Food Label Fear Mongering and its “Toxic” Effects

by Megan Maisano

You know it’s hard out here for a processed food. These days, most consumers want to know what’s in their food and how it’s processed. While that may sound promising towards improving food choices and overall health, it also might be contributing to a culture of fear-mongering and food discrimination – none of which is helpful. This month, Megan Maisano investigates common marketing strategies employed by food manufacturers that result in unnecessary fear, doubt, and confusion in the minds of consumers.

Grocery supermarket

Source: pexels.com

Good news: over half of the U.S. population is paying attention to food labels. Bad news: it might be increasing consumer confusion and contributing to unintended health hysteria.

Whether it’s the latest Netflix documentary demonizing an entire food group, an Instagram feed promoting “clean” eating, or your mother’s cousin Carol pushing her latest detox agenda on Facebook, food fear mongering is real.

The problem is that many claims of “toxic” or “unclean” foods don’t come from health professionals or experts. On top of that, their messages are more accessible by the common consumer than, let’ say, the most recent edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

I’ll be the first to admit I read Michael Pollen’s Food Rules a few years ago. I loved it. It was simple, easy to understand, and seemed logical. Nutrition science, however, is not simple, not easy to understand, and evolves with advancing evidence-based research… and nutrition research is hard.

While the desire for food transparency is warranted and can lead to healthier decision-making, the marketing response by the food industry has taken advantage of consumers’ unwarranted fears. Instead of highlighting what’s good in the food we eat, product labels emphasize what’s not in our food, and it’s contributing to the chaos.

I decided to explore the research and science behind common food label claims. The results: practices that range from reasonable transparency to questionable marketing tactics that make us say C’mon Man.

 

Non-GMO Project

The Non-GMO Project, which started in two grocery stores in 2007, now has its iconic butterfly on more than 3,000 brands and 43,000 products. GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms, are plants, animals, microorganisms or other organisms whose DNA has been changed via genetic engineering or transgenic technology. The debate concerning GMO safety remains highly controversial. Without going into too much detail, cynics claim that GMOs have not been proven safe and that people have a right to know whether their food contains them. On the other side, folks like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine claim GMOs have not been proven harmful to humans or the environment.

Regardless of the verdict, the Non-GMO butterfly is landing on more and more products that are naturally GMO-free, such as tomatoes, oranges, and milk. This trend leads to the misconception that tomatoes, oranges, and milk without said-butterfly DO have GMOs and are therefore less safe. This deceptive labeling practice not only hurts the consumer, but also competing brands and their farmers.

The Impact – a 2015 nonpartisan analysis reported that only 37 percent of those surveyed feel that GMOs are safe to eat and 57 percent considered them unsafe. Individuals with a higher education, on the other hand, were more likely to consider GMOs safe. Numerous studies also show that consumer knowledge of GMOs is low and that their information is mainly sourced by the media – insert cousin Carol’s shared Facebook article on GMOs’ toxic effects. The fear continues.

Paleonola grain free granola

Source: thrivemarket.com

Gluten Free and Grain Free

In his book Grain Brain, David Perlmutter writes, “Gluten sensitivity represents one of the greatest and most under-recognized health threats to humanity.” The well-known blogger, Wellness Mama, once wrote an article titled “How Grains are Killing You Slowly” (but has since changed the title). The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, on the other hand, list grains (specifically whole grains) as a part of a healthy eating pattern. How did this extreme divide on gluten and grains come about?

The 1990’s brought about increased awareness of celiac disease and the effectiveness of treatment following a gluten-free diet. This was a major win and relief for folks with gluten-related disorders. What followed was an increase in the amount of research on gluten and its potential effects on other chronic disorders – and that’s when hysteria hit. Books like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly, both which have been accused of literature cherry-picking and generalization, earned best-selling status and changed the way we looked at a baguette. This frenzy, combined with the highly popular low-carb Atkins Diet, created the recipe for a new villain – gluten and grains.

The food industry responded and so did the media. According to the research firm Packaged Facts, sales in gluten-free products came in around $973 million in 2014 and are expected to exceed $2 billion by 2019 – far exceeding what would be expected in marketing to the less than one percent of individuals with celiac disease. Oh, and these products are about 240% more expensive. Celebrity influences like Gwyneth Paltrow’s book and Miley Cyrus’ tweet, have made the gluten-free diet appear more mainstream, swaying consumer perception and decreasing the seriousness of disorders like celiac disease.

