Monday, March 4, 2013

"Great for You" Food Labelling: Great for nutrition or great for the bottom line?

First Lady Michelle Obama took to the media last week to hype some of the progress on the anniversary of her Let's Move Initiative. Particularly, she discussed a bit about how the initiative is helping to move big corporations like Wal-Mart to offer "healthier" grocery options. And despite some significant criticism for over-emphasizing physical activity as the solution to childhood obesity (at the expense of taking on the bigger battles with "big food"), Obama wrote in the Wall Street Journal last Wednesday that "businesses are stepping up to invest in building a healthier future for our kids." In the case of Wal-Mart this has meant the introduction of its new "Great for You" food labeling system.

There is no doubt big box stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and others have made efforts to expand their grocery sections. In 2011, Wal-Mart specifically committed to reformulating packaged food items; making "healthier" foods more affordable; and improving its front-of-package food labeling. In her op-ed, Obama also mentions the role such businesses have played to expand food options to so-called "food deserts," where there are significant limitation on the availability of groceries, and particularly fresh produce. But, if I was to follow "Great for You" labeling system as a guide, would it really be great for me nutritionally? Here are a few "Great for You" products, their ingredients, and some context based on some of the latest research. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Instant Non-Fat Dry Milk
Ingredients: Nonfat Dry Milk, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D3. Allergy Warning: Contains Milk. May Contain Traces Of Eggs, Almonds, Cashews, Pecans, Walnuts, Wheat And Soy.
The Caution: Powdered milks (and eggs) contain much higher amounts of something called oxysterols, which are essentially oxidized cholesterol, and it's these oxysterols that have been founds to play a key role in human atherosclerotic plaque development.

100% Apple Juice
Ingredients: Water, Apple Juice Concentrate, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C).
The Caution: There has been growing concerns about the level of arsenic found in apple juice and apple juice concentrate, particularly those sourced from China (which some sources estimate this to be as high as 70% of all apple juice sold in the U.S.). The results of one study found arsenic levels in Mott's Apple Juice of 55 parts per billion, which is more than five times the EPA limit for drinking water. A study by the FDA looked specifically at arsenic levels in apple juice from 2005 to 2011 and disclosed the results on its website. However, what critics said they failed to disclose was the fact the 3 of the 5 failing samples from the study were taken from Wal-Mart products. The negative health effects of prolonged consumption of arsenic are pretty well-documented, showing a dose-response relationship with many chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, as well as all-cause mortality.

Orange Juice
Ingredients: 100% Orange Juice
The Caution: The typical child or adolescent living in the U.S. consumes about 10-15% of their daily calories in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, i.e sodas and 100% fruit juices. More and more evidence is supporting the strong link between consuming high amounts of sugar, particularly fructose (which is the type found in both soda and fruit juices) and risk for chronic diseases like cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Some nutritionists have even said, "It's [fruit juice] pretty much the same as sugar water." Consuming high amounts results in rapid fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin release, leading to a much greater probability of developing insulin resistance (i.e. diabetes). If you remember in previous posts, I've mentioned insulin being the switch that inhibits fat burning in favor of the glucose that was most recently consumed. There's been research that's demonstrated this precise point using orange juice consumption. Basically, one group ate breakfast with orange juice, and the other ate the same exact breakfast, but with water instead of OJ. What they found was that 150 minutes after the meal, those who drank orange juice were less likely to oxidize the fat consumed during the meal before their next meal. Essentially, the insulin release from drinking the OJ blocked the body's ability to burn fat as a fuel after the meal. On a population level, there is strong evidence to suggest that sugar consumption influences the prevalence of diabetes independent of both physical activity and obesity.
100% Whole Wheat Bread
Ingredients: Whole Wheat Flour, Water, Wheat Gluten, Yeast, High Fructose Corn Syrup Or Sugar. Contains 2% Or Less of: Molasses, Soybean Oil, Salt, Calcium Sulfate, Honey, Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Mono- And Diglycerides, Ethoxylated Mono- And Diglycerides, Datem, Calcium Dioxide, Dicalcium Phosphate And/Or Azodicarbonamide), Vinegar, Yeast Nutrients (Ammonium Phosphate, Ammonium Chloride, Ammonium Sulfate And/Or Monocalcium Phosphate), Wheat Starch, Cornstarch, Soy Flour, Whey, Calcium Propionate (to Retain Freshness), Soy Lecithin.
The Caution: Just because something says 100% whole wheat, doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't contain a whole bunch of other ingredients, like this example. Regardless of the many cautions associated with wheat, which I'll mention in a second, many brands of whole wheat breads or cereals (see the Raisin Bran example below) actually contain high fructose corn syrup. Yes, that isn't a typo - high fructose corn syrup; the same stuff found in a lot of sodas and juices (so, the same caution would apply as above). Aside from the HFCS issue, there are a number of cautions to think about when it comes to wheat. Not only does whole wheat significantly spike blood sugar (an easy way to remember is one slice of bread as being equivalent to one tablespoon of pure sugar), but modern wheat really wreaks havoc on the gut; it's pro-inflammatory; it disrupts the body's pH balance; and it accelerates the aging process to name a few other things. Not to mention it's an appetite stimulant, targeting the same brain receptors as opiate drugs, which gives wheat it's addictive properties. Many of these effects stem from the genetic modification of wheat over the years, something Dr. William Davis discusses quite a bit about in his book Wheat Belly.

