When Pigs Fly
Uh oh. The FDA is thinking again. That can’t be good.
Specifically, FDA reps are thinking about introducing a universal food package labeling system that consumers could use to quickly and easily assess the nutritional profile of individual products.
This is a wonderful idea! Absolutely! As long as you completely ignore one very important question: Who is going to make the decisions about which foods are healthy? The FDA? Excuse me – I’m going to need a minute to catch my breath after crying with laughter.
Earlier this month, the FDA held a two-day meeting to hear food labeling opinions and ideas from invited nutrition experts, health gurus, and food industry representatives. In a report on the meeting, NutraIngredients-USA noted that the ideas about labeling were “similar to the UK’s traffic light system.”
Never heard of the traffic light system? Me neither. But after a little checking I found the system explained on a web site maintained by the Food Standards Agency (the UK’s version of the FDA). As you might expect, a green label means the food is nutritious and safe, amber means the food is reasonably nutritious and safe, but not when eaten in abundance, and red means the food contains high levels of elements that are best to avoid, like added sugars, salt, and fats.
Ah yes – fats. That single word underlines the problem with relying on the government to give you nutrition advice. Are fats bad for you? Some are and some aren’t, but in mainstream nutrition circles (which would certainly include the FDA), “fat” is the villain to be avoided at all costs.
But there are all sorts of ways a one-track, mainstream source of nutrition advice can steer you wrong. For instance, the Food Standards Agency site offers this guidance nugget: “If you want to choose a healthy diet, you should base your meals on starchy foods such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice.”
Yikes! You should BASE YOUR MEALS on starchy foods? I’m all for moderate wholegrain intake, but basing your meals on starch is like basing your meals on Froot Loops. In the e-Alert “Complex Made Simple” (6/23/04), HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., explained the finer points of carbohydrates, and in the “must avoid” column he listed starch, pointing out that starches break down into sugar as soon as they begin the digestion process.
This is why friends don’t let friends take nutrition advice from the government.
A modest proposal
Am I too hard on the FDA? Without question: no. But I’m more than happy to be helpful, so here’s my outline for a truly useful traffic light label system.
Most packages wouldn’t get this label because it would be reserved for fresh, whole foods with an absolute minimum of processing. But green light foods WOULD include raw, unpasteurized dairy products. (Yeah, that’s going to go over big at the FDA.) Also in this category: whole grain products (provided they’re 100 percent authentic whole grain), as well as fish and meats – but only if the fish is not farmed and is 100 percent free of additives such as artificial colorings, and the meat is strictly from free-range animals that haven’t been factory-farmed, force fed, and otherwise abused with antibiotics or growth hormones.
Lightly processed foods with high nutritional value and a minimum of additives, artificial colorings, and unpronounceable chemicals would make up this category.
All of the processed foods that don’t make it into the Yellow Light category would land in the Red Light zone, with a special note to avoid these chemical-laced, artificially colored and flavored foods at all costs. And anything with the slightest trace of trans fatty acids would earn the Red Light. That’s right, FDA, you’d have to give up your absurd deception that allows food producers to claim “zero trans fats” when a product actually contains any amount less than half a gram of trans fats per serving.
And starch-based meals? We might need a fourth category that goes beyond Red Light for that “nutrition” advice.
“FDA Hearing Eyes National Nutrition Symbol System” Lorraine Heller, NutraIngredients-USA, 9/12/07, nutraingredients-usa.com
“Traffic Light Labeling” Food Standards Agency, eatwell.gov.uk