While research on non-celiac gluten sensitivity (affecting about six percent of the U.S.) is still mixed, many studies suggest that gluten may not necessarily be the underlying problem and symptoms may even be psychological. In his book, The Gluten Lie, Alan Levinovitz explains that the significant increase in negative responses to gluten may be due to a phenomenon called Mass Sociogenic Illness – where a physiological response is provoked by mass anxiety and negative expectations.

The Impact – a 2015 Hartman Group survey found that 35% of respondents adopted a gluten-free lifestyle for “no reason,” 26% followed it because they thought it was a “healthier option,” 19% followed it for “digestive health,” and only 8% followed it because of a “gluten sensitivity.”

There is a growing body of research that suggests there is no evidence to support gluten-free diets for the general population and that going gluten-free may even hinder health. Nevertheless, the damage may be done.

 

usda organic label

Source: usda.gov

Going Organic

The USDA Organic label identifies a product that meets federal guidelines for farming and processing. Guidelines include soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. As far as organic packaged foods, 95% of the product must be organic and free of artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

The organic movement is a step in the right direction towards encouraging more responsible agricultural practices. However, the social impact of the organic label has created unwarranted confusion and fear in “chemically-ridden” conventional foods that aren’t free of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The fear is hurting small farmers and our wallets.

A common source of organic fear-mongering comes from the infamous Dirty Dozen published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This list identifies twelve non-organic produce items that are reported to have the highest levels of pesticide residue. What the EWG fails to mention, however, is the type of pesticide and its relation to its chronic reference dose (i.e., safe maximum daily dose for life). A Journal of Toxicology study found that none of the dirty dozen products came even close to their reference dose and that EWG’s methodology lacked scientific credibility. While there is nothing wrong with being mindful of pesticide use, people should know organic farmers use pesticides too and their levels are not tested by the USDA.

From a nutrition perspective, research on organic food is mixed. Both organic and conventional practices offer nutritious produce with plenty of phytochemicals; however, organic produce may come out on top as far as levels of phosphorous, antioxidants and less pesticide residue.

From a health-outcome perspective however, there is no direct evidence that organic diets lead to improved health or lower the risk of disease and cancer. Pesticide residue risk, if a concern, can be reduced by simply washing fresh produce.

Lastly, organic farming, labeling, and products are expensive. If price is keeping consumers from purchasing organic produce and fear is keeping them from purchasing conventional produce, we have a problem.

In a country where less than twenty percent of adults eat their daily recommended fruits and vegetables, all produce should be promoted without adding unnecessary confusion or fear.

 

all natural health claim label

Source: topclassactions.com

“Natural” and “Free of …”

According to a 2014 global health survey, 43% of respondents rate “all-natural” foods very important in purchasing decisions. Therefore, having that green and neutral-colored label considerably influences consumer behavior. In regards to meat and poultry, the USDA defines “natural” as containing no artificial ingredients, added colors, and minimal processing. Unfortunately, there is no regulated definition of the use of “natural” for all other products – hence marketing exploitation and further confusion. Below are just a few assumptions that consumers make about natural products regarding what they’re free of, and whether or not that really matters:

Free of Preservatives: Preservatives in food help delay spoilage, improve quality, and decrease food waste. They decrease the risk of food-borne illness, lower oxidation in the body, and keep us from worrying about things like getting tuberculosis from our milk. Consumers often fear ingredients that have chemical-sounding names; however, lest we forget, we are made of chemical compounds!  Many preservatives are harmless and even nutritious like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), calcium propionate, niacin (vitamin B3), lysozyme, and tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ). Some other preservatives, however, may have questionable effects on health when consumed in high doses, so more research is needed on their safety.

No Antibiotics Ever: This term’s tricky. For a long time, many farmers used antibiotics not just for the treatment of ill animals but also to facilitate growth. The FDA has since banned the use for growth and animal antibiotics sales have fallen considerably. However, sick animals do need treatment and not using antibiotics to treat them would be unethical and pose a risk to food safety. So, here’s the deal to understanding the label: Farm A has a sick chicken which they treat with antibiotics. The chicken is therefore removed from the antibiotic-free group for sale (and who knows what that means). Farm B has a sick chicken which they treat with antibiotics. The chicken then goes through a withdrawal period and is tested before it can be used for processing, often with the oversight of a licensed veterinarian. Only Farm A can have the “No Antibiotics Ever” label. Is Farm A healthier than Farm B? Probably not.

