Reading Between the Labels

Working with a handful of certified nutritionists certainly has its benefits. Having fallen sick a few weeks ago, and consequently discovering I was anemic due to iron deficiency, I was unquestionably fortunate to have my dietician friends consult my less than stellar eating habits.

Now to be frank, before this incident, I actually thought I had the whole healthy eating thing down. I had fully switched to whole grains, and starting buying organic anything. I watched most of the food documentaries on Netflix. I even tried to convince some of my friends to go vegan with me.

I knew what I was doing. Kind of.

Vegetarians, Vegans, and Carnivores, go ahead, shake your heads at me. Eating a plate of my favorite fruit and veggies and calling it a day is hardly healthy; especially if I am not even sure what each is providing for me. One of my nutritionist co-workers told me that this was actually a common mistake for a lot of Vegetarians. Thinking he might have just been trying to make me feel better, I googled and found a study where almost 50% of Vegetarians had anemia due to iron deficiency. Did I mention that the subjects participating in the study I am working on in Chile this summer were all born with iron deficiencies? Oh, the ironies of life!

Maybe I should have known better, but a recent hot-topic in the Santiago news this week had me and several of my co-workers even more baffled. A news channel program (“Contacto” de Canal 13) recently decided to investigate several food industries to identify whether or not they complied with government health regulations and whether or not these companies were providing false advertising.

A large yogurt company had made claims that their product helped the digestive system (stating the popular phrase, “it has been scientifically proven”); however after several laboratory tests on the strains of bacteria present in the yogurt, it was evident that it would take more than just one portion of yogurt to help your digestive system. These packets of yogurt even have a nice little emblem of the Chilean Society of Gastroenterology printed on them, stating its endorsement of the product. Moreover, next to it you can find an image of the colon, with the presumable yogurt helping nature take its course.

Halfway through the segment the broadcaster announced, “If you buy ‘light’ bread products thinking you are going to become skinnier, think again.” For a product to be sold as “light” in Chile it must have less than 25% sodium, fat, sugar, or calories.The laboratory results showed that you do not really save any calories when selecting a “light” bread. In fact, the “light” version of the bread was found to contain more fat than the regular version. The whole wheat bread had also been mislabeled, and found to have 42% more fat than reported on the nutritional label. The segment ended by saying that the marraqueta (a Chilean bread staple, that resembles French bread), had the least amount of fat compared to any of the “light” breads. A great sign for any local bakery, but what does that mean for us?

When my host mother brought back a huge bag of marraquetas for us that evening, I did not even know what to think anymore. There was no way this enriched white bread was better than the complex carbohydrates we had been devouring for the past six weeks. The news segment had claimed that the mislabeling of products was “confusing to the consumer,” which is obvious; however, the depiction of the situation by the media, was equally confusing. More fat, less fat, what does that even mean? I thought our concern was the type of fat. We need fats to digest vitamins A, D, E, and K; we can’t just get rid of them.

The following day at work, I consulted my nutritionist co-workers about to how to judge the nutritional value of packaged foods; their answer was unanimous: just read the labels.

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