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    Archive for the ‘food label’ Category

    2011: A Year to Remember (and Forget!)

    It wasn’t until I started compiling stories for this post that I realized just how much had taken place this year on issues of food, agriculture, and nutrition. While by no means a definitive list, I think it covers the most substantial events.

    So, if you’ve been spelunking in Antarctica for the past twelve months — or just want a short trip down memory lane — let’s review 2011, the year where:
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    Front of Package Labeling: An Exercise in Futility?

    Behold the "Nutrition Keys'!

    The current issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition includes a commentary co-authored by myself and public health attorney Michele Simon. The piece is a response to the recent – and ongoing – debate surrounding front of package labeling.

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    Why The Nutrition Facts Label Belongs on the Front of All Food Packaging

    Over the past few years, the Food and Drug Administration, food companies, and food company front groups (like the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association) have spent considerable amounts of time and money tackling the issue of front-of-package nutrition labeling.  As you may recall, this January the FMI and GMA banded together to create the “Nutrition Keys”, a small graphic set to appear on the upper right-hand corner of the front package of processed foods, summarizing that product’s nutrition information per serving.  The FMI and GMA announced their plan to spend $50 million on a hyped-up PR blitz an “educational campaign” for the public.

    Yesterday, as I perused the aisles of a local supermarket and my eyes were relentlessly attacked with dubious health claims and sneaky nutrition advertising, it hit me — the FDA needs to legally mandate that the Nutrition Facts Label (and ingredient list!) take up exactly half of the front of all food packaging.  This move would swiftly take care of many issues:
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    Quiz: Labels, Claims, and More!

    testA few months back, I posted ten questions testing my readers’ label-scouring skills. I was very happy to receive great feedback on it… and decided it was time for another pop quiz, class!

    The answers are provided at the bottom of this post.  So, grab a sheet of paper and your favorite pen, and get to it.  Good luck!

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    Quiz: Are You A Good Label Detective?

    hidden_ingredientsReady to test your food labeling smarts?  Take this ten-question quiz (answers are provided at the very end, but you have to promise not to peek!).

    Also, the idea is to take this quiz in one sitting without Googling answers or consulting the Small Bites archive.  So, grab a sheet of paper and a pen (that’s right, no eraser marks!)… and good luck!

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    Health Hype on Aisle 5!

    gogurtAh, that ubiquitous marketing tactic known as the “health halo” appears to be multiplying.

    You know the drill.  Take minimally nutritious food, sprinkle one fiftieth of a pinch of “something healthy”, and market the living *bleep* out of said ingredient on the product’s packaging.

    Consider these recently-spotted offenders:

    • Cinnamon Chex.  “With a touch of real cinnamon,” no less.  Cinnamon offers fiber, manganese, and heart-healthy phytonutrients and antioxidants.  Alas, this cereal contains more sugar, oil, and salt than it does the sweet spice.
    • Betty Crocker Quick Banana Bread Mix.  “With real bananas,” the box touts.  The bananas are in there, alright.  As dried flakes.  Right after white flour, sugar, and partially hydrogenated oils.  PS: Each of the finished product’s twelve servings offers up an entire gram of trans fat.
    • Yoplait Go-Gurt Strawberry Splash & Berry Blue Blast portable yogurt flavor-combination packs. There isn’t a single strawberry or blueberry in either yogurt, not even in dehydrated or powdered form.  Instead, we get artificial dyes (the same ones banned by the European Union) and flavors.
    • Oscar Mayer Lunchables Sub Sandwich, Turkey and Cheddar.  This is described as “more wholesome” than previous varieties.  Does this ingredient list scream “wholesome” to you?

    Thank you to Small Bites intern Laura Smith for valuable assistance with this post.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Probiotics, Sugar in Plain Yogurt

    Case-of-Fage-781488When it comes to grams of Sugar in plain yogurt, isn’t most of the lactose fermented at time of consumption, resulting in a significant reduction in actual sugar?

    Can we utilize lactic acid for energy, or are the grams of sugar on the label taken from the milk without consideration for fermentation?

    Related to that, is it feasible to create a probiotic yogurt that is sugar free?

    When probotics are added after fermentation do they need additional sugar to be added to keep the probiotics alive?

    Of all the varieties of yogurt available, there doesn’t seem to be any probiotic yogurt sweetened with artificial sweeteners.

