Rather than focus on self-improvement this Jan. 1, I've decided to take the easy way out: I'm calling foul on a few unflattering practices of food companies that I wish would change. Here are three resolutions I wish the food industry would make for 2014 – feel free to nominate additional ones in the comments section!
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical used widely in food packaging, particularly in can liners and certain plastics. In animal studies, it has been shown to be an endocrine-disrupting chemical, meaning that it interferes with normal hormonal function.
Worldwide, multiple health authorities have investigated available research on BPA and come to mostly the same conclusion: It's not safe enough for infants and children under 3, but plenty safe for the rest of us. France is a notable exception, as it has recently extended a ban on BPA in baby products to prohibit use of BPA for all food packaging due to ongoing safety concerns. (As if I needed another reason to love eating in France.)
Here in the U.S., the FDA maintains the safety of BPA in food applications based on the small amounts that actually leach into food from its packaging as well as on data that show accumulation in humans to be far below levels currently considered toxic. Nonetheless, as the result of some concern about potential effects of BPA on "brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children," industry players voluntarily removed it from baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula can liners within the past few years – a move that the FDA supported. (It is banned in Canada, the European Union and certain Asian countries for use in baby products as well.) Of note, not all scientific bodies agree with the FDA's reading of available scientific data on BPA with regards to its safety for adults and older kids.
So, is BPA going to be another one of those chemicals that's officially deemed safe … until it's not? In other words, if it's risky enough that we don't want to expose our babies to it, why is it OK to keep it in the food supply so that the rest of us – including, notably, older children and pregnant women – continue to be exposed to it?
[Read: The New Pregnancy Nutrition Rules.]
A handful of food manufacturers, such as Eden Organics, Muir Glen Organic, Amy's Kitchen, Wild Planet and Native Forest, have figured out how to remove BPA from their canned foods, which range from beans, soups and tuna to tomatoes, fruit, vegetables and coconut milk. With suitable alternatives now available and lingering concerns about BPA exposure beyond a certain threshold, why wouldn't the rest of you food companies just follow suit?
2. "We resolve to stop putting inulin in every possible food imaginable to bulk up its fiber credentials." Inulin, also known as chicory root fiber, is a naturally derived prebiotic fiber – or, an indigestible, highly fermentable carbohydrate that feeds the beneficial bacteria in our guts so that they can grow and prosper. But as is the case with any highly fermentable food, doses above a certain threshold can cause excessive flatulence, GI discomfort or diarrhea – and can be particularly distressing for people with more sensitive digestive systems.
[See: Foods That Cause Bloating.]
If inulin were only in the occasional random product, so be it. But these days, there's no escaping it. It's in breakfast cereals, granolas and low-fat yogurts; most protein bars and granola bars; breads and baked treats. Pretty much any product marketed as low-carb, low-sugar or high-fiber is highly likely to contain it – often in hefty doses. It's getting increasingly hard to find a packaged food that doesn't have inulin, meaning that the doses can really start to add up in a typical American diet. As a result, options are becoming increasingly limited for people who don't particularly care to produce enough gas to fuel their own cars.
While I understand – and even appreciate – the effort to boost the paltry fiber intake in the average American diet, there are a lot of other ways to do it. Whole foods-derived fibers like oat bran, chia seeds and coconut flour are far less fermentable than inulin and provide substantial nutritional and digestive benefits while delivering those impressive fiber numbers. There's a world of ingredients out there … Can't you people start thinking outside the inulin box?
3. "We resolve to stop hiding kid-targeted sugar bombs under deceiving healthy halos."
Consumers have come to expect sugar in the most obvious places such as cookies, soda, juice and ice cream. But parents who go out of their way to seek out organic products, particularly those marketed under the pretense of containing "superfoods," are being seriously duped.
For example: A popular baby food company sells toddler-targeted, 4-ounce Greek yogurt smoothie snacks that call out kale and spinach on the front label … but report a whopping 22 grams (5 ½ teaspoons) of sugar on the back label! (By way of context, pure apple juice contains 12 grams in a 4-ounce serving; chocolate ice cream has 17 grams). Nutritionally, I think its safe to say this is not exactly what a kale-minded mom has in mind when she grabs it off the shelf in a hurry.
[Read: Is Organic Food Better?]
Unfortunately, this is but one (albeit egregious) example of an increasingly widespread practice among marketers of supposedly healthy snacks and beverages for kids. We parents expect more integrity from you organic food companies. Step it up.
If you've got issues with a food industry practice, whether it's how companies formulate, package or market their products, speak up! I routinely e-mail food companies with such gripes and always receive a response. Consumer pressure has resulted in a variety of changes in how these companies do business, and the power of our collective voices – and purse strings – can go a long way.
Hungry for more? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, concerns, and feedback.
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.
Please note that the author cannot offer individualized medical advice to readers who contact her via email.