Sunday, 18 May 2014

Mostly Plants: The problem with labelling

There have been a number of adjustments to moving from London back to the Bay Area, when it comes to health and diet. The big, obvious one is that I don't walk as much as I used to - I've had to get really anal about setting daily and monthly step goals, and ensuring that I meet them. Another is the price of food. For all the talk about how expensive it is in the UK, staples like milk, bread and fruit cost way more here than they do there (and the quality is about the same).

But the most jarring difference, and the one that's really changed how I consume food - or more appropriately, drinks - is in how things are labeled.

The UK, presumably as a result of EU regulations, uses standardized measures in its food labeling, so that you can easily compare how many calories are in 100mL of Coke (42) versus the same volume of orange juice (55). Solid foods like cereal or potato chips are compared in a standard amount of 100g, and if they come in a package smaller than that, the nutritional information will reflect how many calories and grams of sodium, sugar and fat are in the full pack. Cereal boxes go one step further, and list nutritional information for a hypothetical bowl of cereal with milk.

Here in the US, all of that goes out the window. Everything is in "servings", and these servings rarely reflect how people actually consume food or drink. For single items of, to name an example at random, drinks the system is actually not too badly designed - a 355mL can of Coke is one serving, and so is one 16oz bottle of Snapple peach iced tea. As a result you learn that both contain the same amount of sugar per serving (39g). Since I used to drink iced tea as a healthy alternative to soda, this was not a particularly welcome revelation, but my intake of Snapple has decreased dramatically (full disclosure: I'm currently drinking a bottle of Snapple as I write this, but it's okay, because today is my cheat day).

The system gets complicated as you move up to larger containers, or to other brands. I've just dug a pair of empty bottles out of my recycling crate - one is a 16oz bottle of organic oolong peach-flavored tea, and the other is a 20oz bottle of peach-flavored Joe Tea. Despite the fact that it's the same size as my bottle of Snapple, the oolong claims its servings are 8oz, meaning there are two per container; it lists its sugar per serving as 16g, which at first glance looks way healthier than the Snapple, but of course it just means when I finished the bottle I polished off 32g of sugar - slightly better than the Snapple, but not necessarily great, when you consider that the recommended daily amount of sugar for an adult is 37g.

The Joe tea, meanwhile, sets its servings at 8oz too, and says it contains 2.5 servings. Each serving has a tooth-melting 24g of sugar, so if I'd drunk the entire bottle in one sitting I'd have blasted my pancreas with 60g of sugar (luckily, I drank it over the course of three days). And it gets worse the more sizes and types of container you throw into the mix.

It's the same story with cereal, but even worse. I have two empty boxes in my recycling and one full box - two set a serving at one cup, and the third says it's 3/4 of a cup. The problem is that a cup of Basic 4 is listed as 55g, a cup of Raisin Bran is 59g and a full cup of Special K Chocolatey Delight (don't judge, OK?) is around 4g. Per cup, the Basic 4 has 13g of sugar, Raisin Bran has 18g and the Special K comes out to a relatively sedate 12g; sedate, that is, until you recall that a serving (3/4 of a cup, remember) is around half the mass of a cup of Raisin Bran; if you weighed 59g of both, the Special K would contain about the same amount of sugar as the Raisin Bran. It's a little worrying when you consider that I have one size of bowl, and I throw the same amount in every morning.

The point of all these numbers and calculations is to show that even if you're diligent and always check the label to see what you're putting into your body, it's easy to get misled. That's pretty disgraceful - and I think it goes to show just how much food companies get away with. Judging by the examples above, I think it's fair to say that they really don't want you to know what's in the food you buy.

Which brings us to the GM food debate. I'm not against GMO food in principle, but I do have problems with those who don't want it to be labeled as such. Leaving aside the food companies who want to avoid labeling GMO foods for dishonest reasons, there are also a lot of sensible people who get misled into arguing against labeling, because a lot of the people in favor of labeling argue it in terms of food safety. It's an emotive issue, but it does no one any good to argue it in apocalyptic terms; GMO foods need to be labeled so that people know what they're putting into their bodies, pure and simple. It doesn't matter if the stuff kills you or makes you live a thousand years.

Instead of dishonestly (there's that word again!) trying to hide the fact that their wares may or may not be GMO, food companies should be engaging in an honest debate about why they want to sell us that stuff. If it can survive parasites or transportation, or is reinforced with nutrients that don't usually form in that food, we should be able to know; and if it confers no benefit except to line Monsanto's pockets, we need to know that too.