Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Required reading: New food labels

The healthy shopper - 1

By Bob Gaydos

In a bow to reality, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed new requirements for nutrition labels on prepared foods and beverages. The changes are the first since the FDA began requiring the labels more than two decades ago. The proposals would give more prominence to total calorie content, rather than how many calories come from what kind of fat, and require companies to list how much sugar has been added to the product. The FDA also would require listing how much Vitamin D, dietary fiber, potassium, calcium and iron the product contains.

The agency is also proposing lowering the recommended daily sodium intake to 2300 milligrams from 2400, but is asking for comment on lowering it to 1500 milligrams, a level encouraged by many medical and health groups.

Finally, the proposed new labels would also have revised serving sizes for some products in the hope of more accurately reflecting the way people consume it. For example, a 12 -or-20 ounce bottle of soda would be considered one serving, not two, since most people typically consume the whole bottle. A pint of ice cream would be two servings, not four. This should make it easier to calculate how many calories people are actually consuming.

Some look at this action by the FDA as a recognition -- somewhat belatedly -- of Americans’ changing eating habits and a desire to provide more useful information for an increasingly label-reading population. Others see it as ignoring more important labeling issues, for example, clearly labeling what ingredients are good for consumers and which ones they should try to avoid.

Health advocates say that emphasizing specific ingredients on the label, as the FDA proposes, allows food companies to make front-of-the-product claims that suggest the product is healthful -- low in fat, high in fiber, rich in Vitamin C, for example -- when other ingredients -- salt and sugar for example -- may be present in less than healthful percentages.
Advocates for more healthful foods also suggest that instead of listing every different type of sugar on the label -- a practice that effectively hides the overall sugar content of many products -- it would be better to just list the total sugar content and for the FDA to issue a recommended daily amount for sugar intake. Clear front-of-the-package labels have also been urged as a way to help pressed-for-time shoppers make quicker, healthier choices.   
Some health advocates go so far as to suggest that the FDA require labels that classify the nutrients in a product in two easy-to- understand categories -- “get enough” and “avoid too much.” The FDA has actually offered that option in its proposed labeling changes.
In any case, whatever changes eventually come about on food labels, the challenging issue right now for many shoppers is the seemingly endless array of new information and products greeting them as they graze supermarket aisles. Never mind figuring out which brand gives you more for your money, today it can be tough trying to figure out exactly what you’re getting for your money and whether it’s as good for you as the label says.
In a series of occasional articles, I will try to take some of the mystery and confusion out of the new food shopping by answering such questions as: What’s gluten and do I need to be free of it? What’s a GMO? Is ‘’natural’’ always natural? What makes it “organic”? And what’s the controversy about palm oil?
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For starters, since the FDA is recommending listing how much “added sugar” is in any product, but there’s no way to know when or if it will actually do so, it would be useful to be able to recognize the different names under which sugar travels on labels. Anyone concerned about how much sugar he or she consumes (which should be everyone), should know these aliases: sucrose, dextrose, maltose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, in fact, most words ending in “ose” or “syrup,” cane sugar, cane juice, honey, caramel, palm sugar, molasses, brown sugar, invert sugar, fruit juice concentrates, dextrin, malt, agave and other nectars, sorghum and treacle.
These are the most common aliases, but there are dozens of variations of sugar listed on labels. Any of these near the top of the list, means there’s a lot of sugar in the product. Several of these listed on the labels suggests the same thing. Be aware.
Next: What is gluten and should I be free of it?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

So, you think you’re just a ‘heavy drinker’? Try this

My latest Addiction and Recovery column

By Bob Gaydos

“I’m not an alcoholic. Alcoholics have to go to those meetings. I’m just a heavy drinker.”
Maybe yes; maybe no. Either way, if you’re having this conversation with someone else, or just with yourself, it’s likely there are issues lurking that are related to your consumption of alcohol. As rules of thumb go, the one that says: “If drinking is causing problems in your life, it’s a problem,” is as reliable as it gets.
For those who describe themselves as “heavy drinkers,” it would probably be useful to know what health experts mean when they use the term, as well as possible risks involved in that pattern of behavior.
The Centers for Disease Control recently issued a report on heavy drinking which defined it as 15 or more drinks per week for men or eight or more drinks per week for women. That raised the limit by one drink per week in each case from standards issued by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But, as some professionals in the field would say, if you’re counting drinks, there’s already a problem.
Of course, it’s important to know what is meant by a drink. A standard drink, according to the NIAAA is 1.5 ounces of hard liquor or brandy, 12 ounces of beer and five ounces of table wine. All alcohol has the same effect, regardless of the form. If your “standard” drink is larger, the total drink count will be higher. And, possibly, the risks.
It’s true, some people can drink more than others and not have problems as a result. It’s also true that at least 40 percent of Americans drink little or no alcohol at all. But for anyone describing himself or herself as a “heavy drinker,’’ the NIAAA says it matters how much you drink on any one day and how often you have heavy drinking days.
        Among those who have one heavy drinking day per month, the agency says one in five, or 20 percent, already have alcoholism or alcohol abuse. One heavy drinking day per week raises the odds to one in three. Two or more heavy drinking days per week, makes it 50 percent, according to the NIAAA.
        And so what? says the “heavy drinker.” I have a job. My family loves me. I’m young. Alcohol is good for the heart. I get good grades. I don’t drink any more than my friends do. If it becomes a problem, I’ll cut back.
        Again, maybe so. But also again, it’s good to know the risks involved with heavy drinking. There’s nothing new here. Heavy drinking increases the chances of being injured or killed in auto accidents, fires, drownings, or being the victim of an assault or suicide. It poses greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, sexually transmitted diseases and more. It can pose a risk to the baby if a woman drinks during pregnancy and, just as with alcoholism, alcohol abuse -- or heavy drinking -- can cause legal problems, trouble in relationships and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, home, etc.
        If you’re serious about wanting to know if you’re just a heavy drinker -- someone who can successfully manage his or her alcohol intake and even curtail it -- rather than someone who “needs to go to those meetings,” the NIAAA offers a test, as it were.
       For one week, with dinner, have one standard drink of wine or beer. Or if you prefer, one standard drink of hard liquor or brandy before dinner. That’s it. Nothing else. No changing drinks from day to day. The NIAAA says people who can take it or leave will have no problem. Alcoholics flunk.
       As always, the idea is not to judge or condemn, but rather to take an honest look at one’s drinking in the hope of avoiding or eliminating problems that can arise from the abuse of alcohol. A heavy dose of honesty can be the best medicine when substance abuse is in question.