The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Reading and Understanding Food Labels

Advertising Agencies Are Not Your Friends

You've probably heard by now that food labels are getting a makeover, the first such overhaul in more than twenty years. The biggest change will be to serving sizes. For years now, a 20-ounce bottle of soda has contained 2.5 servings. Right. Like that's realistic. Everybody stops drinking when they hit the 8-ounce mark, don't they? That way they only consume 130 calories and 32 grams of sugar, like it says on the label. Under the new guidelines, one bottle will equal one serving. And you won't have to squint anymore to find the calorie count; it'll jump right out at you in bigger print – all 325 calories plus 80 grams of sugar. The change that has the processed food pushers squirming the most is the one that will require the label to clearly list how much added sugar the product contains. No more guesswork about what is a naturally occurring sugar and what the manufacturer has added.

If you've read much of my writing, you'll know that I'm really big on reading labels. If the ingredient list reads like the answer sheet to a graduate level chemistry exam, avoid the product. But there are some less obvious things to watch for on food product labels. Beyond just reading, you have to understand and recognize things that manufacturers try to slip by you in the hope you won't notice you're being bamboozled.

Perhaps the biggest bamboozle is the word “natural.” Here's the lowdown straight from the FDA: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

You get that? Amidst the gobbledygook is the fact that the government agency that allegedly regulates our food supply has its lips so firmly attached to the nether regions of processed food producers that it really doesn't have a codified definition of the word “natural.” According to them, they don't “object” to a product being labeled “natural” as long as it doesn't contain anything blatantly unnatural.

For example, high fructose corn syrup is a “natural” product. Just ask the Corn Refiners Association that promotes the stuff. I'm sorry, but chemically engineered cornstarch does not fit my definition of a natural ingredient. And yet, the FDA allows it in almost everything you put in your mouth these days. They afford it GRAS status. That means “Generally Recognized As Safe.” Here's how the FDA describes HFCS in Title 21, Vol. 3, Part 184, Subpart B, Sec. 184.1866:

High fructose corn syrup, a sweet, nutritive saccharide mixture containing either approximately 42 or 55 percent fructose, is prepared as a clear aqueous solution from high dextrose-equivalent corn starch hydrolysate by partial enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose using an insoluble glucose isomerase enzyme preparation described in 184.1372. The product containing more than 50 percent fructose (dry weight) is prepared through concentration of the fructose portion of the mixture containing less than 50 percent fructose.

My, doesn't that sound natural? And yet, when the FDA tried to grow a pair back in '08 and say that calling HFCS “natural” was “deceptive and misleading,” their overlords at the Corn Refiners Association slapped them back into submission and they reversed their decision.

How about “caramel coloring?” That's natural, right? Once upon a time, yes. Back when they made it by simply heating sugar until it turned brown. But not when they mix the sugar with ammonium compounds that produce a potentially toxic byproduct called 4-Methylimidazole or 4-MEI, a byproduct associated with other “natural” words like “carcinogenic” and “convulsant.” Industry pooh-poohers say, “Oh, but you'd have to drink massive amounts of caramel colored soft drinks to suffer any ill effects.” Guess that's why they've been quietly reducing the amount of the stuff they slip in your soda since the word about 4-MEI got out.

Have you ever seen “carrageenan” on a food label? Yeah, I didn't know what it was either. But the FDA says it's “GRAS,” so it must be alright, right? It's a seaweed derivative, specifically red algae, mostly found in dairy products and it's used to keep ingredients from separating. By the way, carrageenan is also found in “personal lubricants.” Think about that one next time you eat some ice cream containing this “natural” ingredient. Anyway, the battling “experts” are currently trying to determine whether or not carrageenan contributes to inflammation, profound glucose intolerance, impaired insulin action, and a number of other nasty things. At this point, the smart money seems to be on avoiding the stuff. Even the ever-courageous FDA has this to say in it's final paragraph on the substance: “The Select Committee has weighed the foregoing and concludes that: While no evidence in the available information on undegraded carrageenan demonstrates a hazard to the public when it is used at levels that are now current and in the manner now practiced, uncertainties exist requiring that additional studies should be conducted.”

In other words, go with the smart money. Avoid the stuff.

