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The nutritional value of the fine print

Is it really better to buy food products that are marked with labels like "organic", "contains only natural ingredients" or "dolphin friendly"? To protect your health and the environment, you should be familiar with the confusing markings on food products - or simply prefer fresh food that is not packaged

Photo: Tricia J, Flickr.
Photo: Tricia J, Flickr.

By Shahar Shlouch, Zivata, Science and Environment News Agency

In my guilt I bought a snack: potato chips from root vegetables. The rustling bag was decorated with illustrations of vegetables, with the promise that the snack would be seasoned with Himalayan salt, and no less than nine logos that informed me that the product: "vegan", "cooked in a pot in small portions", "contains XNUMX% cold-pressed sunflower oil", "made in a nut-free factory", "Completely natural and without preservatives", "does not contain genetically modified ingredients", "gluten free", "monosodium glutamate free", and "kosher". Three of the nine logos included drawings of green leaves.

I paid a relatively high price for the greasy product, because I told myself that a product made of only natural ingredients and containing root vegetables (which there is no way my daughter would eat in any other way) must justify the investment. In retrospect, I know that the logos, drawings and promises worked on my consumer subconscious even if they were not relevant to my needs and desires.

The growing awareness of the need to protect health and the environment has turned food packaging into small exhibitions of characters and markings. There are dozens of standards in the world, some of them already appear on the shelves in Israel. The notations and notations may help us make better choices, but they can also be confusing. "When talking about the labeling of food products, you have to understand that there is a paradox here: most of the truly healthy foods are those that are not packaged. On the other hand, the processed foods are the ones that get the packaging - and with it the beautiful markings", explains Alon Shpon, a doctoral student at the Weizmann Institute, who studies the relationship between food and the environment and is a member of the Israeli Forum for Sustainable Nutrition.

The meaning of this situation is that it is desirable, in general, to treat the various markings as a warning sign. Nobody writes "only natural products" or "no animal ingredients" on tomato, avocado and fresh almonds. However, we all also buy and consume packaged food, so how should we treat the food labels on the packages, which promise us responsibly green food?

Junk food is enriched with vitamins and iron

Organic, fair trade, fair dealing, product from grass-fed animals, product from animals raised in conditions that meet their natural needs, wildlife-friendly, bird-friendly, dolphin-friendly, factory that reduces carbon emissions, child-friendly - these are some of the labels that can be found on food packaging in Israel Behind every logo is a body whose purpose is to examine whether the manufacturer and the product meet defined categories.

Hagar Miller-Almog, a clinical dietitian and a member of the Vegetarian-Vegan Nutrition Forum at the Atid association (dietitian association), sheds light on the problematic side of the tempting labels. "Nutrition labeling holds tremendous potential for making information accessible to the consumer, but at the same time is a cause of great confusion and misunderstanding. For example, among diabetics there is a high awareness of the presence of the symbol of the Israeli Diabetes Association, which for them is a 'standard' for the product. The problem is that sometimes they ignore the message written next to the symbol, which is actually the heart of the matter: 'Reference to the size of the recommended portion that is a substitute portion for another food.'"

"Mistakes of this type also happen in the general population, which is very aware of calories and fat percentages, but sometimes gets confused in understanding the portion sizes or paying attention to unimportant ingredients, such as the sometimes unjustified fear of E numbers (marking of food additives such as food colors and preservatives - SH) And ignoring ingredients that are important to pay attention to, such as saturated fat and sodium content," says Miller-Almog. "Part of the confusion stems from the fact that sometimes the food companies emphasize positive features on the surface of the packaging, such as the inscription 'enriched with vitamins and iron', in products that in any other respect deserve to be called junk food."

Not healthy, but good for the environment

The growing trend of veganism is Good environmental news Due to the reduction of animal food consumption (the animal food industry uses many natural land and water resources, is responsible for environmental pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases that cause increased climate change). However, the separation from meat, cheese and eggs brought processed substitutes and packaged products, many of which are decorated with confusing green labels, to the shelves in supermarkets and marketing chains. so what are we doing?

Photo: Environmental Illness Network-Flickr.
Photo: Environmental Illness Network-Flickr.

"Not all food that comes packaged is unhealthy," clarifies Shephon, who points out products such as frozen peas, legumes and grains, which are purchased packaged but are considered good for health and the environment, because the environmental price of their production is often relatively low. Miller-Almog, who appears on Vegan-Friendly and other organizations' "vegan-friendly dietitian" lists, doesn't think this is a problem. "My impression is actually the opposite: in the transition to a balanced vegan diet, there was an increase in the consumption of unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes, which can be purchased without packaging, in bulk or in large packages," she says. "In processed consumer products, there is no significant difference between an omnivorous diet and a vegan one, because cow's milk comes in a carton like soy milk, soy delicacies and milk delicacies come in similar packages, a hamburger comes packaged as a hamburger, and it doesn't matter what it's made of."

confusing? We won't deny it. One of the things Shapon's research deals with is the environmental cost of a given "nutritional package", whether it is from animals or plants. "Suppose I can get the same package of nutritional values ​​from a banana, tomato or cucumber as well as figs and almonds. But from an environmental point of view, maybe one of them requires more water resources or land resources", he explains and adds that in his experience the task of choosing a product that is both healthy and environmental is not at all simple.

