Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nutritional information and misinformation

With the crackdown on the "Smart Choices" program, which suggested that Froot Loops and mayonnaise were great healthy options, the FDA looks like it is actually starting to flex some muscle to protect consumers from misleading food claims. The label was meaningless, because by fortifying Froot Loops with a bunch of artificial vitamins, Kellogg was able to win the little green checkmark. Or, if tiny amounts of food were put into 100-calorie packs, Oreo cookies could become a "healthy choice." The effect was that the green checkmarks appeared on companies that had bought their way into Smart Choices, and didn't appear on much healthier products, like apples and oatmeal, that hadn't paid the entry fee.

The Smart Choices program was an attempt by the big food producers to head off a government-run labeling program, similar to one in Britain, that would help alert consumers to high levels of certain ingredients, like sugar and salt. The advantage of a program like that one is that it allows consumers to decide what is important to them. If they have high blood pressure and are trying to minimize sodium in their diet, the British-style labels could be really helpful. Of course, the disadvantage to food producers is that people might actually look at a bag of Fritos, see a bunch of red lights, and realize that it probably was a terrible idea to buy them. We have to remember that the standardized nutritional information on all packages, which has been a big help for people who are trying to watch their weight, was also fought tooth-and-nail by these same food giants. The truth is, they don't want us to have any information that might help us make decisions that were against their interests.

It doesn't have the convenience of an in-store label, but Calorie Count at about.com does provide grades for foods on their site, based on ingredients like sodium and sugar. I had some fun looking for the worst possible foods and I found bologna and pork rinds, but even notoriously sugary foods like sodas didn't earn an F -- they just didn't have a grade at all.

Other than ratings on specific nutrients, the hard part about any food label is that it's not any one item in the diet that is the problem, it's the overall balance of foods. Peanut butter is high in fat, but it can definitely fit into a healthy diet. Even pork rinds, if you really like them, could be OK in small quantities. The problem isn't that we have unhealthy individual foods in our diets, it's mostly that we have a food industry that has managed to make the unhealthiest choices the cheapest and easiest to fit into a busy life. The "Smart Choices" label only added insult to injury.

2 comments:

  1. I am happy to hear the FDA is actually starting to be more honest with programs like that. You are completely right that we can eat those foods in moderation, but some people really don't get that, for some reason! They see "healthy" and think it means "eat a ton of this."

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  2. My half-sis is a Nutritionist and she said we'd all be much better off if we only ate food that our great-great grandparents could have recognized. Meaning...real food...not processed/packaged food. Most real food does not have labels. Meat, fresh veggies, fresh fruit......right?

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07