Honest Nutrition Labels: Can They Exist?

Last week, the FDA and First Lady, Michelle Obama, proposed several changes to the Nutrition Facts label. It will likely take several years before these changes are put into place, but it is a great place to start.

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Here are some highlights:

1. Calories will be listed more prominently and in a larger font size, making them easier to find.
2. Serving sizes will be adjusted to more accurately depict what is eaten in one sitting. For instance, a 20 oz. soda will be considered 1 serving, as opposed to 2.5, which has been the case in the past.
3. Calories from fat will no longer be listed, allowing us to focus more on types of fat to be avoided (trans fat) rather than fat as a whole.  Science has shown that dietary fat is not the demon it was once made out to be.
4. Added sugars will now be listed. This is a great addition; one that health advocates have been wanting for a long time, and the food industry will likely try to refute. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume less added sugars, but the current food label doesn’t indicate the number of sugars added to foods, only the total grams. This makes determining how much refined sugar the food industry is adding into products very challenging for consumers, especially for foods that contain natural sugars like fruit and dairy products.
5. Vitamin D and Potassium information will now be listed, and listing Vitamin A and C will be voluntary . Vitamin D and Potassium have higher deficiency rates for Americans, making this an important addition.
6. Recommended Daily Values for sodium will go down from 2400 milligrams to 2300, and will go up for fiber from 25 grams to 30. These numbers are being adjusted to better represent what we have learned in the past 20 years about how much we should consume of each of these nutrients.

While these changes are important, and will hopefully help consumers to make healthier food choices, there are many more improvements that could still be made. In fact, the FDA proposed an alternate label that has received much less press.

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In addition to the other changes mentioned, this alternate label also provides information about which nutrients to avoid (trans fat, sodium, added sugars) and which to get more of (vitamin D, fiber, calcium). This label comes much closer to labels advocates have been proposing, such as this label designed by Center for Science in the Public Interest:

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A Nutrition Facts label, such as this, is clearly designed to help consumers make healthier decisions. Of course, the food industry is not in favor of these labels as they might paint a negative picture of their products. Proof of this, is the $50 million they are spending to promote their own voluntary package label, called Facts Up Front.

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The industry calls Facts Up Front “a tool” to help consumers, but as is no surprise, it really just continues to serve the industry’s best interest by allowing companies to highlight positive attributes of a product, without having to warn them about anything negative. Plus, it is confusing. Is 14 grams of sugar a lot or a little? The fiber is high, but so is the saturated fat. Is it healthy or not? This type of labeling also encourages fortification (adding positive nutrients like vitamins and fiber) to make unhealthy products seem more healthy.

Evidence of the confusion over Facts Up Front is further proven in this video from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University:


Despite what the food industry will tell you, consumers clearly aren’t learning much about nutrition from “Facts Up Front.” On the contrary, it will likely continue to cause consumers to choose highly processed, cheaply made junk food that appears healthy — just what the industry wants.

These industry efforts are quite contradictory to their consistent claims that eating well is all about “personal responsibility.” How can consumers eat responsibly if they aren’t receiving clear and honest information?

What do you think? Would any of these labels help you to make healthier choices?

Beware: ‘Simply’ is the new ‘Natural’

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Controversy has been building in recent years over the use of the word ‘natural’ on food packaging.  For health conscious consumers – this term is often interpreted as an indicator of minimally processed, healthful ingredients.  For food companies, the word just means dollar signs.

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A 2009 survey  found that while 35 percent of survey participants rated the label ‘organic’ as either important or very important to their purchasing decisions, ‘natural’ scored significantly higher, at 50 percent.  This is particularly alarming, considering the word ‘organic’ actually has a long list of legal definitions, while the word ‘natural’ essentially has none.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to develop a legal definition for ‘natural’ back in the 1990′s, but backed away from the issue after facing what I can only assume was a lot of contradictory advice from health advocates and Big Food. But, that hasn’t stopped the food industry from using the label on everything from sugary drinks to highly processed snack foods.  Why not? They know the word ‘natural’ misleads consumers into thinking they are making a better choice. Put simply, if you slap the word onto your product, you will sell more of it.