Sugar, for example, which the Ministry of Health recently went to war against, has a low environmental price. Added sugar can also be found in products that say "only natural ingredients", because it is known to be a natural substance. This way you get a natural product with friendly sugar, yet it is not a healthy food. Whereas the infamous corn syrup, which is used to sweeten food and immediately spikes blood sugar levels, is actually considered environmental - because it yields many calories relative to the unit of area required to grow it, and therefore saves precious land resources.

Miller-Almog mentions another complexity in the tension between health and the environment: "Paradoxically, preservatives actually make the product more environmental, because they extend its shelf life and reduce food waste." loss of food It is a phenomenon whose awareness is gaining momentum in recent years, after it became clear that a third of the food in the world is thrown away and not consumed. Many countries are trying to find ways to reduce food loss, among other things by Consumption of "ugly" fruits and vegetables, which are usually not marketed to the public.

Another type of marking that should be considered is statements such as "enriched with vitamins and iron", "with added calcium" and the like. These additives appear on many processed food products, especially those intended for children. "There is no substitute for a whole food that naturally contains all the nutrients," says Shpon, who does not go after the artificial reinforcements, which actually indicate the weakness of the product.

It seems that there are too many confusing labels and markings, but Shpon believes that there is room for another label on food products: marking the carbon "price" of food products on the packaging - that is, the amount of carbon that is emitted into the air during the production process of the product. This task is not easy, especially when it comes to food. "Life cycle analysis checks the environmental performance of products, but most companies don't do it, due to the lack of regulation and due to the high price for the analysis," says Shpon. "Indices of the amount of water, land resources and energy that are embodied in the product are also important, but the road to marking them on packaging is still long."

So what to buy?

Despite the difficulty of weighing all the factors, Shpon recommends consuming mainly whole foods, natural, free of animal ingredients, unprocessed and local as much as possible. One that usually has no labels on it. But if you, like everyone else, also buy packaged or processed food and want to use labels to make a more correct purchase, here are some tips for smart environmental and health shopping:

Look for mandatory labels. For example, "natural ingredients" does not guarantee almost anything except the presence, even if only partially, of natural ingredients. Better: "one hundred percent natural ingredients". Another example is the Dolphin Safe labels that appear on some of the tuna packages, but do not guarantee that the manufacturer is subject to the supervision of an external party. Even more important - even if the dolphins are indeed not put on the tuna altar, millions of other marine animals still die due to "by-fishing". Instead of the cute dolphin label, it is better to look for a label like Friend of the sea or Marine Stewardship Council, which commit to preserving the marine environment and avoiding overfishing, and are not satisfied with goodwill towards dolphins alone.

Look for the stamp. Manufacturers know that statements like "natural ingredients", "non-toxic", "organic" or "eco-friendly" are recognized. They know that pictures of green leaves tempt us. If the packaging does not have the "kosher stamp" of a recognized organization (see previous section), these statements may be equivalent to the statement "Made in Krypton". So what quality seals to look for? In Israel, for example, there is the Vegan Friendly mark that will save you from searching for hidden animal ingredients, "Agrior" that confirms that local and imported produce is organic, and "Healthy" to mark animal products that come from animals raised in proper conditions.

did homework. Following on from the previous section, do some research on the companies from which you intend to buy products. Look for information on them on their websites and also on other websites to make sure there is coverage for the labels. You won't always be able to get the full picture, because sophisticated organizations really know how to drown incriminating details in a sea of ​​information, but in many cases you can get a general idea about them. Give preference to companies whose claims are backed by reliable studies, ones that were not funded by the manufacturer or his agents.

Look at the jar, not just the labels. When you buy a product, you also buy its packaging. It may be that the contents of the can you bought contains XNUMX% natural and healthy hummus, but it is still coated on the inside withBPA, a material from the plastic industry that is harmful to humans and the environment. Your vegan schnitzel, marked with all the right symbols, may be packaged in a large, wasteful box that made you pay a high price for too much plastic.

More information about labels from around the world and their meaning can be found HERE.

One response

  1. It's interesting that everyone in the article is vegan... at least they had the integrity not to claim that meat or milk substitutes are better than meat or milk.

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