Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Food Labels That Ate My Sanity

by Leigh

When I first saw the commercials featuring the bloated college girl surrounded by books and pizza boxes whose roommate gives her yogurt to help her get "regular," I was all huh? Dairy? For constipation? But I said nothing. (Or maybe I did to my roommate.)

Then came another with a fifty-something woman in a flower shop who experienced "bloating". What really got me this time was the fake name for the active cultures in the yogurt. Bifidus regularis? I remained silent. (My dog might disagree.)

Now Jamie Lee Curtis is in on the act. Jamie Lee, respected spokeswoman for aging gracefully; Jamie Lee, adoption advocate and children's book author; Jamie Lee, co-star of my favorite holiday movie of all time, Trading Places. Well, that just tears it.

Why would anyone turn to a dairy product for “slow intestinal transit”? Dairy mucks up the works. Just ask anyone who bought into the Atkins craze. And who would wait for two weeks for relief by yogurt, when a bowl of quinoa and spinach will do the trick in a day?

Dannon gets away making these claims because, according to Lauren Sandler in Slate, "The FDA classifies constipation as a disease, and any product that claims to treat a disease must carry an FDA-approved health claim. Activia does not." It's all in the phrasing.

Food labeling is as much of a science as inventing designer yogurt cultures. Take a gander at the FDA’s food labeling regulations if you want your brain to short circuit. A handy chart at the bottom of this page translates the guidelines.

With labels, it's all about how you present the information. As long as the food company doesn't claim to cure disease or put the "low fat" burst too close to the "statement of identity" or separate it from the "disclosure statement," everything seems to be kosher. (But not necessarily Kosher.)

In other words, if the claim is low-fat, then the label has to say how low in fat compared to the regular product, but it can have a bunch of other distracting information with the hope you don't read it. As for those pesky TV spots, forget it. Clinical studies, schminical schtudies.

I'm not saying Activia doesn't work for some folks; it's just not a connection I would make. To me, dairy = delicious in small quantities. Probiotics certainly have their place. My doctor always recommended eating yogurt after antibiotic treatment to replace intestinal flora, and I am well aware of the benefits in keeping the female parts in check.

If you want my unsolicited, laylady's advice: eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to keep things moving. And if you want some unsolicited professional advice: eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to keep things moving.

Which brings up the next commercial series that makes my head explode. General Mills has been touting for some time now that all their cereals are made with “whole grain.” In the TV commercial, we see adults browsing rows and rows of cereal, including Lucky Charms and Trix, excited that they get their nostalgia fix and still eat healthy.

Hold up, junior. These cereals are still refined flour products fortified with vitamins. If only “whole grain” and “fiber” meant the same thing. According to Web MD, whole grains are necessary for heart health, but, once again, food labels can be misleading.

“The reality is that refined white flour—with just a touch of whole wheat added back in—can be listed as ‘whole grain.’ A food manufacturer can use the term ‘whole grain’ no matter how much whole wheat the product contains,” say nutritionist Tanya Jollife and health educator Nicole Nichols.

The General Mills healthy stalwarts, Cheerios, Wheaties, and Total, are thought to be the standard bearers of the brand, but it gets muddier when the sweetened "kids" cereals come into play. How does Cocoa Puffs, made with "whole grain corn," get away with that claim and only have have 1g of dietary fiber? Cinnamon Toast Crunch, made with "whole grain wheat" (not "whole wheat"), comes in at a whopping 3g of dietary fiber. The very same tally as Cheerios, Wheaties, and Total.

General Mills is not the only culprit. Quaker does it; Kellogs does it. Sara Lee was sued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for making false claims about it's whole-grain usage. A settlement was reached in July, and will hopefully lead to more accurate labeling.

If you want to be sure you're getting a whole-grain cereal (or bread or flour), read the nutritional information. Check the fiber content; at least 5g of dietary fiber. What is the first ingredient? If it says "enriched" or "refined", keep looking. Unless the package says 100% whole grain, it isn't.

There are other areas that require diligence: fruit juices, high fructose corn syrup, the word "natural" that crops up everywhere but means nothing. But if we can resist the seductive powers of Jamie Lee and the nostalgia trip - with their promises of miracle cures and magic elixirs - we'll be feeling fine.


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(Photos courtesy of flickr members bunbunlife and erindean)


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