Mislabeling Food: Does it Matter?


I began this blog with a question: how does the FDA regulate food in America? The more I look into it, the more it appears the answer is “very poorly”. A recent study has found that roughly a third of the fish in the United States is mislabeled in restaurants, fish markets, grocery stores, and sushi bars. Now, as a rule I do not eat fish, so my initial reaction was a bit apathetic; it didn’t really affect me at all. Still, though, I was a bit turned off by the thought of one fish being replaced by an even less appetizing fish. I knew this would cause a lot of backlash in the fishing industry and the venues that were mislabeling them.

Obviously, the fact that a third of the fish sold in American is mislabeled is a bit frightening; that is not a small fraction by any means. It begs the question of how that large a percentage went unnoticed by the FDA for so long (that is, until an external organization discovered it). Of course, it is impossible for the FDA to test every single food item in the U.S.; that’s both unreasonable and inefficient. But there has to be a more effective way of making sure Americans are eating what they think they are eating. What else could be mislabeled? Is the FDA doing anything to attempt to figure that out?

But all this discussion of regulation got me thinking about why we care so much in the first place. Why do we think eating one type of grouper is fine, but eating another is bad for us? True, some species of fish (and meat, for that matter) are not good for us by any means. The study cites allergens and “potential safety hazards” as the reason for public concern. Yet while I understand the concern for allergens, I cannot get over the idea that what we deem “acceptable” for fish is based on culture: we would prefer to pay more for Pacific cod than Atlantic cod. Likewise for grouper over Gulf grouper. The study lists no differences in health or nutrition for these replacements, just availability/appropriate price. Yes, it is important to know what is going into our bodies, but if a scientific study had to tell us, and not our upset stomachs or allergic reactions, how bad could it have really been?

The FDA’s initial response was weak: it wants to get rid of vernacular terms for fish to prevent fraud such as this. It did not apologize for any health problems this may have caused, which furthers the point: why should Americans care that they’re getting cod from a different ocean than they thought? We are so ingrained with the idea of what is “good” to eat and what is a delicacy that eating a similar species under the wrong name is an outrage. It’s similar to the fact that we scoff at the idea of eating, say, seagull, a delicacy in Newfoundland, Canada, while Indians think it’s disgusting that we eat cow. But it isn’t a difference between cultures in this case; it’s just a learned sense of what we “should” eat.

The article ends by advising consumers to buy fish in the least processed (and thus most recognizable) form possible to avoid fraud. Obviously this requires consumers actually being able to identify different species of fish, which I believe is great advice because it requires us to be more in tune with what we are eating. But it also puts the onus of regulating one’s food intake on the consumer, and not on the FDA or other government agencies like Customs & Border Protection. Indeed: what we “should” eat should not be determined by a government agency–especially one that is not doing its job–but rather by ourselves by better knowing our food.

Fad Diets

While browsing a food blog the other day I came across this list of 200 calories worth of many different foods. Most came as no surprise (obviously celery has very few calories, and I knew jelly beans were not good for me) but some caught me off guard: only 34 grams of peanut butter? Only 33 grams of nuts? And then seeing 50 grams of Splenda sweetener. Maybe I am naive, but I feel so misguided by the message certain food companies seem to send. Splenda touts itself as so much better for you than real sugar, but it really isn’t that many grams (50) of Splenda that equals 200 calories. It takes fewer grams of Splenda to reach 200 calories than gummy bears.

Why does our society have this defined idea of what is “good” for you? How do we determine it? To me it seems like even if contrasting information comes out, like how certain macro/micronutrients matter more than caloric intake in terms of obesity or that what kind of calories you eat doesn’t matter at all, we just believe what we think is easiest to believe. We have this societal notion of what we are supposed to eat that seems to be really hard to change.

Check out this article on the history of dieting in America: trendy diets virtually always come into popularity with pop culture. We see a famous person “succeed” with a certain eating pattern and copy that, such as the cigarette-instead-of-snack diet that became popular in the 1920s via Lucky Strike. In retrospect, this does not seem like sound medical advice. Obviously that fad has been proven to have negative effects (to say the least), but our society is still continuing the pattern of listening to ads and celebrities instead of scientists. Even today, we see Jessica Simpson, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and others influencing people (mostly women, but men too) in their eating habits. But the emphasis is rarely on health: it’s on losing weight.

It seems like the obsession our mainstream society has with food is less about what we believe is good for us and more about how we think we should relate to food based on what the media tells us. This becomes more evident when we look at other cultures: in the Netherlands it’s perfectly normal to put mayonaise on nearly everything; in France they emphasize huge meals with many fats and meats; and in Russia they endorse starch-y, carb-y foods that are often served with butter. Our idea of good eating is heavily influenced by our culture.

But back to my point: why do we simultaneously tout low-calorie diets and not always know how many calories are in many of our favorite foods? Why do we insist on less fat, more protein, less calories, more working out if we do not even know where these theories come from? Because food directly relates to our culture and how we see our relationship with food is not based on biology. I’m very interested to read about Terroir and the idea that food has a certain meaning in different cultures later in the year, because it seems to have a larger effect than I had originally thought.

You Are What You Eat

While reading some articles on food and nutrition this week, I stumbled across the website of the Nutrition Science Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to reestablishing the scientific method into nutrition research. Its goal is to help develop better-designed studies that rely on the same scientific rigor as pharmaceutical studies. While I’ve always known that scientists are not exactly all-knowing when it comes to what makes us obese, I had never considered that they might not be doing everything they could to remedy that fact, either. NuSI’s website says that the overwhelming majority of nutritional studies use participants that rely on the “honor code” of sticking to the diet being studied. That means being away from the watching eye of scientists in the comfort of their own homes. Who is to say that many of these participants don’t cheat on these diets and then lie to save face?

“In short, the state of the scholarly literature is such that we need well-designed, well-controlled, large n, lengthy studies directly addressing the question of whether the carbohydrate content of the diet influences fat mass independent of total caloric intake and whether total caloric intake has an influence independent of carbohydrate content. Such studies would also ultimately address the effect of nutrient composition on biomarkers of disease and other relevant outcomes.”

You would think that with the enormous obsession Americans have on obesity, we would be putting more effort (and funding) into these studies being more scientific. Current studies definitely approach nutrition from a holistic standpoint; since many vitamins and nutrients affect multiple bodily functions it can be hard to isolate distinct factors that lead to malnutrition and/or obesity. But even if scientists maintain that they cannot be any more “scientific,” how can anyone be okay with how little research we are actually conducting?


The above photo shows the spending of the USDA, American Cancer Society, American Heart  Association, and the National Institutes of Health on obesity and nutrition research. Yes, school lunches, behavioral & hypertensions research, and HIV treatment are all extremely important and should not lose funding. But it would be difficult to find someone who disagrees with the fact that proper nutrition can help prevent and/or mitigate the symtoms of many diseases. Personally, I think funding more nutritional research would not only be beneficial in understanding what goes into our bodies more, but also that it could open doors in terms of drug research.

On a related note: scientists have discovered that a drug commonly used to treat canker sores might be the key to weight loss but have yet to test it on humans. While great, weight loss is quite different than nutrition. Whether or not we are thin is not an indicator of health. Moreover, the article notes that if this drug did work on humans, it would have to be used every day to maintain low body weight. This is, of course, problematic, given how much American already depend on pharmaceuticals. Hopefully, new research like that supported by NuSI will reveal a healthier way to reach our goal weights that does not involve pills.