December 25, 2012

Fat Tuesday -- Labeling Laws

Hey everyone! It’s been a while since this blog has shown signs of life, huh? Have no fear. Just because I haven’t been putting out content doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching Iron Chef: Redemption and Law & Order: SVU reruns late into the night hard at work on a bunch of new posts and getting things ready for when I officially hang out my nutritionist’s shingle early in the new year.

I realize that most of my posts tend to be epic missives and longer than anything most people want to read online. Believe it or not, I’m actually very quiet in person. I tend to keep to myself and don’t have much to say. That is, until the subjects of food, nutrition, and health come up. If the conversation goes that way, then heaven help you to get me to shut up.  =)

So even though I’ve taken about two weeks off from doing anything remotely productive posting anything, in the spirit of the holidays, I’ll keep today’s entry short. (Well, short for me, anyway, which is actually not short at all.) So, dear readers—all four of you—here’s the next step in the story of fats. 

The way foods are labeled in the U.S. is wacky. And I don’t mean the dye-your-hair-blue-and-wear-all-black semi-harmless kind of wacky. I mean deep-fried-Twinkie (R.I.P.), Shake Weight, this-should-not-even-exist kind of wacky. See, when it comes to food labels, we can’t trust everything we read. Well, we can, but only if we know where to look. The way the crazies nice folks at the FDA and USDA have regulated things, food products have two main places to look for information:  the “Nutrition Facts” section, and the list of ingredients. (Notice I said “food products,” and not foods. That’s because most real, unprocessed foods just don’t have labels. Broccoli, asparagus, oranges, pork loin—usually no labels. It’d be pretty boring if they did, right? Ingredient: broccoli.)

The Nutrition Facts section is where you find details about the calories, fat grams, sodium, and percentages of certain vitamins and minerals in each serving of that food. This stuff is pretty useful, particularly when you pay attention to the serving size. Are the numbers they give you for the whole package? Half? Maybe even just a couple ounces or tablespoons? (If you can stick to just two tablespoons of peanut butter or one tablespoon of ketchup, your iron will is stronger than mine.) Unless you’re aware of the serving size, you could be eating far more sugar, fat, sodium, or whatever else you might be watching, than you realize. (But you are paying more attention to the sugar than the fat, right? Right?!)

I'm talking about this thing.

Okay, fine. Good stuff to know, but the real story is in the list of ingredients. Why? Well, the current labeling laws say that if a serving of some particular product has less than 0.5 grams of fat, they can round down and list 0 on the label. This holds true of all the types of fat, including the über-nasty industrial trans fats. (Not to be confused with the beneficial natural trans fats.)  So when the front of some food product package blasts in huge letters that it contains ZERO GRAMS TRANS FAT per serving, it’s that pesky little per serving you need to watch out for. It’s not free of trans fat; it just doesn’t contain enough per serving to be considered relevant by our government’s nutrition whackjobs experts. This is despite the fact that one of the world’s leading lipid researchers believes that the only acceptable level of industrial trans fat intake for good health is zero. (The real zero. Zero-zero, not the 0.4 or 0.3 that’s allowed to be called zero.)

So how do we know whether our food products are truly free of trans fat, or the manufacturers are taking advantage of the labeling loopholes to pull the wool over our eyes? We have to look at the list of ingredients. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated,” that’s your clue that the item does contain trans fats. Even if it’s way down on the list. Something can not have zero grams trans fats when it contains hydrogenated oils. Period. Don't let the gub'mint's "fuzzy math" hoodwink you.

It is only thanks to our nutty labeling laws that a product can list "partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil" plain as day in the list of ingredients, but claim to have 0g trans fat per serving. And, hello? The serving size is five crackers. FIVE WHOLE CRACKERS! 15 grams of food! Half an ounce! Wow. That would really fill me up, how 'bout you?

Like I said, this is true of all kinds of fat, not just trans. (Trans is just the most dangerous, in my opinion, and therefore the most egregious  example of the silliness with food labeling.)

Here’s an example of whackadoodle labeling for fats in general. Pardon the glare…I’m still completely clueless about photography mastering the finer features of my camera.

Fat Free Milk -- now fortified with fat!  =)

 Look closely. What do you see? FAT FREE, right? But what’s right below it? With Omega-3s. As Wayne & Garth would say, “Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?” Or as Suze Orman might say, “Are you kidding me?!” Even if you don’t understand exactly what omega-3s are (something that will be remedied with next Tuesday’s post, by the way), you at least know they’re fats, right? We tend to just say “omega-3,” but the full name is omega-3 fatty acids. No, you are not mistaken. This carton of milk is saying: Fat free, with some fats! Wow. Please tell me you’re not fooled by this. If they can claim the milk is fat free but also contains those beneficial omega-3 fats, what do we know about that? We know that it has to contain less than 0.5 grams of that fat per serving—the same amount that is considered nutritionally irrelevant when it comes to labeling trans fats. They can’t have it both ways, and yet, they do.

How would a vegan dieter feel about a food product with a label that said something like:  “Vegan chik’n! *Contains chicken.” I don’t think that person would be reassured by the fact that there was only 0.4 grams of actual chicken per serving. (Please note I’m not supporting vegan diets. I’m only making a point.) Or how about someone with celiac disease—not just a gluten sensitivity, but someone with full-blown celiac, where exposure to even tiny amounts of wheat can send them into days of digestive distress? Would they run to the store to get the latest product that said: “Wheat-free! *Fortified with wheat.”

It’s up to you what you’ll do with this kind of information. Ultimately, you’re in charge of what you buy and what you put in your mouth. (Of course, I can make suggestions if you’re interested, hehheh.)  But I feel we should all at least be aware of these kinds of issues so we can make educated decisions.

As for what “lite,” “low-fat,” “low-sodium,” and other marketing ploys nutrition claims mean, that is a can of worms that’s a little too big for me to open just yet. But I assure you, the same kind of wackiness applies. (Kind of like how I said this blog post was gonna be short. I also said you can’t believe everything you read!)

Bottom line, as always:  Just. Eat. Real. Food.

**I cannot take credit for the cross-outs in this post. I have shamelessly ripped off the technique from this gal.

*Amy Berger, M.S., is not a licensed physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical service. The information contained herein is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.

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