Tagged Labeling and Labels (Product)

An App to Deconstruct Your Food

Photo

A screenshot of the Sage app.

A screenshot of the Sage app.Credit

Ever wondered how long you’d have to swim to burn off the calories in an organic peanut butter cup? Or how far the strawberries or burger on your plate traveled to get there?

For answers, ask the Sage Project, one of the latest of the food technology companies helping consumers navigate nutrition. While a number of food apps count calories and track eating habits, Sage goes beyond the food label to give customers additional information about additives and preservatives, how much sugar has been adding during processing or how far a food has traveled.

“Food labels are a data visualization that we see every day, but we don’t get a lot from them,” said Sam Slover, the co-founder and chief executive of Sage. “There are a lot of things about those labels that make assumptions about what you know and what you want to know.”

Do we really need another food app? Apple’s app store already lists more than three dozen apps offering users information and advice about calories, nutrition data and weight loss, but research shows that many consumers have a failed relationship with their food apps. For instance, in January, about 16 percent of the people who downloaded the Lose It app were using it once a day. By June, only 10 percent were using it that often, according to research firm 7Park Data.

“These apps have trouble keeping customers loyal — if you use them successfully, you don’t need them any more, and if you don’t use them successfully, you may not think it’s worth it to try more,” said Byrne Hobart, the lead analyst at 7Park Data. “They’re kind of like the dating apps that way.”

The Sage app hopes to inspire more loyalty by providing a trove of useful and quirky information about the food you eat. It contains data on about 20,000 products, though you still may not find your favorite junk foods. Most of the products in the database are described as “natural” and “organic.” But if you shop at Whole Foods, you’re in luck. Sage has partnered with Whole Foods Market, deconstructing all of the roughly 7,000 items sold in the grocer’s new “365” store chains in Los Angeles and Lake Oswego, Ore.

To begin using Sage, which is available online or as a web-based app, a user signs up and enters any food restrictions and personal preferences. Only want to see products without additives and preservatives? No problem. Interested in digestive health? Sage will comb through its database and show you products with probiotics, high fiber and whole grains.

The app displays a wide variety of information using colorful graphics and animated food characters, and it’s surprisingly fun and entertaining to use. The app told me that Surf Sweet gummy bears, for instance, do have a fair amount of added sugar but also have “good nutrient density,” meaning that, among other things, they supply a high amount of vitamin C (much to my delight). A jump-roping chocolate bar informs me that I’d need to jump rope for 19 minutes — or a snorkeling olive recommends 23 minutes of swimming — to burn off a serving of Justin’s Organic milk chocolate peanut butter cups.

“Customers want a better understanding of how a product is sourced, the quality standards behind it, whether the labor that made it was paid a fair wage, its impact on the environment,” said Jason Buechel, the chief information officer at Whole Foods. “This is a way to give them all that information that isn’t captured on the nutrition label.”

Take the Beast Burger, for instance, a meatless burger sold at Whole Foods. Type the name of the burger into Sage or flip through a list, and you’ll find its basic nutritional profile and calorie content, with highlights of its nutritional strengths.

Using animated food characters — a pear doing yoga, a watermelon riding a bike — the app shows how much exercise would be required to work off the burger. In my case, it’s 20 minutes of running, 22 minutes of jumping rope, 28 minutes of swimming or biking, 44 minutes of dance or 89 minutes of yoga.

Sage also identifies any allergens — corn and seeds in the case of the Beast Burger — and offers detailed explanations of all the burger’s ingredients, and why they’re used should you be interested. For instance: “Calcium chloride, a salt, is used in canned goods to improve stability and quality and as a firming agent in tofu production.”

The system awards “badges” to the burger for things like an abundance of healthy fats and protein and having recyclable packaging, and it explains what diets — dairy free, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian and ketogenic — it does not violate. To make nutrition recommendations like “fiber friendly” or “heart healthy,” Sage uses nutritional standards set by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Association. An in-house team of dietitians and nutritionists have created standards for badges like “healthy fats” or “contains probiotics” — areas where the F.D.A. doesn’t set guidelines.

Finally, the app tells you where the product is made or sourced. The Beast Burger is American made. If you decided to check out Driscoll strawberries, you might learn your batch came from Mexico.

