March 10, 2014

Label Madness Monday: Thoughts on the New Food Labels

Have you heard the news? U.S. government nutrition authorities are retooling the labels on packaged foods. That’s right: the same institutions that brought you the grain-heavy, complex-carb heavy, low-fat, low-cholesterol guidelines, calorie counting, and fat-fearing that have proven to be a an unmitigated disaster during the past six decades are up to their usual antics. Considering the current health (or lack thereof) of far too much of our population—the responsibility for which I believe we can lay in large part at the feet of these guidelines—I’m not sure we should trust these folks with things again. (Fool us once, shame on them. Fool us twice, shame on us.)

In case you don’t have time to read my usual novel-length missive today, let me sum things up for ya: the proposed new food label is a step in the right direction. However, it’s such a teeny tiny, itty bitty step that it might as well not be taken at all. In my opinion, they’re still focusing on numbers rather than nutrition, and the specific numbers they’re calling out aren’t necessarily the ones that ought to be the focus. (Please pardon me for butchering the following quote, but Ive seen many different versions of it and am not sure which one is accurate.) Albert Einstein said something along the lines of, “You cannot solve a problem with the same sort of thinking that created it.” And since we’re in the current healthcare predicament we’re in largely due to the flawed dietary recommendations in the first place, I don’t think we need more of the same. I’d prefer to see the government get out of the nutrition business altogether, and leave things in the hands of professionals who aren’t beholden to lobbyists from food processing corporations or the grain, soy, cattle, and dairy industries. As a nutritionist, I don’t have to answer to corporate sponsors or other funders. I am responsible solely to my clients, and my income is based mostly on the success they find while following my recommendations. If those recommendations don’t produce success, I don’t insist my clients keep doing more of the same. I evaluate what’s not working well and reformulate things. (A real reformulation; not some half-arsed attempt, like these updated labels.)

It’s funny that in this label series, I’ve picked apart labels on various food products but never thought to take on the label itself. So I guess I can thank the gub’mint for sparking the idea. Here goes.

Let’s take a look at the current label and two of the proposed new formats.

The most noticeable visible differences here are that the calories and servings per container are bigger and bolded. Nice. If you ask me, putting these things in larger and darker type is the food label equivalent of speaking more loudly to someone who doesn’t speak English, as if by yelling you can make them understand you. The calories and servings per container have been part of the label all along. I don’t think having them featured more prominently is going to stop people from eating whatever the item is. (Look, this product now has 230 calories, whereas before, it only had 230 calories.)  

Moving on, I think it’s fantastic that the new labels would include added sugars. Like I mentioned most recently in my post about oatmeal, ultimately, on a biochemical level, there’s little difference between “added sugars” and naturally occurring starch and other complex carbohydrates, but I do think it’s valuable to know how much of the carbohydrate in a food is naturally occurring (as in oats, wheat, potatoes, rice, etc.), and how much is added during manufacturing/processing (sugar, brown sugar, HFCS, agave nectar, honey, etc.). This might be especially beneficial for diabetics and others with blood sugar control issues. It’ll be very eye-opening when they see how much sugar is added to the low- and no-fat “food products” so often recommended to them, and maybe they’ll understand why their blood glucose is still all over the map because of despite following the conventional dietary guidelines. (Ex: Check out this Glucerna® shake. Youll want to check out the "Nutrition basics" and expand the "Ingredients" tab. Youll also want to have a trash can handy, as youll likely vomit when you read those ingredients. Sounds like a good way to give lab rats cancer if you ask me.)

The inclusion of the added sugars category is one of only two good things I see here. (I'll get to the second one in a bit.)

Beyond that, the labels still call out the wrong things: namely, cholesterol and saturated fat. As they have for decades, government nutrition authorities are still equating naturally occurring saturated fat with trans fat, just because they’re both “solid” fats. (Think butter, lard, and vegetable shortening, like Crisco.) The idea that they are biochemically equivalent and have the same effects on our health is utter nonsense. This is not news. This has been known to scientists for decades and our health as a population has suffered immense damage as a result of the replacement of natural saturated fats by vegetable oil based margarines, shortenings, and other laboratory creations.

And what’s up with bashing cholesterol? Can we please stop doing that already? Scientists have understood for many, many years now that cholesterol isn’t the evil villain we’ve been led to believe it is. In fact, we need it to make testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, aldosterone and cortisol (all the "steroid hormones"), and also for healthy immune systems, reproductive health (i.e., fertility), solid mental/emotional health, and robust cognitive function.

