A little knowledge can make food labeling claims a lot less confusing

Posted by
June 24, 2014



An article in The Wall Street Journal Monday headlined “The Gluten-Free Craze: Is It Healthy” makes an interesting point about food manufacturers trying to get in on a health craze that actually only affects a small minority of consumers.

In reality, the only people who need be concerned about gluten, the article points out, are those with celiac disease – a condition affecting less than one percent of the population – although, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, another 18 million Americans suffer from “gluten sensitivity” that may cause feelings of discomfort.  Yet “gluten-free” claims have proliferated, and have been a driving force in the sales of many products, including some that never even contained gluten.

And that, some experts charge, could be causing consumers to make choices that aren’t necessarily in their best interest – for example, by buying “gluten-free” items that actually have fewer nutrients than their gluten-containing counterparts.

Of course, “gluten-free” is only one of a number of health claims used on product labels, as the article also points out.  Here at Food Identity Theft, our job is to help consumers sort them all out, identifying those that are actually “part of the solution” to food-related problems and others that are problematic in themselves.

A good example of the latter are trans-fat free labels,” which the Journal notes are being used on products such as milk, “even though milk never contained the artificial kind of trans fats that clog arteries.”

But that’s not the real problem with “zero trans fat” claims, which, as we’ve so often pointed out, can be genuinely deceptive, since the Food and Drug Administration gave food companies a loophole big enough to drive a trans-fat truck through by allowing anything below 0.5 grams to be rounded out to “zero.”  And that can add up to a significant daily intake of trans fat, which the FDA now admits causes about 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year.

Of course, the problem will be eventually solved should the FDA’s proposed phase-out of partially hydrogenated oil (PHO), the main source of dietary trans fat, eventually take effect.  But until that time, no “trans-fat free” claims, including those found on the Nutrition Facts Panel, can be assumed to be accurate.  Consumers must instead check the actual ingredients for the presence of those tell-tale PHOs.

Then there are those “No MSG” declarations, which most people would take to mean that the product contains no monosodium glutamate, the flavor enhancer that some experts consider neurotoxic, and to which many people suffer a whole range of adverse reactions. But that often merely disguises the presence of “disguised MSG” in the form of ingredients such as hydrolyzed protein, sodium caseinate and autolyzed yeast, which are other forms of free glutamic acid that can have similar effects.

“No sugar” claims, of course, can be even more spurious, since what they usually mean is that the product contains some type of artificial sweetener — usually aspartame, a source of countless adverse reaction complaints ranging from migraines to seizures to vision problems (and which, like MSG, has been labeled by neuroscientists as an ‘excitotoxin” capable of exciting certain brain cells to death, especially in children and adolescents.) Perversely, aspartame also has a particularly debilitating effect on a relatively small group of people who suffer from a condition called PKU, and is supposed to carry a warning to that effect.  But both its presence and the accompanying warnings have become all but imperceptible in many products since NutraSweet lost its patent on this controversial chemical sweetener and it went generic.

A claim worth celebrating

One claim that the Journal compares to “gluten-free” in the way it has resonated with many consumers is “no high fructose corn syrup,” with products so labeled having “jumped 45% in the past four years, to $921 million.” But there’s a big difference between the two, in the fact that HFCS, a caloric laboratory sweetener, is a product that may negatively impact most, if not all consumers, since it’s been linked by studies from various prestigious universities and medical institutions to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and heart problems (something missed by the writer of the Journal article, who erroneously attempted to equate the “deleterious effects” of HFCS with those of cane sugar and agave nectar.)

If anything, the facts that, as the Journal points out, more than a third of U.S. adults are obese, that diabetes has risen sharply in recent years and that we now eat over 450 more calories daily than 40 years ago may well be related to the proliferation of HFCS in processed foods over the past two or three decades, despite its growing unpopularity with consumers.

The article also quotes food historian Abigail Carroll’s observation that “Food corporations have figured out how to adapt their foods to become solutions to health problems and at the same time capitalize on the confusion itself.”

But all it takes to dispel that confusion is a little knowledge – of the real effects of various widely used food additives (like those on our “top ten to be avoided” list) and whether or not they’re listed on the ingredients label.  Oh, and of any effects that certain foods or ingredients might have on you personally, such as whether you’re unable to assimilate, or especially sensitive to, something like gluten.  That helps, too.