No Hormones Added: Fun fact: adding hormones or steroids to poultry and pork is illegal in the U.S. Just like tomatoes with a Non-GMO label, chicken and pork products with a “No Hormones Added” label are simply playing into consumer fears.

Free of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS):  Great! But keep in mind that sugar, molasses, agave nectar, cane juice, and honey are “natural” sources of added sugars too. HFCS is essentially a mix of fructose, glucose, and water. It varies from having either 42% fructose (often found in processed food) to 55% fructose (often found in soft drinks) – not too different from sugar with a 50:50 mix or your $10 organic agave nectar.

 

chicken breast no antibiotics non gmo organic

Source: target.com

Conclusion: Fear Mongering Isn’t Helping

When it comes to promoting healthy eating behaviors, fear tactics aren’t helping and may even be harmful. Unlike tobacco or drug use, two issues where fear campaigns were successfully used to impact behavior, we need to eat to live. Instilling unnecessary anxiety about foods that are not Non-GMO, gluten-free, certified organic, or “free from” whatever may keep us from consuming a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn’t learned its lesson from the anti-fat and anti-cholesterol era because we continue to look for something simple to blame for health problems, and the media and food industry continues to take advantage of that desire. Moderation just isn’t sexy.

Whether it’s the latest one-dimensional diet, a food blogger’s recent witch hunt, or a misleading food label in an earthy color tone, fear-induced messages are not helping. They are harming consumer knowledge, self-efficacy, health, and ultimate trust in food industry and nutrition science. It’s time to stop the food fear mongering and encourage the good in foods that will lead to our “natural” wellbeing.

 

Megan Maisano is a second year NICBC student and an RD-to-be. She has a Wheat Belly and a Grain Brain, but is doing okay. She’s got no beef with Non-GMO, Gluten-free, or Organic products, only their use in scare-tactics that aren’t based in science.

Write, Speak, Tell Stories: The Sprout Media Panel Recap

by Hannah Meier

It was August 6th, 2017—a month before the start of the semester and Kathleen was showing me the ropes of editorial duties over local beer at Area-4, a restaurant just down the road from Jaharis. We went over timelines, passwords and account names, and shared our hopes and dreams for the coming year. One thing we both agreed on: We wanted to make a bigger impact within the Friedman community. Our big idea? Bring The Sprout offline.

Almost 8 months later, last Wednesday, our dreams came to life.

The Sackler classroom we booked for the event was almost fully packed. A show of hands at the end of the presentation reflected a fairly even split of AFE, FPAN and NICBC students. At the front of the room sat five professionals with diverse media backgrounds and extensive resumes; I sat next to them and moderated the hour-long discussion. There was no lack of participation and I was just as enthralled by the rich conversation our panelists generated as I was by the questions our audience posed.

Steve Holt Boston Writer

Steve Holt

The panelists’ careers and experience ranged from all forms of media. Journalist Steve Holt has reported on everything from food to urbanism to crime for print and digital publications like Civil Eats, The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Edible Boston, and TakePart. He uses his work to ask hard questions and tell the stories of the people behind the country’s most inspiring meals and movements.

Caity Moseman-Wadler Heritage Radio Network

Caity Moseman-Wadler

In her role as Executive Director of Heritage Radio Network—a nonprofit food radio network based in Brooklyn—Caity Moseman Wadler oversees the production of 35 weekly shows, interactive events, and special programs covering topics from food policy and agriculture, to the restaurant, food and drink scenes, to the human stories that often go unnoticed in our vast food system.

Liz Weiss Headshot

Liz Weiss MS, RDN

Two of our panelists were dietitians. Liz Weiss has a specialty in family nutrition and is the voice behind the family food podcast and blog, Liz’s Healthy Table. She began her career at CNN as a producer and reporter and hosted over 50 Meal Makeover cooking videos. She’s also covered food and nutrition stories for PBS HealthWeek and has written several cookbooks, including a coloring cookbook for kids.

Stephanie Ferrari

Stephanie Ferarri, MS, RDN

Stephanie Ferrari, a dietitian and owner of Boston-based public relations firm, FRESH Communications, co-hosts a morning news segment called What’s FRESH Around Town on Boston 25 News. She is a contributing author to the Huffington Post, and has been featured in numerous publications like The Boston Globe, Cooking Light, INSIDER, Elite Daily, POPSUGAR, and Good Housekeeping, and has held marketing and communication roles for the New England Dairy Council, The Castle Group, and the Massachusetts Dietetic Association.