Another change they’re proposing is getting rid of the percentage of vitamins C and A and replacing them with percentages for potassium and vitamin D. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but why just potassium and vitamin D? Why are those being singled out as especially important? In the case of D, could it be because (in addition to spending most of our waking hours indoors) we’ve been told to stay out of the sun at all costs, and if we happen to be in a situation where an inch of our skin is exposed to natural daylight, we should slather on sunscreen like there’s no tomorrow, and as a result, we’ve frightened ourselves into an epidemic of D deficiency?

And if they think vitamin A deficiency is rare in the U.S. (which they do), they are wrong. It is rampant. And that’s probably thanks to decades of these ridiculous labels telling us that beta carotene (found in orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes) is the same thing as vitamin A. It isn’t. (Also regarding the A & D deficiencies: they’ve scared us away from the best sources of these nutrients, like liver and egg yolks. It’s really no wonder we’ve got issues.)

So why only potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and iron on the new label? Why not other essential nutrients, like magnesium, manganese, and molybdenum? (And those are just the M’s!) Why not the nutrients I regularly see deficiencies in in my clients, such as iodine, chromium, and zinc? And if we’re going to call out “added sugars,” why not added vitamins & minerals as well? That way, people can see how many of those nutrients are actually in the foods in their natural state, as opposed to what was manufactured and added during processing to make it look like foods are more nutritious than they really are. (Fortified bread and breakfast cereals, I’m lookin’ at you.) That might open people’s eyes to which foods are truly nutritious, as opposed to ones that have had their nutrient density boosted by synthetic vits & mins.

I realize there’s no practical way to include every vitamin and mineral on a food label. If we tried that, we’d have huge packages on tiny products, just to be able to fit it all. So I get it. I’m simply pointing out that it seems pretty arbitrary to single out certain nutrients while ignoring others. 

Let’s look at Proposal 2 now. (The rightmost column in the graphic above.) Proposal Two is monstrous. “Avoid too much?” “Get enough?” Says who? There are many, many MDs, PhDs, and leading nutrition authorities who would encourage consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol-rich foods. And protein should be listed in the “get enough” category, as I find many clients aren’t consuming enough protein. (Particularly women, and particularly younger women—precisely the people who probably need it the most!) And how about sodium? In a nutrition practice where I regularly see adrenal fatigue, I often recommend people consume more sodium. Those fried adrenal glands need sodium! (Of course, there are people who consume too much sodium, but I find that the salt fear-mongering has caused a fair number of health-conscious people to reduce their sodium intake too much, and have the fatigue and low blood pressure to prove it.)

So while the “get enough” and “avoid too much” messages are well-intended, they can be disastrous, and let’s remember the key thing here: as presented on food labels, these two statements are blanket recommendations for the entire population, whether you’re over- or underweight; whether you’re diabetic or have excellent blood glucose control; whether you’re an active athlete who sweats like crazy or a sedentary couch potato whose biggest form of physical movement is walking to and from the refrigerator. If you ask me, blanket recommendations for entire populations regardless of individual nutritional needs and what we call “biochemical individuality” are what got us into the sorry, pathetic, and horrifying state of health we’re currently in. To paraphrase Einstein again, we can’t get ourselves out of this mess with the same flawed approach that got us into it.

Moving along, let’s take a look at one more potential new version of the label:

Graphic from the FDA
This “dual column” format has been proposed for items like pints of ice cream (which, as I pointed out here are usually just 14 ounces and not true pints, which are 16oz), bottles of soda, and other packages of foods and beverages that could reasonably consumed in one sitting. As you can see, it would list the calorie and nutrient information for the recommended serving size as well as for the entire package. I don’t necessarily think this is a “bad” idea, but it saddens me that the FDA deems average Americans too stupid to do the math for themselves. If one serving has 220 calories and the package contains two servings, is it that difficult to figure out that the whole package has 440 calories? (I dunno…maybe it is. I work in an industry where I’m surrounded by highly intelligent people and I am still constantly stunned by incompetence, so maybe Americans of “average” intelligence [whatever that even is] really are too stupid.)

Math issues aside, my biggest beef with this format is that it’s just plain too busy. It reminds me of those black & white marble notebooks I used in elementary school. They had all kinds of nifty conversion tables and such on the inside back cover. Frankly, if these labels are intended to reach the lowest common denominator audience, there’s probably a more aesthetically pleasing way to do so. And now that I think about it, forget those kiddie notebooks. This looks more like the super-scary logarithm tables that were at the back of my high school math textbook. This might be intended to guide me toward better food choices, but what it would actually do is make me run screaming. If math were welcome at the dinner table, we’d have calculators instead of forks and knives. No calculus with my casserole, thankyouverymuch.

