Is health food is actually healthy? Three ways to know.

One lecture during my certificate work outraged me. Jeff Novick, a distinguished nutritionist, guest lectured about nutrition labels. Nutrition labels? No problem. I prepared for boredom, but as he spoke, my knowledge gap became apparent. As it turns out, there’s more to nutrition labels than just reading them. You have to know how. They can be enormously deceptive.

2% milk labels are just one fascinating case. Did you know 2% milk is actually about 35% fat? Take a look:

Fat is listed three ways on any nutrition label, but you’d never know it. By weight, daily value, and calories from fat. Only one of these ways is accurate.

Here’s a breakdown of the fat on this label. The 2% fat content in 2% milk actually refers to fat content by weight, not calories! It has nothing to do with the actual percentage of fat from calories. This number decreases as companies increase the weight by volume. 5g/244g = 2%. Hence, they can label the product as 2% milkfat. The fat by daily value is irrelevant, as the recommended daily value of 65 fat grams is way too high to begin with, and doesn’t distinguish vegetable fat from animal fat.

The actual percentage of fat is calculated by calories divided by calories from fat, showing that 2% milk is actually about 35% fat. (It can vary slightly but not by much.) …Are you outraged? I was. Similarly, 1% milk is about 24% fat.

Lesson learned? Only calculate fat percentages by dividing calories by calories from fat. The rest isn’t nearly as important. Start checking your “lowfat” labels pronto.

Knowing the tricks food companies turn, Novick presses the wise advice to never ever believe anything on the front of any product and to always read the nutrition label on the back.

There are three quick ways to assessing if any “health” product is actually healthy. Just because it says it’s a health product or is sold in a health store does not make it healthy! Here’s your checklist.

1. Fat Calories  Calories from fat should be less than or equal to 20% (or 15% if possible, in my opinion).
2. Sodium Ratio Sodium should be at a 1:1 ratio. If the product contains 100 calories, its sodium content should be 100 mg or less.This is the body’s optimal input/output ratio in terms of calories to sodium. Daily requirements can be as little as 250mg. If you only ate fruits and vegetables all day, you’d still be consuming around 500 mg without a pinch of added salt.
3. Ingredient List In the ingredient list, avoid “bad” fats (saturated animal fat, saturated vegetable fat, and man-made fat such as margarine or partially hydrogenated fats). Also cross off any product that contains any kind of sugar in the first three ingredients.

Also: be mindful of products that list a lot of individual sugars at the end of the ingredient list. They’re broken down that way because if they were combined (like they are in the product), sugar would be in the first few ingredients. Sneaky.

There you have it! Check back for how duplicitous labeling like this has affected Americans. It seems strange that with all this lowfat and lowcarb labeling that we’re getting heavier, doesn’t it…?

USDA upholds use of food stamps to buy soda

Food stamps can be used to purchase sugary beverages like soda? You bet, it’s America!

New York proposed the USDA ban the use of food stamps to purchase sugar-sweetened food and beverages through their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Seems logical doesn’t it? The USDA didn’t agree. They prefer incentives to bans. In many cases, they work. In the case of taxpayers supporting those on welfare to make choices that ultimately put a strain on our health care system? Not so much. In my opinion, this is too cut-and-dry for this kind of wishy-washy reasoning for rejection. Here’s some of the reasons it didn’t pass, pulled from the letter written to Mayor Bloomberg from Jessica Shahin, an associate administrator in the Agriculture Department.

  • The proposal was “too large and complex.”
  • It would be difficult to determine which beverage products would be eligible under the proposed ban
  • It would be difficult to identify the impact on a reduction in obesity rates
  • Forcing compliance from retailers that sell sugary beverages would be difficult

Personally, I think our government has performed much more complex tasks without the sorry excuses listed above. Not buying it. As I recall, Obamacare is over 1,000 pages long. Sounds a hair more complex to me.

In a class on the American Welfare State at Columbia, the main message driven home was that in comparison to other, better functioning welfare states, such as those in Europe, ours is generous to a fault. It incentivizes those on welfare to stay on welfare. Make no mistake, I believe everyone has a right to food, but to which foods? For how long? Welfare assistance isn’t a government service meant to support a person or a family indefinitely, it is supposed to function as a temporary lift from an unfortunate situation. It should be such that you should never want you or your family to be on welfare. (Not that anyone wants it in the first place.) That’s where other states have been successful where we have failed. Being able to purchase sugary processed foods and drinks detracts from the incentive to get off of welfare.