    Just wondering if that was a coincidence?

    — Nicole Journault
    (Location unknown)

    Yogurt labeling is actually slightly inaccurate.

    Since, as you point out, bacteria convert some of the naturally-occurring lactose (a type of sugar) to lactic acid (part of what gives yogurt its sour taste), the carbohydrate content is slightly lower than what the label says.

    Depending on how long the fermentation process lasted, the sugar content can be anywhere from 3 to 7 grams lower than what is listed on the label!

    As for a probiotic yogurt that is sugar-free — it can definitely be done.

    After all, you can buy probiotic supplements in lactose-free pill or powder form  (FYI: the key for their survivial is constant refrigeration!).

    Even low-carbohydrate yogurts, which tack on artificial sweeteners, contain some lactose, so I can’t identify a barrier.

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    The FDA Cracks Down on Food Labels, and I’m Left Cold

    51HAY3WT6BLThe nutrition blogosphere is abuzz with kudos, thumbs ups, and “You’re my Hero!” banners for the Food & Drug Administration now that they have gone after 18 companies (thank you, Marion Nestle, for that link) for front-of-package violations referring to nutrition claims.

    When I first found out of this development, I was eager to learn what companies had been busted.  After all, on a stroll through any supermarket aisle I usually find a handful of products that make exaggerated claims or make reference to healthful ingredients that, as revealed by the ingredient list, are found in miniscule amounts.

    Instead, the majority of the FDA’s list focuses on products that I consider mostly inoffensive.

    Here’s one example.  Spectrum’s Organics (pictured, right) is “busted” because their organic all-vegetable shortening has a banner on the front of the package advertising “0 grams of trans fat”, without also stating the product contains significant levels of total fat and saturated fat.

    So what?  Spectrum’s Organics is not advertising their product as “low fat”.  They are simply making a statement about trans fat.  What’s so misleading?

    The back of the container, meanwhile, accurately states that this shortening has less saturated fat than butter (one tablespoon of this shortening provides 6 grams of saturated fat, versus butter’s 7.3 grams per tablespoon.)

    According to the FDA, this claim does not meet a legal requirement.

    Spectrum’s Organics also correctly states that their all-vegetable shortening is “cholesterol-free”.  The FDA also has a problem with this from a legal standpoint, even though it is a true statement (no plant foods contain cholesterol).

    While I was certainly glad to see more misleading products — such as a green tea by Redco Foods that claims to help cure, prevent, or treat Alzheimer’s and cancer and POM Wonderful’s many hyped up  health claims for its pomegranate juices– called to the mat, I was mostly underwhelmed.

    Why doesn’t the FDA turn its attention to truly misleading health claims, like the “x grams of whole grains per serving” statements, which mean little and confuse lots?

    When Teddy Grahams that consist largely of white flour and offer a mere dusting of whole wheat flour advertise their “grams of whole grains per serving”, I think back to the amount of consumers I spoke with who thought that statement was in reference to grams of fiber per serving!

    At the very least, those statements should be accompanied by a “not a whole grain food” disclaimer!

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    Fave Four

    food_labelMany public health and nutrition experts have advocated a variety of changes to the current standard food label.

    From listing calorie information for entire packages commonly consumed in one sitting (i.e.: 20-ounce bottles of soda) to differentiating between naturally-occurring and added sugars (so consumers can know how much sugar is added to yogurt or dried fruit), the proposed changes would absolutely be helpful.

    I have thought of one tweak, however, that I haven’t heard anyone mention yet:

    The Food & Drug Administration should stop mandating that values of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron be listed for all products.  Instead, they should ask food companies to list the top four vitamins and minerals a particular product contains — and the recommended intake percentages in which they are present.

    Of course, as is the case now, food companies would have the choice of listing more than four nutrients if so desired.

    My main gripe with the four nutrients currently listed on food labels is that it often results in very healthy foods coming across as nutrition duds.

    Brown rice, for example, contains practically zero grams of calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C, but is a wonderful source of other vitamins and minerals — consumers should know what they are!

    “But those four nutrients are supposed to be on the food label because they aren’t consumed in sufficient quantities,” some of you may rebutt.

    True, so if a consumer does not see calcium on a food label, they will know that particular product is not a good source of the nutrient.

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    You Ask, I Answer: “Other Carbohydrate” on Food Label

    FiberAfter reading your post on Fiber One cereal, I noticed the food label lists “other carbohydrate”.

