Nutrition Labels Aimed to Dupe Consumers—And How to Tell What You're Really Eating
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Take saturated fat. Some people believe coconut oil is so healthy they take it as a supplement. But it’s a saturated fat!
“The science is definitely shifting on saturated fats,” concludes Warner. “There was a big negative association to saturated fat and now if you look at a lot of scientific literature...I don't think there's science yet that shows that saturated fat is good. But I think it's a neutral position. There has been a number of meta-studies that show that saturated fat in the diet doesn't contribute to heart disease.”
The term “saturated fat” actually encompasses many different chemicals, chains of carbons that are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. These chemicals differ in the number of carbons in the chain. Usually when we think of saturated fat, we are talking about long-chain saturated fatty acids with 16 or 18 carbons (palmitic and stearic acid, respectively).
Coconut oil is touted for health benefits because it is rich in medium-chain saturated fatty acids like lauric acid. Yet nutrition labels do not discriminate between palmitic, stearic or lauric acids. All three are lumped together as saturated fats. And nowadays, even stearic acid, found in chocolate, is seen as okay for heart health.
On the other hand, there are the supposedly good polyunsaturated fats. We now know we should eat our omega-3s. But what about the more common type of polyunsaturated fats, omega-6s?
It’s not the total amount of omega-3s or omega-6s we eat that matters, per se, it’s the ratio of the two to one another. The optimal ratio is somewhere around twice as much omega-6s to omega-3s. The amount of omega-6s Americans eat is simply off the charts. Most of our omega-6s come from soybean oil, often labeled as vegetable oil, but other common oils with unhealthy ratios include corn, sunflower, safflower, sesame, cottonseed, and peanut oil.
So you go to the store, you find a bag of organic tortilla chips, and you read the label. How about some Xochitl Mexican-style corn chips? According to the nutrition label, they contain six grams of fat per serving, and of that only one gram is saturated. Presumably, the other five grams are unsaturated.
What kind of unsaturated fat exactly? According to the ingredient list, the chips contain “one or more of the following: canola oil expeller pressed non-hydrogenated and/or safflower oil and/or sunflower oil and/or palm oil.” Great. That’s no help at all. Of the possible oils in the chips, canola has an excellent omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, whereas the others have rotten ones. And you don’t know which of those you are eating.
We all know we need to eat more fiber. Women need 25 grams a day and men need 38 grams, but Americans eat roughly 15 grams each day. Good thing there are Fiber One bars, right? A 90-calorie bar packs five grams of fiber and it’s chocolate-flavored to boot! Yum!
But where’s that fiber coming from? Check the ingredients. Most of it comes from chicory root extract, although whole-grain oats contribute a little bit, too. Food manufacturers like chicory root because it does not negatively impact the food’s taste or texture, and it can even replace fat as it lends a smooth, creamy “mouthfeel.”
The only problem? Chicory root, also known as inulin, “actually does cause gastrointestinal problems with some people,” according to Warner. But, she adds, some processed foods touting high fiber use soluble corn fiber or oat fiber instead. “It’s better than not getting fiber,” she concludes. “But the problem is that if you’re just relying on these added fibers for your fiber content, it’s not ideal because our bodies really need a whole diversity of different types of fiber.”