How is your food made? What do the labels hide?

In my line of business I do consulting to pharmaceutical, nutriceutical, food, and beverage companies to help them improve their manufacturing operations and improved their new product development process. So I’ve seen a lot of plants and R&D labs.

So focusing this time on foods, there are some good companies out there who really want to produce good nutritious food, but they are the exception. Most strive to use the lowest cost ingredients, no matter how they are grown or the source and to produce a product which is tasty, looks good, and smells good. Of course how do you make something taste better? Add fat, sugar, and/or salt – None of which is healthy, but they sure taste good. You can also add some food coloring to brighten up under ripe foods, or make them look more appealing.

Very often the brand name is simply just marketing. I’ve seen frozen meals which touted healthy claims all over the box and it was really no more than a conventional frozen meal just a smaller portion, but at a premium price. When you pick up a package in the grocery store assume that what is inside is the cheapest ingredients available and optimized to meet minimal requirements at the lowest cost.  I’m sure many times that more development costs go into the packaging and artwork than into the recipe.

I’ll call out one company as an example of doing it as it should be done – Amy’s Kitchen. They source the best ingredients, even to the extent of controlling the raising of the crops. They insure the ingredients are top quality, all organic, and their first concern is for the quality, purity, and then the taste – of course they are very tasty.

You’d think that you could just look at the labels on the box, bottle, or bag and know if it was good or bad. Sadly all the FDA regulates is the nutrition fact panel and the Ingredient Statement, but they can still play games there.

Lets start with the front of the package.  Aside from the USDA Organic logo and a couple other official logos they can put anything they want, that is theirs space for marketing and it doesn’t have to have any connection to the truth. For example I was looking for some healthy tortillas. the store I was at didn’t have my usual brand so I found one that had a hugh letters on the front saying “16 grams of Fiber” and “100% Whole Wheat” Ok that sounded good, but looking at the fact panel it said the serving size was 1 tortilla. So OK. Then it it said the amount of fiber per serving was 2 grams.  So looking at the front you’d be led to believe that each tortilla had 16g of fiber. Then their 100% whole wheat claim, again looking at the back the ingredient statement started “Whole Wheat, ……”  so they didn’t use 100% whole wheat, but really said that 100% of the wheat they use is Whole Wheat – quite different.

While I’m on the whole wheat there are three levels:

  1. Wheat flour – this can be bleached or unbleached, but it is the highly refined flour that hits your blood stream like sugar and has no food value and almost no fiber. Avoid this except for your once a year birthday cake.
  2. Whole Wheat flour – This only has to be 51% or more of 100% whole wheat flour, the rest is plain old wheat flour. Better, but still not good.
  3. 100% whole wheat flour – this is what you want to look for. This is the whole wheat kernel, bran, wheat germ, etc milled into a flour. It has all the nutrients and fiber still in it.
Ok, so you’ve learned to look at the Nutrient Fact Panel and the list of ingredients. Yes these are under FDA control and there are very complex rules and regulations about what they can display here, but the FDA is very good friends of the food and drug industries, so they bend the rules to their favor. So on the fact panel there are rounding rules. So in a nutshell they can round down the bad things and round up the good things. So if there are 75 calories, they can call if 70 calories. If there are 2.5g of fiber, they can call it 3g per serving.  That is the other key, look at the serving size. It may be a can of energy drink that everyone will drink as a serving, but on the back it says serving size is 2/3rds of a can. Look at some candy and what most would consider one bar, may be 4 or 6 servings. So you look and see that it only has 50 calories, and think that isn’t bad, but when you eat that bar you really just ate 300 calories.
The most extreem I’ve seen was a mint type of candy, small little pea size bites. Huge text on the front “0 calories, 0 fat, 0 sugar….”  the serving size was one piece so using the rounding down rules they could round down to zero, ever though there were calories, fat, and sugar.  When you look at what a normal person would eat in one serving it was no different than eating a candy bar. So pay close attention to the serving size and keep the potential rousing rules in mind that zero isn’t necessarily zero.
The last official piece of labeling is the Ingredient Statement. This is a list of all ingredients listed in descending order by weight. That should be straight forward right? Nope. Some of the creative things allowed are:
  • Combining ingredients. you can for example combine different types of sweeteners into one name, so corn syrup, HFCS, sugar, etc. could be combined and just called sugar or sweetener. In practice though they will keep these separate so they are further downy he list, but they could take different kinds of protein, group them together as “Protein Blend” so that several different types would come together and move higher up the list. For example you may see this like “Protein Blend(pea protein, whey, soy protein)” so the groups position would be based not eh combined weight of the three different proteins. Then within the (…) those ingredients are in defending order, os pea, then whey, then soy.
  • Split ingredients. they can take and ingredients and “Reconstitute” other ingredients. So where water may be the #1 ingredient, you may not want to pay that much for a jar of water so using the grouping like the protein above they can burry the water in different things. Like “Tomato sauce(Tomato puree, water, salt, etc), Noodles(wheat flour, water, eggs), Meatballs(beef, spices, salt, water).  so you may see water occurring multiple times in the label. If they pulled all the water together it may be the #1 ingredient, but using grouping they can keep it away from the top.
  • Omitting ingredients. Yes, they can omit ingredients. Some are legitimate, like say alcohol if it is baked out of a rum cake. There are other ingredients more chemical in nature which in theory bake out, or don’t make it into the final product. But if an ingredient just comes with the raw ingrient, and they didn’t specify it, they don’t have to declare it. For example, Genetically modified corn or soy.  they can just call it corn or soy. plants are typically genetically modified to make them immune to weed killers so that the fields can be sprayed with herbicides to kill the weeds, but the crop isn’t affected. Doesn’t sound bad, but that week killer, usually Monsanto’s RoundUp, is absorbed by the plant and is present in the grain. So do a chemical analysis on that bowl of corn flakes and you’ll find RoundUp, but they don’t list it, or any other chemicals on the label because they purchased corn and didn’t purchase corn with RoundUp.  The one way to insure you aren’t feeding your family pesticides and herbicides is to buy only Organic products.  It is safe to assume that any product with corn or soy is Genetically Modified and has herbicide and pesticide residues in it.
I hope this helps a bit. I’m not a food scientist so I can’t deep into the rules of the FDA labels, but bottom line, read the nutrition fact panel and the ingredient statements, then read between the lines.  Best is to buy fresh fruit and vegetables from known local sources, or best your back yard.