Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Food Labels That Ate My Sanity

by Leigh

When I first saw the commercials featuring the bloated college girl surrounded by books and pizza boxes whose roommate gives her yogurt to help her get "regular," I was all huh? Dairy? For constipation? But I said nothing. (Or maybe I did to my roommate.)

Then came another with a fifty-something woman in a flower shop who experienced "bloating". What really got me this time was the fake name for the active cultures in the yogurt. Bifidus regularis? I remained silent. (My dog might disagree.)

Now Jamie Lee Curtis is in on the act. Jamie Lee, respected spokeswoman for aging gracefully; Jamie Lee, adoption advocate and children's book author; Jamie Lee, co-star of my favorite holiday movie of all time, Trading Places. Well, that just tears it.

Why would anyone turn to a dairy product for “slow intestinal transit”? Dairy mucks up the works. Just ask anyone who bought into the Atkins craze. And who would wait for two weeks for relief by yogurt, when a bowl of quinoa and spinach will do the trick in a day?

Dannon gets away making these claims because, according to Lauren Sandler in Slate, "The FDA classifies constipation as a disease, and any product that claims to treat a disease must carry an FDA-approved health claim. Activia does not." It's all in the phrasing.

Food labeling is as much of a science as inventing designer yogurt cultures. Take a gander at the FDA’s food labeling regulations if you want your brain to short circuit. A handy chart at the bottom of this page translates the guidelines.

With labels, it's all about how you present the information. As long as the food company doesn't claim to cure disease or put the "low fat" burst too close to the "statement of identity" or separate it from the "disclosure statement," everything seems to be kosher. (But not necessarily Kosher.)

In other words, if the claim is low-fat, then the label has to say how low in fat compared to the regular product, but it can have a bunch of other distracting information with the hope you don't read it. As for those pesky TV spots, forget it. Clinical studies, schminical schtudies.

I'm not saying Activia doesn't work for some folks; it's just not a connection I would make. To me, dairy = delicious in small quantities. Probiotics certainly have their place. My doctor always recommended eating yogurt after antibiotic treatment to replace intestinal flora, and I am well aware of the benefits in keeping the female parts in check.

If you want my unsolicited, laylady's advice: eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to keep things moving. And if you want some unsolicited professional advice: eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to keep things moving.

Which brings up the next commercial series that makes my head explode. General Mills has been touting for some time now that all their cereals are made with “whole grain.” In the TV commercial, we see adults browsing rows and rows of cereal, including Lucky Charms and Trix, excited that they get their nostalgia fix and still eat healthy.

Hold up, junior. These cereals are still refined flour products fortified with vitamins. If only “whole grain” and “fiber” meant the same thing. According to Web MD, whole grains are necessary for heart health, but, once again, food labels can be misleading.

“The reality is that refined white flour—with just a touch of whole wheat added back in—can be listed as ‘whole grain.’ A food manufacturer can use the term ‘whole grain’ no matter how much whole wheat the product contains,” say nutritionist Tanya Jollife and health educator Nicole Nichols.

The General Mills healthy stalwarts, Cheerios, Wheaties, and Total, are thought to be the standard bearers of the brand, but it gets muddier when the sweetened "kids" cereals come into play. How does Cocoa Puffs, made with "whole grain corn," get away with that claim and only have have 1g of dietary fiber? Cinnamon Toast Crunch, made with "whole grain wheat" (not "whole wheat"), comes in at a whopping 3g of dietary fiber. The very same tally as Cheerios, Wheaties, and Total.

General Mills is not the only culprit. Quaker does it; Kellogs does it. Sara Lee was sued by the Center for Science in the Public Interest for making false claims about it's whole-grain usage. A settlement was reached in July, and will hopefully lead to more accurate labeling.

If you want to be sure you're getting a whole-grain cereal (or bread or flour), read the nutritional information. Check the fiber content; at least 5g of dietary fiber. What is the first ingredient? If it says "enriched" or "refined", keep looking. Unless the package says 100% whole grain, it isn't.

