Food for Thought

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Do We Have Any Idea What We Are Buying?

Raise your hand if you also feel like you want to punch someone when you leave a grocery store. It’s not just because the aisles are overcrowded, the other shoppers are grumpy, or that other people’s carts ram my heels. It’s because my mission is simple (buy good, healthy food), yet the execution feels overly complicated. For every food choice, there seems to be at least ten different choices – all with pictures, labels, terms that sound nice, but I don’t fully understand. After quite some time feeling helpless, I decided to do a deep dive and try to figure out what all these words and labels mean.  Surprisingly and frustratingly, research just made me feel more confused.  So I called up two of the women I trust most in food — Marion Nestle and Laurie David – to get their advice. Laurie explained to me on the phone, “Labels are really marketing tools, so we have to be so, so suspicious when we’re shopping at our local supermarket.” [peekaboo_content]

But why are food labels so obfuscated? Marion explains the economics behind that in her excellent book What To Eat: All private companies have to show financial growth every 90 days. If a CEO doesn’t deliver on that, they will likely be fired. For food companies, that kind of growth means releasing new products, identifying where consumers are spending their money, and then doing whatever they can to get in on that action. Food companies have influence in the form of connections, money, and lobbying, and they will often work to chip away or widen the scope of meaning on a certain term (like “organic” for example) to get their products to fit a given definition. This can have the long-term consequence of making terms/words end up becoming confused at best and meaningless at worst.

What was Laurie and Marion’s mutual advice? They both said that the way they navigate food labels is to avoid branded food products as much as possible. When you can’t, here is a handy guide to 10 common food terms and labels to help you make an educated decision. [/peekaboo_content][peekaboo]Content [/peekaboo]

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