Month: March 2014

The FDA is planning to change nutrition labels, and they miss the point completely

If you haven’t already heard, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing to change the way nutritional information is presented on a food label.

In the new label, for example, calories and serving sizes will be emphasized, and added sugars will now be listed in a separate category.

To visually represent the suggested changes, take a look at the current label (left) compared to the proposed label (right).

nutritionlabel1       nutritionlabel2

(Source: FDA)

The FDA’s goal, apparently, is to provide a label that better reflects the reality of what Americans are actually eating, rather than what experts think they should be eating.

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, elaborates: (1):

“Things like the size of a muffin have changed so dramatically. It is important that the information on the nutrition fact labels reflect the realities in the world today.”

Ah yes, the ever evolving muffin.  What was once the tiny manifestation of only a few earthly gifts – sourdough starter, wholewheat flour, egg, butter, sugar (and a few more ingredients) – has, over time, been significantly blown up and transformed into a byproduct of the latest technological advancements – refined white flour, a scoop of fortified vitamins and minerals, genetically engineered vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, aluminum-rich leavening agents, etc.

But it must be the nutrition facts label – with its misrepresented serving size and difficult-to-find calorie content – that has been causing all the problems … right?

I may be going out on an oak tree’s limb here, but I don’t think that the immediate problem lies within the over-consumption of those home-made sourdough muffins.  Instead, the real issue involves the allowance of nutritionally-corrupt ingredients in the food supply and passing the resulting products off as ways to “reduce cholesterol,” “support healthy arteries,” and “promote healthy blood pressure.”

Only in modern Western civilization can claims like these be made on heavily processed foods (Cherrios helps to lower cholesterol, apparently), while the majority of medicinal plant organisms, with extensive traditional applications and modern research to validate their efficacy, are relegated to the ranks of unproven, unfounded alternative therapies that ought to remain subordinate to the almighty conventional medical system.  An interesting paradigm, for sure.

The FDA, confused as to why the health of Americans is deteriorating, believes that the solution involves aesthetics.  After all, the only changes being proposed address words and numbers – not actual food quality.  How is the emphasis on serving size and calories, by increasing the size of the text, going to improve the health of consumers?  As far as I’m aware, most consumers can see just fine.  In the event that a consumer would care enough to inspect the nutrition label, I’d imagine that he or she would, sooner or later, locate the calorie content (note: if you have trouble finding it, check out the number next to the bold word, “Calories”).

Words can be highlighted, new categories can be added, and claims can be littered all over the package, but this will do very little to reverse the deteriorating health of junk food addicted Americans.

What the FDA doesn’t seem to realize is that the ingredients that comprise a food are far more important than the nutritional facts that represent the food .  Essentially, quality trumps quantity.  Is it really advantageous to know that a food is low fat, low cholesterol, and low sugar, when the product is made with antibiotic-laced dairy, genetically engineered soybean oil, and artificial sweeteners?  There ought to be more emphasis on what’s actually in a particular product by drawing attention to the ingredient list, for this list can tell a person much more than extra-large numbers on a nutrition facts label could ever reveal.

For example, the proposed labels will feature vitamin D content.  Let’s imagine that a certain food-like-product is high in vitamin D.  So what?  It was synthetically added to the hormonally-altered pasteurized low-fat milk, after the original vitamin D was thrown out with the rest of the critical nutrients, like saturated fat (yes, it is necessary for health) and fat-soluble vitamins.  I’d rather know about the source and quality of the milk, which could be derived from the ingredient list, than the limited nutritional profile that the FDA requires.  Give me any two food products, and I’ll tell you which one is almost certainly more optimal for the human body just by reading the ingredient list.

Let’s not forget that the proposed labels do nothing to address the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply.  With the increasing desire for GMO labeling in America (a recent Mellman Group survey found that 91% of voters supported GMO labeling), and the lack of consumer interest to emphasize serving size and calorie content on nutrition facts labels (no one is marching around Washington with signs exclaiming “Increase Calorie Font Size!”), why, on this beautiful Earth, is there such a push to address the concerns of the latter, while the desires of GMO labeling advocates are continually dismissed?

Ultimately, the FDA’s proposed labels seem like a precarious step sideways (even, perhaps, backwards) … not a huge step forward.  If it plans on seeing any significant changes, it must acknowledge the fact that America’s commercial food supply hardly contains any real food whatsoever.

When the majority of food products are just different permutations of corn, wheat, and soy (think subsidization has anything to do with their ubiquity?), we’ve got a problem.  When the text size of “calories” requires magnification, we’ve got a problem.  When the majority of Americans demand labeling of genetically modified organisms, and that demand is ignored, we’ve got a problem.  When the focus on food shifts to isolated nutrients, numbers, and percentages, instead of what’s actually in the food, we’ve got a problem.

So, we’ve got a problem.  No worries, though, as there is a fairly simple solution.

Eat real food.  Food that comes from the Earth.  Eat lots of food that doesn’t even require packaging, as most products that require labels you could probably do without – and still thrive.  Even better, grow your own food, or harvest the food from the wild.  Labels are products of civilization; the foods of civilization are the ones that got us in this mess in the first place.

