrase, and more sugar and refined flour can be found in these products than the advertised whole grains.

Photo of Gerber Graduates Fruit Juice Treats
Photo:Gerber Graduates Fruit Juice Treats, an example of food “made with real fruit” but actually does not contain real fruit or even juice concentrations of all the fruits illustrated on the cover. What make up this fruit medley is actually corn syrup, sugar, and white grape juice concentration.

Finally, beware of food that is labeled “all natural.” Of course, some food are indeed all natural, but the liberal use of the “all natural” label sometimes make distinguishing the all natural food from the all processed food disguised under the banner of “all natural” foods more difficult. For instance, high fructose corn syrup has been labeled as “all natural” because glucose and fructose occur in nature, but this does not condone the labeling of chemically modified cornstarch as “all natural.”

To see a more complete list of misleading food labels, please see the report “Food Labeling Chaos” published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. I believe this struggle to eat healthy and to make healthy food choices applies not only to me but also to many other college students across the country. Therefore, I hope this post helps more students like me to choose healthier food.

For fun…food for thought.
Comic titled Honest Food Labels by Mike Adams
Above: Comic titled “Honest Food Labels” by Mike Adams. Visit Adams’ site to read about his view on food labels.

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Posted by on February 21, 2011 in In our food...



Unapproved Drugs in Nation’s Milk Supply / Organic Food a Better Alternative

Milk in a glass.
Above: milk.

In my last post, “Organic Redefined,” I expressed my surprise and concern towards the official definition of “organic.” However, I still believe in the health benefits of eating organic food. My research on what it means to be “organic” simply increased my knowledge on organic food and showed me that “organic” comes in several levels. At the top of pyramid (which equals the healthiest and most natural fresh produce) is organic food grown and processed by local farmers who willingly opted out of pesticide and growth hormone use on domestic plants and animals. As people who promote production of natural produce, these individual farmers are more likely to adhere to the strict production rules for organic food, thus ensuring the naturalness of the food.

The second most natural, safest, and healthiest foods are those that meet USDA’s criteria for organic food. Although not required to completely forgo pesticides, at least only pesticides deemed safe by USDA are used. Finally, the last category contains food with the highest possibility of being unhealthy, unnatural, or even contaminated and harmful to health. The foods in this category are consumed by most consumers, including myself.

Of course, the majority of the foods in the third category mentioned above are safe and healthy. Both the USDA and FDA regulate food production to protect consumers. Therefore, there is no reason to eat only organic food. However, the few foods that could be harmful to health due to contamination and illegal production methods may warrant purchasing selected items from the organic food store.

A January 25, 2011 article in The New York Times illustrates this occasional need to switch to organic produce. Titled “F.D.A and Dairy Industry Spar Over Testing Milk,” this articled by William Neuman reports on a dispute between the F.D.A and milk producers on milk testing. Because recent findings has suggested that  some older milk cows sent to slaughterhouse s had illegally high levels of antibiotic (and illegal antibiotics too) residue s in their flesh,  therefore raising the concern that the milk produced by contaminated cows also contain high levels of these antibiotics.  The F.D.A. would like to test milk for contamination with antibiotics that are not legally allowed to be used in animals, painkillers, and even anti-inflammatory drugs such as flunixin. However, due to the time needed for testing, usually a week for these unconventional drugs, the diary industry is concerned with milk spoilage if they wait for test results and a possible costly recall if they decide to begin selling the milk and milk derived products before test results become available. Either way, the dairy industry found the proposed drug testing in milk costly and the damaging to business and profit. Therefore, strong opposition from diary industry has prevented the F.D.A from moving forward with its testing plans. With the F.D.A now hindered from preventing possibly harmful food from reaching consumers, it is now necessary for the consumers to step up to protect themselves.

Although we as the consumers can’t control compliance with animal drug use regulation, we still have the power to choose whether we would like to purchase possibility contaminated food or not. When the quality of the food has possibility been compromised, the consumers should consider switching to organic versions of the same food. In the case reported by Neuman, consumers should switch from regular milk to organic milk. After all, we know for sure what’s in organic milk.


Posted by on February 14, 2011 in In our food...


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Organic Redefined

Food face.
Above: food face.

When I hear “organic”, I instantly think of no pesticides, no growth hormones, and for some reason a shockingly bright green field cultivated full of young crops. Of course, organic foods include not only food crops but also domestic animals, and it is equally important and difficult to define what an organic domestic animal is as it is to define an organic crop.

Organic food, at least to me, is quite simply defined. No pesticides and no growth hormones just about summed up the criteria I have for labeling a food organic. However, a recent article on MSN Health & Fitness titled “The Heart of Organic,” and my subsequent tour of the USDA’s webpage on organic labeling, changed my perception and understanding on organic food. Organic food is defined in a much more complicated way than I had believed.

