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Food Labeling Nonsense

I thought I’d forgo my regularly scheduled “Dear Mark [7]” Monday post (or “Dear Readers [8]” as the case may be) for a subject very near and dear to my heart: the constantly-evolving, ever-confusing ways of the food rating labelers. Whether it’s the AHA-approved red “Heart Healthy” stamps that implore overweight diabetics to stuff themselves with “healthy” whole grains or the mention of antioxidant and fiber content somehow making that sugary breakfast cereal good for your kids, packaged food distributors seem to love making outlandish claims that bear little to no fruit. It’s incredibly effective, though, for the same reason people will believe anything they hear on TV or uttered by someone with an official title. We’ve already got a far-reaching bunch of bureaucrats at the FDA deciding which macronutrients to highlight and which to demonize on the official nutritional labels that adorn the back of every packaged food item, so the natural next step is a mishmash of extraneous labeling that tries to make nutritional recommendations based on the FDA data (which is itself based on flawed, misguided, or even blatantly false science).

Like most nutritionists, dietitians, and even doctors, they probably think they’re promoting the right message. After all, Conventional Nutritional Wisdom [9] is pretty clear about what’s healthy and what’s not, and everyone else just follows suit. It’s just that they’re totally, utterly, completely incorrect about nearly everything. In some cases, they may even be willfully ignorant.

I almost feel bad for the folks behind NuVal [10] (well, not really), one of the more “promising” nutritional rating labels to be rolled out in the coming months, because theirs seems to be the most earnest rating system. Based on the Overall Nutritional Quality Index algorithm, foods are given a rating, from 1 to 100 (with 100 supposedly being the healthiest). A “panel of nutrition and medical experts” (along with the good folks at Topco Associates [11]) designed the algorithm, which takes over thirty different nutritional factors into consideration. Some of the favorable factors, like omega-3, vitamin, mineral, or antioxidant content, are unequivocally desirable (CW gets it right, sometimes); and I agree with some of the unfavorable factors, like trans fats and sugar content. But where they falter (and this is undoubtedly true of everyone in the food labeling game) is in selecting nutritional factors “based on their established relevance to public health as reported and published by the scientific community.” I have a great deal of respect for the scientific community at large, but as for what passes as mainstream nutritional science? No, thanks. I’ve seen what gets “reported and published,” and what gets cast aside and ignored.

Another similar rating system is nutrition iQ [12], which boasts a similar pedigree of unaffiliated, independent dietitians and medical experts. Instead of numbered ratings, they opt for colors. Red is bad (saturated fat, cholesterol, bad!), while green is great (vegetables, fruits – ok, I can get behind that). Various shades of orange indicate graininess and fibrousness, all “desirable.” Seems pandering and slightly condescending, but then again, I imagine that’s what they think of us.

And then there’s the Smart Choices [13] labeling program – the poster child for industry meddling and conflict of interest. I know I shouldn’t be surprised or even disappointed, but I can’t help it. It’s just so blatant. Take a look at the participating companies and organizations [14] (PDF): Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, American Diabetes Association (oh, I’m sure these guys are regulating sugar and carbohydrate levels in foods to help patients manage insulin!), Nestle (I’d love to hear their thoughts on nutrition), to name just a few of the more ridiculous members in charge of labeling foods healthy or unhealthy. While there are the expected admonitions of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol levels, what amazed me was their brazenness in recommending up to 25% of calories from added sugar. Yes, added. That means a carb-rich cereal that’s already destined to become pure blood glucose can have an additional heaping of actual sugar and still get the green check mark on the box indicating “healthy.” Boy, diabetics sure must be thankful to have friends like these in their corner! Interestingly, the folks at Smart Choices have no plans to roll out a corresponding red check mark to indicate “unhealthy,” and I gotta admit – I’m a little disappointed. Their idea of “unhealthy” is likely more healthy than their approved foods.

The easiest way to avoid all this food label confusion is to – you guessed it – avoid food labels altogether. For the most part, we shouldn’t even really be eating foods that come in packages. Nut butters, bagged vegetables, shrink-wrapped organic meat – items like these are the exceptions (and these aren’t the type of mass-market processed foods that get the labels, anyway), of course, but as a general rule avoiding packaged foods is sound. If you follow the Primal Blueprint [15], of course, this isn’t really an issue at all. I imagine I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s just too tempting, too fun to point out the dreck that masquerades as sensible nutritional advice (it’s slightly sad, too, but what do we have without laughter?). And hey, even if someone new stumbles across this post and never visits the site again, maybe they’ll think twice about the food labels coming soon to a store near you.

While I imagine their hearts are mostly in the right place, the food labelers cannot succeed. Oh, they’ll succeed as far as getting their message out about what’s healthy and what isn’t. They’ll have the renewed support of most nutritionists and dietitians, and the average citizen will see the green check or the 90+ rating on the granola bars and feel vindicated when they eat them – but they’ll be working against reality. People won’t get healthier just because they listen to the ratings; they’ll just get fatter and unhealthier. The various ratings agencies and nutritional “experts” simply cannot win this battle when they don’t even know who they should be fighting. The enemy is within, the fox is guarding the henhouse, and the real losers are the people who still buy into CW’s outdated, long-refuted garbage.