Food label update

February 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Consumer awareness

On February 27th the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a planned revision to its longstanding Nutrition Facts label design. Though it may seem like an inconsequential bit of food package real estate to some people, the Nutrition Facts panel actually provides a lot of key information for consumers – everything from serving size to calorie content to macro and micronutrient content. However, the current version (in effect since 1994) has been deemed out-of-date and a bit misleading. Or at least not as effective as it could be.

Capture

According to the FDA, the label revisions “would replace out-of-date serving sizes to better align with how much people really eat, and it would feature a fresh design to highlight key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes” (FDA ). In a concerted effort to educate and empower consumers about nutrition-related health issues such as heart disease and obesity,  some specific label changes proposed by the FDA would:

  • Require information about the amount of “added sugars” in a food product. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that intake of added sugar is too high in the U.S. population and should be reduced. The FDA proposes to include “added sugars” on the label to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product.
  • Update serving size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat. What and how much people eat and drink has changed since the serving sizes were first put in place in 1994. By law, serving sizes must be based on what people actually eat, not on what people “should” be eating.
  • Present “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information for larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings.
  • Focus on potassium and vitamin D intakes, nutrients that some in the U.S. population are not getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease. Vitamin D is important for its role in bone health. Potassium is beneficial in lowering blood pressure. Vitamins A and C would no longer be required on the label, though manufacturers could declare them voluntarily.
  • Revise the Daily Values for a variety of nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D. Daily Values are used to calculate the Percent Daily Value on the label, which helps consumers understand the nutrition information in the context of a total daily diet.
  • While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • Refresh the format to emphasize certain elements, such as calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value, which are important in addressing current public health problems like obesity and heart disease. (FDA)

All in all the proposed label updates have received widespread support from folks in the nutrition and public health fields. On the other hand, Food industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, are a little less enthusiastic. The FDA will officially release their proposal on March 3rd, after which a public comment period will open for 90 days. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Food for thought

How much do you pay attention to the Nutrition Facts panel on packaged foods? What do you think of the proposed label revision? Do you think it is an improvement on the original design? Is there any additional information that you would like to see highlighted or changed? Next week we’ll take a look at food labeling in other countries.

___________________

FDA news release, February 24, 2014: http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm387418.htm

 

Can Food Be Addictive, Like Drugs Or Alcohol?

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. and many other developed and developing countries. The cause of this epidemic is relatively straight forward: when energy in (food, drinks) exceeds energy out (activities of daily living, planned exercise), weight gain follows. Could our propensity to eat too much have anything to do with the foods that are commonly available to us? When you are hungry, do you crave salty foods and foods with added sugars, or apples and broccoli?  Many of us will choose the former over the latter most of the time. Is it possible that food manufacturers know something about human nature and our addictive tendencies? These are intriguing questions that have drawn the attention of nutrition scientists in recent years.

The scientific definition of addiction is provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association (Am Psych Assoc). Criterion for addiction include (among others): 1) taking larger amounts for a longer period than intended; 2) a persistent desire or repeated unsuccessful desire to quit; 3) much time/activity is spent to obtain, use or recover; and 4) use continues despite knowledge of adverse consequences. Could this have application to food intake among obese individuals?  Consideration of how each point above could relate to food intake may provide clues: 1) habitual overeating; 2) repeated, unsuccessful attempts to lose weight; 3) time spent trying to lose weight; and 4) obese individuals know the risks, but still cannot stop overeating. So, food intake can follow addictive patterns. But, which foods might be the culprits and how might we know? Let’s have a look at some recent research on this issue.

Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has published a “food addiction” scale (Food Addiction Scale). This was developed in response to recent research that shows that the brain responds similarly to drugs and highly palatable foods, and that work with laboratory animal models has shown commonalities between sugar consumption and drug addiction. Emerging science also supports the possibility that this applies to high-fat and high-sugar foods. The researchers at Yale thus hypothesized that certain foods could trigger addictive behaviors in some people. Based upon these scientific and observational findings (and numerous others not mentioned) and the prevalence of such foods in America today, the Yale center suggests that food advertising to children and school lunch programs be reexamined. Ongoing research will certainly provide additional information on this topic in the future.

How then are we to proceed as individuals or as society as a whole. Are we to be skeptical of the food manufacturing industry and to question what is added to our foods and how they are processed? Perhaps, the emphatic answer to this question is, YES. Nutritional science tells us to avoid highly processed foods with added fat or sugar. The bottom line then is that we will all be better off in the long run if we focus on natural whole foods with high nutrient density. In doing so, we can cut the food manufacturing process totally out of the picture and protect our own health. (Written with the creative assistance of Juliana Schmidt and Tiffany Sleek, both University of Florida undergraduate students)

World hunger vs. food sovereignty

February 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Malnutrition

Of the approximately seven billion people inhabiting our planet today, 842 million live in (or die of) hunger every day (United Nations World Food Programme). This, despite the fact that there is more than enough food to go around. What gives?

It’s not about production

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there are 2700 calories available worldwide per person per day. To put that in perspective, the average American consumes approximately 2500 calories per day (Centers for Disease Control). Therefore, the problem of world hunger is not a shortage of food production. We already produce enough food. The problem of world hunger is inadequate food distribution… Or is it?

It’s not about distribution

Before we attempt to solve world hunger by producing even more food or shipping food long distances at great expense to the environment, it would be a good idea take a step back and a holistic look forward. Case in point: the United States. Here in a country with notable rates of obesity and a strong food distribution infrastructure, six percent of the population experiences “very low food security”. Meaning that roughly seven million households go hungry every day (Feeding America). This goes to show that hunger – nationwide or worldwide – is not simply about food production or distribution. It’s about a multitude of factors, including economics, education, compassion, empowerment, and, ultimately, food sovereignty.

