December 9, 2014

Thoughts for Value in Food Labels

This blog by Professor Jennie Brand-Miller talks about what we really need on food labels to help us make better choices. I will do my best to comment on her ideas as she does have some important information. Before getting to that, I would like to discuss the US food labeling system.

The current revised food labels used on foods still allows for a 20 percent error margin and the processing companies and food manufacturers do not have to test their products as often. I can almost bet that some merchandise is outside of the 20 percent error margin because of the time of harvest, the farm where grown, and how the food was raised. Food that is raised on poor soils will not be as nutritious as food from fertile farmland. Then we have the chemicals used to keep insects down and herbicides used (including GMOs). Food that includes GMOs are said to be safe, but research is not up to date and is being challenged at various levels.

For manufactured foods, scales go a long way in helping meet the 20 percent error margin. This still does not guarantee that the 20 percent error margin is met 100 percent of the time, but they are higher in accuracy than for most raised foods.

The following are just a few of the considerations that need to be made:

  • The energy content (calories) of a food is not the best way to judge a food – lentils and liquorice have the same energy density.
  • The fat content of food is not the best way to judge a food – nuts have more fat and are more energy dense than French fries.
  • The sugar content is not the best way to judge a food – dried fruit is full of sugar.
  • The sodium content is not the best way to judge a food – soft drinks are low in sodium.

These are just a few of the considerations we need to determine our individual food plan. This is one reason many of us encourage each person with diabetes to develop your own food plan.

Some people need to consider the following when developing their food plan. Yes, you need to read the labels on all foods to have some idea of the nutrients and the amount your are consuming. You also need to use your meter to help you develop your food plan. Some ideas that you need to consider include:

  1. Do you need to reduce the number of carbohydrates you consume?
  2. Do you need to increase the amount of fat in your food plan?
  3. Do you need to increase the amount of protein in your food plan?

The next thing I have to question as a person with diabetes is most of the food plans seem to be for the healthy person and not for people with diabetes. Authors seldom suggest that people with diabetes use their blood glucose meters before and after eating to learn if what they consume is causing their blood glucose levels to spike at levels that are too high to manage.

Brand-Miller says many ignore micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. She continues they ignore two important proven attributes of foods in the new nutrition – the protein content and the GI of the carbohydrates. While those of us with diabetes need to restrict our intake of carbohydrates, this is not mentioned. Brand-Miller sidesteps the fat consumption that is essential for our satiety and helps reduce our appetite. She says carbohydrates and protein are proven to help to curb appetite. Then she says appetite matters. Appetite is what drives our energy intake. I says this is what causes our weight gain.

Professor Jennie Brand-Miller concludes this way - “What would I like to see on food labels? I’d like to see a system that:
  • Focuses on the positive.
  • Rates foods according to their contribution to desirable macronutrient and micronutrient intakes.
  • Uses Adam Drewnowski’s Nutrient Rich Foods Index, which rates individual foods based on their overall nutritional value, as an essential component.
  • Encourages higher protein intake, particularly from legumes.
  • Distinguishes between naturally-occurring and added sugars.

I would advocate that we make the most of something we already have available to use on our food packaging here in Australia and that is proven to work: two certified and recognizable symbols that are signposts to both healthy foods and healthy diets.”
I think in the United States, we need a slightly different system, but with the USDA dietary guidelines not being part of it.

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