In the MSN article, Nathan Donahoe, a chef and food activist, shared what he believed to be the definition of organic food. The first part of the definition, which stated that “’Organic’ doesn’t mean there are no pesticides used, just those that are ‘allowed,’” instantly alarmed me as it shattered what I considered as one of the most important criterion for being labeled as organic. Don’t get me wrong, I am not alarmed by the use of pesticides in general. I’ve grown up eating  fruits and vegetables that are most likely de-bugged with pesticides, and despite the health problems that pesticide overuse could cause, I still have no grudges buying all my fresh produce from regular, non-organic supermarkets. In a sense, I’ve accepted the use of pesticides based on my belief that current regulations are safeguarding consumer health by ensuring the safe application of pesticides. Therefore, my alarm towards Donahoe’s definition comes from my realization that what I believed to be the definition of organic is actually incorrect. Indeed, I started to wonder how far does my definition of “organic” deviate from the official government definition of “organic.” Furthermore, how many people actually understand what organic really refers to?

With these two questions bugging me, I set out to find the official definition of organic food from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) website. Like Donahoe’s definition, the USDA’s definition also surprised me, both in a satisfied way and an unsettling way. According to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (1995):

  • “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.

  • “‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

  • “Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.

  • “Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

From this definition of “organic,” I feel unsettled by the fact that it did not explicitly state that pesticides are not used during organic food production, but instead it seems to suggest that as long as the ecosystem seems to be balanced and not excessively damaged by the pesticide use, these substances can continue to be used in the production of organic food. This vague suggestion seems to confirm Donahoe’s claim that pesticides are still part of organic food production. Despite feeling unsettled by this fact, I somewhat rejoiced in the definition’s emphasis on sustainable and environment-friendly agriculture. To me, it’s a healthy environment that will produce healthy food.


Posted by on February 6, 2011 in In our food...


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Aspartame vs. Lab Meat, both artificial but only one “edible”

Above:Poster depicting aspartame as a harmful substance and a picture of a petri dish representing the possible production of laboratory meat in the future.

I’ve always been interested in all aspects of the food I eat. Questions such as “what is this food made of?” and “is this food healthy?” often still occupy my mind while I eat. Although I still do eat unhealthy food, finding out about the ingredients of a food sometimes propels me to stop eating a food permanently. For example, after finding out that many zero-calorie drinks contain aspartame, I went on a month-long campaign to not only forbid myself from drinking any beverage or eating any food sweetened with aspartame but also to convince my friends to do the same. My friends, although all of whom listened to my rationale about the uncertain and potentially harmful health effects of aspartame, didn’t all follow me in my ban of the sweetener. Without concrete evidence proving that long-term use of aspartame could be harmful to health, most of my friends decided to continue using this sugar substitute and to risk developing unforeseen illnesses in the future. I, however, remained convinced of aspartame’s harmful effects on the human body, believing in the results of scientific studies of animal models indicating that prolonged aspartame use leads to cancer in rats. Conclusions drawn from experiments in rats, which are very similar to humans in many different ways such as physiology and biochemistry, are definitely very important to my choice of ingesting a certain food or beverage. Even today, months after my initial discover of aspartame’s potentially harmful effects and the prevalence of this sweetener in our foods and beverages, I still completely avoid any product containing this substance.

Although my campaign to end aspartame consumption within the circle of my friends might have failed, I am somewhat surprised to find that my strong opposition to artificial zero-calorie sweeteners can be applied to another artificial product, lab meat. An article titled “South Carolina scientist works to grow meat in lab” published Sunday (Jan 30, 2011) on Yahoo! News by Harriet McLeo details the production and argument for the production and consumption of engineered meat, aka meat grown in a petri dish and not from a cow, pig, or chicken. It is interesting to me that opposition to this artificial meat is so strong that neither the FDA nor the NIH would fund Dr. Mironov to develop the technology to mass produce meat in a lab. The opposition, however, is not derived from scientific evidence of the harmful effects of this meat on the human body, or even on rats, but rather it comes from the fact people still feel uncomfortable about the idea of consuming bioengineered meat. From the attitude of the general public, it can be safely concluded that engineered meat will not likely become part of meat market very soon. My question is, why do people feel more comfortable consuming potentially very harmful substances such as aspartame while not willing to give artificial, but so far relatively healthy and safe, meat a chance in the meat industry?

The content of a food or drink indeed have profound influence over the way we eat and drink every day. Throughout this blog, I will continue to examine the relationship we have with food from various perspectives and aspects. I hope to use this blog to point out some interesting current events, to share some of my thoughts, and to elicit some thoughtful responses from the online community!

Note: The original link to the article “South Carolina scientist works to grow meat in lab” from Yahoo! News has expired. The article now hyperlinks to, which continues to host this article.


Posted by on January 31, 2011 in In our food...


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