Labeling Problems With the Food We Eat

By Chuck Norris

June 3, 2016 7 min read

Major changes to nutrition labels on food packages became final last week and you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from public health advocates across the country. You no doubt have heard about these changes, as the news got a lot of media attention.

This action marks the first significant redrawing of the nutrition information on food labels since the federal government started requiring them in the early 1990s. That big exhaled sigh I mention has to do with concerns by health advocates that many of the major elements of the new labeling would not survive powerful lobbying efforts. The celebratory atmosphere surrounding the labeling news is verification that the recommended changes presented to the Food and Drug Administration remained largely intact — most significantly the line on added sugars.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food and beverage companies, seemed prepared to accept the new standards without complaint; the Sugar Association, not so much. In an official statement, the organization expressed its disappointment in the decision, arguing that the rule on added sugars lacked "scientific justification." Perhaps they missed the results of another survey that by coincidence was released about the same time as the food labeling announcement. You may have missed it as well.

Since 1957, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been asking Americans 18 and older about their health and the health of their family members as part of the National Health Interview Survey. This year's finding represents one of the largest and broadest surveys of health in the United States. Although many of the findings are encouraging they are overshadowed by news of continued rising rates of obesity and diabetes in this country.

In 2015, 30.4 percent of Americans 20 and older said they were obese, up from 29.9 percent in 2014. Although the 2015 rate is not significantly higher than the previous year's, it represents a continuation of a trend that has been going on since researchers began using the current survey in 1997. Adults between the ages of 40 and 59 scored the highest rate of obesity. In this age group, 34.6 percent of people said they were obese, compared with 26.5 percent of adults 20 to 39 years old and 30.1 percent of adults 60 and older. Other surveys insist the problem is even worse. The other discouraging finding from the report is that the number of Americans who said they had been diagnosed with diabetes continued to rise. The "added sugar" line reflects increasing concern about the amount of sugar that Americans consume and the shocking amount of sugar that's added to commonly purchased foods. The change is designed to distinguish between sugars that are naturally occurring in a food and the sugars that food manufacturers include later to boost flavors.

Current labels make it difficult — if not impossible — to measure the precise amount of sugars that are added to products. They're found not just in beverages and cookies, but bread, salad dressing, pasta sauce, infant formula, protein bars and yogurt, as well as an array of other products not thought of as obvious sugar added foods.

A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina recently conducted a detailed survey of the packaged foods and drinks purchased in American grocery stores and found that 60 percent of them include some form of added sugar. When they examined all individual processed food in the store, 68 percent were found to contain added sugar. Most folks by now have heard of high-fructose corn syrup, but many different words for products that amount to "added sugar" can be found; evaporated cane juice, rice syrup and flo-malt, to name a few.

"It's going to really surprise people who go to organic and whole foods stores, when they find that all this natural food they've been buying is full of added sugar," says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, and one of the study's authors. "It's full of fruit juice concentrates, and they thought it was all good stuff."

Among all the chatter about the redrawing of the nutrition information on food labels it's important that people realize that these changes will not take effect for two-to-three years. Although not mentioned in the announcement, I can't help but think this has to do with the ever increasing shelf life of packaged food products and existing inventories.

Completely lost in the discussion is a very important labeling change by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that went into effect this week. It involves some steaks in your grocery store and a process you may never have heard of - mechanical tenderizing.

"Mechanical" or "Blade" tenderizing refers to beef that has been punctured with blades or needles to break down the muscle fibers and make it easier to chew. It also means the meat has a greater chance of being contaminated and possibly making you sick.

If pathogens like E. coli or salmonella happen to be on the surface of the steak, tenderizing can transfer those bacteria from the surface to the inside. Since the inside takes longer to cook and is more likely to be undercooked, bacteria have a higher chance for survival there. Without required labeling of beef subjected to this process, you can't exercise your right to make a choice.

It's also not unheard of for tenderized beef to be linked to food poisoning. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reportedly tracked six outbreaks of food borne illness since 2000 that were linked to mechanically tenderized beef products to be prepared in restaurants and consumers' homes.

Approximately 2.7 billion pounds, or about 11 percent, of the beef labeled for sale has been mechanically tenderized, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service. The new labels will affect an estimated 6.2 billion servings of steaks and roasts every year. The Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, a nonprofit advocacy group, has been working for the labeling change since 2009.

Thanks go out to them for their efforts on behalf of consumers everywhere.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: Geoff Parsons

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