Put your best fork forward

Most of you probably aren’t aware of this (I honestly wasn’t) but March is National Nutrition Month. This education and information campaign is created annually by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and focuses on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. This year’s captivating slogan was “put your best fork forward”, which refers to the best nutrition choices you can make.

But how can we easily make these choices?

The more supermarkets widen their offer, the more difficult it becomes for consumers to select the best products for our daily diet. We are driven towards anything that has one of these marks: low-fat, low-calorie, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, high-fiber, trans-fat free, low-carb, all natural and so on.

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But do they really mean what we think? More importantly, are they really what should drive our shopping choices?

When making a choice regarding food, always check the nutrition facts label before anything else! Many of the food label claims listed above are totally misleading: “low calorie” doesn’t mean healthier. On the contrary, such foods and beverages might contain high quantities of chemical sweeteners or other extremely damaging ingredients such as phosphoric acid, a chemical that corrodes teeth and bones. “Organic” food might still contain traces of GMOs, since most national regulations allow for this presence.

That’s why we should primarily rely on the nutrition facts label alone.

Unfortunately, when I went to the US and had to prepare my own meals, I found myself in a tricky situation. When I first went to the local supermarket, I was mesmerized by the enormous selection of products the supermarket had to offer, it took me 10 minutes of staring at the dairy aisle before I could decide on what yogurt to buy!

Looking at the labels they all seemed kind of the same (one low-fat, the other low-calorie) and the nutritional facts label was useless to differentiate them. Long story short, after a few tries I gave up looking for a healthy natural one.

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However, things are about to change! Almost a year ago today, Michelle Obama unveiled the new label the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) had worked on the past few years. This move enraged several major food associations, which desperately fought to maintain the existing one.

Why such a fuss? Simply because the old label allowed producers to omit the amount of sugars and their corresponding percentage with respect to the daily recommended intake. As the demand for low-fat and low-carb products increased, corporate firms responded by placing on the market new products which were apparently healthier, but which in fact, contained double the sugar than before, to keep the flavour unchanged. Manufacturers have until 2018 to make the following pivotal changes, perceived as a defeat by the American food industry lobby. Even though this new label might not seem different at all, it most certainly is.

Here’s what will change:

  • information on calories and servings will be highlighted (their recommended intake is based on a 2,000-calorie diet);
  • serving sizes won’t only become more prominent but will also reflect more closely the amounts of food people actually eat, so the nutrition information that is listed per serving will be more realistic;
  • additional nutrients will be listed, such as Potassium and Vitamin D. More importantly, for the first time “Added sugars” must be on the label both in grams and as a percentage of the Daily Value. Scientific data as recorded by FDA shows that “it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugars, and this is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. On average, Americans consume 13 percent of their daily calories from added sugars—making it much harder to stay within individual calorie limits.”

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This new label will be a success if it helps Americans in making more informed choices about the foods they eat, since from now on it will be clear when a food manufacturer has relied heavily on sugars to make its product tasty. We surely have to thank the numerous associations and people who have helped raise awareness of this issue like Jamie Oliver (you’ve probably seen his TedTalk) and the producers of the documentary Fed Up.

The hope is that this revolutionary reform will not only change the lives of many Americans for the better, but also inspire many others to make healthy eating a priority in their own societies and create a world where everyone puts their best fork forward!

Chiara Sartorelli

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