A Trip Through a Deceptive Supermarket
Fifty years ago, e. coli, salmonella, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup were concepts known only to select scientists, biologists, and food producers. Now they hold a permanent place in our cultural lexicon. As obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease have skyrocketed in the past few decades, Americans have become increasingly concerned with their collective diet and nutrition. Journalists and authors like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have revealed horrifying truths about our food production system, pushing consumers toward organic and local produce.
However, false information often filters into our cultural discourse on sustainability and health. In a sea of food products, each shouting about its nutritional benefits and seemingly wholesome origins, it’s difficult to discern what is true and what is just an advertising ploy. Mega-retailer Wal-mart sells organic food, a practice established in recent years, but which raises concerns among environmentalists and watchdog groups. These groups worry that the company’s vague marketing and apparent mislabeling of products not officially labeled “organic” by the USDA is muddying the definition of the term.
Indeed, just a year after Wal-mart began its organic push, the policy research group Cornucopia Institute accused them of “organic fraud” after discovering labeling violations in nearly all of the stores they visited during a survey of Wal-mart’s business practices. Nevertheless, companies that market their goods as “natural” are making large profits off of consumers who want to feel good about their purchases.
Still, some businesses are actually doing their part to combat climate change and animal rights violations. A list of ethically sound companies can be found at certifiedhumane.org, a watchdog group that inspects food producers and restaurants, and subsequently bestows its seal of approval on those deemed acceptable. Several big companies, including Costco, go beyond the USDA’s guidelines to personally inspect the facilities and farms that produce their organic products and ensure that they meet the company’s own standards. Admittedly, many of these facilities and farms are overseas--‘USDA Organic’ doesn’t neccessarily mean local—but at least an effort is made for ethical accountability.
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
You can’t swing a stick in an American supermarket without hitting a spurious nutritional claim. “Made with Real Fruit”, for example, means that any amount of fruit was used in the product’s creation. Blend a grape into a milkshake, and the milkshake is technically “made with real fruit.”
The expression “Made with Whole Grains” is similar, as, according to their website, the FDA “has not defined any claims concerning the grain content of foods”, i.e. any amount of unmilled grain makes a product whole grain. But surely the term “100% Whole Grain” is regulated, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. The FDA merely “recommend[s] that products labeled with ‘100 percent whole grain’ not contain grain ingredients other than those the agency considers to be whole grains.” Truly whole grains are beneficial because they contain the cereal germ and the bran, along with the endosperm—the starchy part of the grain that constitutes refined flours. These are all significant sources of non-caloric vitamins/minerals and fiber in a cereal grain. Losing endosperm in the refining process depletes white flours of these important nutrients. Therefore, “whole grain” knock-offs could have little to none of this fiber or nutrient content at.
Enter the multitude of fiber-supplemented products on the market. Many of these new “high fiber” foods contain added chicory root extract to kick up the fiber content, without adding any of the vitamins and nutrients found naturally in fiber-rich foods (fruits and veggies, people). Chicory root extract, also known as inulin, is one of the primary fiber supplements currently used, because it lacks the chalky mouth feel of most other high-fiber ingredients. However, pregnant women are discouraged from ingesting it because it may cause miscarrage. (It was once used as an abortifacient.) Yet, fiber is being touted as a new cure-all to help lose weight, regulate digestion, and curb appetite. Very few products containing inulin warn of possible side effects.
Even worse is the idea of “low-fat.” First of all, low-fat foods are often loaded with sugar to compensate for the lack of taste. Secondly, some foods labeled as such never had any fat to begin with. For example, oranges are fat free. Therefore orange juice is fat free, but companies slap that badge on their products proudly, belying the fact that many of them contain added sugars or preservatives.
Furthermore, many consumers don’t fully understand the importance of fat in a diet. Many studies, such as one published in August, 2004 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers at Iowa State, show that some amount of fat allows for better absorption of vitamins and minerals. Indeed many vitamins, like lycopene, are fat-soluble (meaning they don’t dissolve easily in the water-based environment of the human gastrointestinal tract) and thus are most readily absorbed when consumed with fat.
Many widely accepted “healthy” choices are deceptively unhealthy. Consumer Reports points out that so-called veggie chips only average 10 fewer calories per serving than potato chips, and the touted veggies are only a supplemental powder or puree. Yogurt-covered raisins are not swaddled in “Chobani” Greek yogurt, but rather a coating of trans-fats and sugar, oil, dry milk, and “yogurt powder.” In fact, after raisins, the first ingredient in Sun Maid’s vanilla yogurt raisins is sugar.
A more recent, surreptitious food trickster is the health nuts’ beloved agave syrup (the Trader Joe’s alternative to sugary, deleterious honey). Agave syrup is actually composed of 70-80% fructose—more than the percentage in high fructose corn syrup. The relative sweetness of fructose is much higher than that of sugar. For those misguided individuals who try to convince you that agave syrup is healthier because less is required to sweeten, please see a 2010 survey by researchers at the Princeton Institute of Neuroscience. The survey links significant fructose consumption to metabolic syndrome (a suite of illnesses encompassing insulin resistance, obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes, to name a few).
Animal rights mantras have similarly been muddled by a number of doublespeak slogans. One of the most popular terms is “free-range,” which calls to mind a wide expanse of greenery where livestock frolic contentedly under the watchful eye of Old MacDonald himself. Unfortunately, Consumer Reports discloses that the term may be applied if the animal is outside for “an undetermined period each day.” Pop the chicken out the window for a minute and it has become a free-range bird. Eating a factory-farmed “free range” bird often means ingesting antibiotics and hormones along with the meat, in addition to higher amounts of fat due to the bird’s diet, and fewer nutrients than would be found in a healthier, more carefully tended animal.
Perhaps no greater lesson can be learned than that from margarine. The unappetizing yellow sheen of the butter substitute originally symbolized a healthy and delicious alternative to the evil specter of authentic fat that haunted real butter. Part of margarine’s original appeal was that it could be made using oil rather than dairy products, which were scarce during the First and Second World Wars.
Eventually it was revealed that margarine, or rather, oleomargarine (the scientific name whose prefix speaks to its oily origins), is full of trans-fats. Harvard professor Walter Willett conducted a study in the early 1990s showing that women who consumed large amounts of trans fats were twice as likely to have heart attacks. He described the invention of hydrogenation (the process by which liquid unsaturated fats in oils are turned into semi-solid fats like margarine and Crisco) as “the biggest food processing disaster in US history.”
So, the next time you peruse the supermarket aisles, don’t be fooled by pastoral advertising and cure-all health campaigns. Pay attention to the man behind the curtain, and think seriously about the ingredients of the food in your cart. After all, when it comes to the stuff that fuels your body, there’s nothing like the real thing.
LILY GOODSPEED and ASHTON STRAIT B ’13 are free range and FDA approved.