Food’s Label Mania Leads To Information Overload

The chips looked interesting: made from fresh spinach and kale with sea salt. The snack king in our house brought them home and we agreed they were very tasty. Were they nutritious? Well, they had very little saturated fat, no sugar, no cholesterol and a fair amount of fiber. Ten chips but who stops at 10? were only 140 calories.

As we munched, we read the rest of the information on the package: certified gluten free, verified non-gmo project, vegan friendly, made from fresh whole vegetables and whole grain corn masa in a completely nut-free environment. And then the clincher: Product of Mexico.

This is certainly information overload, and we wondered how many adults and kids knew what all, or even some, of these words really mean. Which ones are important to them? How many of these words are used as advertising gimmicks to attract a partially informed public? Does corn masa ever have gluten? No, gluten is an ingredient in wheat, yet many products that have never had wheat or wheat parts in them are labeled gluten free as one of the current buzz words in labeling.

Everyone has the right to choose the kinds of foods they eat, be particular about how it is grown, whether it is processed, how many additives there are. In certain cases of food allergies it is very important to know if a food has dairy or nuts or even gluten. But I fear that most of the consuming public has little real understanding of the meaning of the words. Many items, especially fresh vegetables are labeled locally grown. How many miles away is still considered local? Local does not mean organically grown; conventional methods may be used. Organic does not mean local many of the organic products on our store shelves are grown outside the U.S. Are you aware that the standards for organic (and food safety) are not the same world-wide? Organic is strictly regulated in the U.S. and the new food safety laws will be very stringent.

Have these cherries been sprayed? That is a question I am often asked at market, and I truthfully say they have been. But I also ask the customer if she is aware that there are strict rules about the kinds of sprays that can be used, when they can be sprayed, and how long before the crop is harvested they must be stopped and that the pesticide applicator must have special training before heading out to the orchard. Even cherries labeled organic are probably sprayed the organic program allows certain kinds of pesticides to be used.

But back to the question of nutrition. Labels do a good job of telling us about fats, cholesterol, calories, carbohydrates, sodium, and protein. At least one grocery chain has a simple numerical scale for nutritional value on many products. You do have to read further on most labels to find out if the important vitamins like A, C, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and K are present. Calcium and iron are also essential but may not be highlighted. It’s the farmer in me and my training in food in nutrition that keep me looking for the real food value that helps us fight disease, have healthy bones and teeth, and continue to be active for many years. About those chips: yes they had Vitamins A and K, but little else. So everything in moderation better stop with those 10 chips and then eat some fresh spinach or kale steamed or sauteed, or raw.

Phyllis Couture, a West Valley resident, is also the New York Farm Bureau state promotion and education chair.