Organic Fat Free Milk
Ingredients: Organic Grade A Fat Free Milk, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D3
The Caution: There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to skim or fat-free milk. First, most industrial milk goes through fairly extensive processing, including exposing the milk to high heat (pasteurization), which can damage some of the good fat and enzymes found in milk. Second, this processing also removes the vitamins (Vitamin A and D) found in milk, which are then re-fortified back in, however with synthetic vitamins. Third, vitamins A and D are both fat-soluble vitamins; meaning, they require fat in order to be properly absorbed. Without fat present, it's almost useless to fortify milk with vitamin A and/or D. Lastly, it's important to pay attention to whether milk comes from a grain-fed or a grass-fed cow (this is also important to keep in mind when buying the meat). When a cow eats a grass-based diet, it contains a better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, and elevates precursors for Vitamin A and E, as well as "cancer fighting antioxidants" called glutathione and superoxide dismutase.

Raisin Bran Cereal
Ingredients: Wheat Bran, Raisins, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Salt, Malt Extract, Iron (Ferric Orthophosphate), Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate), Vitamin A (Palmitate), Niacinamide, Vitamin B1 (Thiamine Mononitrate), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin D (Cholecalciferol), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Folic Acid. BHT Added To Packaging To Help Preserve Freshness. Allergy Warning: Contains Wheat. May Contain Traces Of Almonds And Soy.
The Caution: Cereals are one of the most widely marketed food products out there, particularly when it comes to children and adolescents (something I wrote about in this posting). One way companies do this is through front-of-package labeling, which are often filled with various health and nutrition claims. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended the FDA reassess its approach when it comes to such health claims. What happened was that in 2002 the FDA started allowing food companies to put health claims on food labels with less scientific evidence. Eight years later, in 2010, FDA issued two warnings to food companies who were claiming specific health benefits on their products that wasn't supported by scientific evidence. Front-of-package labeling is notoriously deceiving. It draws the consumers attention to one or two very specific pieces of information while masking the entire picture. Sure, a product might have "whole grains as the first ingredient," or it's a good source of a particular vitamin, but what about the other 12 ingredients listed, which may include a bunch of sugar, artificial sweeteners/flavors, and even carcinogenic preservatives (like BHT)? The point is, think about the whole product.


So, after doing a little investigating, would you still consider these products "great for you?" The point of this blog isn't to bash the First Lady - she's using her office in a very constructive way to try and bring attention to a monumental public health challenge in childhood obesity. But, the broader point is around independent thinking and investigation, particularly when it comes to food and the food we put in our bodies. Our bodies have a very intimate relationship with food. It's our currency to a healthy (or unhealthy) life. What foods are you going to choose to invest in your long-term health?

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