It also can tailor daily nutritional requirements to a user’s specific weight, height and lifestyle. For instance, Sage came up with a recommended daily caloric intake of about 3,300 calories that is rich in protein for Mr. Slover, given his height, weight and exercise routine — he’s a triathlete. It recommended a 1,600-calorie diet with a lower portion of protein for his mother.

“All those things on a label telling you that a product gives you, say, 10 percent of the daily requirement of protein is based on a default, 2,000-calorie-day diet, a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t work,” Mr. Slover said.

One thing the Sage app won’t tell you is what you should or shouldn’t eat. You will have to figure that out for yourself. “I’m not a big fan of red, yellow and green scoring mechanisms for food,” Mr. Slover said. “I don’t think they’re well received by consumers or used very much.”

Ask Well: Getting the Most Out of Whole Grains

Photo

Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Do you have a health question? Submit your question to Ask Well.

Related:

For more fitness, food and wellness news, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for our newsletter.

Is Sugar Really Bad for You? It Depends

Photo

Credit iStock

The federal government’s decision to update food labels last month marked a sea change for consumers: For the first time, beginning in 2018, nutrition labels will be required to list a breakdown of both the total sugars and the added sugars in packaged foods. But is sugar really that bad for you? And is the sugar added to foods really more harmful than the sugars found naturally in foods?

We spoke with some top scientists who study sugar and its effects on metabolic health to help answer some common questions about sugar. Here’s what they had to say.

Why are food labels being revised?

The shift came after years of urging by many nutrition experts, who say that excess sugar is a primary cause of obesity and heart disease, the leading killer of Americans. Many in the food industry opposed the emphasis on added sugars, arguing that the focus should be on calories rather than sugar. They say that highlighting added sugar on labels is unscientific, and that the sugar that occurs naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables is essentially no different than the sugar commonly added to packaged foods. But scientists say it is not that simple.

So, is added sugar different from the naturally occurring sugar in food?

It depends. Most sugars are essentially combinations of two molecules, glucose and fructose, in different ratios. The sugar in a fresh apple, for instance, is generally the same as the table sugar that might be added to homemade apple pie. Both are known technically as sucrose, and they are broken down in the intestine into glucose and fructose. Glucose can be metabolized by any cell in the body. But fructose is handled almost exclusively by the liver.

“Once you get to that point, the liver doesn’t know whether it came from fruit or not,” said Kimber Stanhope, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who studies the effects of sugar on health.

The type of sugar that is often added to processed foods is high-fructose corn syrup, which is the food industry’s favored sweetener for everything from soft drinks to breads, sauces, snacks and salad dressings. Made commercially from cornstarch, high-fructose corn syrup is generally much cheaper than regular sugar. It contains the same components as table sugar – glucose and fructose – but in slightly different proportions.

What about “natural” sweeteners?

Food companies like to market agave nectar, beet sugar, evaporated cane juice and many other “natural” sweeteners as healthier alternatives to high-fructose corn syrup. But whatever their source, they are all very similar. To suggest one is healthier than another is a stretch, experts say. In fact, last month, the F.D.A. urged food companies to stop using the term evaporated cane juice because it is “false or misleading” and “does not reveal that the ingredient’s basic nature and characterizing properties are those of a sugar.”

Is high-fructose corn syrup worse than regular sugar? How is it different?

High-fructose corn syrup and regular sugar are so similar that most experts say their effects on the body are essentially the same.

The main difference is that the variety of high-fructose corn syrup used in soft drinks tends to have more fructose. In one 2014 study, researchers analyzed more than a dozen popular soft drinks and found that many sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup – including Pepsi, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola and Arizona Iced Tea – contained roughly 40 percent glucose and 60 percent fructose. Regular sugar contains equal parts glucose and fructose.

Why doesn’t the F.D.A. require that added sugars be listed in teaspoons rather than grams?

When the new food labels go into effect, the daily recommended limit for added sugars will be 50 grams, or roughly 12 teaspoons, daily. (One teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams.) But the new food labels will list the amount of added sugars solely in grams.

Many nutrition advocates have urged the F.D.A. to require that food labels list added sugars in both teaspoons and grams on food labels, arguing that Americans often underestimate the actual amount of sugar in a product when it’s expressed in grams alone.

But the F.D.A. ultimately sided with the food industry, which opposed the teaspoon proposal.