The fact that those on welfare are incentivized to stay on welfare, in addition to the fact of imminent health risks that SNAP inadvertently encourages, are facts that need to change. I agree with the ban’s apologists. Targeting the demographic with the highest numbers of obesity rates only makes sense. It’s disappointing to see yet another logical and well-positioned policy proposal rejected for reasons of “consumer freedom.” No doubt the Center for Consumer Freedom and the food industry played a role here. (As I learned in Stuffed by Hank Cardello, the food industry masquerades with the CCF, giving generously to spread the message of consumer choice, while bombarding us and our kids with addicting ingredients and incessant advertising.)

Even if the ban were passed, however, would it solve the whole problem of people purchasing foods that make them sick? Of course not. Do we want people to want to get off of welfare so they can purchase their favorite candies? Definitely not. People look to the government (unfortunately) for nutrition advice. The government needs to send a clear message only healthy foods, defined healthy by the government, can be purchased through food stamps. Soda is not healthy. Both diet and regular pose significant health risks.

Having to buy fruits and vegetables isn’t a punishment, it’s a gift, albeit a seemingly simple one. Fruits and vegetables can prevent and reverse disease. This kind of purchasing power with food stamps is the kind that our government should stand firmly behind.

Maybe the next proposal will help remove the sugar haze keeping the SNAP program from requiring healthy choices.

The Food Movement Elements

In my newest read, Food Politics by Marion Nestle, Nestle identifies the five elements of the food movement. Knowing these five categories also means you know the five approaches to our nation’s efforts towards making over our food systems.  The food movement is picking up speed and more spotlights are on it every day. Knowing the categories below is exceedingly helpful for putting current events and local efforts into context.

The following descriptions come from Food Politics by Marion Nestle on page x of her preface to the 2007 edition.

The Good Food Movement: This is what Farm Aid calls the demands for local, organic, or humanely raised food produced by family farms. Includes the Slow Food Movement and opposition to genetically modified foods and irradiated foods. 

The Farm-to-Community Movement: Aims to connect farmers to local communities through…

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A Meat Eater’s Guide to Better Health and Greener Eating

Note to readers: I’ve been incredibly busy with studying and taking the GREs while getting my nutrition certificate. Now that I am finished both, I’m back and even more revved up to share my newfound knowledge. Start checking back regularly. And comment! 

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman sung the praises of the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) newest release in his article “More Weight on Less Meat.” Of their Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health, Bittman writes that it is “a comprehensive report that suggests what’s become a common refrain here and elsewhere: we all need to eat fewer animal products – not just meat, but dairy as well.”

Like many vegetarians, I hardly expect those of us who do eat meat to change into tofu/seitan/tempeh guzzlers overnight. Yet it is hard to deny the benefits of eating less meat to both our health and environment, so I am with the EWG here. You don’t have to go vegan to do your body and the earth a solid. Carnivores take heed, eating less meat can still significantly and positively impact your health and the environment.

EWG’s full report is about 20 pages long with 3 1/2 pages of references. If this sounds intimidating, they have a handy at-a-glance brochure that summarizes their report in 7 pages that are approachable, understandable, succinct, and most importantly, compelling. The large print and colorful bubbled facts could put even zealous carnivores in a pensive state.

I encourage you to go through this brochure and take a look at the reported facts and figures. Their “lifecycle assessments” measured by environmental analysis firm CleanMetrics are innovative. I do, however, have a  few issues with this brochure. Below are my top three contentions taken from the report that I debate as misleading or incomplete.

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Don’t feed the models: Obesity, Part 1

Note to the reader — Be sure to click on both pictures and words with hyperlinks, they lead to sites that provide evidence and expand further on the subject. 

“Obesity is the terror within. It is destroying us, destroying our society from within. And unless we do something about it, the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist event that you can point out to me.”  

— Dr Richard Carmona, US Surgeon General 2002-2008

112,000 > 28

These numbers speak for themselves. Americans are in the middle of a battle far more lethal on our home turf, with very real death tolls. We’re not funding just one war, but two. Our tax money goes towards the many causes of our health epidemic.

The obesity crisis is deeply rooted within our country. I almost favor calling it a conundrum instead of a crisis because of how convoluted the issue has become with equally evasive solutions. Who do we blame? The government? The food industry? Ourselves? Biology? Is it nobody’s fault?

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