A picture of a snarky sign recently made the rounds on social media. The sign, purportedly in front of a restaurant in New York City read, “Lead, uranium, and cocaine are also gluten free. Watch out for health buzzwords.” Indeed. Take a walk through any grocery store or scan the shelves of any food purveyor and one need not “watch out” at all. We are inundated with food labels containing various eye-catching catch-phrases; all designed to entice us to pick up the given product and chomp away at it, guilt free.
The labels have become so numerous that one should ask if they have any meaning at all. As obesity and diabetes continue to plague the United States, healthy eating has become more popular, even trendy. Movements abound: Paleo, raw food, and gluten free are all trends that are catching — or have caught — on. First lady Michelle Obama, while not endorsing any particular movement, has made healthy eating a key public issue during her time living in the White House.
Food and nutritional awareness have led to an increased sensitivity to how our food is actually produced. As that has happened people have become increasingly aware that mass produced food, especially meat products, are often grown under conditions that make a typical person cringe. The lines have now blurred. And those blurred lines have created an opportunity for marketers to cash in. Food labels with healthy sounding proclamations now abound. So too does confusion.
Favorable growing or living conditions do not necessarily mean that the food we eat is any better for us. Similarly, that the food may actually be healthy does not mean that it was treated humanely as it was raised. To make matters worse, the labels that are supposed to convey this information often times mean nothing at all.
Here is a look at the top five meaningless food labels, what they say, what they don’t mean, and what consumers should ask themselves when they see them.
It is only fair to start here, with that funny sign in New York. It is hard to say exactly where the gluten free craze started. It likely has to do with increasing awareness of celiac disease. That is the name given to a pesky autoimmune disease that damages the villi of the small intestine, thereby interfering with the absorption of nutrients from food. It is estimated that one in 133 Americans has the disease, about 1 percent of the population. Furthermore, celiac disease goes undiagnosed in 83 percent of sufferers. The only treatment for the disease is a gluten-free diet.
It is a serious disease with a laundry list of symptoms. Many of those symptoms, though, like general weakness or fatigue, may have people self diagnosing. A recent study by the Mayo Clinic looked into whether the increased interest in gluten free eating had to do with an increase in instances of celiac disease or whether it was just a diet fad. The answer from the Mayo Clinic: Both. There has been a slight rise in the disease, the study found. It also discovered that there are about 1.6 million people in the United States eating a gluten free diet without ever having been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
So why are food companies wasting ink to plaster “gluten free” all over their labels? Because many have come to equate those two little words with one, much more meaningful, word, “healthy.”
If one has been diagnosed with celiac or gluten sensitivity, then a label proclaiming that a food product is gluten-free is certainly helpful. Those who truly suffer from the disease, though, are likely to have a general idea of what is and is not safe to eat. If you don’t have celiac disease, well, it doesn’t matter whether the food is gluten free or not. Sure, you may not want to eat gluten, and that is your right. But most potato chips were gluten free 10 years ago (some were, and are, not). They weren’t good for you back then and they still aren’t, even if the label proudly says “gluten free.”