With all the recent hype surrounding “Pizzagate”, this got me thinking that there seems to be some serious misinterpretation by Big Food about the true representation and nutritional claims of our food.
"Healthy", "Doctor Recommended", "Made with Natural Goodness", "Kid Approved" have all become common place sales pitches. In Canada, food companies are permitted to make health claims pointing out the relationship between a low-sodium, high-potassium diet and reduced risk of high blood pressure; a healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D and reduced risk of osteoporosis; a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and the reduced risk of certain types of cancer, as well as others. With 50% of shoppers responding that they are motivated to purchase new food products because a product “seems healthy”, we leave the door wide open for Big Food to mislead us in purchasing less-than-optimal choices.
So, I decided to jot down some of the literal translations for the “code” that food manufacturers use in their attempts to make us buy.
“FREE” DOES NOT MEAN NONE!
Neither does “zero...”, “contains no...” or “without...”. It means it has a “negligible amount” according to whatever Big Food has worked out with policy makers (Canadian Food Inspection Agency - Canada’s version of the FDA).
Non- or –free. Must have less than the following per serving: fat (0.5 gram), sugar (0.5 gram), cholesterol (2mg), sodium (5mg) or calories (5 calories).
“Reduced” IS RELATIVE.
Reduced. Generally, the product must have at least 25% less of the given component (calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, or sodium) than is typically found in that type of food. Synonymous with “less...”, “lower...”, “fewer...”.
Apart from being used to describe things like the color or texture of a food, for example "light brown sugar" or "light and fluffy” (as long as the label explains this (insert uproarious laughter here), this term indicates that a product has been changed to have ½ of the fat or ⅓ fewer calories than the regular product; or that the sodium has been cut by 50% (as in “Lightly Salted”)
THE “LOW” DOWN
Low Fat. Fat is a tricky one to monitor as there are “good fats” and “bad fats” (far beyond the scope of this blog), but as a rule when you see the term “low fat” it means that there is 3 grams or less of fat per serving.
Low Calorie. Means that a product contains 40% less calories than the regular version.
Low Sodium. Means that a product’s original sodium content is so high that to lure in the unsuspecting consumer, food manufacturers will label it “Low Sodium”. Foods labelled such will have 140 mg of sodium or less in each serving, or for a pre-packaged meal (who defines this?) there’s 140 mg sodium or less in 100 grams of food. “Very low sodium” means there’s 35 mg or less in a serving.
Not to insult anyone’s intelligence, but "multi" simply means more than one. A product bearing this label can be made with many types of nutritious grains, such as oats and bran. But it can also stay true to its claims and be loaded with sugar, salt, and trans-fats, like many "multi-grain" muffins and cookies you find in coffee shops. And the grains these products contain may not be present in their whole-grain form, which is the most nutritious way to consume grains.
"Made with Whole Grains" is another label we see frequently since recent dietary recommendations include consuming more whole grains. Big Food loves a good marketing opportunity so milks this claim by adding small doses of whole grains to their product (preceded by enriched flour and sugar midway down a list of ingredients but just after water).
If you thought that organic meant pesticide-free, you might be surprised to find that's not necessarily true. Canadian regulations prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers but allow the use of some natural pesticides to curtail pest problems but the prevalence of pesticides in our environment keeps any crop from being declared totally free of synthetic chemicals.
When a product bears the “Organic” the intended message is that 95 percent or more of the ingredients have to be grown to “organic certification standards” (in accordance with the Organic Products Regulations, which came into effect in 2009). Although controversial, there is mixed evidence that organic produce holds more nutritional benefit for us than conventional agricultural products.
The claim “Made with Organic Ingredients” means that at least 70% of the ingredients must follow organic regulations, the remaining 30% don't have to be organic at all.
NOTE: The terms “Natural” and “free-range” do not necessarily mean organic.
“ALL NATURAL” DOES NOT MEAN UNPROCESSED
There are currently no standards on the use of the word "natural" when labelling agricultural products. When applied to packaged foods the requirement is that those ingredients have to be identical to how they would be found in nature without added colors, artificial flavours, or synthetic ingredients. But a product that contains "all-natural" ingredients isn't necessarily healthy – salt is naturally occurring as is sugar. Just because the amount of physical change has been minimal doesn’t mean the product is nutritious. This label in no way refers to the way an animal was raised, and indeed, animals raised in industrial barns can carry the label “natural.” The natural label also does not mean that an animal was raised without hormones or antibiotics.
A claim may not be made for a vitamin or mineral nutrient unless a serving of the food contains at least 5% of the "Recommended Daily Intake" (RDI) or "Daily Value" (DV).
5%!? That means you’d need to eat 20 servings to fulfil the daily requirement.
High, Rich In, Excellent Source Of. All designate products with at least 25% of DV per serving (except vitamin C which must constitute 50% of DV).
Good Source, Contains, Provides. The product must have more than 15% of DV per serving (except vitamin C which must constitute 30% of DV).
Thoughts to ponder:
How do these light, free, reduced products keep their shelf life and “full” flavours?
A reduction in fat is often countered by an increase in sodium and/ or sugar. Likewise with products toting reduced sugar, having increased sodium and/ or fat content. Foods boasting low-calorie or low-sugar status often substitute chemical options for natural ones – hardly making them healthier alternatives.
Is that really a serving size?
Serving sizes on today's nutrition labels are unrealistically small, leading us to believe they're eating less food than they actually are. 64 percent of Americans eat the whole can of canned soup in one sitting which claims to contain 2 servings (of 1 cup each). This means they eat 1,740 mg of sodium rather than the 870 mg printed on the label.
(please remember that these are suggestions based on the scope of this blog and do not replace professional nutritional counselling)
1. Nothing beats common sense – I’d say “follow your gut feeling” but in this case I think we innately know what “good food” is. Screw the labels, buzz phrases and flashy ad campaigns, go back to the basics. You know you’re probably on the right track if:
- a product does not have a label or ingredient list (as of 2007 all
pre-packaged foods are required to contain a nutrition label);
- based on look and taste, you can guess most of the ingredients without
looking at the label;
- it tastes like desert, it probably has the nutritional quality of desert;
- a product won’t keep indefinitely without refrigeration.
2. Check out the noted serving size and do some quick math based on how much you eat (we tend to under-estimate this value).
3. Read the ingredients (if your grandma didn’t eat it – leave it, if you don’t know what it is or can’t pronounce it – leave it).
Oh, I almost forgot :
VEGETABLE(i.e. vegetable soup) means it has vegetables, but may also have meat (apparently)