Just to prove how ridiculous the use of this word has become, non-profit, Organic Voice, took a satirical jab at the issue through this very humorous video:

While the FDA continues to refuse to act, consumer groups and other health advocates have been filing lawsuits to challenge the use of the word on products deemed anything but natural.  Ben and Jerry’s, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Breyer’s Ice Cream, and Goldfish Crackers are just a few examples of brands targeted for using the label on products containing ingredients that do not exist in nature, such as high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, and synthetic cocoa powder.

Not only are these lawsuits costly, but they create a lot of bad press for the companies, causing many manufacturers to pull the ‘natural’ label just to avoid the trouble.  While this might seem like great news, food companies aren’t ready to completely abandon the concept.  There has to be another word that implies health and wholesomeness, but has even less legal meaning in regards to food.

That word is ‘Simply.’

Next time you visit the grocery store, just take a look. It’s everywhere — cookies, ice cream, chips — highly processed foods that would seldom be deemed as a healthy choice are now carrying this word on their label.  According to reports from the Associated Press, PepsiCo has actually admitted to switching their line of ‘Simply Natural’ Frito-Lay chip products, to just ‘Simply.’  If the FDA hasn’t felt pressured enough to deal with the word ‘Natural’ they certainly won’t be touching any other vague, misleading labels anytime soon.

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Buyers beware!

Caramel Colored Cancer

Caramel — a sweet, sticky confection created by heating sugars to create a characteristic brown color and flavor.

Seems like the perfect ingredient for traditionally caramel colored cola beverages.  Except food companies have added a few extra steps to the recipe.   To make the artificial brown caramel coloring commonly found in the ingredient list of popular soda brands like Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper, sugar and heat are still essential.   However, this chemical process adds ammonia and sulfites into the mix, under high pressure and temperatures.

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Sound dangerous?  Turns out it just might be.  These chemical reactions result in the formation of  4 methylimidazole (4-MeI), which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory rats.  While no such tests have been done on people, it is widely known that chemicals causing cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans.  In fact,  the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the chemical as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011.  The risks were also high enough for the state of California, which now requires that all products sold in the state which would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in a day to carry a warning label under the state’s Proposition 65 law.

Despite these conclusions, there are still no existing federal limits on the amount of caramel color allowed in food and beverages, thus making it one of the most widely used food colorings in the country.  In addition to sodas, it can be found in some breads, sauces, crackers, processed meats, and even beer.

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So how much 4-MeI are we consuming? Consumer Reports just released a study  examining levels of 4-MeI in popular brands of soda.  Their research detected varying levels of 4-MeI in all sodas with caramel coloring listed on the ingredient list, with all containing at least 3 micrograms and several exceeding 29 micrograms per 12 ounce can.  Several products including Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Malta Goya contained more than 6 times the requirement for a warning label in California.  Authors of the Consumer Reports’ study urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a maximum level of the substance when it is added to soda or other products, to require labeling when it is added, and to forbid using the word “natural” on the labels of products which contain artificial caramel colors.

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In response to the study, a spokeswoman from PepsiCo (whose products contained some of the higher levels of 4-MeI) told USA Today that the average amount of soda consumed daily by those who drink it is less than the 12-ounce can Consumer Reports used as its basis for measurement. As a result, the company believes that people are not exceeding the intake limit of 29 micrograms a day.

Even if PepsiCo is correct (the spokeswoman conveniently left out how they came up with these details on daily soda consumption), what about those consumers who drink more than the average amount? Don’t they deserve at a least a warning label?  Or couldn’t PepsiCo just reduce the amount of 4-MeI in their product altogether? After Proposition 65 was passed in California, Coke did just that, leaving their products with some of the lowest levels of the carcinogen in the Consumer Reports study.