And one more pretty picture to help us understand the proposed changes:

Graphic from the FDA

One thing I can get behind is the more realistic portion sizes. (This is the second good thing I alluded to earlier.) There are people who can eat just a half cup of ice cream and forget that the other cup and a half are in the freezer calling to them, but those people are more likely the exception than the rule. Same with bottled beverages. While, say, a fruit smoothie might be two or more servings, most people probably consume the whole thing in one sitting, rather than drinking a few sips and putting the rest in the fridge for later. Same goes for those huge, fist-sized muffins that are sometimes two or even three servings per single muffin. (I mean, really. Who eats a third of a muffin, calls it quits, and saves the other two thirds for later on?)

Now, the truth is, I like the idea of more practical serving sizes. Howeverand this is a big however—this is still focusing on calories, which I don’t think are necessarily the most important things informing food choice. After all, foods higher in fat will have more calories, but having more calories doesn’t make them “bad” for us. Whole milk yogurt has more calories than fat-free, but so what? We need fat to help assimilate calcium, y’know. (Hence all the osteoporotic women who have been chugging skim milk and eating fat-free yogurt. Looks like none of that calcium has gotten into the bones, eh?) And ounce for ounce, ground beef has more calories than celery, but the beef brings along with it far more vitamins and minerals—most of which, as we already talked about, won’t appear on these dumb ol’ labels. So again, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. Reducing everything to calories and fat grams hasn’t done us much good, folks. And while I do think increasing the focus on added sugars is a good move, that’s still not necessarily the right way to go. What we have in this country are epic numbers of people who are overfed but undernourished. That means that while we are consuming too much food by volume, we are eating far too few nutrients. We need less emphasis on size, calories, and the weight of our food, and more emphasis on what those foods deliver in terms of micronutrients.

But since we are talking numbers, let’s get down to brass tacks for a sec. The only institution that has more acronyms and abbreviations than the FDA & USDA is the Department of Defense. Abbreviations regarding food intake abound, and most of them mean jack squat. There’s the RDA (recommended dietary allowances), DRI (dietary reference intakes), EAR (estimated average requirement), the AI (adequate intake)…I could go on. I’d like to see less alphabet soup and more reality.

An interesting thing to know is that originally, the guidelines for nutrient intake were based on the soldiers who were reporting for basic training during the World War Two draft, many of whom were malnourished. (We were, after all, just coming out of a depression and Dust Bowl. Not a whole lot of food to be had, and no money to buy it with anyway. You're getting nutrition and history lessons today!) So we had a lot of young men who should have been in great shape, but who were nutritionally compromised. This led the U.S. government to make recommendations for the intake of certain vitamins and minerals.  

The thing is, these values were based on the rock bottom basement levels—the absolute minimum you needed to prevent things like scurvy, rickets, and beri-beri. But just because you don’t have freaking pellagra doesn’t mean you’re necessarily getting enough niacin. And you don't need to have a gigantic goiter to be low in iodine. You don’t have to have stark, overt deficiency to have less than optimal health. (This is also why doctors [and nutritionists] should never treat numbers on a lab report. We should treat living, breathing human beings and be guided more by how they tell us they feel, than whether their numbers fall in the “normal” range of some health parameter or other. But I digress.)

With this in mind, it seems the FDA is also proposing changes to some of the nutrient intake guidelines, but as usual, the focus is still in the wrong place. We’re really not experiencing calcium deficiency in this country. What we are experiencing is a deficiency of the many cofactors required for optimal calcium absorption and assimilation. (Learn more here.)

I also like that all proposed new versions of the food label include the actual amounts of the vitamins & minerals in the product, rather than just the percentages that are on the label now. After all, as I've stressed throughout this post, nutrient intake needs are highly individualized. Whos to say that the arbitrary 2000- or 2500-calorie diet is appropriate for everyone? If your calorie needs differ from those, then the percentages of nutrients are completely thrown off. So I prefer to see actual milligrams, micrograms, or international units (IU) instead of the percentages based on a 2000- or 2500-calorie diet that might or might not be suitable for any given individual.

I respect that the government recognizes we have massive, massive epidemics of chronic illness that threaten to bankrupt the nation, but this label retooling is not a sensible solution. At best, it’s a nod toward moving in the right direction, but it leaves a great deal to be desired.

The real solution is to stop buying foods that come with labels in the first place. Grab a couple of cellophane bags in the produce section and fill them with broccoli, onions, spinach, peppers, eggplant, etc.—no labels! Same goes for fresh meats, poultry, and seafood (most of the time).

Buy whole, unprocessed, real foods, and you won’t have to worry so much about the math.

For the full details on the proposed changes, click here: Factsheet on the New Proposed Nutrition Facts Label.

Do you have an opinion on these proposed changes? Id love to hear it in the comments.

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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