BIG Nutrition: Do we need to be concerned about what is in processed packaged food?


BIG Nutrition: Do we need to be concerned about what is in processed packaged food?

Our present nutrition challenge asks participants to eat ‘clean,’ which is defined as eating no processed packaged food for two weeks and then allowing a small amount of specific packaged foods during the remaining five weeks. Packaged items that contain one ingredient (e.g., steel cut oats, raw chicken) are fine.

This is one of the most difficult nutrition challenges to date for BIG members. Why would members participate? Is there a real or just perceived concern about the safety and quality of processed packaged food? There are three issues that I think warrant consideration for you to decide how much processed packaged food you would like to eat:

  1. Accuracy of the food labels and ingredient lists.
  2. Clarity of food labels and ingredient lists.
  3. Risk and dose associated with ingredients.

Accuracy of the food labels and ingredient lists (√)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the standards for what must be included in the Nutrition Facts Label. It is the food manufacturer’s responsibility to assure that the label, including the ingredients, is accurate. There are two mechanisms by which FDA monitors compliance with the labeling regulations: 1) FDA randomly analyzes food samples and 2) Food manufacturers alert the FDA if they have concerns or questions about a competitor’s product. If the manufacturer is suspected of noncompliance with the regulations, distribution of their product may be halted while an investigation is conducted.

I give this one a check (√) because this seems like it has checks and balances for both public and private industry needs; although, FDA has advocated for more resources for compliance monitoring.

Clarity of food labels and ingredient lists (BS)

Food labels are so detailed and “clear”, they are incredibly confusing! The best example is carbohydrates and sugar. These can be in so many forms and food manufacturers list every one of them making it impossible to distinguish the ingredients without a chemistry degree. Further, nothing on the label gives consumers information on whether the ‘sugar’ is close to table sugar which offers nothing but calories or complex carbohydrates which contain energy, nutrients, and fiber for our bodies. Changes to the food label are happening in July 2018 despite food manufacturers’ resistance to clarify added sugars. While it will get a bit better with the new label requirements, no label will be perfect.

I give this one a BS because, you know, it’s BS. If you have not seen it already, the movie Fed Up (available on Netflix and DVD) really shows reinforces my conclusion.

Risk and dose associated with ingredients (Fuzzy At Best)

The type and amount of food additives is not clear on food labels. Some types of additives are not a concern and even helpful because they deter growth of organisms, such as botulism or salmonella, which can have serious health consequences. Vitamin C can be added to keep a packaged fruit or vegetable from turning brown, but when it is listed as Ascorbic Acid, it can seem scary for some people. Other types of additives are more concerning, such as tert-Butylhydroquinone (a preservative for vegetable oils), which in large quantities has been shown to cause cancer in rats. There is no way to know (that I am aware of) the amount of tert-Butylhydroquinone, for example, is in any given package. So, how are we supposed to gage the risk and dose? The Center for Science in the Public Interest is vocal about the additives issue, and they have a ranking list (safe, caution, cut back, etc.) that you may find helpful.

I am giving this a Fuzzy At Best. All additives are not created equal. And while the additives are listed on the label, who knows how much is in each package and if/when we might be eating too much.

Eating ‘clean’ is defined in many ways, but our challenge approach is one that you can try:

  • Eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods with a focus on plant foods.
  • Consume minimally processed food with ingredients that you recognize (e.g., pasta sauce made from tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and spices). This is the area where food manufacturers are focusing and creating many new products.
  • Eat fewer packaged foods that have complicated labels each week. An assessment of how often you eat these type of packaged foods is a place to start. Then you can set a goal for reducing the frequency.

100% clean eating does not need to be the goal from tomorrow forward. Perfection isn’t realistic. It is my hope that you see cleaner, healthier eating as a long-term goal where gradual changes in eating help you feel better and perform better in physical activities.

Happy and healthful eating,

Donna G. Pertel, MEd, RD, LDN

Questions about the upcoming nutrition challenge beginning February 6? Contact me at [email protected]