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Though the FDA still believes there is no harm in consuming products which contain caramel coloring, the recent study has prompted the organization to take another look, and I applaud them for doing so.   Unfortunately, until the FDA takes action, the best consumers can do to avoid exposure to 4-MeI is to choose soft drinks and other foods that do not list “caramel color” or “artificial color” on their ingredient list.

Fortified junk food under FDA scrutiny

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Does junk food fortified with vitamins and minerals mislead consumers into thinking they are making a healthier choice?

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The federal government is about to find out.

At long last, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will investigate how easily consumers are fooled into believing that fortified junk food (snack foods and carbonated drinks with vitamins added artificially) can replace real nutritious food.

Initially used to address national public health concerns, the proper use of fortification can be beneficial to consumers.  Since the addition of folic acid in grain-based foods, the rate of neural tube defects has dropped by 25% in the United States.  And the fortification of salt with iodine has drastically reduced iodine deficiency and goiter prevalence.

But, over the last few decades, food manufacturers have managed to exploit the process.

Vitamin C is added to fruit snacks to make the products appear equivalent to whole fruit.  Minimal levels of whole grains are added to crackers just to meet the FDA’s standards for labeling a product as whole grain.   And antioxidants are loaded into soda and other sweetened drinks to distract consumers from the high levels of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and/or artificial sweeteners.  Why do food manufacturers do this? The answer is simple. To confuse and mislead health-conscious consumers so companies can sell more products.

Known as the ‘jelly bean rule’, the FDA actually has a regulation that discourages this type of behavior.  The rule states that just because a product is low in fat, cholesterol, or sodium (like a jelly bean) doesn’t mean the company can place claims on the label touting the healthfulness of the product.

The rule states:

The addition of nutrients to specific foods can be an effective way of maintaining and improving the overall nutritional quality of the food supply.

However, random fortification of foods could result in over- or under-fortification in consumer diets and create nutrient imbalances in the food supply.

It could also result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods.

The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify fresh produce; meat, poultry, or fish products; sugars; or snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages.

As you can see, this rule strongly discourages companies from fortifying foods with nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, protein and fiber for the sole purpose of making health claims.

But, they do it anyway.  Take one look down the aisle of a grocery store and it is pretty obvious that the ‘jelly bean rule’ is seldom enforced.

Slowly but surely, however, consumer health advocates and the FDA are taking notice of the misuse of fortification to sell products.  Over the last few years, several companies have faced expensive class-action lawsuits due to their avoidance of the FDA’s rule.

  • In 2011, Kellogg’s settled a class-action suit after claiming that two of their cereal products, Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies, supported healthy immunity due to the addition of several vitamins.
  • Though a lawsuit was never filed, Hershey’s received a warning letter in 2012 from the FDA for nutritional claims about calcium and other vitamins in their chocolate syrup.
  • And this year, Coca-Cola will be facing a class-action suit for their Vitamin Water products which contain health claims about healthy joints, optimal immune function, and reduced risk for eye disease.  Never mind that the product name alone conveys a message of health despite the fact that the products contain excessive amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners – and not much else.

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The FDA’s proposed study will use a web-based survey to collect information from 7,500 adults.  Participants will view food labels and answer questions about their perceptions of the products.  With any luck, this research will add to existing data which shows that  consumers are often misled by fortified foods with health claims.  This type of evidence could further lead to stricter policies surrounding the practice, labeling, and marketing of fortified products. But, not without a fight from those powerful food companies.  Like any other type of regulation that prevents Big Food from continuing the status quo, heavy lobbying will ensue.

If you agree with the importance of this study, you can submit comments to the FDA for the next 12 days here.  While it might take awhile before we see any changes, this is certainly a great place to start.

