Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hidden Meaning On The Grocery Shelf

When buying orange juice recently, I had to pause and scratch my head for a moment. I just wanted juice, yet I was confronted with an array of choices. Did I want Tropicana Immunity-Defense Orange Juice or Tropicana Healthy Heart? Then again, there was a calcium-added variety and a low-carb version. If I chose one of these, would my health suffer in the other areas? Which was more important -- my immune system, my heart or my bones? Having spent some time in my early career in the packaged-foods industry, I am familiar with the food-labeling strategies used to maximize consumer purchase -- great promotional copy sells. Nonetheless, there I was, feeling the pressure to pick just the right orange juice -- and the guilt if I chose wrong. If I, somewhat of an industry insider, was confused, what about the rest of the world?
"It's a huge marketing gimmick," says Marion Nestle, PhD, a professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City. She told me that plain, old orange juice is a fine food as it is, and if people need supplements, they can take them. The fact is that food manufacturers are in business to make a profit, and they're going to put everything they legally can on their labels to rope you into purchasing their products. If promoting immunity or heart health or bone strengthening is going to sell more orange juice, then that's what they're going to do.
Fortunately, concerned consumer advocacy groups are leaning on food manufacturers to 'fess up and tell the truth. Even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has gotten into the act, administering a recent slap on Tropicana's corporate hand over dubious claims for its "Healthy Heart" juice. To give you some perspective on the problem, here are a few recent labeling issues in the news...
The problem: Just what does "low-carb" mean? No one knows for sure because the FDA has yet to come up with a definition.
The solution: With the Atkins folks filing for bankruptcy protection, the low-carb marketing hype will ease, though consumers still will be looking for low-carb options. While waiting for the FDA to figure out a definition of "low-carb," read the labels carefully.
Of course, low carb isn't the only label catch phrase to watch out for. Also beware of...
Cholesterol-free. This may be true, but what about the saturated fat content? Saturated fat can be even worse for your heart than dietary cholesterol.
90% fat-free. That's the label on the lower-fat ground beef at my supermarket, but 10% still is a lot of fat.
Fat-free. Remember those notorious fat-free cookies we used to scarf down with abandon? How many inches did we add to our hips with that "guiltless pleasure"? They might have been fat-free, but oh, the calories!
The problem: Tropicana claimed that drinking two to three cups of OJ a day for four weeks would lower systolic blood pressure by an average of 10 points as well as improve cholesterol and homocysteine levels.
The solution: Noting that Tropicana's claims were unsubstantiated, the FTC prohibited the firm from making them any longer. But since we live in an imperfect world, they're still allowed to label their juice "Healthy Heart."
What all this means is that you as a consumer must educate yourself. Understand that it is marketing hype and that, for the most part, one food or nutrient will not make that much difference to health, advises Dr. Nestle. And even though food manufacturers do not make labels easy for you to read, make it a habit to read the "Nutrition Facts" on product labels. Learn how to decode them and read between the lines. Here are a few helpful tips to start out with...
Check the ingredients. Ingredients are listed according to their amount in food, with the first three or four making up most of a given product. If sugar or fat are listed here, chances are it is not a healthy choice.
Watch out for jargon. Labels are rarely so straightforward as to state simply fat or sugar. This is why you need to keep an eye on other names for fat (such as hydrogenated vegetable oil, coconut or palm or other oil, lard, shortening, lecithin and cream solids) and sugar (also know as corn sweetener, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, malt, maltose, molasses, etc.).
Pay attention to serving sizes. This is one of food manufacturers' biggest tricks. A small bag of chips or cookies represents one serving, right? Wrong! There may be as many as four servings in that bag. Check the label, and do the math.
Don't squander your hard-earned dollars on foods that promise to make you thinner or healthier or happier. Packaged, processed foods with alluring labels are not the answer. If the claim is low-fat, they're often packed with sugar and calories. Low-carb? Check the fat content. In the long run, you can't make up for an unhealthy lifestyle by purchasing foods that make "healthy" or "low-fat" or "low-carb" promises on the label. Packaged prepared foods have gone through significant processing to be shelf stable and look as good as they do. It is far healthier to stick with the real deal -- fresh, whole foods. It doesn't take long to steam fresh veggies or to cut fresh fruit. And even marinating chicken to bake is easy if you plan just a little bit ahead. According to Dr. Nestle, there are just no shortcuts to good health.


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