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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 www.NaturalNews.com to read about his view on food labels.

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

 

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