Sweet Deception: Why Artificial Sweeteners May Be Hiding in Your Food

As our country continues to face an obesity and diabetes crisis, food companies are under great pressure to reduce the excessive use of sugar and calories in their products.  For industry, this generally means replacing natural sweeteners with artificial ones, rather than decreasing the use of sweeteners all together.  Companies are starting to sneak artificial sweeteners into all types of products, including those intended for children, and they aren’t very eager to tell you that they are doing it.

Just last month, a controversial petition was submitted to the FDA by the Dairy Industry requesting that flavored milk be exempt from labeling standards which require companies to disclose the use of artificial sweeteners.  Currently, products containing artificial sweeteners must be labeled with what the FDA calls, ‘nutrient content claims.’  These are phrases such as  ‘reduced calorie’ or ‘no added sugar’ which are placed on the front of the package in addition to displaying which sweeteners are used in the ingredients list on the back of the package. Below is an example of the current standard vs. what the Dairy Industry wants:

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This issue was particularly alarming to parents, because it was the  Dairy Industry’s belief that these claims may deter children from wanting to drink the artificially sweetened milk that caused them to make the request.  The FDA has just begun reviewing comments from industry and consumers about the issue, thus a decision is still in the works, but the concept and subsequent controversy has really got me thinking about the increased use of these sweeteners in general.

The following words and phrases are those commonly used on of the front of food packages to denote the use of artificial sweeteners in a product:

‘reduced calorie’
‘no added sugar’
‘sugar-free’
‘diet’
‘light’

Why don’t companies just label the products, “sweetened with artificial sweeteners”? Is that just too honest? Or is it because the food industry knows that many consumers want to avoid these sweeteners, so they would rather work with the FDA to create positive sounding (and arguably VERY misleading) claims that avoid using the word ‘artificial’?

To add to the confusion, some claims like “no added sugar” don’t always mean the same thing for every product.  Sometimes it means the product contains artificial sweeteners instead of sugar; sometimes it means there are no added sweeteners whatsoever.  It is not the same thing as “sugar-free”, however, as products with the “no added sugar” claim also usually contain naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit or dairy products. Confused yet? You are not alone.

Not only do many consumers not understand the meaning behind these claims on the front of the package, but for those wanting to abstain from artificial sweeteners, looking to the ingredients label on the back of the package can be just as confusing.  Many people are familiar with the common brand names for artificial sweeteners such as Equal, Sweet N’ Low, and Splenda but these names usually won’t be found in the list of ingredients. Instead, companies list the generic names, like these:

Sucralose
Aspartame
Acesulfame K (or Acesulfame Potassium)
Saccharin
Neotame

The Sugar Association conducted a poll which showed that when the generic term for an artificial sweetener is used, unsurprisingly, consumer recognition declines.

While the research surrounding the long-term use of artificial sweeteners is inconclusive, surveys have shown that many Americans still feel it is important to know what sweeteners are being used when they purchase foods and beverages.   The current practice of using misleading claims (or no claims at all), and unfamiliar generic terminology is unfair to those consumers.

If you are curious  about which foods and beverages these sweeteners are hiding in, I took a quick look through the  grocery store to see where I could find them.  This is certainly not an all inclusive list; artificial sweeteners are currently found in over 6,000 products. But, some of these might surprise you!

Bread Products

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Thomas’ Light Multi-grain English Muffins

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Sara Lee Delightful 100% Whole Wheat Bread with Honey

Juice Products

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Capri-Sun Roarin’ Waters

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Ocean Spray Light

Fruit Products

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Breyer’s Pure Fruit Bars

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Musselman’s Lite Applesauce

Dairy Products

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Dreyer’s Slow Churned ‘No Sugar Added’ Ice Cream

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Dannon Light and Fit Yogurt

Breakfast Products

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Quaker High Fiber Oatmeal

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Special K Protein

Snack Products

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Quaker ’25% Less Sugar’ Chewy Bars

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Jolly Time Healthy Pop Kettle Corn

Other Products

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Tylenol Sinus

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Vlasic ‘No Sugar Added’ Bread and Butter Pickles