    What does that mean?

    — Dustin Apasda
    St. Petersburg, FL

    According to regulations set by the Food & Drug Administration, all food labels must disclose the amount of total carbohydrates in a food or beverage product (except bottled water), and specify amounts of fiber and sugar (naturally-occurring and added).

    Consider the values on the Fiber One Honey Clusters cereal food label:

    • Carbohydrates: 42 grams
    • Dietary fiber: 13 grams
    • Sugar: 6 grams

    In this case, you are looking at a product that contains 23 grams of starch (42 grams of total carbohydrates minus 13 grams of fiber and 6 grams of sugar).

    And, ta-da, 23 grams happens to be the value for “other carbohydrate”!  Mystery solved.

    Back in the low-carb craze of 2003, many food companies advertised “net carbs”, a value obtained by subtracting fiber grams from total carbohydrates to determine the amonut of carbohydrate would have an effect on blood sugar levels.

    What most people don’t know is that the Food & Drug Administration never approved that terminology, nor considered it a nutritionally-relevant concept.  Not surprisingly, once the low-carb 2.0 craze went bust, the “net carbs” stickers soon disappeared off supermarket shelves.

    In any case, “other carbohydrates” is nothing more than food companies doing some basic math for you and letting you know how much of their product is starch.

    In a few cases, too, “other carbohydrates” factors in sugar alcohols like xylitol and maltitol.

    For consumers, “other carbohydrates” doesn’t have much meaning.  It’s certainly not worth fretting about.  The most important carbohydrate-related values you should be looking at are fiber and sugar.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Organic Food Labeling

    44728post-honeybunch_organicWhen I buy something that has a pretty long list of ingredients (like a cereal) and claims to be “organic”, does that mean every ingredient is organic, or only some of them?

    Is it possible that an organic raisin bran cereal uses organic flour but not organic raisins?

    — Ashley Goldman
    New Haven, CT

    Unlike whole grains (where a laughable sprinkle of whole wheat flour on a chocolate chip cookie can be advertised as “made with whole grains!”), organic food labeling is subject to stricter regulations.

    The term “organic” can only be used to label products containing an ingredient list that is at least 95 percent organic.

    The use of “100% organic” is reserved for products that are made solely with organic ingredients.

    “Made with organic ingredients” is used for products with an ingredient list that is anywhere from 70 – 94 percent organic.  Manufacturers have the option to list the ingredients if they so choose (ie: 9-seed bread “made with organic flour” but not organic seeds).

    Products containing a lower percentage of organic ingredients can not make any organic-related claims on their packaging.  However, they can identify organic ingredients on the ingredient list (ie: if the only organic ingredient in your cereal was the raisins, they would be listed as “raisins (organic)”).

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    The Most Useless Part of a Food Label

    Although food labels provide a significant amount of information that can help us compare the nutrient composition of different products, there is one part of these labels I pay absolutely no attention to — and I suggest you do the same.

    The “waste of space” culprit? “Calories from fat.”

    Not only is that figure useless, it also ends up confusing most consumers.

    The only thing “calories from fat” tells you is how many of a given product’s total calories per serving come from fat. Why does that matter?

    This, by the way, is no secret formula. You can determine that yourself simply by multiplying the fat grams on a food label by 9 (remember, there are 9 calories in one gram of fat).

    Similarly, to estimate the amount of calories from protein, multiply the grams of protein in a serving of a given product by 4.

    My main issue with “calories from fat” is that it is clearly a remnant from the early 1990s “low-fat” craze.

    Allow me to illustrate the inefficacy of “calories from fat.”

    A two-tablespoon serving of peanut butter, for example, contains 200 calories, of which 140 are from fat.

    A bag of Skittles from a vending machine packs in 250 calories, of which 22.5 are from fat.

    Do you see, then, how “calories from fat” is absolutely meaningless?

    I say it’s time to revise the food label. Drop ‘calories from fat’, differentiate between naturally-occurring and “added” sugars, and substitute Vitamin A (a mandatory micronutrient on food labels practically no one is deficient in) with a nutrient people should be more aware of, like potassium.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Calorie Discrepancies on Food Labels

    Why does the nutritional information on labels of the (seemingly) same product, but from different companies, have different data?

