Monday, January 7, 2013

5 Misleading Health Claims

The grocery store is a dangerous place.  It's a constant battle between you and the the big food companies, constantly throwing their health claims at you, hoping to reel you in like a Largemouth Bass.  The truth is, there's very little truth to what they say.  Here are 5 of the most common misleading claims...

1.  "0 Grams Trans Fat"
A few years back, the FDA decided to crack down on the amount of trans fat in the food supply, since it's just about the worst thing you can ever put in your body.  Trans fat, for those of you who don't know, is created by the chemical process of hydrogenation, which turns liquid oils into solid fats (think vegetable oil into Crisco).  It was (and still is, to some extent) common in a lot of processed foods, especially baked goods.

Recently, the FDA added trans fat to the nutrition label, so that consumers could easily see if a product contained trans fat.  Unfortunately, they also created the term "0 grams trans fat", in which "Zero" doesn't mean zero at all, and instead means "less than 0.5 grams per serving".  So if you were a food manufacturer, what would you do??  Obviously reduce the serving size until the amount of trans fat per serving drops below 0.5 grams.  Nice little trick!  In many cases though, the regulation has forced manufacturers to replace hydrogenated oils with other fats or other ingredients.  Probably a good thing.

But still, zero doesn't mean zero.  If you see "0 grams trans fat" on the label, there's a good chance that product actually does contain trans fat (ironic isn't it?)  Check the ingredient list.  If you see "hydrogenated oil" anywhere in that list, you're eating trans fat.  Put it back on the shelf.

2.  "Nitrate/nitrite-free" or "Uncured"
If you've ever been to Whole Foods, these claims are on every single package of bacon they sell, as well as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats.  Sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite are commonly used in the curing process; that's how you make bacon.  In "nitrate-free" bacon though, no sodium nitrate is used.  But what is it replaced with?  Celery powder... which contains sodium nitrate.  As far as the "uncured" claim, I don't even know how they get away with that.  It IS cured.  It's always cured, unless literally nothing was added to it... in which case it's not bacon, it's just pork belly.

As you might guess, nitrates and nitrites are a health concern for a lot of people; you may have heard they've been linked to cancer.  But newer research shows that they might not be a problem at all, and in fact they could even be good for you, benefiting immunity and heart health (1). 

And I bet you didn't know that we get about 93% of our dietary nitrites from VEGETABLES!  In fact, one serving of arugula has more nitrite than 467 hot dogs (2).  And an even crazier statistic... 70-90% of our nitrite exposure comes from our own saliva!!

So what about that "nitrite-free" claim?  It is meaningless, nonsensical, inaccurate, and irrelevant, all at the same time. 

3.  "All Natural"
This may be the most widely used food claim out there.  On my recent trip to the grocery store, I saw this claim on nearly every product I looked at.  Frito-Lay has an entire line of snack foods labeled "Natural", with confusing items like Blue Corn Chips.  Has anybody ever seen a blue stalk of corn?  Goldfish have been labeled as "natural" for years.  You'll see it on baked goods, meat, eggs, snacks, bread, peanut butter, soft drinks... the list just goes on.

But what does it mean?  Well, it turns out the FDA doesn't have a strict definition for the term "all natural".  In the FDA's words, it "has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."  What about genetically modified foods?  Vegan cheese?  High-fructose corn syrup?  Refined vegetable oils?  Well I guess the FDA wouldn't object to any of these, but I've yet to see any of them out in nature.  Isn't that what natural refers to?

4.  "Vegetarian-Fed"
I see this one most often on eggs.  "Vegetarian-fed chickens".  Sounds good right?  Except for the fact that chickens aren't herbivores.  They're omnivorous animals; they eat both plant and animal foods.  If chickens are raised in the outdoors, like they're meant to be raised, they'll run around and play in the dirt and eat all kind of bugs and worms.  Bugs provided them with protein, omega-3 fats, and important nutrients like zinc and vitamin B12.

So what does it mean to be a "vegetarian-fed chicken"?  Most likely, they were raised in a cage, or at least in a barn, with no access to the outdoors, fed a diet based on corn and soy, and given synthetic vitamins to cover up the inevitable nutrient deficiencies from eating a grain-based, vegetarian diet.  Doesn't sound so glamorous now huh?

What you really want, and it's not easy to find, is "pastured" eggs, meaning the chickens are allowed to run around in the yard, play in the dirt, eat bugs, and cluck wildly at passer-byes .  "Pastured" isn't strictly enforced either, but you'll probably only see it at a farmer's market or at the farm itself, so just ask the farmer how the chickens are fed.  In the grocery store, you're shit out of luck when it comes to quality eggs.  The best you can do is likely organic, or a local brand like The Farmer's Cow if there is one.

5.  "Natural Flavors"
The first thing to recognize with so-called "natural flavors": it's listed on the food label because it has been added to the food.  In other words, it wasn't there naturally.  Immediately you can see this claim is nonsense.

But it goes deeper.  Natural flavors are made in a food science lab, just like artificial flavors are; the only difference is that the former is derived from a natural source, while the latter is created artificially.  Same chemicals, same junk.  In fact, the artificial version may even be safer since the compounds are well known and they've been tested, while a natural flavor may contain additional unknown compounds.

You'll find these in all sorts of processed food... flavored water, soda, frozen chicken products, chocolate milk, raspberry lemonade, french fries.  Again, the list goes on and on.  Will they kill you?  Probably not.  But are they good for the body?  Will they help keep you vibrant and full of energy?  Shit no.

Here's some advice to live by.  If a food makes health claims, there's a good chance it's junk.  Real food doesn't need a label; fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, potatoes... they are what they are.  So eat real food, and watch out for them tricky food manufacturers.  They're verrrrry sneaky.

Now you know; don't take the bait.

1 comment:

  1. VERY interesting about the nitrate/nitrite thing. About the blue corn, there are many different colored kinds of corn out there (not an expert though), but like pretty much all fruits and vegetables, the food industry only focuses on producing a few of the strains out there. I think the Native Americans bred hundreds of kinds of corn, yet nowadays, we only consume about 10