I’ve got some recommended reading for you today. My first recommendation is an article from the NY Times: How Square Watermelons Get Their Shape, and Other G.M.O. Misconceptions. Then I want you to read your food label.
A few days ago President Obama signed a bill into law that will require the disclosure of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on food packaging. This is in response to a major consumer movement to know what is in the food we eat. In 2014 Vermont became the first state to pass mandatory written labeling on foods with GMOs. This law finally went into effect July 1st. Unable to only label the products they sell in Vermont without driving up prices, many of the big food companies initiated GMO labeling nation-wide, which spurred on federal legislation. The problem is that labels become confusing marketing tactics rather than informational if consumers don’t understand what the label means.
The NY Times article highlights some of the major misconceptions about GMOs. It also explains how creating a meaningful label is easier said than done and how the label may not end up actually even being a reliable indicator that all ingredients have not been genetically modified. Furthermore, just because something is labeled GMO-free doesn’t necessarily mean it is any different from a different brand of the product not labeled as GMO-free. For this the article gives the example of oats which have never been genetically engineered. Labeling oats as GMO-free is equivalent to labeling products that traditionally never contain gluten, like water or tomatoes, as gluten-free. (More on what it means when a product is labeled as “gluten-free” can be found here.)
Only after you understand what GMOs are, know how you feel about the proposed health risks/benefits, and recognize what is actually indicated about a food product’s contents by a GMO-free label can you knowledgeably read a food label and make an educated decision on whether or not to purchase the product. The same is true for the nutrition facts panel*. Food labels are only a helpful tool when consumers know how to use them. Food label literacy is the key to being able to navigate confusing marketing claims. Below are some marketing phrases used to make consumers think they are purchasing a healthy product, but, in reality, mean nothing. If you see any of these, know they’re trying to make you think it is healthy:
- Natural The FDA is currently working to define natural, as of right now it means absolutely NOTHING.
- Nature This one is in a lot of product names, ex: Nature Valley Granola Bars, and in no way indicates that the food is healthy
- Green Green as in the color of the packaging or as a descriptor meaning it is environmentally friendly…neither of which means the food inside is good for you
- Clean Eating clean is trendy, but the word clean doesn’t actually mean anything nutritionally
- Low-fat or fat-free Defined by the FDA respectively as <5 grams fat and <0.5 g fat, often low fat foods substitute the fat with a lot of added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients, so the product is probably still not your best option, just for different reasons now.
- Gluten-free Gluten-free food is only healthier if you need to avoid gluten for medical reasons.
- Low calorie Low calorie is defined by the FDA as <40 kcal/serving. Remember when something is low calorie it may also be low in the nutrients your body needs. So even though it might not be many calories those are still empty calories. The big exception to this is fruits and vegetables which are low calorie and full of vitamins and minerals….but unless frozen or canned, these guys won’t have a label.
- Multigrain or wheat Neither of these definitely indicate that you are eating a 100% whole grain product, but, boy, do they sound like it!
…I know there are others but those are the ones popping into my head right now.
What other ones can you think of? Food marketers are paid to be sneaky. Don’t be embarrassed if they get you, but if you don’t know what a claim or label means on a product, look it up or ask a registered dietitian.
*The nutrition facts panel will soon be changing. The new nutrition facts panel has a number of changes. Notably, calories will be listed more prominently, serving sizes have been changed to reflect the typical amount of food Americans consume in a serving (ex: a 20 oz bottle of soda will be 1 serving instead of 2.5 servings), the amount of added sugars in the product will now be listed (a BIG improvement, in my opinion!), and the amount of potassium and vitamin D of the product will now be listed (in place of vitamins A and C). More information about the new nutrition facts panel can be found here. Manufacturers have until July 2018 to comply.