August 24, 2015

Big Food Spreads Lies on Their Food Labels – Part 1

Have you read the food labels on the food you buy at the grocery store lately? Hopefully, the next few blogs will be of interest and give you a wake up call. I know this has my wife and I both analyzing food labels a lot closer to determine how the food industry is putting more chemicals in our food. Our new activity is counting chemicals and not carbohydrates.

This is resulting in us putting more foods or ingredients back on the shelf instead of in the cart. More consumers like us are steering clear of unfamiliar or worrisome ingredients on food labels. A survey last year by the Nutrition Business Journal found that high-fructose corn syrup ranked at the top of consumers’ least-wanted list. No. 2 was partially hydrogenated oils or “trans fats.”

Yes, I think for consumers like us, we just don't trust 'Big Food' any longer. Lynn Dornblaser, director of Innovation and Insight for the market research firm Mintel recently surveyed grocery shoppers. Only 38% said they trust what food companies say about their products on food labels. That means that 62% don't trust food companies.

Yes, Big Food has taken notice and we will need to learn new terminology now. They are attempting to hide ingredients and are at the same time switching to new terminology. Pillsbury has a new line of Purely Simple baking mixes. Kroger has a Simple Truth line of store brand foods. Keebler has Simply Made cookies. Ingredient lists are being made as short, easy to pronounce, and understand as possible.

In the food industry, this is called “clean labeling.” And big companies are racing to do it. In recent weeks, Kraft said it would take artificial colors and preservatives out of its iconic mac & cheese. Nestle is chucking artificial colors and flavors out of its chocolates. General Mills will purge artificial colors and flavors from its cereals.

In some cases, industry experts say companies are genuinely trying to make products that are more wholesome. But in others, they say these clean-label ingredient swaps are more about marketing food than really making it healthier. And there are some signs that the rush to make highly processed foods seem pure and basic may be causing problems for vulnerable consumers, like people with food allergies.

“The ingredients listed is becoming a marketing tool, which I don’t think they are intended to be,” says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund. The worst part of this is that the FDA has abdicated its responsibility to the food companies.

How did we get here? It starts with four letters: GRAS. The FDA has long used the designation “generally recognized as safe” as a way to quickly exempt common and widely used food additives, like vinegar, from rigorous and sometimes lengthy formal safety reviews, which were required of new ingredients or old ingredients that were used in new ways.

And until the late 1990s, the GRAS designation was mostly used for tried-and-true ingredients like vinegar that had long been in the food supply. But in 1997, amidst budget cuts and industry grumbling that the FDA was taking too long to approve new ingredients, the agency proposed a new system. It now allows food companies to review their own new ingredients and decide what’s safe. They can submit those reviews to the FDA for acceptance, but it's not required by law.

Food manufacturers embraced the changes, speeding new ingredients into food with little oversight. How big is the problem? In February 2013, the Pew Charitable Trusts published an in-depth report about gaps in food safety. They estimated that out of 10,000 ingredients in processed foods, the FDA has not reviewed the safety of about 3,000.

Part 1 of 5 parts.

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