Back to School Food: The Illusion of Choice

by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Trans fat

Trans fat is created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil. “Hydrogenation” turns liquid oils into solid fats, such as shortening and margarine. Unfortunately, trans fats raise our risk for heart disease, and the American Heart Association advises no more than 1% of calories come from trans fat – or no more than 2 grams on a 2000 calorie diet.

Even if the nutrition facts panel says: “0 grams trans fat,” check ingredient labels for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” – that tells you the product contains trans fat. Here’s the clincher: the FDA allows manufacturers to say their products contain “0 grams” trans fat if they contain less than .05 grams of trans fat per serving. However, if you eat more than one serving, the grams of trans fat multiply accordingly. The “0 grams” may be just an illusion that the product is free of trans fats.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

HFCS is a sweetener manufactured from corn through a series of technical processes. First, corn kernels are separated into starch, hull, protein and oil. Next, the starch is broken down to glucose. Then, using enzymes, the glucose is converted to fructose. Compelling research points to HFCS as a contributing factor in skyrocketing obesity rates. (5)

According to Dr. Robert Lustig, M.D. , University of California, San Francisco, fructose is a culprit in our nation’s obesity epidemic, whether it comes from a sugar bowl or HFCS. The problem is the quantity consumed. Lustig explains that the introduction of HFCS, specifically, allowed for the cheap “fructosification of America.” (6)

Because most corn in the U.S. is genetically engineered (4), there’s an environmental impact associated with HFCS as well. (7,8)(*)

Dextrose, Sucrose, Glucose, Fructose

If a word ends in “ose,” it’s a sugar, and most likely derived from starch (corn), sugar cane, or sugar beets. (9) This spring about half of the sugar beets planted were GMO (Roundup Ready). The first harvest will be this fall, yet there will be no label informing consumers of the GMO status. If consumers want a GMO-free sweetener, choose the “organic” label. (10,11)

Juice vs. “Drink,” “Ade,” or “Punch”

Beverages that contain less than 100 percent and more than 0 percent juice must use a qualifying term such as: “juice beverage,” “cocktail,” or “drink,” showing it is less than 100 percent juice. Check the nutrition facts panel to see how much real fruit juice is contained in the beverage. Don’t be fooled by the “illusion of fruit” – pictures of fruit on labels and fruity names. Juice drinks are often diluted with water and HFCS and/or sugar; 100% organic juice is always your best choice.

“Low-calorie,” “Lite,” (or “light”)

“Lite” and “light” are permitted on a food label if:
a. the food contains one-third fewer calories or half the fat of the original food; or
b. the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50 percent. "Light" may also describe color, flavor or texture.
A “low-calorie” label claim can only be made if the product contains 40 calories or less per serving. However, keep in mind that lower calorie foods often give the illusion of being more healthful, when that is not necessarily the case. Look past the lite and low-cal labels and search for wholesome organic ingredients instead.

Bottom line:

The luckiest students will return to school with lunch boxes filled with the wholesome goodness of organic foods, plus a loving note from home.

Best wishes on your new school year!

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