There are other areas that require diligence: fruit juices, high fructose corn syrup, the word "natural" that crops up everywhere but means nothing. But if we can resist the seductive powers of Jamie Lee and the nostalgia trip - with their promises of miracle cures and magic elixirs - we'll be feeling fine.


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(Photos courtesy of flickr members bunbunlife and erindean)

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Christina said...

So true.

Related to your comments on Activia, here is a link to a hi-larioius short on yogurt's marketing to women. This Sarah Haskins lady is seriously funny. And, it features Jamie Lee Curtis, about 2 minutes in.

Anonymous said...

The GI association you quote as supporting your position against active dairy to improve digestion features an article on it's Clinical Practices page that concludes yogurt is effective in treating certain disorders (

It's also common medical advice to take yogurt with active cultures after taking an antibiotic - to improve digestion*-antibiotic&btnG=Search&hl=en&safe=off&sa=2

Atkins a 'craze'? Perhaps, but it's much closer to the diet our species has eaten throughout most of evolutionary history, versus a grain-based diet. And lots of studies, like this one ( and Dartmouth's most comprehensive long-term study point out that low carb diets are more effective for weight loss and cholesterol.

Despite these objections, fiber obviously is effective too.

Milehimama said...

Hey, I buy Activia!

But only because there are always FABULOUS coupons for it, making it by far the cheapest yogurt (cheaper than generic! I pay less than a quarter a piece) and if you get the regular (not light) kind, there are fewer additives and chemicals than regular ice cream.

Although we just eat beans around here to stay regular.

Anonymous said...

More food label complaints: I discovered recently that "no sugar added" sometimes means "we added Splenda instead." Seriously, what?? Unfortunately I hadn't bothered to read the ingredients :/

The Q Family said...

That's so true. This day you have to be very careful and read all the label. Recently, I saw a loaf of bread with a big 'Organic' word on it.. But it's not certified Organic bread but rather made in part by organic flour. No wonder why we have to spend so much time grocery shopping. Half the time we spend in reading the label.

-Amy @ The Q Family

Kristen, a.k.a. Frugal Girl said...

I agree. Those yogurts are ridiculously expensive. Why not buy normal yogurt(or make your own, like I do) and then eat other things that are SUPPOSED to have fiber in them?

It drives me nuts when companies try to make a food into something that it's orange juice that has oodles of calcium in it. OJ isn't supposed to provide calcium! Go drink some milk or eat some canned salmon or something if you want calcium.

Melissa said...

In the latest issue of the Consumer Action Health Letter (CSPI--July/August 08) the cover story is on fiber content of food and how we can't always take fiber claims at face value (or the media's face value). It goes right along with this article.

Anonymous said...

Yogurt for TREATING “slow intestinal transit”? Honestly, that never occured to me.

I eat dairy to treat occasional bouts of um, extra-quick intestinal transit...any old yogurt (for those who can tolerate it) will do an excellent job treating stress-related irritable bowel.

So I always thought those commericials were bogus, since slowing down intestinal stuff is all yogurt, and there's no need for specially formulated products.


Lazy Rani said...

i'm with the any ol' yogurt, any ol' digestive problem school.

probiotics are bar none the best thing i know of to fix any long term or short term tummy troubles i've ever had. getting regular overnight with a healthy meal sounds like a remedy for a once in a blue moon occurrence, but chronic problems take time to fix. and probiotics really only work taken daily over time.

yogurt is the cheapest form of probiotics i know of. and, as a 95% vegan 99% vegetarian, i notice the side effects of dairy and have to say--yogurt is the only form of dairy i know of that doesn't seem to have any side effects for me. i think this is related to it being a whole food chock full of live cultures and enzymes to counteract any nastiness.

still, rather than yogurt full of colors, flavors, preservatives, etc., i have to vote for a couple spoonfuls of plain yogurt with that bowl of quinoa and spinach, or on top of some lentils, or replacing sour cream in a burrito, or with granola... you get the idea.

and (at risk of becoming epic) i certainly wholeheartedly agree that fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes are really the way to go in the long run!

Milehimama said...

I saw a pic of "certified Carbon Free" organic sugar.

Seriously, wha???