You don’t need an expert, a professional, nor the FDA to tell you what’s good for your body.  Are they paragons of optimal, adaptive health anyway?

Essentially, don’t outsource your health.  Take responsibility for it, in every area of life.

And trust your intuition – you already know which foods are best for you.


Nutritional Differences Between Maple Syrup Grades – Which Is Best?

MaplesugarindustrywildfoodismWithin the supermarket of domesticated foods, a wild redeemer can usually be found:  maple syrup.  It is the largest commercially produced and consumed natural plant product that is derived exclusively from tree sap, and is one of the remaining wild foods left in the grocery store.

For those who do not have the time, nor the resources, to embark on the path of home sugar production, commercially bought maple syrup is a fine alternative.  But how do we know which kind is best for us?  Some notable authors declare that there are no nutritional differences between the various grades of syrup.  Are they entirely correct in their statements?

First, I’ll just throw it out there for those who may not know: products like Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Buttersworth’s are not real maple syrups.  They’re made from high-fructose corn syrup.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think Zea mays (corn) gives its sap for the production of sugar in ways quite like a maple tree.  What’s more, neither of the aforementioned products even contains the word “maple” in its list of ingredients.  I’m sure most of you know all this, but for those who don’t, I’d strongly advise against the consumption of these maple syrup knockoffs.

Moving on, let’s assume we have in front of us 4 different bottles of (real) maple syrup.  From left to right, the colors range from light to dark, and the grades progress from US Grade A Light Amber, all the way to US Grade B for Reprocessing.  This is the standard labeling in most of the states within the U.S., though Canada has different standards (from Canada No.1 Extra Light to Canada No. 3 Amber).  To alleviate confusion, the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) has recommended the adoption of a universal grading scale, assigning a Grade A to all products, and only differentiating by color and taste.

Now, the big question is this:  Is there a difference in nutritional value between the lightest bottles and the darkest?

The answer?  Of course!  There appears to be considerable variation between syrups (using the IMSI classifications of amber, dark, and very dark) in three main areas of nutritional concern:  mineral composition, total phenol content, and antioxidant potential (1).

Mineral composition
Very dark syrup, which tends to be produced from sap later in the season, has been shown to contain higher levels of calcium and phosphorus than those found in amber syrup.  There is, on average, 2.26 times the calcium and 2.76 times the phosphorus in very dark syrup compared to amber syrup.  All maple syrup contains a host of minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron, though very dark syrup may boast around 27% more total mineral content than its lighter alternative.

Total phenol content
Phenols are the main phytochemical compounds found in maple syrup.  Very dark syrup, on average, may contain up to 2.1 times the phenol content than that of amber syrup.  These plant compounds are associated with the darker color of fruits and vegetables, and may give the darker syrups their rich colors.  Beyond aesthetics, maple phenols may possess important biological activities, acting as antioxidant, anti-tumor, and anti-cancer agents.

For example, a phenolic-rich extract from maple syrup has been shown to induce cell cycle arrest in human colon cancer cells (2).

Another study showed that maple polyphenols may have potential cancer chemoprotective effects through the induction of cell cycle arrest in colon and breast cancer cells (3).

Antioxidant potential
Among fruits and vegetables, high phenol content is associated with higher antioxidant potential.  This is exactly what we see with maple syrup.  On average, very dark maple syrup has almost 2 times the antioxidant potential than that of amber syrup.  This potential may be greater than those of vitamin C and synthetic commercial antioxidants.

Oxidation is a contributing factor in certain illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  The consumption of dietary antioxidants, like those found in maple syrup, therefore, is necessary to keep the oxidation process in check.

In summary, darker maple syrup tends to contain a higher total mineral content (especially calcium and phosphorus), more phenols, and a higher antioxidant potential than lighter maple syrup.  This is handy information for those who may be confused by all the varying labels on maple syrup bottles.

A point I haven’t addressed yet, though one that is worth mentioning, is that home sugar production can be unparalleled when it comes to quality.  Most commercial maple syrup is produced with the heavy utilization of plastic in several steps throughout the process.  It wouldn’t be too far fetched to expect some leaching of plastic compounds into the final product.  The use of more inert materials, therefore, such as stainless steel and glass (included in some home operations), can result in a product that exceeds the quality of any syrup bought in the store.

Regardless of how you acquire maple syrup – either through the grocery store, a neighbor, or your own sugar bush – including this nutritious food at home is a great way to increase the wildness of your diet.

And remember, when choosing a particular grade of maple syrup based on the nutritional profile, a general rule of thumb can be applied:  the darker the syrup, the better!

Li L, Seeram NP (2012). Chemical composition and biological effects of maple syrup. In: Patil, BS, Guddadarangavvanahally KJ, Chidambara M, Kotamballi N and Seeram, NP (eds). Emerging trends
in dietary components for preventing and combating disease, 1st ed. Amer Chem Soc., pp 323-333.

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Thank you!
Adam Haritan