Louisa Kasdon The Food Voice

Louisa Kasdon

Finally, Louisa Kasdon brought over 20 years of journalism experience and has convened over 200 food events around New England, including cooking events, panels, teach-ins, conferences, workshops, and advocacy initiatives. She founded and organizes the Let’s Talk About Food Festival, and her most recent project has been to establish a new multi-media platform encompassing print, events, digital, and social media outreach called The Food Voice, New England’s new hub for all things food.

Looking at their extensive resumes, it’s no surprise that the event was a hit. Our panelists brought a true wealth of experience and shared many stories of growing into the field of food and nutrition.

Friedman Media Panel March Event

Conversation Flowing for a Captivated Audience (Photo: Kathleen Nay)

As I moderated, it was difficult to keep track of time as the hour of conversation flowed quickly. Questions posed thoughtful responses that were both applicable and provocative.

Our panelists spoke to concerns about reaching broader audiences than those of publications like Civil Eats, whose readers are more insular than the ones who may need to hear our messages most. In short, the panelists reiterated that in order to reach an audience outside of our bubble, we tell the stories of those on the outside. We need to think about who is reading or listening to what we are saying, and what their very real, often practical, needs are. Liz Weiss bluntly acknowledged that “people don’t like to read about food policy.” She and other panelists agreed that storytelling and emotion help pull readers in to your message and listen. Once an audience feels emotional about a topic, or feels threatened by the loss of something personal, they will pay attention. As communicators, those are the stories we need to practice telling.

When asked about personal biases and balancing professional background and personal opinion with the needs or desires of a client, Stephanie Ferrari was quick to point out that there is never a reason to short-change your message or betray the science in favor of business. Protect your credentials and trust your understanding of the science. Companies and clients will be grateful for your insight and expertise. Louisa Kasdon agreed, “you can’t write about something that isn’t true—it won’t get you far and will come back to bite you in the end.” Stay true to your values and remember that you always have the option to say no if working with a particular client truly does not feel right.

Friedman school of nutrition communications media panel

The Friedman Sprout team and our lovely panelists. From left: Hannah Meier, Louisa Kasdon, Caity Moseman-Wadler, Stephanie Ferrari, Steve Holt, Liz Weiss, Kathleen Nay, Erin Child (Photo: Kathleen Nay)

Finally, all of the panelists agreed that to get far in the world of communication, get started today. Steve Holt encouraged us that no time is too early, and the playing field for writers is more level than most expect in terms of pitching ideas to editors. On the other hand, Louisa pointed out that she would like to see a few work examples before trusting someone with an assignment or editorial content. Liz Weiss encouraged all of us to stay focused and follow our dreams. Caity Moseman Wadler advocated for standing up for your worth as an intern and budding professional, and for building a network of experiences with individuals and publications that align with your values and your goals.

Heed expert advice: Write for The Sprout. Investigate the stories you’re curious about now. You never know where it could take you.

Hannah Meier RD, LDN is in her final semester of the Nutrition Communication and Behavior Change program and serves as the current co-editor of The Sprout alongside Kathleen Nay. She was thoroughly jazzed to coordinate the first-ever panel of professionals event with immense support from the other editors, panelists, and the team at Friedman. In May, she is excited to take on a full-time role with the start-up food company 88 Acres as their Nutrition and Communications Lead and is grateful for the opportunity to gain immense writing and editorial experience with The Sprout during her time at Friedman.

Finding Common Ground for Nutrition in a World of Alternative Facts

by Rachel Baer

Rachel Baer tackles the implications of the “post-truth” culture for the nutrition profession and poses 3 questions to consider about our response to the unending barrage of nutrition-related “alternative facts.”

As a registered dietitian, I can tell you this: Nutrition professionals know a thing or two about alternative facts. We spend our careers with textbooks and scientific journals in hand, waiting for the next misinformed food fad to go viral. We fight to defend the facts because we have always believed that if we could show people what is true, we could convince them that we have the best answers for their nutrition-related questions. But the concept of truth is losing popularity.

