How to Read a Label

February 26th, 2013 · 36 Comments · Cameos, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

If you’ve picked up a newspaper in the past decade, you might be aware of a few basic strategies for shopping smarter in the grocery store. Most of us, for instance, likely know that:

♦ It’s wise to stick to the perimeter of the store — produce, dairy, meat — where the fresh products are sold. (Interior aisles are filled, floor-to-ceiling, with processed foods.)

♦ Everything is positioned where it is for a reason — i.e., the most alluring items didn’t end up directly in your line of vision (and, more diabolically, your kids’ line of vision) by accident. To find the healthy stuff, you need to look up high and down low. (To see what we mean, check out the photo above.)

♦ It pays to read the label. I know that a quick scan of the nutrition facts panel will give me a sense of when something is high in fat or calories. And thanks to recent campaigns waged largely by enraged parents, I know to avoid trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, horse meat, pink slime, etc. I also know that it’s not a good sign when an ingredient list is so long, you need a magnifying glass to read it. (Unless it’s a birthday party or a barbecue; in our house, it’s never a birthday or a barbecue without the Reddi Whip or some S’Mores made from Hershey bars.)

But what I didn’t know until I had the opportunity to work with Michael Moss on his book, Salt Sugar Fat, was the degree to which processed food companies have formulated their products to not only get us to eat them, but to eat more and more of them. I didn’t know about the “bliss point,” or “mouthfeel,” or the high-stakes race for “stomach share.” I didn’t know that sodium was not the same thing as salt. I didn’t know that the average American now eats 33 pounds of cheese a year, that the most die-hard Coke drinkers — known within Coca-Cola as “heavy users” — drink up to 1,000 cans a year, or that the processed food industry accounts for $1 trillion dollars a year. Michael is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, and it shows: If you’re interested in the inside story of how the food giants have hooked a nation, if you believe that knowledge is power, if you want to know the marketing strategies that are behind those “convenient” items so many of us are feeding our children, this book might be a life-changer — or at the very least, a family dinner-changer. (You may have seen Moss’s book excerpted in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday.) We asked Michael to annotate the labels of a few of the country’s most popular, kid-friendly supermarket items to illustrate just how bad it is, and what we’re up against. He was kind enough to oblige. – Andy

  1. Hot Pockets is owned by Nestle, the Swiss-based food giant. In 2002, it paid $2.6 billion for this microwavable snack, and now counts it among its “billionaire brands” — with annual sales in excesses of $1,000,000,000.
  2. At a mere 4.5 ounces per sandwich, who wouldn’t be tempted to eat them both? But doing so could get you up to 12 grams of saturated fat (3/4 of a day’s max for most adults), 1,180 milligrams sodium (more than 2/3 of a day’s max), 5 teaspoons of sugar, and 700 calories.
  3. No trans fats? Well, yes, thanks largely to the fierce pressure consumers put on the manufacturers when the deleterious health effects of these fats became more widely known. But beware of any brag like this on the front of processed food labels. The fine print on the back usually reveals a host of items just as problematic for one’s health.

 

  1. Nutrition advocates have a simple rule of thumb when it comes to ingredients: avoid anything you can’t pronounce. Laden with chemical preservatives, emulsions and conditioners, this would not be a label for them. (Seriously, try counting the number of ingredients in there — if you can even read the microscopic type.)
  2. This label is actually a fascinating study on food processing. Consider the chicken alone, represented here as both “ground and formed,” whatever that means. And note the numerous mentions of salt, sugar, and cheese, including imitation.

  1. The FDA bears responsibility for failing to update its serving sizes, which grossly underestimates the power of salt/sugar/fat-heavy processed foods to compel overeating. But the food giants reap the benefit. A “serving” of these gushers weighs less than an ounce, which helps keep the numbers in the nutrition facts panel from looking too scary – 3 teaspoons of sugar per tiny pouch, versus 17 teaspoons per box. The problem is, lots of kids can’t stop at one pouch.
  2. First launched by General Mills, these “fruit” snacks have exploded in popularity and now have their own stretch of the grocery store, a million miles from the real fruit aisle. The reason for the growth: a huge, fruit-centered marketing ploy is driving sales. These sugar-bombs convey the illusion of health.
  3. Real Fruit? Not really. In truth, real processed fruit. Companies add these fruit derivatives to foods and drinks, sometimes in miniscule amounts, which allows them to splash the word fruit on the front of the label.

