A recent study by Consumer Reports found the “No Nitrates Added” food label misleading. In reality, the label refers only to added synthetic nitrates, which seems like false advertising, especially when considering the chemical composition of deli meats and related health effects.
As the Consumer Reports article focused on deli meats in particular, concerning facts about nitrates and nitrites were detailed. According to the article, published last week, “products cured with nitrates and nitrites from natural sources had average levels of the chemicals that were similar to those cured with synthetic ones.” During the curing process, nitrates are used to preserve and flavor processed meats, sometimes being derived from celery or other natural sources. It’s legal for foods with added natural nitrates to be advertised as being free of added nitrates since regulations for the “no nitrates added” labels apply only for nitrates that come from synthetic sources. Unfortunately, other food packaging information on common grocery store items can also be misleading.
The Politics of Food
Why do food manufacturers bother with dubious labels on their packaged products? The answer begins with psychology and big business.
“The Food and Drug Administration actually has data to show that when the package has labels on the front, you are less likely to read the ‘Nutrition Facts’ panel where the more reliable information can be found,” said Dr. Michael Ormsbee, Associate Professor in the Department of Food, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. “It’s not hard to see that health-related food labeling will likely influence how you feel about certain foods and ultimately what you buy and eat.”
And this data tells us a lot, although it’s more beneficial to food companies. “Evocative descriptions and names are rated as more appealing and tasty,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “Without a doubt, big politics are involved in foods that are backed with serious money and marketed to you. The way to approach food, and particularly food labeling, is to be as educated as possible, and then to keep a healthy skepticism when reading labels and advertisements.
Nutrition labels feature things like the percent daily value of different vitamins and minerals contained in packaged foods, but it says little in the way of what those values are based on.
“You might have noticed that on nutrition labels, certain nutrients are based on a 2,000-calorie diet; and by now, you know that not everyone eats a 2,000-calorie diet,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “This just reflects the average intake of an average-sized person to maintain weight. Some people eat 1,500 calories per day while others eat well over 4,000 calories per day. The percentages listed on the nutrition facts label must be adjusted, case by case.”
For this example, Dr. Ormsbee used a 40-year-old person standing 5’10” tall and weighing 160 lbs. who is generally physically active. Based on this formula, this person should consume 2,300 calories per day, but caloric intake isn’t the best measure of dietary needs, despite that food labels suggest that a calorie is a calorie regardless.
“Based on this logic and your 2,300-calorie-per-day goal, you could consume any of the following to fit your needs: 575 jellybeans; four Big Macs; 385 stalks of celery; or a variety of nutrient-dense foods all chosen to promote energy, lean mass accumulation, fat loss, and disease prevention,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “If you consumed primarily calories from simple sugars all day—the 575 jellybean example—you might not gain any weight overall, but you could be sure you are missing a ton of nutrients that your body requires to function well, and over time this would alter your body composition and health for the worse.”
So while flashy slogans and boasts of nutritional value are attractive and effective to consumers, they should be met with some skepticism.
Dr. Michael Ormsbee contributed to this article. Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.