“It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a manufacturer to determine the volume contribution that each ingredient provides toward the added sugars declaration,” the agency said. “For example, a cookie made with white chocolate chips and dried fruit would have added sugars in the form of sugar in the batter as well as in the white chocolate chips and the dried fruit.” The F.D.A. also said that requiring both grams and teaspoons would “cause clutter and make the labels more difficult to read.”

But Michael Jacobson, the president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that had petitioned the F.D.A. to require the teaspoon measurement, said the agency was under enormous pressure from the food industry, “which knows that consumers would be far more concerned about a product labeled 10 teaspoons than 42 grams.”

So what’s the issue with added sugars?

It mainly comes down to the way they’re packaged.

Naturally occurring sugar is almost always found in foods that contain fiber, which slows the rate at which the sugar is digested and absorbed. (One exception to that rule is honey, which has no fiber.) Fiber also limits the amount of sugar you can consume in one sitting.

A medium apple contains about 19 grams of sugar and four grams of fiber, or roughly 20 percent of a day’s worth of fiber. Not many people would eat three apples at one time. But plenty of children and adults can drink a 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi, which has 55 grams of added sugar – roughly the amount in three medium apples – and no fiber. Fiber not only limits how much you can eat, but how quickly sugar leaves the intestine and reaches the liver, Dr. Stanhope said.

“You can’t easily eat that much sugar from fruit,” she said. “But nobody has any problem consuming a very high level of sugar from a beverage or from brownies and cookies.”

Why is it a problem to have too much sugar?

Many nutrition experts say that sugar in moderation is fine for most people. But in excess it can lead to metabolic problems beyond its effects on weight gain. The reason, studies suggest, is fructose. Any fructose you eat is sent straight to your liver, which specializes in turning it into droplets of fat called triglycerides.

“When you ingest fructose, almost all of it is metabolized by the liver, and the liver is very good at taking that fructose and converting it to fat,” said Dr. Mark Herman, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard. Studies show a predictable response when people are asked to drink a sugary beverage: A rapid spike in the amount of triglycerides circulating in their bloodstreams. This also leads to a reduction in HDL cholesterol, the so-called good kind.

Over time, this combination – higher triglycerides and lower HDL – is one major reason sugar promotes heart disease, said Dr. Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist and adviser to the United Kingdom’s national obesity forum. This sequence of events may even overshadow the effects of LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad kind.

“What many people don’t realize is that it’s triglycerides and HDL that are more predictive of cardiovascular disease than LDL cholesterol,” Dr. Malhotra said. “I’m not saying LDL isn’t important. But if there is a hierarchy, triglycerides and HDL are more important than LDL.”

Dr. Malhotra said that when people reduce their sugar intake, “their overall cholesterol profile improves.”

“I see this in so many of my patients,” he added. “The effects are rapid.”

How much sugar is too much?

One of the largest studies of added sugar consumption, which was led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that adults who got more than 15 percent of their daily calories from added sugar had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. For the average adult, that translates to about 300 calories, or 18 teaspoons of added sugar, daily. That may not sound like a lot. But considering that a single 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola has almost 10 teaspoons of sugar, it can add up quickly

The study found that most adults got more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar, and that for 10 percent of people, more than 25 percent of their calories came from added sugar. The biggest sources for adults were soft drinks, fruit juices, desserts and candy.

While those might seem like obvious junk foods, Dr. Malhotra said, about half of the sugar Americans consume is “hidden” in less obvious places like salad dressings, bread, low-fat yogurt and ketchup. In fact, of the 600,000 food items for sale in America, about 80 percent contain added sugar.

Everyone’s tolerance for sugar is different. Studies show, for example, that people who are already obese may be more susceptible to metabolic harm from sugar than others. But Dr. Malhotra said that he generally advises people to follow the World Health Organization’s guidelines, which recommend that adults and children consume no more than about six teaspoons daily of added sugar.

“Could I tell you the exact limit where sugar starts to definitely impact cardiovascular health?” he said. “That’s difficult. But I think if people stick within the W.H.O. limits, then their risk is reduced.”

For more fitness, food and wellness news, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for our newsletter.

Is Your Food ‘Natural’? F.D.A. to Weigh In

Photo

Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Can you define the word “natural”?

