INSIGHT & INNOVATION HEATHER BRIGHT
t seems every time I go to the grocery store more food is prominently displayed as having some sort of health benefit. “More fiber.” “Zero grams trans fat.” “Wholesome.” “No added sugar.” “Boosts immunity.” Even cookies are good for you if you believe the package label. In recent years “healthy” foods seem to be more and more prevalent even as obesity rates continue to rise. A French researcher, Pierre Chandron, calls it the obesity paradox.1 As we pay more attention to health in general, the obesity rates in America continue to rise, going from 13.4 percent in 1980 to 34.3 percent in 2008.2 Certainly, eating more healthfully should be a priority, but it may be that eating more mindfully is what we need to do to be on the path to a healthier lifestyle.
To understand how we’ve arrived here we need to take a quick look at history. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law. This Act was passed as a result of pressure put on the food industry by the original publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.3 This infamous novel is a detailed account of the despicable conditions of the Chicago slaughterhouses at the turn of the 20th century. The conditions the animals lived and died in were inhumane, extremely unsanitary and in many cases caused the meat to be unsafe for human consumption. This information inspired President Roosevelt to take action and for the first time in history government stepped in to regulate food. The new law deemed any food “labeled or branded so as to deceive or mislead the purchaser” as “misbranded.”4 In 1990 the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was signed into law, requiring manufacturers to include the standardized Nutrition Facts panel we see today. As the deadlines for compliance with the new labeling approached in 1994, consumers began to see more health claims appear on the front of packages.5 Manufacturers felt since they were now required to list the drawbacks of their products in great detail on the Nutrition Facts panel, they should be able to detail the benefits as well.
Food is big business. Most of us like to eat well, but we seem to be increasingly busy and we’re always looking for ways to reclaim more of each day with any conveniences available. It’s no surprise we buy processed foods that are quick and easy. If we perceive something to be healthy while simultaneously convenient, we’ve hit the jackpot. Not only have we saved ourselves extra time in the kitchen; we’re ultimately adding years to our lives by eating food that’s good for us! It’s very easy to assume the information on the front of the package is accurate and informative without reading the fine print when we are always in such a hurry. Many of us do this. The FDA’s 2008 Health and Diet Survey found 41 percent of respondents trust that all or most of the nutrient claims like “low fat” or “high fiber,” are accurate.5 Technology has automated or simplified many of life’s tasks and allowed us to fit more activity into each day. It’s not a huge leap to think that eating good food can be easier too. There are many examples of technology putting food to work for us—iodized salt to fight goiter or vitamin D in milk to help prevent rickets. These practices were instituted for general public health.6 This concept has brought us the more recent trend of creating “functional” foods. Many manufacturers are adding well-known nutrients to their products to make them more appealing to the health-conscious shopper, such as calcium to orange juice or vitamins to flavored water. The problem is a lot of marketing is focused on these additives and in many cases distracts consumers from the possible detriments of the products.
On March 3, 2010, Dr. Margaret Hamburg wrote an open letter to the food industry expressing her concerns regarding misleading front-of-package labels.7 She called out several specific concerns: nutrient claims on foods for children under two, claims of “zero trans fat” on products that are also high in saturated and other fats, products that claim to treat medical
conditions, products that claim to be “healthy” that do not meet what she referred to as the “long and well-established definition for the use of that term” and juices that claim to be entirely made of a single juice that are not. She also issued seventeen specific warnings to manufacturers for their misleading labels. You may recall seeing a green Smart Choices Program™ logo on various food products last year. The concept behind the Smart Choices Program™ was good. It is an independent organization that developed specific criteria to determine qualifying foods as “smart choices” for consumers. Participating manufacturers could label their eligible products with this standardized logo, giving consumers a quick and easy way to shop for “healthy” foods. However, on September 5, 2009, The New York Times ran an article pointing out that the Smart Choices Program™ logo was displayed on several cereals nutritionists considered to be heavily sugared and not necessarily healthful and the problem with this system was brought to light. The Smart Choices Program™ allowed manufacturers to use the logo based on nutrients that had been added to their product, which is how some questionable foods were able to qualify for the program. On October 23, 2009, the Smart Choices Program™ announced in a press release8 they would “postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the logo at this time.” Looking at all of this information I can’t help but think to myself, how can all of these people push the proverbial envelope so far? What exactly are the rules? Most packaged foods are required to list all ingredients in order of weight, and they all must display the standard Nutrition Facts panel. Claims about the product being “low fat” or having “reduced calories” have been clearly defined by the FDA and only twelve specific health claims are approved for labeling.9 In October of 2009, the FDA detailed their intent to work with experts to develop a standardized front-of-packaging labeling system. Additionally, they appealed to retailers and manufacturers to recognize the intent of previously passed laws and use common sense in providing consumers with clear and easy to understand information. In the interim, government continues to send a message to the industry that they are paying attention. Early in July of this year the Federal Trade Commission cited a major food manu-
facturer for claiming their drink, marketed to children, was so good for them it would “keep them from getting colds and missing school.”11 Just six weeks earlier the FTC had requested another cereal manufacturer to stop claiming that its cereal boosted children’s immunity. This is where we are today. Hopefully the FDA and the food industry as a whole will come to an agreement on some sort of clear labeling system we can all understand and believe at a glance, but it hasn’t happened yet. The exchange between government and the food industry has been evolving since 1906; so if you are interested in understanding what you are bringing home to eat, it’s probably best not to wait for clear labeling.
