Buyer Beware! Being Label Smart Part 1: Food
Every time you exercise your consumer muscle, you are putting your money, as well as a vote of your support and confidence, behind teach product you buy. Paying more attention to the products you buy can make you more aware of where exactly your money is going as well as what it will do in return for your health. This is why reading labels is so important when shopping for clothes, food, technology, etc. Trying to navigate food labels and their ingredients can be especially tricky, particularly when buying preserved goods. Labels tell us where products were made, what chemicals they contain (among other warnings), the materials they are made of, as well as the ethics of the company or manufacturer; and sometimes what is not said on the label can be most revealing. In part one of this series I will bring to your attention some issues you should be aware of in the food you buy- after all you are what you eat.
- “No sugar”
You’ll see this frequently on certain name-brand yogurts. So what, exactly, is replacing the sugar?
Sugar is usually replaced by modified cornstarch (which is found in an abundance of food and drink) or aspartame. There are a lot of conflicting studies out there regarding these sugar substitutes and whether they cause harm to you in the long run. Some studies decry that aspartame as a carcinogen, and that it can cause seizures, or will cause your hair to fall out. Others (usually conducted by a team of scientists paid by the aspartame industry itself) claim that in moderation it is perfectly healthy. While modified cornstarch has been accused of being worse for your health than refined sugar, leading to heart attacks and diabetes. So go online and read for yourself, just make sure to ask yourself “who is funding this study?”; because whomever it is may have a vested interest in the results (i.e. they don’t want a bad reputation)- one may recall how long the tobacco industry staved off accusations that cigarettes caused cancer. So, just take care that aspartame and modified cornstarch do not become a staple of your diet. The best substitute for sugar is cane sugar, or sometimes yogurts and other products sweeten their foods with un-concentrated apple juice, but these tend to be a tad more expensive. Keep in mind though, that they are better for you.
- Palm oil
Palm oil is one of the worst offenders (I recently did a post on this issue), it is the crop that is most responsible for the large-scale destruction of the rainforest. It is a cheap substitute for vegetable oil that is used in many brands of cookies, cakes, chocolates, candy bars, and other sweet treats. I was deeply saddened when I cut out many of my favourite desserts and snacks, but I really don’t want my hard-earned money funding something I so vehemently oppose. Plus now I get to bake my own treats, which is cheaper by the way.
- Organic foods
Retailers can be very misleading when it comes to selling food they claim to be organic. There are different certification bodies that all have different guidelines and have to go through different inspection codes. All organic products and their retailers should have their certification either visible at the bin or shelf where they are sold or available upon request. Keep in mind that Canadian food guidelines are much different and stricter (although under Harper this most likely will soon change) than their American counterparts; meaning that USDA organic produce will be subject to a different code and inspection process.
And a list of certification bodies that are accepted in Canada.
While sometimes it can be frustrating how expensive organic foods can be, it feels good to support small, local farmers that do not use harmful pesticides and practice ethical, compassionate standards in taking care of their livestock. Happy animals equal better tasting food, and any decent chef will stand by this claim. Which leads me to my next point:
- Free-Run, Free-Range, and Battery
This simple 2 min. video is very informative and straightforward:
The nutrition label on a food item is something that everybody should read before bringing it to the checkout counter. It tells you how your body will be benefiting from what you’re eating, or how it will be put at a disadvantage. The main things you should be watching out for are the amounts of: trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Try to make sure you’re not exceeding the percentages that scientists and dieticians estimate is good for you for each one; in fact, try to stay well below them. Now, once you’ve ensured that your item has a minimum amount of those four compounds look to the top of the label where it says “Amount Per Serving”; this is especially important because if say, a canned soup says it only has 40% of your recommended daily salt, but the amount per serving is only half a can and you eat the whole thing for lunch- you’ve just used up 80% of your daily salt in one sitting. Do this every day and you’ll be a star candidate for heart disease or a lifetime prescription to Lipitor to get your cholesterol under a manageable level.
Here is a great rundown of how to get the most information out of nutrition labels.
In addition, many brand-name cereals, granola and snack bars subscribe to, as in actually pay for, the certification process that claims them to be the “healthier” choice (i.e. Smart Choices Program). While these products may be healthier than, say a chocolate bar or a tub of margarine, they may not be that healthy for you. This is why it is so important examine carefully the nutrition labels and the Amount Per Serving section and compare the good stuff (protein, vitamins, fiber, etc.) with the bad (trans-fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar), and not just take the word of a logo that is just blatant propaganda. Here is a link that describes the Smart Choices controversy.
In the capitalist, consumer-driven society we live in, we the consumers decide which companies are successful with our purchases. We have the right to ask questions and demand products and food that are healthy for us and are produced under a certain ethical code. If we stop buying a product, or write letters stating our disapproval in their code of conduct, it forces them to change or they will face bankruptcy. Each purchase is a vote of your confidence in that product and how it was manufactured. So be aware of what goes into the making of your food and ultimately your body.