Monday, June 5, 2006

So, do you think you can tell?

A few years ago I was talking to a friend (who shall remain nameless) who was complaining about her inability to lose weight. “Why don’t you see a nutritionist?” I suggested. “Because” she sighed “I know what I’m supposed to eat”.

Except, she doesn’t. She may know apples and broccoli are good, and cookies and ice cream are bad, but what about all the things that food companies want you to believe are healthy, but aren’t? What about the times the consumer is being deliberately deceived?

In response to my entry about Lara Bars (where I briefly touch upon this) my friend Andrea Riggs sent me the following email:

“I have finally found someone else who is an obsessive label reader! I'm infuriated by what companies get away with. 99% of cereals on the market are full of junk though they claim to be healthy. Sunny Delight and most Ocean Spray juices are a big lie. So are most yogurts. I could go on & on...

It's one thing if you choose a food or drink because you want the sugar, but entirely another if you think you're eating/drinking something healthy because the company led you to believe it.”

Recognizing a label soul mate when I see one, I ask Andrea to be more specific. She responds with:

“Raisin Bran, Special K, and most cereals
Dannon Yogurt
Sunny D
Most Ocean Spray juices
Nutrigrain Bars
Many so-called "nutrition bars," such as Slim Fast

Preservatives are bad for you, and are used in many things you don't realize...
Many dried fruits that you think are healthy have a lot of sulfur dioxide
Many trail mixes
Some brands of canned vegetables & refried beans
Margarine and other so-called "low cholesterol" or "low fat" foods are bad, usually packed with fake ingredients or lots of sugar, so the benefits are nil. Choose natural foods, but everything in moderation. Real butter, real cheese, real potato chips, real eggs, whole milk, etc.

My rule is ALWAYS read the ingredients and never trust the advertisement!”

I decide, based on this passionate exchange (and the fact that Andrea has riled me up!) that this matter needs a more serious look. I invite her to come to the supermarket with me on a Sunday to see how many products we can find that make those “eat us! we’re healthy!” claims.

To be clear: we are not looking for products that aren’t healthy (such as donuts), but rather, we are looking for food companies that attempt to underestimate our intelligence.

It turns out Andrea can’t come – she lives in NY, and I’m back in San Francisco. But she’s with me in spirit.

Sunday comes, Luca dashes out to play soccer, and I head to Safeway with a notebook and a pencil. I can make a list! About food! And it’s a beautiful summer day on the coast!

Three hours later Luca is back home (and extremely hungry) and I’ve only made it to the cereal aisle. I have seven pages of notes that I still have to put in some kind of order – plus, my husband needs tending to.

Visit Luca’s blog about soccer and stay tuned for part II of this entry. Here is a teaser: Skippy peanut butter contains peanuts, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed, soybean and rapeseed oils and salt. Plus (shame on them), the label states “as always, no hydrogenated fats (Per serving.)” I’m indignant.

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