As a food science student we spent a lot of time talking about trends in the food industry. When we got jobs we’d either be capitalizing on things that were hot now, or looking for what would be the next big trend.
Healthy foods are very trendy right now with issues such as diabetes, trans-fats, artificial sweeteners and other topics hot in the news right now. Some of these trends can be misleading though and it bothers me to watch food companies try to scare people into using their products based on misleading facts or an uneducated public. Here’s some examples.
Whole Grain: Everything is made with whole grain these days, including sugar-coma inducing cereals like Lucky Charms. I’m sure most people are smart enough to realize a cereal with marshmallows is not healthy but that front of the label claim sure makes it sound healthy. The FDA is starting to look into some of these label claims that were previously not enforced.
High Fructose Corn Syrup: High fructose corn syrup has gotten a very bad rap in the press and I’m not sure why. It has been linked in some research to increase the incidence of diabetes and obesity, but more recent research disputes this fact. The fact is, corn syrup is a byproduct of cornstarch manufacturing and has been around for a long time. Normal corn syrup is roughly 60% glucose and 40% fructose. High Fructose Corn Syrup has been processed a little bit more to bring the ration very close to 50/50 Glucose to Fructose. This is the exact same ratio as Sucrose (table sugar) and your body processes it in exactly the same way. The culprit is not the ingredients, but quantity. Because it’s found in everything from sodas to cookies to cakes it has gotten blamed for obesity. Recently some companies have begun advertising their products have no HFCS, or like Snapple, are made with “real sugar”, as if somehow that is healthier.
Here’s a good article from MSNBC that takes a look at it from both angles. “High Fructose Corn Syrup: How Dangerous is it?”
There is one caveat to this. A research study that fed participants a diet of 100% Fructose, did in fact show an increase in cases of obesity and diabetes, but there are no foods that contain that high of an amount of Fructose so that’s not a concern, although that probably started the scare about “High” Fructose Corn Syrup, even though it’s only 42-55% Fructose just like normal table sugar.
Free Range: This one is almost comical. Free Range brings up the notion of chickens running around someone’s back yard. This is not the way it works, at least not on large commercial farms. Based on USDA regulations, to qualify as free range all that has to be done is that the door of the cage/barn be left open and that they have “access” to the outside. This does not guarantee that the “outside” is a pasture. It may be dirt or gravel. There is not legal definition for Free-Range eggs. This doesn’t mean producers are lying, it just means it’s not enforced. Also in the US, free range refers only to poultry (since by definition, most other live stock in a pasture would all be considered free-range).
Here’s a PDF from the USDA about Turkeys. The same rules apply to chickens. “Turkey Raised by the Rules”
Natural: Natural is another one you have to be careful with. It’s not as strictly regulated as “Organic” which is very tightly mandated by the FDA. There are several levels of “natural” that is used on food labels. The two most common are “Contains Natural Ingredients/Made with Natural Ingredients” and “100% Natural”. 100% natural is pretty much exactly what it says. The product must contain no artificial ingredients/colors/flavors etc. The other designation is not so clear. You can have a product made with a “natural” ingredient such as sea salt, but could still contain artificial ingredients/colors etc so you have to make sure you check the labels.
The USDA has a legal definition for “Natural” which states that a product cannot contain any artificial ingredients/colors/preservatives etc and has been minimally processed (no more then what can be done in a home kitchen). This only applies to raw meat products. Once they’ve been cooked, processed, or treated with flavors/brine/preservatives this goes out the door.
Here’s a link to the Natural Ingredient Resource Center.
Hope this helps next time you’re reading labels.