No percentage for Truth is given because the Daily Value has not been established

March 13, 2009

Jacob Gershman, a man who eats Cocoa Pebbles for dinner, reports on the latest trick food manufacturers have used to make sugary cereal (and similar foods) seem healthy:

The fiber in Cocoa Pebbles comes from a little-known ingredient called polydextrose, which is synthesized from glucose and sorbitol, a low-calorie carbohydrate. Polydextrose is one of several newfangled fiber additives (including inulin and maltodextrin) showing up in dairy and baked-goods products that previously had little to no fiber. Recent FDA approvals have given manufacturers a green light to add polydextrose to a much broader range of products than previously permitted, allowing food companies to entice health-conscious consumers who normally crinkle their noses at high-fiber products due to the coarse and bitter taste of the old-fashioned roughage. These fiber additives serve dual purposes—they can serve as bulking agents to make reduced-calorie products taste better, such as the case with Breyers fat-free ice cream, and carry an added appeal to consumers by showing up as dietary fiber on food labels.

With the First Lady exhorting Americans to eat healthy and nutritious foods, many may turn to the nutrition facts label to help them distinguish between virtuous and non-virtuous grub. Since 1994, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) has ensured that this scientific-looking chart appears on nearly all foods Americans consume. However, as Pebbles-gate and other food crises show, the NLEA may have lulled consumers into a sense of false security about knowing what is in their food.

Some of the most severe food crises in recent months have occurred because of ingredients that were not on the label. The discovery of Salmonella contamination in countless batches of peanut butter could not have been foreshadowed by consumers reading “S. enterica – 300% DV” off of the nutrition facts label. Similarly, the melamine with which food products have been adulterated in China would have shown up on the label as nothing more suspicious than a few extra grams of protein. However, the problems of the nutrition facts label go beyond mere omissions. By evaluating all foods on a short list of uniform criteria, the label fosters two dangerous attitudes: seeing all (or most) foods as interchangeable, and evaluating the virtue of foods on just one or two of the nutrients the label lists.

Nutrition facts labels are often used with the idea that comparing two foods is as simple as comparing their labels. Now, when one is crafting a diet based on macronutrient ratios, sodium limitations, or micronutrient requirements, the information on nutrition labels can be useful, accurate, and relevant. But what about other aspects of food quality, safety, wholesomeness, sustainability, or even taste? Diet Coke boasts that it is 99% water, and the labels of the two are indistinguishable; meal replacement bars are available which mimic – on the nutrition facts label – a meal made with real, pronounceable ingredients; and Cocoa Pebbles now come with added fiber to emulate either granola or actual pebbles. In each case, the marketing pitch for the processed food is how it is nutritionally similar to unprocessed foods people might consume instead. Meanwhile, the nutrition facts labels on the processed foods give consumers no way to place these claims in their proper nutritional and environmental contexts.

In theory, consumers can decide what to eat based on some ideal balance of Vitamin C, calcium, and cholesterol – three nutrients which appear on the nutrition facts label. In practice, however, much of the attention consumers devote to reading nutrition labels gravitates to just two nutrients: fats and carbohydrates. Many fad diets carve out their niche by coming up with a new way to restrict the intake of either fats or carbs. This page offers a much more detailed, if somewhat curmudgeonly description of the myths and dangers of such diets. In short, consumers seldom use all the information provided on the nutrition facts label to make food choices, tending to focus on two or three – sometimes even one – nutrients and ignoring the rest.

Nutrition facts labels on food may well have changed the way America eats. Armed with precise knowledge of just a few attributes of each food, we are able to approach our diet as a simple linear programming problem. When that gets too time-consuming, we can take the shortcut to a healthy diet by merely checking if a food is low-fat or low-carb. The end result is that the well-meaning NLEA has created artificial demand for artificial foods. This suggests that future food policy should not only attempt to give consumers more information, but should also seek to summarize that information in ways that more accurately reflect the values – nutritional and perhaps also environmental – of the foods we are asked to buy.

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