  1. Is table sugar worse than corn syrup? Nutritionists say they are indistinguishable, bearing the same number of empty calories.
  2. Pears and grapes are the most commonly used fruits in processed foods because they are cheapest to buy. The processing typically “strips” them of the fiber and the filling water that makes fresh fruit so wholesome. The result is just another form of sugar (often known as fruit sugar or stripped fruit).
  3. In this small of an amount, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil likely has negligible effects on your health. But nutritionists say there are far better choices to look for, like canola.

  1. Each year, the dairy industry spends tens of millions of dollars trying to get Americans to eat more cheese through a marketing scheme overseen by none other than the USDA, and it’s a boon for the food giants. Average consumption has tripled to 33 pounds a person a year, thanks to new products like this all over the grocery store that use cheese as an alluring, fattening ingredient. Cheese used to be something we ate on occasion, when friends were over, before dinner. Now it’s in everything.
  2. The more cheese, the better: it’s an industry mantra. And companies are vying to outdo one another with the types of cheese they can pack into one can or box.

  1. With more than half of the calories coming from fat, it’s no surprise that oil is the largest ingredient after potatoes. Companies use these four oils — corn, cottonseed, soybean, and sunflower — and others interchangeably, depending on market supply and cost. Oil and fat are what give processed foods their sought-after “mouthfeel,” as industry types call it, which is a crucial part of a product’s allure.
  2. These Pringles have moderate loads for salty snacks… if you stick to a single, one-ounce serving. But let your child eat the whole can over two days, and they’ll get more than a full day’s max of saturated fat, two-thirds a day’s sodium, and a teaspoon of sugar thrown in for good measure. (Not to mention 2,000 calories.)
  3. People trying to limit their sodium have a lot to worry about when it comes to processed foods. These Pringles have four sodium compounds, including MSG, along with salt (added by itself and in each of the four cheeses).

Tune in to Fresh Air today, Tuesday, February 26, to hear Michael Moss talk more about Salt, Sugar, Fat

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School Year’s Resolution 2: Master the Weekly Shop

September 20th, 2012 · 33 Comments · Favorites, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

Now that we are three weeks into the school year, I am assuming you have all mastered School Year’s Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and we are free to move on to a very popular cry for help among the DALS readership: I don’t know how to shop efficiently for dinner. This is a little tricky because how and what you pick up at the grocery store is inextricably linked to how you eat, so no two shopping lists for the Piggly Wiggly or Wegman’s or your local Farmer’s Market or Trader Joe’s (where we go) are ever going to look the same. So what I’ve tried to do here is outline a few rules and strategies that we shop by that can hopefully be universally applied. This list also assumes we all want to at least try to have a sit-down dinner at least four times between Sunday and Friday.

Rule 1: Put it in Writing Those of you who have read my book, know that I began this whole dinner ritual by sitting down on Sunday with my dinner diary, writing down the meals I wanted to make in the upcoming week, then shopping for everything we needed to make that happen. This strategy helped kickstart the ritual in a few ways: It got the momentum going; it eliminated those odious late-afternoon back-and-forths (What do you want to eat tonight? I don’t know, what do you want? I don’t know what do you?); and later, when we had school-aged kids, it helped lessen, if only a little bit, the existential dread of lunch-packing. (It’s so much easier to do the first pack of the week with a full fridge than with a fridge that’s been run dry.) Ultimately, the goal here is to take the daily thinkwork out of dinner. If you come up with a plan for the week, you just freed up all that psychic energy to direct towards more exciting pursuits, like watching, dissecting, and ruminating over all four seasons of Breaking Bad.

Rule 2: Squeeze in a Sexy Shop Another reason we hit Trader Joe’s on Sunday is because our farmer’s market is open on Saturdays. Unlike the dutiful, checklisty supermarket shop, this is where we can let the food (as opposed to the list) inform the shop. So we pick up what looks good — almost always fish that was swimming off Hampton Bays just hours earlier and a bundle of Tuscan kale, sorrel, summer spinach, or any other beautiful greens that last us the week and allow us to skip their mediocre bagged counterparts at Trader Joe’s. And there we have Meal 1: Grilled Fish with some kind of greens.  I’m not saying your Meal One has to be this. It might be a bolognese made from some good grass-fed beef, or pasta with fresh butternut squash or a kale and feta quiche made with the eggs from your favorite farmstand. The point is: We almost always earmark our Sunday dinners to be market-inspired. (And please don’t tell anyone I just called kale-shopping sexy.)

Rule 3: Make a Realistic Line-up Now, for that dutiful, checklisty shop. It’s crucial to keep it simple — save the Nathan Myrhvold Foamy Broth Number for Saturday night. The loose formula that I sometimes use when dreaming up my line-up is the following: (more…)

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