‘Read Your Labels Day’ – Now More Important Than Ever!
By LINDA BONVIE and BILL BONVIE
What makes this April 11, Citizens for Health’s sixth annual Read Your Labels Day, perhaps the most important one yet?
Two developments, actually. One is a USDA decision to override the National Organics Standards Board’s (NOSB) vote (taken well over a year ago) to stop allowing the seaweed-based thickening agent carrageenan to be used in organic processed foods.
Carrageenan, as it happens, is one of the 13 most harmful food additives we targeted in our book Badditives!
It’s an ingredient that has a terrible effect on many people’s digestive systems, with even small amounts of the “food grade” variety having been found to cause inflammation in the colon (and samples of that food-grade variety have all been found to be contaminated with a “degraded” type that’s considered a possible carcinogen).
This isn’t just theoretical, however. The Cornucopia Institute, a consumer-safety watchdog organization, has collected a sizeable number of descriptions of the gut-wrenching symptoms people have suffered until eliminating carrageenan from their diet. The Institute likens it to “putting poison ivy in skin lotion.”
But despite such research and reports, the recommendation of the NOSB, and the fact that harmless alternatives, such as guar gum, are readily available, the USDA saw fit to cave in to industry groups that claimed carrageenan was better in terms of “taste and texture,” would make organic products more competitive, and as one lobbyist put it, would allow consumers “to continue to enjoy the foods they know and love.”
This decision, which is the sort of thing we’ve come to expect of the “deregulating” Trump administration, makes reading labels for the presence of this “thickener that’s a sickener” (as we called it in Badditives!) an absolute must — even if you purchase exclusively organic processed foods.
The Icon that Tells You Everything You Need to Know
But this egregious edict on carrageenan isn’t the only reason why we need to be more vigilant than ever about what’s in the food products we buy.
There’s also the fact that the FDA, now under the command of the Trump administration’s Dr. Scott Gottlieb, has just announced plans to launch its own “consumer friendly” campaign to tell Americans what is and isn’t good for them when it comes to food – complete with a simplistic icon that will supposedly tell us at a glance what foods are “healthy” (a device even less meaningful than the existing “nutrition facts” label).
Consider for a moment the implications of such a scheme.
Who will be deciding what’s healthy and what isn’t? Will all it takes to land a big “H” for your processed food product be that it’s low in sodium (and likely high in MSG)? Will low-fat fake creamers make the grade, but organic coconut milk fail?
And could this end up being a big money-raiser for the agency, similar to its Prescription Drug User Fee Act — the payment by drug makers of a substantial sum to submit a new drug application (and which has funded the agency to the tune of $7.67 billion since it went into effect in 1992)?
Whatever this healthy icon idea morphs into, it’s a safe bet that such new guidelines will have the guiding hand of industry behind them – especially given Gottlieb’s statement that the FDA wants to “maintain the basic nature and nutritional integrity of products while allowing industry flexibility for innovation.
If we read between the lines of that statement, what he really seems to be saying is that the agency has no real plans for reforming the “basic nature” of processed-food industry practices and the products that result from them (whose “nutritional integrity” still leaves an awful lot to be desired).
All of this, according to the commissioner, will be on a scale comparable to the agency’s initiative, announced last summer, to make cigarettes less addictive by lowering levels of nicotine. “Improving the nutrition and diet of Americans would be another transformative effort toward reducing the burden of many chronic diseases, ranging from diabetes to cancer to heart disease,” he proclaimed, whose benefits would “almost certainly dwarf any single medical innovation or intervention.”
Indeed it might – if the FDA were really intent on finding genuine ways to promote a healthy diet. But this is an agency that admittedly isn’t even sure what the words “healthy” and “natural” mean, as part of its new effort includes asking for input from the public on those definitions.
And if any more proof of that were needed, it can be found in Gottlieb’s stated aim to “make labeling nutrients more consumer friendly” and “explore updating standards of identity, which are essentially requirements for what can or can’t be in certain products in order for them to be labeled accordingly.”
How would this work, exactly? Well, the two examples he offers are allowing “alternative names” to be used for potassium chloride “to make clear it’s salt” and changing that standard of identity, say, for cheeses that now “aren’t allowed to use salt alternatives that would lower the sodium content and still call themselves cheese.”
Could another possible plan be to allow a labeling request that the FDA rejected a couple of years ago – a proposal made by the Corn Refiners Association to dispense with the name high fructose corn syrup and call it “corn sugar” instead?
So while promoting greater consumer awareness of what makes for a healthy diet is certainly something that would benefit us all, what the FDA is now proposing sounds more like rearranging the rhetorical deck chairs on the Titanic. If the agency were really serious about initiating reforms, it would be talking about imposing stricter standards on the industries it regulates rather than distracting us with cute little icons.
All of which is why we can’t afford to let our guard down when it comes to reading (and reading up on) those lists of ingredients on processed foods.
And it’s why “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” has never been a less credible claim than it is right now.
Linda and Bill Bonvie are former writers of the CFH Food Identity Theft blog and co-authors of Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them