Sunday, June 12, 2011

HF and food labels

As I said in the previous post, I was volunteering at a food bank today. I discovered something very related to some research I have done in the past (and blog about frequently). Food labels.

My job today was running the tuna section. This may sound simple, but tuna is an inexpensive and nonperishable protein. Probably the least expensive and least perishable of all meat proteins. So it is very common for food banks. We get donations of canned tuna from individuals and grocery stores. I had at least 20 different kinds. There were brand names and store brands, there was oil-packed and water-packed; there was chunk light, chunk white, and solid white. There was regular and low-sodium. There were even a couple of onesies that were yellow-fin or some other special tuna species.

I had to keep them all separate because people came in with different needs. Children should stick with the chunk light because there is less mercury. Many of the elderly clients need low sodium because of diabetes, hypertension or some other medical condition. Those on diets wanted water-packed. Some asked for a brand name to make sure it was Kosher. So I had to get very familiar with the labels. Here are some things I discovered that are certainly not clear on the label.

There are 5oz and 7oz cans, which are hard to tell apart by size or by label.

The sodium ranges from 6% RDA to 10% RDA. Most of the cans that are actually labeled “low-sodium” are 6%. But so are most of the others. There was one can that was only 2% and didn’t have any low-sodium label. And there was one at 8% that said “not a low-sodium product.” So apparently the labeling has no rhyme or reason to it. You have the check the back if you care.

The serving sizes are smaller than they used to be. In the 90s, the regular size cans were all 6oz. Now they are all 5oz and the 7oz cans are labeled “larger cans” (although not clearly). The serving size is now two in a 5-oz can and three in a 7-oz can. It used to be two in a 6-oz can.

The number of calories is all different, which means some of the cans have more water and less tuna in them, even though the cans are the same size. Some brands are cheating you by putting in extra water. And the ones packed in oil assume you will drain the oil so that isn’t included on the nutrition label.

There were no labels about mercury anywhere. I happen to know that chunk light has less than solid white albacore so it’s better for kids. But if not for me, the other packers would have had no clue. You’d think this is even more important than most of the information they did label. Especially if the different between regular and low sodium is 2%

The libertarian in me doesn’t want to see this regulated by the government. If I was to eat high fat or high sodium tuna, I should be able to. But in order to make an informed choice, I need to be able to tell which is which and what is what. If a product as simple as canned tuna has this much variation in the label, I can’t imagine families trying to eat smart and buy the right foods for their kids. My 1990s research showed that people don’t look at detailed labels and rely on the front labels that say “low” this or “no” that. They don’t know exactly what it means, but if they need something to be low (or high), this is all they go by. Apparently, they are wasting their time. Either you have to study the detailed nutrition table or you are just wasting your time.

No comments: