December 23, 2013

Label Madness Monday - It's Scary Out There!

Confession time: I was going to call it quits on this label series. I was walking through the supermarket last week looking for products with labels that were ripe for a good takedown, and I found myself completely and totally overwhelmed. Because the truth is, I’d say about 80% of the food products in the store would have fit the bill. That is my non-scientific estimate. It might’ve been closer to 90% to be honest with you. Also, I use the phrase “food products” here deliberately. If you’ve read any of these label posts you’ve figured out by now that just about everything that comes with an ingredient label that has more than one thing on it (for example, chicken thighs, or broccoli, or sirloin steak, or Fuji apple, or sweet cream butter) is immediately suspect. Even things labeled “organic” or “all-natural” come with wacky and ridiculous surprises. So I kind of feel like, we get it. Just buy real food. Just buy nutritious food. But here’s the rub: many of us don’t know what nutritious food is anymore. The marketers, government nutrition authorities, and sometimes even our own doctors, have us completely snowed when it comes to what foods the human body is designed to thrive on.

If you happened to read my little rant from a few weeks ago, then you know that I’m pretty passionate about this stuff. But I’m also easily discouraged and disillusioned. Very easily. I was walking around that supermarket, overwhelmed, and I said to myself, “What’s the point?” This is such an utter, total, and complete fustercluck (feel free to rearrange those letters to get the word you know I’d rather use). What difference can one tiny person, with one tiny blog, possibly make? I told myself not to bother, that the problem was just too big and pervasive and we might as well all gather up our toys and go home. To use one of this guy’s favorite phrases, the processed food industry—along with its marketers and its government and private nutrition organization enablers—has completely shit the bed. (Sorry, kids…hope you were covering your ears. Sometimes only the real word will do.)

I left the supermarket feeling defeated. Here I am, embarking on a career in nutrition, and the deck is stacked so strongly against me I wonder if I should even bother. Almost everything “They,” with a capital T, have told us about how to be physically and emotionally vibrant and well, and get to and maintain a healthy weight, has been wrong. If you had spent the last 60 years doing the opposite of what They’ve told us (maybe by eating plenty of egg yolks, butter, organ meats, red meat, seasoning your food liberally with unrefined salt, and going easy on the grains and vegetable oils), you’d probably be in damn fine health, physically and psychologically.

It was enough to make me close up shop when the shingle’s been hanging up for less than a year. Almost.

Almost, because I’ve received a couple of emails recently from people who’ve told me they’ve learned a thing or two from these label posts. And maybe they’ve gotten a laugh along the way, too. If that’s the case, I’m more than happy to keep putting these out there. Because all hope is not lost. If I can reach even one person, and they start to change their food shopping (and eating!) habits, then it’s not a lost cause. Even if I can get someone thinking about changing their food buying. If they still want to buy the strange stuff, that’s fine, but at least they’ll be aware of what they’re spending their money on.

And with that, let’s get to today’s labels, shall we? I noticed I’ve done a lot of dairy labels, so I’ll try to stick to other products for a while. Today’s products are two examples of a much larger problem. Recall from my rant that junkfood doesn’t bother me. Really, it doesn’t. If you’ve had a rough day and dammit, you just want a cupcake, go get yourself a cupcake and enjoy. Or if it’s Super Bowl Sunday and you want to wash down your bottomless trough of chili cheese nachos with a few beers and have a side of deep-fried mozzarella sticks and potato skins, GO FOR IT.

What does bother me is junkfood that’s marketed as health food. I like to remind my clients that organic, artisanal, gluten-free junk is STILL JUNK. And the conventional, chemical and preservative-laden junk is even worse junk. You should be suspicious any time you see buzzwords and catch phrases like “high fiber,” “organic,” “low-calorie,” “low-sodium,” “fat-free,” and a long list of others I won’t bore you with here. Don’t trust the advertising. Flip those bad boys over and read the ingredients. That’s where the truth is.

First up: Chocolate Fiber One bars!

Note the price sticker. We’ll come back to it soon.

We can glean a lot of information right here from the front of the box. First, the bars are only 90 calories. Second, each bar provides 20% of the daily recommended amount of fiber (for a 2000 calorie diet). Those are two things that the average schlub walking through the store (not you, because you read this blog and therefore know better) would take to mean that these bars are pretty good as far as health food goes. But let’s take a look at the side of the box, where the real info is:

One bar gives us 90 calories, 68 of which come from carbohydrate (17g carbs x 4 calories per gram). So over half the calories in this little morsel come from carbohydrate, buffered by just 18 from fat (2g fat x 9 calories per gram), and 4 from protein (1g protein x 4 calories per gram). I’ll even be generous and subtract the fiber carbs, so 5g of fiber would be 20 calories, so we’re still left with more than half the calories coming from carbohydrate (48, to be exact). Do you know how much broccoli you would have to eat in order to reach 48 calories from carbohydrate? Answer: almost 300 grams, or about 10.5 ounces. Over a half pound! These bars are just .82 ounces, and the carbohydrate content (minus fiber) of one of these bars is 12 grams. That’s a lot of carbohydrate for less than one ounce of food! You could eat almost 10.5 ounces of broccoli to reach 12 grams of carbohydrate, and the broccoli would come with almost 10 grams of fiber, compared to the 5 grams in the bars. (And that fiber would be fiber that occurs naturally, intrinsic to the broccoli, rather than the chicory root extract that’s added to these bars to make it look like rice flour and sugar have a lot of fiber.) Plus, the broccoli would also come with…hmmm…let’s see…about 90% of the daily recommendation for beta-carotene, 300% of the vitamin C, almost 500% of the vitamin K1, almost 80% of the folate, 23% of the potassium, 27% of the manganese, almost 30% of the B6 and more. All that great stuff the bars don’t come with, plus the broccoli is real food, something these bars couldn’t be further from. (Note: is .82 ounces supposed to fill someone up? Honestly, you’d be better off with a Snickers bar, for crying out loud. At least that has some protein and fat in it.)

So let’s look at the ingredients now. I hope you’re sitting down, because remember, these things are marketed as good for us:

This is not a joke. Oh, how I wish it was.

Do you see what I see? I see a lot of weird additives and “food fractions,” and not a lick of real, actual food. I see various forms of sugar mentioned no less than five times (including honey, fructose, and corn syrup), canola oil, rice flour, chicory root extract, maltodextrin, malt extract, and lots of other whackadoodle parts and pieces. The best things I see here are palm kernel oil (high in awesome saturated fat) and whole grain oats. This is NOT health food. Did I say that loud enough? THIS IS NOT, REPEAT, NOT HEALTH FOOD. In fact, if you ask me, it’s not food, period.

And how much is General Mills (or the Giant supermarket chain) asking you to pay for a box whose contents weigh a staggering 4.10 ounces? Less than half a pound? $3.59. Doesn’t sound too pricey does it? But let’s check out that price tag on the shelf again: This stuff is $14.01 a pound! Holy moley ZOLEY, yo! FOURTEEN DOLLARS A POUND for oats, sugar, canola oil, and corn syrup?

We nutritionists often hear from clients that “real food is expensive.” Or that it costs more to eat well. I beg to differ. Check out this receipt from the Willow Grove Farm Market in Luray, VA. I stopped there the other day to pick up some grass-fed beef, pastured pork, and eggs from really free-range hens.

I got 3 pounds of grass-fed ground beef for $15.75 – just $5.25/pound. Granted, that’s an unusually low price for “the good stuff,” but even if you paid ten dollars a pound (which would be outrageous), you’d still be paying less than the cost of those ridiculous bars. I also paid $7.49/lb for ham steaks and $3.50 a dozen for eggs, and the eggs weigh more than a pound. So if you know someone who tends to buy these “healthy” granola bars (and Lean Cuisine frozen entrees and other stuff that seems cheap but that they actually charge you an arm and a leg for) but balks at the idea of shelling out money for real food, call them on their bullsh nonsense. And just so we’re clear, I am not and never will be a food purist. You can get perfectly nutritious, real food at the regular ol’ grocery store, so the cost argument is even sillier, because prices at the regular stores are even lower than what I paid at the tiny farmstand.

I know I’ve made my point, but I can’t resist sharing another one just to really hammer things home. (And keep in mind that there’s an entire aisle full of these things. These are only two examples. There are several brands and several different varieties, but they’re all basically the same thing: sugar-coated grains doused in vegetable oil and preservatives, sold to you for a king’s ransom.)

Cinnamon Coffee Cake Fiber One bars! Cinnamon Coffee Cake – yep, sounds healthful to me! This has the same front label going for it: just 90 calories and 20% of the daily amount of fiber. With one bar weighing a whopping 25 grams (that’s still less than one ounce), I would sure freaking hope it’s less than 90 calories.

But what’s really lurking inside? Let’s have a look:

Dried egg white, skim milk, corn syrup, corn starch, sugar, sugarcane fiber, canola oil, fructose, and more. Yep, definitely nutritious! You should buy these for your kids and put them in their lunchboxes every day. <-- Sarcasm. Remember what I said above about the broccoli having real fiber? (As in, fiber that’s supposed to be there, in the broccoli, the way nature made it?) Well, the fiber here comes from chicory root extract and sugarcane fiber. These are what my friend Monica calls “food fractions” – bits and pieces of foods that have been extracted, isolated, and added to other foods.

Do I even have to show you the top of the label? (Probably not, but here goes anyway.)

Same deal: mostly carbohydrate, very little fat or protein. Bottom line: these are a complete waste of your money. But here’s the funny thing about that money: Look at the price tag. These bars are also $3.59 a box, just like the ones above. But they’re just $10.76 per pound. Whoa, General Mills! Way to pull a fast one on us! Not that you’re going to buy these, but if you were, the cinnamon coffee cake flavor is a better buy. Same price per box, but over three dollars cheaper per pound. Do you see the myriad ways they play us for fools? 

I refer you again to my recent rant. Do you understand now that we are subsidizing our own illnesses? We are buying obesity. We are buying heart disease. We are buying diabetes, infertility, digestive problems, and learning disorders in our children. 

But we don't have to. We can choose instead to funnel our dollars toward health. Toward vitality, radiance, and lifelong wellness. Choose with your food dollars and with your fork. 

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Keep on label busting. I think you are one of the few who's actually shown a real life breakdown of the cost of fake food vs real food.

    Food for thought to pass on to my wife and kids and other non believers.


    Keep on blogging.

    1. Thanks so much! You made my day. I'm happy to keep posting these if they're helpful, and it sounds like they are. :)

  2. So glad you "found" me as it enabled me to find YOU!

    I work in a small, locally owned grocery, manager of our home delivery department which caters to elderly and infirm customers. I know all too well what these products on the store shelves contain, and what everyday people are eating, thinking it's healthy when it just a bunch of government subsidized ingredients and nastiness for too much money. It's unfortunate that I can't suggest other foods to my customers, but that's not my place and would probably get me a pink slip in short order. Outside of work I am often faced with people telling me the way I eat is just too darned expensive. I've always said (and it's true) that eating good, whole foods is much cheaper than eating the processed junk, especially when you take into consideration the medical bills you won't be paying when you eat this way. More food for thought. Keep up the good work. I'm adding you to my blog roll.

  3. Thanks, Lisa! That job must give you a lot of food for thought. (No pun intended.) I used to volunteer for Meals on Wheels, and I certainly realize that eating just about *anything* was better than those elderly and infirm people starving, but the offerings were just horrible. Tons of white bread, juice, snacks, and, of course, margarine and skim milk. Oy!