December 2, 2013

Label Madness Monday

Hey everyone! Another seven days have gone by, and you know what that means: a new food label to look at and start the work week with a laugh—or possibly a cry, depending on how much this stuff either amuses or bothers you. Today’s labels are such egregious examples of wacky marketing that we don’t even have to look at the list of ingredients. The manufacturers have saved us the trouble of going to that extra step by kindly putting all the ridiculousness right out front and center. So here goes.

Take a good look at this milk carton. I mean a really good look. Read all of it.

Notice anything odd? Anything off? Anything totally and completely wacko?
If you did, congratulations. You will not be taken in by slick marketing. If you didn’t, don’t feel bad. The creators of that slick marketing are counting on the average consumer to be either stupid or ignorant and not understand that they (the marketers) are masters of playing both sides of the coin, speaking out of both sides of their mouth, and whatever other phrases exist that basically mean these people are trying to have their cake and eat it, too.

What do I mean? Simple. See, in very large bolded type, this carton proudly boasts that the milk inside has been fortified with DHA. But then right below that, in all caps, it also proudly boasts that the product inside is FAT FREE MILK. (I'll stick with their ALL CAPS, hehheh.) Do you see where I’m going with this? DHA, in case you didn’t know, stands for docosahexaenoic acid. It is an omega-3 fatty acid. Yes, folks, this “FAT FREE MILK” contains fat! Am I the only one who thinks this package is hilarious?

You might be asking yourself how it’s legal for Horizon to advertise a “FAT FREE MILK” that explicitly proclaims it contains fat. It’s all about the labeling laws. See, in our wacky country, food products are allowed to claim that they’re “fat free” if they contain 0.5 grams of fat or less per serving. Since this milk is fortified with just 32 milligrams of DHA, it certainly falls into this murky category. But here’s the thing: 32 milligrams. 32 whopping milligrams. This amount is so insignificant that the company can legally claim the product is fat free, yet at the same time, they’re counting on us to purchase it specifically because of the fat it contains! If your head is spinning at this point, you’re not alone.

Now, before the biochem and physiology police come knocking on my door, I must acknowledge that the human requirement for DHA is very low, so it's not like we should expect something to contain, say, 3 or 4 grams of DHA. There’s a lot of buzz these days about the importance of omega-3 fats in our diet, but the truth is we need very little of them. That we hear so much about them and that they’re starting to show up in all kinds of products that they don’t naturally occur in is largely the result of two things: First, the reason why it’s important to increase our intake of omega-3s is because we consume so darn much omega-6. (Mostly via all those “vegetable oils” that come from grains and legumes, like corn, soy, and cottonseed.) Both 3 and 6 are “essential” – that means we must get them from our diet because our bodies can’t make them from other substances. So we don’t want to completely eliminate 6 from our diet, but evidence suggests we should be consuming far less of it than we are in the 21st Century. Depending on the source you cite, what we call the “standard American diet” (SAD for short, hehheh)—heavy in refined grains and vegetable oils and low in wild-caught cold water fish and grassfed meats—contains anywhere from 10 to 25 times as much omega-6 as omega-3, when anthropological evidence seems to suggest that our bodies evolved to function best when that ratio is more like 1-3 times as much 6 as 3, and certainly no more than 4 or 5 times as much. So the reason we’re hearing a lot about increasing our intake of omega-3s is mostly to correct that ratio—to bring it back in line. (This is not necessarily good advice. Yes, we’d all do well to bring that ratio back in line, but the more effective way to do this is by greatly reducing the amount of omega-6 we consume, rather than megadosing ourselves with 3. Like I said, we need these fats in very small amounts. So instead of increasing the total amount by loading up on 3, we can better restore the proper balance by cutting way back on 6, mostly by eschewing commercial brands of salad dressing, mayonnaise, non-dairy coffee creamers, and fried foods in restaurants. Not to mention cereal, fiber bars, microwave “entrees” and just about everything else that comes in a box or bag with a list of ingredients longer than War and Peace.)