Look for “palm oil” in a lot of your snack food items. Manufacturers started putting it in there when the hammer came down on trans-fats and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. All they did was substitute one potentially harmful substance for another, but the substituted substance at least sounds natural. Palm oil kind of makes you think of palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. And it's actually made from a variety of palm tree, the oil palm. But it's not health food. True, it is slightly less saturated than butter and contains no trans-fats, but it's still a form of saturated fat, capable of jacking up your LDL if you eat enough of it. And you're eating enough of it. The United States imported about 2.7 billion pounds of the stuff in 2013. Which leads to another issue; an environmental one. Increased demand for palm oil has resulted in massive destruction of tropical forests in places like Indonesia, where the clear-cutting has reached 18 million acres, up from just over a half-million acres in the 1980's. So is palm oil a natural product? Yes. But it's not a particularly healthy one, especially not for Mother Nature. You really need to stick with liquid fats like canola and vegetable oils.

You know, the Corn Refiners Association tried to do a nifty end run around the term “high fructose corn syrup” when that term came under increased public scrutiny. They wanted the FDA to let them call their product “corn sugar” instead. Somehow, the agency found a couple of vertebrae and said, “No.” But that doesn't seem to be the case with “evaporated cane juice.” You know what “evaporated cane juice” really is? Sugar. Plain old processed, refined, white sugar with an uptown moniker. After raw cane sugar has been boiled down, the leftover crystals are scraped up and processed just a little more, taking out whatever nutritive value they might still possess. The resultant “evaporated” product is then added to things that call themselves “100% natural” or “100% juice.” Yeah, the FDA has sent out a few warning letters, but the manufacturers are still tap dancing. If you don't like the tune, don't buy the product.

Made with.....”. That's a good one. You see a package that says, “Made With Healthy Stuff!” And then you read the label; the “healthy stuff” for which you bought the product turns out to be the eleventh ingredient in a twelve ingredient list. But it's in there! So the manufacturer can legally say, “made with.”

You're watching your sugar intake, okay? And you spot a product that says “Lightly Sweetened” on the front of the package. That's got to mean less sugar, right? Wrong. The FDA actually regulates the use of “sugar free” and “no added sugars,” but it has nothing whatsoever to say about “low sugar” or “lightly sweetened.” So if a processed food manufacturer's advertising department wants to stick a big “Lightly Sweetened” banner across the face of a product to which ten pounds of sugar or ten pounds of artificial sweeteners has been added, the FDA has to let them do it. But if you read the label, you don't have to buy it.

Face it, folks, ad people are not employed to monitor or improve your health. They are hired to sell products. To that end, they will use any and all tricks of the trade with which they can legally get by. And even then, they often push the limits. They don't care whether or not a product is really “heart-healthy.” As long as nobody calls them on it, they'll say it because they correctly believe you'll buy it. And they'll throw every buzzword in the books at you. “Antioxidants.” “Fiber.” “Polyphenols.” “Whole Grains.” “Doctor Approved.” “Strengthens Your Immune System.” “Light.” “Reduced.” “Free.” I especially like “Gluten Free.” Because a bunch of misinformed celebrities and celebrity-wannabes got the idea that avoiding gluten was a good way to lose weight, they started a fad. And there's nothing marketers like more than a good fad. So they began plastering every blessed thing in the grocery store with “Gluten Free!” labels, even things that couldn't possibly contain gluten in the first place. But if you're a non-Celiac sufferer who thinks that by avoiding gluten you'll be healthier, happier, sexier, thinner, and just a better all-around person because Oprah said so, you'll buy anything that says “Gluten Free.”

I went to nursing school many years ago and among the required courses in the curriculum was a unit on nutrition. I think comprehensive nutrition classes ought to be mandatory at the high school level. Agriculture students are taught to recognize bovine excrement and how to avoid stepping in it. It's a skill I think everybody should learn. It's not enough to just read the label on a food product; you have to understand what you're reading. For instance, anything that ends in “ose” is a sugar. If you are an educated consumer and you see “low sugar” advertised on a package and then find the ingredient label of said “low sugar” product to be full of maltose, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, etc., you'll recognize bovine excrement and avoid stepping in it.

Here's the takeaway in three simple statements: Read the label, understand what you're reading, and remember, manufacturers of processed foods, their advertising agencies, and their paid politicians are not your friends.

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