Monday, June 3, 2013

The Trouble With Food Labels

Labels simplify things. If I know a person is a jock, preppy, geeky, band nerd, orchestra dork, or in the drama club, I don't need to get to know them because I already know exactly what they are like. Right? If I've already learned what Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, and followers of Jedi-ism believe and how the respond to certain situations, I have no need to ask them about religion or clarify my understanding because I already know everything about them. Right? If I know how many children are in your family, how old you are, or what shape your nose is or any number of other things, I can automatically assume everything else about you. Right? What about a label or title you earned? If you are a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a PhD, high school or college graduate, registered nurse, violist, drummer, or some other label you worked hard to obtain? Surely it is safe for me to assume I know all about you then, right?


Now that I have managed to offend everyone who will read this, I want to explain why I feel food labels are just as ridiculous and insufficient as labeling people.
The label on my crock-pot : "Madame Carla's Psychic Sauce 'Just a drop gives you teh power to see deep into the future. And tastes great on chicken!'"

Labels Can Be Misleading

Freedom is Slavery (for other references to 1984, go here and here)
Going down the isle of the supermarket, I can find lots of food labeled "fat-free", "sugar-free", "gluten-free", "sodium-free","calorie-free" and many other variations. I'm not saying that all of these foods are bad (I've seen many of them on bananas), but the labels are misleading. Clearly, it is more desirable for food to be free of fat, sugar, salt, gluten, calories and other things otherwise they wouldn't advertise that, right? Wrong.

All of these things have a purpose, and if used properly, are usually good for you. I hope my water is free of all of these things, but not my dinner! I care more about what is in my food than what isn't in it. If there isn't any sugar in my cookies, what artificial sweetner was put there instead? What else did you remove when you stripped my milk of it's fat and goodness?

Advertising for the Niche
There are some people who are horribly allergic to gluten, peanuts or some other common food product. They should certainly check labels carefully to make sure they aren't getting food contanimated with allergens.

Then there are a lot of people that have decided gluten is the root of all evil without being quite sure of what it is. All they know is that it is found in lots of food and is slowly poisoning them and should be avoided at all costs.

I've seen bananas, water, and more labeled as gluten free. So I had better make sure to buy the gluten free brands right? Or maybe I should find out what gluten is. It is a protien found in wheat and some other grains. So I'm most likely to run into it in baked goods. Even then, if I'm not allergic, it may be worth investigating some alternative methods of preparing grains if I feel I have an insensitivity to it-sprouting or soaking the grains and avoiding commercial yeasts are good starting points.

Scare Tactics
If something contains 20% more or less of an ingredient than another variety of the same product, you don't need to think that the original had a dangerously high (or low) level and this version is so much safer. Soy sauce is a great example. They all have tons of salt, and most are not made in the traditional fermentation method, not to mention there are reasons to be suspicious about soy beans....

What about aluminum free baking soda? We don't want to be using the type with aluminum in it, best to buy the one labeled aluminum free. Right? Well, while it is true we want to avoid ingesting aluminum, there aren't any varieties that include aluminum, baking powder is the one you need to watch out for. The baking soda marketers realized people could get confused and stuck a label on it to scare you away from the other brands.
Label on my microwave: "BETTER not eat this, we warned you"

False Sense Of Security

It may be up for debate whether calories, fat, sugar, and salt are good or bad, but what about things that are definitely bad for you? No one wants to be eating chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or pesticides in their food. So to be safe you should only buy organic or natural, right?

While this sounds good, it isn't always the answer.

A quick look at the list of substances allowed and prohibited for certified organic food makes it clear that there are synthetic as well as natural substances. Having talked to farmers, it is obvious that there are many non-organic options that are healthier and safer than the organic variety.

But, organic food sells. People are worried about what they eat, so they trust that if they buy organic they are eating healthier. Meanwhilst, the food companies are doing their best to produce what sells. If that means abiding by a long list of stipulations, and filling out lots of paperwork, so be it.

Big companies can afford that sort of stuff. In a corrupt system, wealthy businesses can often afford to change the rules too. Did you know that a USDA certified version of Round Up is in the making? Did you know that Monsanto, a large producer of GMO foods owns Round Up?

The labels "organic", "natural", "certified theraputic grade", and many others don't mean anything. They can be put on anything, or could be a term and certification that was made up by the company to make it sound good. That doesn't mean products with these labels are necessarily bad, just that they may not always be as good as you think.

The label "USDA Certified Organic" does mean something. It means that the farm had to do a lot of paperwork and follow some rules to get a fancy label on their food. It can't be genetically modified (although GMO could have slipped in accidentally), but it can have certain pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals on it.

Leaving Things Unsaid

I think that many companies know exactly what we want to hear and what we have been told to beware of. That is why baby products are labeled as BPA free, when they just replaced the BPA with another chemical that may be worse. Milk is labeled as not containing certain hormones, but what about others?

Just because a product doesn't contain one or two harmful things, doesn't mean it is safe. When buying from a big business, how do I know that some soap didn't slip into the milk container because the lid wasn't on before the workers started cleaning up at the dairy? The FDA seems to focus their efforts and testing in areas that are not always the most beneficial for you and I.

If You Want Something Done Right...

The more I learn about food and other products, the less I trust the system, and the more I lean on what I know I can trust. 

  1. I can trust my Heavenly Father. I pray to be able to take care of my family the very best I can. I pray for guidance in my decisions and to be able to discern truth and error.
  2. I can trust myself. If I grow my own food, I know exactly what went into it and what didn't go into it. If I can it myself, I know what is in it and what isn't. I don't gain anything by lying to myself.
  3. I can trust my family and investigate sources to judge them by their ethics rather than their certification. 
  4. In the end, some things matter more than others. I would rather spend my money in local businesses and other things I believe in than a big business. I would rather spend my time enjoying my family than worrying about every little detail of our food.
Last year there was a local U-pick that was not certified organic, but they didn't need pesticides because quails would eat all the bugs. This year that U-pick is gone :( but I intend to investigate the farmer's markets and roadside stands to buy local as much as possible this year. I can get home grown beef from my parents (more about that later). I like to buy things from Azure Standard, because I trust their principles and ethics, not just their good labels.

Labels can be deceptive on lots of levels. For me, that means I won't believe something is good for me or not just because of the labels. It also means I will be hesitant to spend lots of extra money on organic food. I want to eat healthy, and I will go out of my way to do it, but some things are worth spending lots of time and money on, and some just aren't.

What do you look for when you are buying food? Where do you draw the line?

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