What is the best way to know exactly what you are getting at the grocery store without consulting a nutritionist on every purchase? Ideally we should read each package and all labels, but few of us actually have time for such a daunting task, so I’ve gathered a few of the most common misleading “headlines” you’re likely to see on packaging in the grocery store.12-13 Natural The FDA has not developed definitive guidelines for the use of the word natural on food packaging. Their general policy is not to object to the description as long as there aren’t any added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances in the ingredients.14 This gives manufactures a very broad definition of natural food. Still, natural is not necessarily healthy! Zero Grams Trans Fat This is a really big one. With the recent media attention on trans fats, most consumers know it’s something to stay away from and the food industry has used this to their advantage. The problem is, when this is advertised on the front of a package, it is often a product that is high in other fats. Many consumers have the impression that a product is fat free when they see this highlighted on the front of the package and this is often not the case. ‘Made With’ and ‘Made From’ Many packages proudly proclaim they are “made from” whole wheat, “made with” real fruit or “made with” vegetables. There are many
products on shelves with these claims that have a very small percentage of what they are “made from” or “with” in the ingredients. Bread that claims to be made from whole wheat may use refined wheat flour as the main ingredient and actually contain a very small amount of whole wheat. Fruit snacks often have a small percentage of real fruit and are made primarily from sugar. Don’t assume that because an ingredient is listed on the front of the package, it is the primary content of the product.
8. As the obesity epidemic continues to get media attention in the United States, the popularity of a healthy diet continues to grow. Hopefully this will eventually lead to more convenient food choices that actually are healthy, but manufacturers are likely to continue to draw attention to the benefits of their products rather than the drawbacks. We all enjoy indulging in foods that are less than healthy from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with deciding for ourselves how much of that we’re going to do. But it is important to know when we actually are indulging so we are consciously making the decision for ourselves.
Tierney, John, Health Halo Can Hide the Calories, The New York Times, December 2, 2008, http://www.nytimes. com/2008/12/02/science/02tier.html?_r= 1&ref=health&pagewanted=print U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, January 2010 Theodore Roosevelt Association, Pure Food and Drug Act, Biography of Theodore Roosevelt, http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/PureFoodDrug .htm Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst203/ documents/pure.html
Thompson, Andrea, Misleading Food Labels to Get Makeover FDA Developing Restrictions for Front-of-Package Claims, MSNBC.com, http://www.msnbc.msn. com/id/35839186/ns/health-diet_and_ nutrition Artificial Success, The Economist, September 26th, 2009, page 81 Hamburg, Margaret, Open Letter to Industry from Dr. Hamburg, March 3, 2010, http://www.fda.gov/food/ labelingnutrition/ucm202733.htm Metcalfe, Kim, Smart Choices Program™ Postpones Active Operations, October 23, 2009, http://www.smartchoices program.com/pr_091023_operations. html Background Information on Point of Purchase Labeling, October 2009, http:// www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ LabelClaims/ucm187320.htm Guidance for Industry: Letter Regarding Point of Purchase Food Labeling, October 2009, http://www.fda.gov/Food/ GuidanceComplianceRegulatory Information/GuidanceDocuments/ FoodLabelingNutrition/ucm187208.htm Neuman, William, Nestle Will Drop Claims of Health Benefit in Drink, The New York Times, July 14, 2010, http:// www.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/business/ 15food.html?sq=health&st=cse&scp=8&p agewanted=print Colon-Polk, Jess, Misleading Food Labels Cause Confusion, April 20, 2010, http:// www.wetakesides.com/misleading-foodlabels-cause-confusion/ Family Nutrition Learning About Food Package Labels, http://www.askdrsears. com/html/4/t042300.asp What is the Meaning of ‘Natural’ on the Label of Food?, http://www.fda.gov/ AboutFDA/Basics/ucm214868.htm