Saturday, September 19, 2020

Beware: Food Labels Made to Look Healthy


In an attempt to win more customers, manufacturers are trying to make their products look healthier and healthier.  People are getting a little pickier and at least paying some attention to what is in the food they are buying.  However, it is important to take a really close look at what you are buying, and remember that packaged foods are processed and should not be most of what you eat anyway.

By January 2006, companies have to disclose trans fat on their labels, so most are trying to get rid of it.  An now since 2018 trans fat has been made illegal in the US.

This has created manufacturing challenges for companies, so many are turning to palm oil, since it stays solid at room temperature.  However, palm oil is a saturated fat, and consuming a diet rich in palm oil instead of one that contains lots of trans fat really does not represent health improvement.

Another common ploy is to use what is called a “qualified health claim.”  These include phrases like “scientific evidence suggests but does not prove”, “evidence is limited but not conclusive,” and weaker structure function claims such as “supports the immune system.”  These types of claims do not mean anything.  Read the ingredients list to determine if the food has any value.

There are some nutrients that are getting a lot of press these days.  For example, consuming foods containing Omega-3 fats has been correlated to improved health, and improving the ratio of Omega-3 to -6 fatty acids in the diet is important to achieving optimal health.  So, companies are now starting to add Omega-3 fats in foods like pasta, breads, spreads, and cereals.  The problem is that the amount of these foods one would have to consume in order to get a healthy dose of Omega-3’s is incredible and often impossible to do.  And, many of the foods containing Oega-3 fats or other nutrients determined to improve health contain a lot of negative ingredients, making them extremely poor sources.  The best source of Omega-3 fats is flax seeds, with salmon and other fatty fish, soy foods, and walnuts being close seconds.  

Still another brilliant technique is manufacturers developing their own labeling system to indicate that the foods are healthy, and using symbols on the packages to promote the health value of the food.  “Sensible Solutions,” “Healthy Beginnings,” and “Smart Choices” are a few.  These terms appear on labels for foods like Sugar-Free Jello, Lite Aunt Jemima Syrup and Light Oscar Meyer Wieners.   Although we all agree that these are not health foods, there are some people still purchasing them thinking that they are making better choices.

These foods encourage the consumption of what I refer to as a healthier junk food diet – a little less fat, a little less sugar, a little more Omega-3 fat, but not enough of anything or enough of a shift to really promote health improvement.

Some people are being fooled by these labels.  You need not be, however, if you read the ingredients list on the labels of the food products you purchase.  If the ingredients list is extremely long, if it contains lots of chemical terms, if the list contains lots of items that do not sound like food – put it back on the shelf and return to the produce section, where the truly nutritious foods are found.

Functional Fiber?

One of the reasons I stress practicing qualitative vs. quantitative nutrition when reading labels is that manufacturers are so good at making a food look like it’s healthy when in fact, much of the time it is not.

Since almost everyone knows they are supposed to consume more fiber daily than the Standard American Diet provides, manufacturers are starting to use “functional fibers” in their packaged foods that increase the fiber content of the food and make it appear to be more nutritious than it actually is.

Functional fibers are non-digestible carbohydrates that are isolated from foods. They are not the same as dietary fiber consumed in foods like vegetables, grains and legumes. On a food label they appear as maltodextrin, polydextrose, and cellulose. Cellulose is a functional fiber that comes from oat hull fiber, wheat fiber, pea fiber, soy fiber and cottonseed fiber.

The fiber is most likely safe, although there are no studies confirming this. However, these are not the same as fiber consumed in foods. This is important, since the studies showing the benefits of fiber for a range of conditions from lowering cholesterol to regulating blood sugar, all involved the consumption of foods with high fiber content. There is no scientific evidence or reason to believe that functional fibers will confer the same benefit to consumers as consuming high-fiber, natural foods.

It is not difficult to consume enough fiber – 45 grams per day if you are eating the Wellness Forum way. I was interviewed for a magazine article recently about heart disease and asked for suggestions on how to increase fiber. Every menu plan I came up with for a day resulted in fiber intake of over 50 grams. The shake has 14, a bowl of lentils and rice has 13, split pea soup has 12-16, a bowl of multigrain cereal with raisins and soy milk has 9, etc. It is not only best to get your fiber from food, but also easy as well!

Read the label on the products you purchase and look at the ingredients list – only purchase foods that contain food! Those that contain a list of chemicals, functional fibers, and other isolated nutrients should be left on the shelf!

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Medically trained in the UK. Writes on the subjects of injuries, healthcare and medicine. Contact me

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