The second reason they’re fortifying things with omega-3s is because naturally occurring omega-3s have largely disappeared from our food supply. Beef and rendered fat from pastured ruminant animals (that is, animals grazing on grass the way nature intended) contain higher amounts of omega-3 fats than the same products from grain-fed animals, which is what the vast majority of Americans are eating. The same goes for wild-caught fish and farm-raised fish. Fish consuming their natural, species-appropriate diets of krill, seaweed, and other marine life end up with larger amounts of omega-3 fats than fish raised in aquaculture “farms,” where they’re often fed corn and soy pellets. (Please, someone tell me, in what possible scenario could fish possibly have been adapted to consume corn and soybeans? Tangent: next time you’re at the supermarket, check out a package of farm-raised salmon and see if the package says something about “color added.” This is a sure sign that the salmon isn’t nice and pink because of all the krill it consumed and therefore all the omega-3 it contains, but because of synthetic colorings that have been added to make it look more nutritious.)

Okay, that’s enough about omega-3. Let’s take a look at another thing that makes me scratch my head when I look at this milk carton. Scroll back up and look below where it says “Supports Brain Health.” (Why are those all capitalized? Maybe their art department employees need more DHA for their brain health. HA!) Do you see it says 0%? Maybe I’m crazy, but to me, it kind of looks like it says 0% organic. Am I right? I know they mean 0% fat, but the way it’s laid out, it looks more like 0% organic. I’m just sayin’.

Before we're done here, let's go over one more thing. Remember that this is FAT FREE MILK. You'll notice that the carton also tells us it has vitamins A and D added (as does just about every milk you'll see on a store shelf). Well, that's kinda funny, because vitamins A and D (along with E and K) are fat-soluble. This means (among other things) that these vitamins are best absorbed when consumed with fat! As in, the natural dairy fat the milk contained before they removed it to make it FAT FREE. So if you were planning to pour this milk over a bowl of your favorite fat-free cereal, I sure hope you spread a nice, thick layer of butter or cream cheese on the fat-free bread you're toasting to go along with it. More marketing wizardry to an ignorant and unsuspecting public: boasting that they've fortified a fat-free product with vitamins that require fat for proper absorption and assimilation. I've gotta hand it to them. (Note: beta-carotene, the plant precursor to true vitamin A, is also fat-soluble. This is why it's a good idea to add a pat of butter to your sweet potato -- not only does it taste better that way, but you're actually helping your body use those carotenes. Same thing for butternut squash, carrots, or pretty much any orange/green/yellow vegetable -- they all contain carotenes, and all are best taken with a little bit of fat. So yes, eat your vegetables, but I bet more little kids would want to eat them if their moms were also saying to put some butter or coconut oil on top!)

And just for good measure, here are a couple more examples from another brand, so we can see it’s not just Horizon that’s playing us for fools. Stonyfield is up to the same antics:

“Organic Reduced Fat Milk and Omega-3s,” and “Organic Chocolate Low Fat Milk and Omega-3s.” So here again, we have reduced fat and low fat milks that proudly advertise their fat content. Talk about having it both ways. (But at least these aren’t “fat free,” so they’re not quite as ridiculous as the Horizon carton. Still ridiculous, just not to the same degree.)

That’s it for today. I’ll leave you with one thought:

We’re smarter than this.

P.S. I’m not completely against omega-3 supplementation. I do think it can be appropriate to give higher doses of omega-3 supplements for a short time as a therapeutic intervention to correct the 3/6 imbalance, especially if someone is dealing with an inflammatory condition, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, to give just two examples. After a short period of higher doses, it’s probably best to gradually reduce the 3 and maintain a good 3/6 ratio the natural way, by consuming a diet of whole, unprocessed foods and paying particular attention to the sources and quality of fats.   (Omega-3 fats are very fragile and if someone’s going to use them to truly benefit their health, I recommend getting them from a reputable source, where they’ve been processed and stored in ways that minimize damage. I’m not so sure the ginormous economy-sized tub from your local warehouse store is the best way to go.)

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. I just found your blog after Googling beef shanks. Haha! I've read several of your posts today, I will be following you from now on. I'm on a personal mission to learn about both food/cooking and nutrition so your blog is right up my alley. This post in particular is funny because I have a sister in law who is obsessed with "healthy eating." She only buys organic labelled foods without realising that there are so many loopholes to securing a stamp of organic approval that there is hardly a difference, let alone the fact that most of the organic "health" food she is buying is still processed and packaged garbage. What I've wondered is how does Horizon get their delicious healthy organic milk to be shelf stable as well?

    1. Glad you found me. If you liked this one, you'll really get a kick out of this one: "Organic" -- so what? Organic junk is STILL JUNK. ;-)