    The one that I noticed today was when I bought Hodgson Mill’s oatbran. It says 40 grams has 120 calories, but Mother’s oat bran says 40g is 150 calories. Shouldn’t these be the same?

    They both state that the only ingredient in the box is oat bran.

    Another example (that got me started on this) was canned black beans.

    Again, the serving side listed on the can is always approximately the same (I’ve even checked the weight, not just the half cup measurement) and the calories listed can range from 90 to 130, depending on the brand.

    Do you know why this is?

    I understand that companies have some fudge-room for their nutritionals, but these examples seem like there shouldn’t be that much of a difference.

    — Michelle Pope
    (location withheld)

    Ah, welcome to the twisted maze that is calorie labeling!

    This is an excellent question, as it gives significant insight into labeling laws and regulations.

    Come on in and sit a spell, though, because this can be initially confusing to the untrained eye.

    First of all, remember that calorie figures higher than 50 can be rounded off to the nearest 10-calorie increment.

    In other words, if a serving of cereal adds up to 134 calories, it can legally be displayed on the label as 130.

    Similarly, a serving containing 156 calories is often shown as 160 calories for simplicity’s sake.

    Now we get to the more complicated issues.

    Although you often see references to carbohydrates containing 4 calories per gram, they technically contain 3.6 calories per gram.

    The “4 calories per gram” figure is commonly used — and referred to everywhere, including this blog — in order to facilitate in-your-head multiplication and estimation.

    Additionally, since protein technically provides 4.2 calories per gram, the logic is that by portraying both those nutrients as containing 4 calories per gram, final estimates are very close to actual totals.

    That said, some companies arrive at their calorie totals by allocating 4 calories to each gram of carbohydrate in their food, while others — and this is completely legal, by the way — allocate 3.6 calories per gram.

    On top of that, all macronutrient figures are rounded off. In other words, a serving of food containing 29.5 grams of carbohydrates shows up as containing 30.

    So, company #1 may choose to keep it simple and multiply that rounded figure (30 grams) by the rounded-up “calories per gram” figure (4 calories per gram) and come up with 120 calories.

    Meanwhile, company #2 can instead opt to multiply the technical figures (29.5 grams of carbohydrate x 3.6 calories per gram) for a grand total of 106 calories!

    Then we have the issue of fiber, which comes into play with both of your food examples.

    If food companies choose to, they may leave out grams of carbohydrates from insoluble fibers in their final calculations.

    Taking all that into consideration, you can see why the same amount of the same food does not always yield the same food label.

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    Bursting The Bubble

    Here’s a twist on labeling issues — sparkling wines masquerading as champagne.

    “In December 2006, Congress passed legislation banning the future misuse of 16 wine place names, including Champagne. While that was a step in the right direction, the legislation did not address the grandfathering of labels currently misusing Champagne’s name and that of 15 other international wine regions,” the Office of Champagne explains in their official press release.

    As a supporter of stricter regulations on food labeling, I empathize.

    My most pressing food labeling issue? Trans fats.

    Rather than allowing foods containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving to be advertised as “0 grams of trans fat,” I propose they be labeled as “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving” and, below that, include the following statement: “NOT a trans fat-free food.”

    Gets the message across more clearly, don’t you think?

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    You Ask, I Answer: Serving Sizes

    I looked at the nutrition label for Jif To Go and now I am extremely confused.

    The label lists two serving sizes.

    One is for the whole cup, [which contains] 390 calories.

    The [other serving size is for] “1/2 cup (32g)” which has 190 calories.

    Okay, fine. But then I look at the regular standard jar of Jif peanut butter, and its label says:”2 Tablespoons(32g)=190 calories.”

    [What I can’t understand] is how, according to these two labels, a half cup of peanut butter weighs as much as two tablespoons?

    — Corey Clark
    (location withheld)


    Ah, good ol’ serving size puzzles.

    Let’s work this one out.

    The “1 cup” mentioned on the Jif-to-Go food label is not a literal 1 cup measurement, but rather refers to container (AKA “cup”) of Jif-to-Go, which contains four tablespoons of peanut butter.

    In other words, one Jif to Go cup (notice my wording — it is very different from saying “a cup of Jif To Go”) contains a quarter cup of peanut butter.

    Therefore, half a container of Jif To Go offers the standard two-tablespoon serving you see on peanut butter jars.

    Dizzy yet?

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