“Big Tobacco” Revisited?

It now appears that certain law firms are preparing to seek damages from “Big Food” manufacturers for contributing to obesity-related illnesses in America. Interestingly, some of these firms are the same ones that pursued the tobacco industry years ago for manipulating nicotine and then hiding what they knew about cigarettes being addictive.

These lawyers are now asserting that food companies, by knowingly disseminating inaccurate nutrition information and circulating misleading claims about ingredients, are contributing to the harmful medical consequences of the obesity epidemic.

Specifically, the lawsuits are targeting food products that are being promoted as “natural” and “healthy,” when in fact they are neither. The lawsuits allege that up to 25 percent of packaged foods available in the U.S. are incorrectly labeled.

But even if these cases never get to court, you the consumer must still arm yourself with the facts about foods and use nutrition information as a compass to guide your food choices. I offer here some simple suggestions about how you can use the information on nutrition packaging to maximize your healthy bites and minimize unhealthy ones.

First and foremost... 

Pay careful attention to what the packaging says about portion sizes and calorie content. Soon the FDA will be launching a new front-of-the-package initiative whereby nutrition information will be more visible, easier to read, and, we hope, easier to understand.

Learn to spot and decode unhelpful nutrition jargon

Did you know that no legal definition currently exists for the term “natural” when the word is used on food packages? Typically, we think of the adjective “natural” as referring to foods that are minimally processed so that they do not contain any hormones, antibiotics, artificial sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings. And yet the “natural” foods on the grocery shelf are not automatically healthy or nutritious. By this generally accepted definition, dirt could be considered a “natural” snack.

“Healthy” is another buzzword. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the term “healthy” can be used on a food’s packaging if that food meets the generally accepted criteria for low fat, low saturated fat, low sodium, or low cholesterol. But keep in mind that foods labeled “healthy” don’t have to be organic, or additive-free, or natural, and they often are not.

“Organic” does have a precise meaning

In contrast, the term “organic,” when it’s refering to foods, does have a specific meaning: the descriptive word “organic” guarantees that no toxic synthetic pesticides, toxic synthetic herbicides, or chemical fertilizers were used during the production of the crops in question, and no antibiotics or growth hormones were given to animals.

Further, all food producers and processors claiming that their products are “organic” are subject to rigorous certification checks and assessments by independent inspectors who ensure that the food companies are producing and processing their products according to certain standards deemed organic.

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