Are you a mindful eater? If so, what do you look for when choosing food products? Do you think all the information you're looking for can be found on the food label? While focusing on the grams of protein, carbs or sugar and sodium will help in our quest to stay healthy and slim, there are other issues and food-industry secrets of which you may be unaware. Read on to learn more about five hidden facts the food industry doesn't want you to know. Hint: They're not all on the label.
1. Only a Handful of Big Companies Own your Food: With hundreds of different products flooding the supermarket aisles, you may think you have a wide choice. But the truth is that you are just choosing among products probably made by the same parent company--maybe even in the same factory. According to a report on food monopolies by Food & Water Watch, Kellogg Co., General Mills, PepsiCo and Post Foods control almost 80 percent of cereal sales, making it hard for you and me to find a box of cereal that isn't owned by one of the big players in the food manufacturing industry.
Buying from independent and locally owned businesses helps keep money closer to the community. And what about quality? According to Michigan State University professor and food-system expert Philip Howard, as stated via email for Forbes, "It's very common that when an organic food brand is acquired, that the new parent corporation reduces its commitment to organic ingredients and seeks out cheaper substitutes."
2. Food-Label Health Claims Can Be Deceptive: How many times have you chosen one product over another because the package reads "natural" or "whole grain"? It should be healthier, right? While a loaf of bread or crackers may be whole wheat, the overall benefit may be less if it's also loaded with salt, sugar or trans fats. According to New York University professor of nutrition Marion Nestle as stated for U.S. News, these claims are calorie distracters. "They make people forget about the calories," she says. Don't be misled by pretty pictures of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Read the labels carefully. If you're concerned about the sodium, trans fat or sugar content, make sure to read nutrition-facts panel. Also, because ingredients are listed in order of quantity, a good trick is to make sure the first ingredient on the list is actually whole wheat or whatever ingredient the product is advertising as their selling point.
3. Fat-Free and Low-Fat Might Be Less Healthy: When a product is labeled "fat-free" or "low-fat," it doesn't necessarily mean that it's healthier. When food companies create a reduced-fat version of certain foods, they typically add in extra sugar or sodium to please palates, so make sure you peruse the nutrition-facts label before hitting the register. Also, healthy fats can help keep us from feeling hungry, and they've been shown to improve risk factors for hunger, and they've been shown to improve risk factors for heart disease.
Healthy fats also improve our body's blood sugar levels and the absorption of some nutrients. Plus, they just taste better. To eat a healthier diet, buy natural versions of food with no added sugar and with at least some healthy fats.
4. Some Popular Food Companies Learned Marketing Strategy as Big Tobacco: If you think food companies are like well-oiled propaganda machines, you're probably right. After all, they learned from the best. Just eight years ago, the Altria Group (the company once known as Philip Morris) still owned Kraft Foods. And they are using many of the same tactics, such as lobbying politicians and sponsoring favorable research to establish an image of their products as nutritious.
In order to make informed decisions about the food you choose to eat, you need to be aware that we are selecting our diets in a marketing environment full of confusing nutritional advice. Take responsibility for your own food choices by educating yourself on the food and the companies you're buying from.
5. Big-Box Retailers Are More Harmful Than You Think: Grocery conglomerates are the biggest buyers and sellers of grocery products, and as such, they have an enormous impact on our economy and our communities. According to Progressive Grocer, in 2011, chain supermarkets were responsible for 95 percent of total sales. Studies have shown that many big-box and national chain stores actually pay employees less in wages and benefits.
On the other hand, according to the Indie Impact Studies Series by Civic Economics, which compare the impact independently owned business have on the economy to that of larger, chain businesses, found that independents provide substantially greater benefits to their local economies, creating better places to live. Chain stores and restaurants extract locally generated revenues from the community with each bank transaction, independents actually create a virtuous cycle of local spending.
The more money that stays within the community means more jobs, more investment in commercial and residential districts, extra tax revenues for local governments and enhanced support for local nonprofits. Take the power back by shopping at locally owned stores and farmer's markets.