February 10, 2014

Label Madness Monday - Health Halos Strike Again

Here we are, everyone, another glorious Monday, and another not-so-glorious food label to dissect, disembowel, and otherwise lay waste to. (Speaking of disemboweling--and waste!--have you checked out the latest post in my digestion series? It’s on the large intestine, so when you’re done here, hop on over there and get edumucated about your colon.)

Today’s label falls into the category I love to hate: junk food masquerading as health food. As I’ve said many times (but most forcefully in my rant from a while back), I’m okay with treats. Treats that act like treats, and whose manufacturers aren’t trying to hoodwink us into thinking are anything but treats. What I’m not okay with is pure junk that’s marketed as pristine, healthful, nutritious fare.

If you learn just one thing from all these label posts, let it be this: organic, gluten-free, artisanal junk is STILL JUNK. Organic sugar is still sugar, and organic soybean oil is still oil they manage to squeeze out of soybeans. (And for the gluten-intolerant among you, organic, non-GMO wheat flour still contains gluten.)

Okay. Now that we’ve gotten the preliminaries out of the way, let’s jump in.

Nature’s Path Frosted Berry Strawberry Toaster Pastries.

As you can see from the front of the box, these are made with “real organic fruit,” are USDA certified organic, and the Non-GMO Project has verified that the ingredients are not genetically modified. Awesome. We love these things. These are some pretty heavy credentials. If this were a grad school diploma, it’d be a JD from Harvard Law School, an MFA from Julliard, or an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon. (Hey, that last one’s my alma mater!)  

Unfortunately, if we were to look at this label through the eyes of a Harvard Law grad, we’d see right away that any claims toward wholesomeness would get ripped to shreds in a court of law. Let’s see how.

One pastry nets us a total of 210 calories, 160 of which come from carbohydrate. (40g carb x 4 calories per gram.) So over three-quarters of the total calories here come from carbohydrate, 76 of which come from straight-up sugar. (19g sugar x 4 cals/gram.) That’s over one-third of the total from sugar. All right, not the end of the world, but certainly not the best thing to give little Billy or Sally-Sue for breakfast or an after-school snack. (Not unless you enjoy peeling them off the walls half an hour later. But hey, maybe you do, and who am I to judge?) At least there’s a little bit of fat and protein in these, so all hope is not lost.

Still, I have to go through my schpiel and point out how much of other carbohydrate sources we’d have to eat to match 40 grams:

Eggplant: 656g – 1.45 pounds
Broccoli: 560g – 1.23 pounds
Sweet red peppers: 592g – 1.3 pounds
Strawberries: 500g – 1.1 pounds

We would have to consume over a full pound of unprocessed, whole-food carbohydrates to match the wham-bam punch of the less than two measly ounces these pastries weigh.

And those vegetable sources would come with tons (to be exact) more vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The strawberries are especially interesting, because these are Berry Strawberry™ toaster pastries, after all, yet according to the label, one pastry contains ZERO percent of the government’s already pathetically low recommended daily intake of vitamin C. I guess that means there isn’t actually all that much genuine strawberry action in these suckers, because real strawberries contain a decent amount of C.

Let’s see where that carbohydrate, fat, and protein are coming from.

Holy frikkin’ moley. Do you see what I see? I count various forms of sugar mentioned six times. Six times. We’ve got evaporated cane juice, evaporated cane juice invert, powdered sugar, dextrose, honey, and molasses. Kudos, Nature’s Path, for mastering the feats of modern food processing technology that allow you to cram six different types of sugar into 52 grams worth of organic, non-GMO toaster pastry. (Not even counting the strawberries and apples, of course.)

What about the rest of the carbohydrate in these things? ‘Cuz after all, only 19g of the 40 total are directly from sugar. We’ve got wheat flour, whole wheat flour, corn starch, rice starch, and tapioca starch. Again, kudos. 

As for the protein, what’s up with the extra added “vital wheat gluten?” I guess the one-two punch of wheat flour and whole wheat flour didn’t deliver enough gluten, so they added more for good measure. (Note: this is where some of those whopping 4g of protein come from, but I’m not sure pure, isolated gluten is the source we want to run to for adding protein to our diets. No, wait, I am sure. It’s not.) Another source of protein is the very last ingredient—the whey protein concentrate, but being that it’s the last ingredient, after the minute amounts of stabilizers, thickeners, and flavor enhancers, I can’t imagine there’s all that much of it in these. The protein is mostly coming from the gluten.

And how about the fat? Aside from the simple strawberries and apples, the fat source is probably the single greatest thing on this label: palm oil! HOORAY! Finally, something with no soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed oil! This time I can say kudos and it’s not sarcasm!  :)  Palm oil is mainly composed of heart-healthy saturated and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which we know are more stable for heating than the mostly polyunsaturated vegetable oils. (Did I just say saturated fat is heart healthy? Yes. Why yes, I did.)

Let’s do a fun little experiment in food label wizardry. Look at the ingredients again, but this time, strip them down to their fundamental parts. When we do that, the first ten ingredients go a little something like this: 

Flour, sugar, sugar, oil, apples, flour, sugar, corn starch, gluten, dextrose.

Really hammers it home, doesn't it?  

This is NOT health food! Organic, GMO-free insanity is no less insane than genetically modified and industrial pesticide-laden insanity.

Don’t worry, moms & dads; they’re ORGANIC!

Know what else is organic? The tantrum your precious Billy or Sally-Sue will throw in the toy aisle at Target when their blood sugar tanks later on. I’m sure the shoppers all over the store, including the ones who can hear the blood-curdling screams eight aisles away, will be reassured to know the wonderful sounds being broadcast by your sweet bundles of joy are being fueled by an organic toaster pastry. That’ll make all the difference.

And just because this was too good to pass up, ya gotta check this out:

Children should be supervised while heating these things? Um, yeah, maybe, but if you ask me, what this should really say is, “Children should be supervised while EATING pastries.”
We’ll look at more labels like this in the future. I love taking a swing at what’s called “the health halo” – that is, buzzwords and brands that we automatically associate with wholesomeness, good nutrition, and health, when the truth is, many of these products fall so far short of those classifications it’s not even funny. (Well, it might be funny if Billy would just shut his damn yap before I walk over there and get myself arrested for beating someone else’s child…)  

Until next time, for a fantastic takedown of a similar organic, health halo-sporting product, check out what Dr.Mike Eades had to say about a popular kids’ snack. While you’re there, sift through his archives. He’s one of the best health bloggers around.

P.S. Please note I'm not trying to badmouth organic food and most definitely not trying to malign the Non-GMO Project. I'm grateful both of these exist. I'm just pointing out that we need to apply critical thinking at the grocery store and not take it for granted that foods are good for us as long as they're organic and non-GMO.

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.

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