It’s about food sovereignty

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If you understand the basis of this quote then you understand, in part, the concept of food sovereignty. As defined by the 2007 Declaration of Nyéléni, food sovereignty is the right of all people to “healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

Though complex, food sovereignty has several basic premises. It focuses on food for people by putting the right to sufficient, healthy, and culturally appropriate food for all at the center of food and agriculture policies. It values food providers by respecting all those who grow, harvest, and process food. It localizes food systems by bringing food providers and consumers closer together so they can make joint decisions on that benefit and protect all. It respects the right of food providers to have control over their land, seeds, and water and rejects the privatization of natural resources. It builds knowledge and skills by sharing local knowledge and skills that have been passed down over generations. Lastly, food sovereignty works with nature by focusing on production and harvesting methods that add to environmental health rather than detract from it. For more information, visit the website of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.

Food for thought

World hunger is not due to a simple shortage of food production or inadequate distribution. It’s due to a lack of food sovereignty. Can you think of any additional factors not mentioned in the previous paragraph that contribute to food sovereignty? More importantly, what steps do you think need to be taken – at both a local and global level – to achieve a more food sovereign world?

____________

Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/diet.htm

Feeding America: http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/hunger-and-poverty-statistics.aspx

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Agriculture and Food Security: http://www.fao.org/docrep/x0262e/x0262e05.htm

United Nations World Food Programme: http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats

United States Food Sovereignty Alliance: http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/

Keeping a Healthy Heart on Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day approaching, stores are stocked with flowers, chocolates, and heart-shaped notions. This year, we suggest that you let this heart-centric holiday be focused upon the health of your own heart and that of your significant other. This is important since the American Heart Association reports that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death for Americans. So the question is: how can you enjoy the sweets and treats associated with Valentine’s Day and still protect your cardiovascular health? One pleasurable way is to choose dark chocolate and red wine, which contain dietary constituents that may reduce risk of CVD.

Who would have thought that a sweet treat or a glass of wine shared with a loved one could actually reduce risk factors for heart disease? Short-term studies demonstrate that the cocoa within dark chocolate has antioxidant effects (Dark Chocolate). Flavonoids, the antioxidant phytochemicals found in cocoa, have generated much interest recently. These substances may protect against CVD by reducing the oxidative damage to cardiac myocytes (heart muscle cells) that underlies some aspects of the disease. It turns out that the darker the chocolate, the better (a cocoa content of ≥65% is recommended). Three ounces (or 85 grams) per day was shown to be effective. Conversely, chocolate products with added fat and refined sugars (e.g. milk chocolate) should be avoided. These powerful antioxidants may also reduce the risk of diabetes and slow the growth of certain cancer cells. This is all very good news for the celebrants of Valentine’s Day!

While recognition of the protective aspects of dark chocolate is newer, the potential health benefits of red wine consumption have been appreciated for decades. The inhabitants of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea were highlighted in a past blog because of their low rates of heart disease and their long life spans. A regular part of their dietary habits includes the consumption of moderate amounts of red wine with meals. Research since the revolutionary Seven Countries Study (7 Countries Study) has shown that red wine contains not only flavonoids (like dark chocolate) and but also resveratrol (Red Wine), a phytochemical with powerful antioxidant properties. Resveratrol may reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol (which contributes to the development of atherosclerosis), increase healthy HDL cholesterol levels, and prevent blood clotting. Interestingly, consuming grapes or grape juice does not provide the same health benefits, as the fermentation process releases these powerful antioxidants in wine. It is also important to remember that this positive aspect of wine consumption only applies to one (for women) or two (for men) 5 oz. glasses/day, as higher intakes can lead to adverse health outcomes.

The best heart-healthy recommendation for this upcoming Valentine’s Day is thus to focus on these special treats. Consuming these antioxidant-rich products as a part of an overall healthy dietary pattern in combination with regular exercise and other stress-relieving activities will lead to many more Valentine’s Day celebrations in the future. So, it is going to be candy hearts, gummy lips and sweet tarts this year, or dark chocolate and red wine? The decision is yours, but be aware that choices we make today could allow us to avoid “heartache’ in the future. (Written with the creative assistance of Gabrielle Lobban, a University of Florida undergraduate student)

What’s good for you is good for the planet

February 2, 2014 by  
Filed under Dietary Patterns, Meat

There are myriad factors that determine what we eat: taste, cost, convenience, culture, education, weight management goals, disease risk, etc. In addition, do you ever consider the impacts of your food choices on “planetary” health? After all, without our wonderful planet Earth, there would be no wonderful you or me! Before you slap your forehead and exclaim just how complicated food choices are, do you think it’s possible that one “diet” could satisfy your needs as well as those of Mother Earth? The answer is, unequivocally (and refreshingly), yes! It’s called the Mediterranean Diet.

A while back (October 2013) my colleague Jamie wrote about the human health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet (MD): “The modern MD is high in beans, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, fish and nuts, and low in red and processed meats, added sugars and saturated fats with moderate alcohol consumption. Studies have consistently shown that this dietary pattern is associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and may also decrease the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.”

Research studies from the field of ecological sustainability indicate that that the Mediterranean Diet is good for the planet, too. In short, agricultural production of beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables utilizes significantly less energy and generates significantly fewer greenhouse gases than production of meat. For a detailed analysis of these data, check out this report from the Environmental Working Group.

The Double Pyramid

The personal and ecological health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are nicely summarized in the graphic below. Created by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, the Double Pyramid shows that what’s good for us is also good for the planet.

Double pyramid

Food for Thought

Were you already aware how detrimental meat production can be for the planet? Take this quiz offered by the Environmental Working Group to shed further light on the issue. Then, after the quiz, consider what modifications you could make to your diet that would be “doubly” beneficial for both you and the planet.