The Oxford English Dictionary declared the term “post-truth” to be the 2016 word-of-the-year. Post-truth is defined as “related to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Let that sink in for a moment: emotional appeals are more influential than objective facts. While this concept is alarming on many levels, I am particularly concerned about its implications for health professionals who rely on scientific truths as the basis of their credibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the frustration people feel as they watch seemingly contradictory nutrition headlines emerge at the very hint of new research findings. One day people are told to limit egg consumption to 3 yolks per week, the next, the one-yolk-per-day allowance is back. However, as nutrition professionals, we have a certain appreciation for the fact that science is ever-evolving. We hold our recommendations lightly because we believe in a scientific community that is always growing, and that new discoveries only sharpen our understanding of nutrition and physiology. The public, on the other hand, does not always share this appreciation.

Confusion over wavering nutrition claims is exacerbated by the inundation of un-credentialed, unschooled voices clamoring for attention in popular media. Social media has provided a proverbial soapbox for anyone with a passionate message to share, regardless of qualifications. Simultaneously, dietitians tend to hold back on making bold retorts, often waiting for consensus to catch up with the fads so that our recommendations are supported with the latest research. This seeming imbalance of voices alongside the emergence of the post-truth culture only perpetuates the proliferation of unfounded claims, or “alternative facts,” as they have become popularly known.

I have no easy answers for this predicament, but here are 3 questions that we could benefit from exploring as nutrition professionals:

1. How do we remain experts while also being compelling?

Dietitians have long been referred to as the “food police.” While I resent this reputation, it highlights a worthy question: Do nutrition professionals present information in a way that is relatable, realistic, and winsome to the people whose respect we want to gain?

We can no longer depend solely on the letters after our names to gain an audience with the public, particularly when we are pitted against wayward blog and media influencers using sensationalized language to win over vast groups of people who blindly follow their passionate advice. The internet is full of examples of people preferring to follow the advice of a persuasive friend or influencer over the advice of a knowing professional. While this situation is endlessly frustrating to those of us who see through their hyperbolic messages, is there anything we can learn from these blog/media personalities that may help us reach the audience they seem to have hooked? How do we successfully build rapport with the public while maintaining good science?

2. How do we talk about fundamentals in a world that wants controversy?

Let’s face it. Fundamentals don’t make great headlines. For decades, consensus research has revealed that a diet full of minimally-processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, lean proteins, and healthy fats is unequivocally and unanimously the best diet for human health. Yet, people still search elsewhere looking for the latest and greatest weight-loss, risk-reducing, and health-enhancing diets. Could it be that balance is more challenging than we thought? Perhaps avoiding certain food groups or food ingredients altogether is easier than the amorphous concept of moderation? Our greatest challenge is not getting more people to consume health information, it is finding new and compelling ways to deliver the information we’ve known for decades, and this is no small task.

3. How do we overcome differences within the nutrition profession to present a united front to people lost in the sea of alternative facts?

In 2014, David Katz and Walter Willet co-chaired a conference sponsored by the non-profit Oldways*, titled “Finding Common Ground.” Oldways and the co-chairs assembled what they referred to as “the dream team of nutrition experts,” including Friedman’s own, Dariush Mozaffarian, as well as Dean Ornish, creator of the Ornish Diet; David Jenkins, founder of the glycemic index; Boyd Eaton, originator of the Paleolithic diet; Collin Campbell, author of The China Study; and a myriad of others. Known most commonly for their differences, this group of scientists gathered together for the sole purpose of coming to a consensus on the basic tenants of a healthy diet. In the end, the group agreed on 11 common denominators of the widely differing philosophies they espouse. The topics ranged from fruit and vegetable consumption, to sustainability, to food literacy.

Following the conference, David Katz published an article in Forbes where he said “…it is the controversies at the edge of what we know that interest experts most, but ask [experts] about the fundamentals, and the vast expanse of common ground is suddenly revealed.” The Common Ground committee’s decision to gather around a table, invite open dialogue, and pursue unity is something we could all learn a lesson from. Alternative facts will always provide fodder for hucksters and peddlers of over-simplified nutrition information, but the scientific community has a vast body of research that unites us. As nutrition professionals, we cannot forget that our voices will always be more powerful together than they ever will apart.

Rachel Baer is a registered dietitian and a first-year in the NICBC program at Friedman. Her favorite foods are Brussels sprouts and brownies, and she loves nothing more than cooking great meals and gathering people around a table.

*Editor’s Note, 5/1/17  2:09 PM: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of the organization, “OldWays.” The correct spelling is Oldways, and the change has been made above.