The Magic of Food Labeling

grocery storeShop in a grocery store, and most of what you see has been processed to one degree or another.

Yes, strictly speaking, even things like cleaning, sorting, and bagging organic fruit or veg count as processing.

In essence, “processing” is merely about turning food in its natural form into a product for consumption. Such products run the gamut from minimally- to hyper-processed, with foods tending to lose more of their nutritional value the more processed they are.

Regardless of the degree of processing, something funny happens when food companies slap labels onto their products: Consumer perceptions can change.

According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a front group for the food and beverage industries, many consumers base their opinions of what they think is “processed” only if the item seems like it was altered in some way.

And if you label it as “organic,” the product may seem even less processed.

Only three out of fourteen carrot-based products listed were considered “processed” by over half of respondents…Interestingly, consumers were only half as likely to categorize organic bagged baby carrots (7%) as processed compared to conventional bagged baby carrots (14%).

A recent study in Appetite likewise found that the “organic” label can indeed lead consumers to attribute qualities to a processed food quality that may or may not actually be true.

Overall, processed organic (vs. conventional) foods were perceived as tastier, more healthful (Study 1) or equally healthful (Study 2), but also as more caloric.

“Uncovering the specific conditions in which food claims bias consumer’s perceptions and behavior,” note the authors, “may have important implications for marketing, health and public-policy related fields.”

Of course, we have good reasons for favoring organics. As a study in Procedia Economics and Finance noted,

the reasons advocated by the consumers for buying organic food products are varied and primarily the motivations behind their decision to purchase include concerns for environment, health concern and lifestyle, food product quality and their subjective norms. Consumer behaviour involves the psychological processes that consumers go through in recognizing needs, finding ways to solve these needs; collect and interpret information; make plans and implement these plans, making purchase decisions and post-purchase behaviour.

But our willingness to buy and our purchases making a difference hangs on another important thing: trust. This was demonstrated nicely by a 2015 Thai study in the Journal of Business Ethics. Through two focus groups and 10 interviews, as well as a related intercept study, its authors found that lack of trust in the labeling and control procedures of organic food in Thailand have resulted in consumers being much less likely to buy organic.

Mistrust in the control system and in the authenticity of food sold as organic has a significant negative impact on self-reported buying behavior. Implications for policy and future research are discussed.

Next week, we’ll look further at the issue of organics labeling and how you can make sure you’re getting the quality you pay for.

The Curious Case of the Missing Nutrients

Last year, Post and General Mills responded to public concerns about GMOs and announced they would no longer use genetically modified ingredients in two, count ‘em, two products.

Last month, NPR followed up on the story and the curious case of the missing nutrients in GMO-free Cheerios and Grape-Nuts.

When they actually arrived on supermarket shelves,…there was a mysterious change in their list of ingredients. Four vitamins that previously had been added to Grape-Nuts — vitamins A, D, B-12 and B-2 (also known as riboflavin) — were gone. Riboflavin vanished from Cheerios.

cereal and milk in spoonWhy were the additional nutrients gone? Because those vitamins – at least the versions they bought from their suppliers – are not non-GMO certified. Some may be made by genetically modified microbes. Some may be made by natural microbes given GM feed. Some may be mixed with GM ingredients – cornstarch, for instance.

It’s not that non-GMO supplements don’t exist. They’re just more expensive and time-consuming to make.

This all should raise another question: Why do nutrients need to be added to packaged food products in the first place?

For one, it can help move product. The appearance of healthfulness – “Enriched with 10 essential vitamins and minerals!” – sells.

But there’s more to it than that. Nutrient loss is part of the equation when it comes to the industrial manufacture of food. Replacing those lost nutrients can make a product seem more healthful or wholesome – whether it is or not.

For a food product isn’t necessarily the same thing as food – at least when it comes to industrially processed products. Take Cheerios, for instance, which Marion Nestle has aptly described as “essentially a vitamin pill wrapped in rapidly absorbable starch.”

The ingredients: whole grain oats, corn starch, sugar, salt, tripotassium phosphate, wheat starch.

Everything else is added vitamins.

This is a pretty simple, straightforward product, though – especially in comparison to others, so commonly hopped up with extra sugars (sometimes several different kinds), salt, chemical preservatives, artificial colors, flavors and other additives. Our bodies simply were not designed to consume such things.

They’re built for real food.

For more on nutrition and processed versus whole foods, including making more healthful choices among processed products, check out the two videos below:

Image: Matthew Wilson

Sugar, Hearts & Holidays

Christmas goodiesWe’ve heard it so much for so long, nothing could seem truer than the “fact” that too much salt means high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. But new research adds yet more evidence that when it comes to cardiovascular health, sugar has a lot more to do with it.

Ah, yes – sugar, the familiar foe we’ve written about time and again, with respect to both oral and systemic health.

Writing in BMJ Open Heart, the authors of the paper note that the main sources of dietary sodium are “industrially processed foods” – foods which are also very high in added sugars.

Evidence from epidemiological studies and experimental trials in animals and humans suggests that added sugars, particularly fructose, may increase blood pressure and blood pressure variability, increase heart rate and myocardial oxygen demand, and contribute to inflammation, insulin resistance and broader metabolic dysfunction. Thus, while there is no argument that recommendations to reduce consumption of processed foods are highly appropriate and advisable, the arguments in this review are that the benefits of such recommendations might have less to do with sodium—minimally related to blood pressure and perhaps even inversely related to cardiovascular risk—and more to do with highly-refined carbohydrates. (emphasis added)

Of course, this isn’t exactly the time of year when you want to hear such things. During end-of-year celebrations in particular, cookies, cakes, pies, candy and all manner of sweets tend to dominate. Highly-refined carbs are everywhere!

So does the latest bad news about sugar mean you should completely, totally, 100% avoid all the sweet goodies brought out and shared at parties and family gatherings?

Not necessarily.

It’s important to remember that food isn’t just about fueling the body and delivering nutrients. It feeds heart, mind and soul, as well. It has crucial social and cultural aspects. As Michael Pollan puts it in the introduction to his book Cooked,

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating difference, arguing without offending.

Sharing food and eating together is one of the ways we strengthen and sustain our ties. They are ways of creating and maintaining community. Nowhere do we see this better than during the holidays.

So instead of all-or-nothing, aim for balance and moderation. Enjoy some seasonal treats. Savor traditional foods. Enjoy the holidays. Positive, loving relationships support good health, too – as does keeping healthful eating the rule throughout the year.

Happy and healthy holidays
from Pride Dental!

We’ll be back to our regular blogging schedule on Thursday, January 8.

Image by Andrew Schaefer