The FDA is fed up with products claiming to be sugar free but not mentioning that they still have lots of calories. So the agency has decided not to let food companies get away with this anymore. Its latest “guidance” warns companies that if they say a product is “sugar-free,” it better be low in calories too. It’s great to see the FDA trying to do something about misleading health claims. Doesn’t this poor, beleaguered agency deserve a cheer for this one!
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A comment posted yesterday under the Label category asks whether it is possible to rank foods: “The idea that I’m trying to express is some measure that shows that 100 calories of, say, broccoli sauteed in olive oil is healthier than 100 calories of shortbread cookies or 100 calories of potato chips, even if they happend to have the same number of fat grams.”
I have philosophical as well as practical problems with this kind of approach. First, the practical: Foods contain 40 to 50 components known to be required in the human diet and hundreds more (antioxidants, for example) that are not considered essential but have effects on health. All foods except sugar–which has calories but no nutrients–have lots of different nutrients, but in different proportions. Once you get beyond soft drinks, the situation gets really complicated. Many groups have taken this on: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hannaford supermarkets, the Australian Heart Foundation, for example. I think they are way too complicated and the cut points set up a slippery slope. If you rank foods high because they contain vitamins, all companies have to do is add vitamins to their products to make them rank higher.
Philosophically, I much prefer the “eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food” approach. Because there are so many different nutrients to keep track of, and because foods have nutrients in different proportions, eating lots of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods takes care of nutritional needs. Keeping junk foods (highly processed by definition) to a minimum means that you don’t have to worry about the nutritional details and can enjoy what you eat.
Thanks for asking!
Today’s question (see Vending Machines post): “I was looking at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bag of carrots today…If I read this label and compare it to packaged foods, the carrots really don’t look all that healthy. And yet I know they are. I have the same experience with apples and with other fruits and vegetables. What needs to be added and changed on the Nutrition Facts panel so that this makes more sense? Has anyone done a blind study of nutrition labels, having people compare them side-by-side and see which food they believe is more healthy without knowing what the food is, but from the label alone?”
Response: When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood. In What to Eat, I devote two chapters to explaining food labels, one for Nutrition Facts, and one for Ingredients. The FDA has a lengthy site to teach the public to understand food labels. I think the ingredient list tells you more about the real nutritional value of foods than the Facts part. My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality. Fresh and some frozen foods have only one ingredient: carrots, apples, broccoli, beans. The most important thing I’d change on food labels is the calories. The FDA proposed five years ago to require packages likely to be consumed by one person to display the total number of calories on the front panel, rather than listing calories per serving, which makes the calories appear lower than they are. What happened to that excellent proposal? It disappeared without a trace (the packaged food industry loathes the idea). It’s tricky to figure out what else an ideal food label would display. Any ideas? Forward them to the FDA (and post them here, of course).