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Food labels, diet trends blur definition of health

Eating healthy has come to mean more than fruits and vegetables. It now includes understanding the differences among labels such as organic, gluten-free and low-fat, and the confusing labels on different food items.

Lisa Dorfman, professor of kinesiology and sport sciences, compares the issue with food labels to a game of telephone, which confuses the average consumer.

“By the time you get to the end, the message has changed,” she said.

Gluten-free foods, for example, are only beneficial to those who suffer from celiac disease, a condition that harms the lining of the small intestine and prevents the proper absorption of foods necessary for a healthy lifestyle, or a wheat allergy, according to Dorfman.

Consuming these foods otherwise does not contribute anything else. Dorfman has noticed that people “jump on the bandwagon” and treat the gluten craze as a trend rather than a health necessity.

“Some students will start eating gluten-free because their roommate is eating gluten-free,” she said.

The term “low fat” has a comparable mythology as well. While the FDA has rules and regulations to classify low fat foods, this label does not detail how much can be consumed, which qualifies the effect of choosing low-fat foods over standard ones.

“It says nothing about portion control,” Dorfman said.

Ashley Falcon, assistant director of the Wellness Center who has degrees in psychology and health education, provides a psychological perspective on the term “low fat.”

“We start to think because it’s lower in fat, we can eat more, thinking it’s better for us,” she said.

Despite the confusion surrounding low-fat foods, navigating a food label is not impossible. Falcon explains the key in differentiating these low-fat foods is in focusing on the quality of the fat content.

“In order to make these products low fat but remain flavorful they are often high in calorie, fat, salt content and might be hurting our goals in another way,” she said.

Junior Aaron Agrasanchez also pays attention to labels to ensure that he avoids foods high in sodium and trans fats.

“I always check for sodium and trans fat content on food labels,” he said. “If it’s low in those contents, more than likely it’s not going to be that bad for you.”

With respect to organic products, Dorfman acknowledges their health benefits, but also recognizes their higher prices compared to non-organic foods. She recommends visiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, EPA.gov, to study the list termed the “dirty dozen,” foods that are more likely to contain toxins.

According to Dorfman, the dozen should be purchased in the organic aisle. Supermarkets like Target and Publix also feature their own brand of organic foods that can be more cost effective.

“You can also buy store brand organic instead of the often pricey alternatives,” she said.

November 7, 2012

Reporters

Ashley Zimmerman


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