The Food and Drug Administration is certainly trying. Since 2014, the agency has asked the public to weigh in on how the term should be defined and used on food labels — or whether it is even appropriate for the F.D.A. to regulate the use of the word at all. By the time the agency closed its public commenting period on May 10, about 7,600 comments had poured in from consumers, companies, food experts and health and legal authorities.

A spokeswoman for the F.D.A. said that the agency is now reviewing all of those comments. While the process could take months, experts say there is a great sense of urgency. Americans spend more than $40 billion a year on cereals, breads, yogurts, beverages, and other foods identified as “all natural.” Surveys show that consumers seek out the “all natural” label because they believe — wrongly — that it means the food was produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides and artificial ingredients.

In fact, more than a hundred class action lawsuits have accused companies of misleading consumers by slapping the words “all natural” on products that contain synthetic, artificial and genetically engineered ingredients. A number of federal judges have urged the F.D.A. to weigh in, saying that they cannot rule on whether companies improperly used the term on their products until the F.D.A. defines what it actually means.

But can it?

Until now, the F.D.A. has “respectfully declined” judges’ requests. It has mostly referred the public to an informal advisory it published more than two decades ago, which stated that natural means that “nothing artificial or synthetic,” such as color additives, has been added to a food that would not normally be expected to contain it.

But that advisory is not legally enforceable, nor was it intended to address processing methods such as pasteurization and irradiation or, for that matter, genetic engineering.

The issue of whether genetically modified foods can be labeled natural has been raised in more than 50 legal cases, including a lawsuit against the makers of Mission tortilla chips. According to the suit, Mission’s tortilla chips were labeled “all natural” despite being made from genetically modified corn, which the suit called misleading.

Among those who have called on the F.D.A. to take a stronger stance on the meaning of the word is Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general, who wrote a letter this month urging the agency to adopt a definition that excludes synthetic and artificial ingredients, as well as genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s.

Mr. Schneiderman asked the agency to restrict the definition to minimally processed foods like ground nuts and washed salads, or foods that were prepared using traditional techniques like roasting, drying, smoking and fermenting.

Forbidding genetically modified foods to be called natural would be similar to the standards for organic labeling, which are tightly regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and which exclude G.M.O. foods from carrying the organic certification.

Under Mr. Schneiderman’s definition, “natural” would essentially mean not made by humans, and subjected to little or no processing.

But other experts say it’s not so simple. For decades, countless varieties of crops that ultimately became supermarket staples were created through breeding practices that involved subjecting the crops to radiation to attain favorable genetic mutations — including the ruby red grapefruit, said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington.

“I think if you ask the average person they would say that ruby red grapefruits are natural,” Dr. Jacobson said. “But ruby red grapefruits were derived decades ago from seeds that had been treated with irradiation. Some people would say that’s human intervention and so it’s not natural. There are plenty of reasons why the natural issue has gotten so messy and why the F.D.A. has run the other way from it.”

To avoid those issues, some argue that the definition should refer only to the post-harvesting period, so that foods that are plucked from the ground or produced by farms and brought to market as is are considered natural, while those that are subjected to extensive processing are not.

All would agree, for example, that an organic peach at a farmer’s market is natural. But what about a peach that is sliced, dried and preserved with citric acid, an organic compound that can be isolated from lemons or made in a factory? What if the peach is sliced and preserved with sugar, and then sold in a can? And what if that sugar is high-fructose corn syrup, or cane sugar from G.M.O. crops?

“Everyone is always going to have their own conception of what is natural,” said Marsha Cohen, a law professor and expert on food law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “The most logical position is to say this word is never going to be meaningful enough to not be misleading to people.”

With so many nuances and thorny questions to address, the F.D.A. could choose to ban the use of the word natural from labels entirely. Food labels have become so crowded with information — nutrition facts, organic certifications, claims about hormones, gluten, whole grains and G.M.O.s — that for many people it is difficult to figure out what to focus on, said Margot Pollans, an expert on food law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

After a while, all the label claims can start to seem like white noise. But while “all natural” seems to confuse consumers even further, the F.D.A. is unlikely to forbid its use altogether.

“The problem that the F.D.A. would then encounter is the First Amendment – free speech,” said Ms. Cohen of U.C. Hastings. “The F.D.A. would have a very long road ahead of it to just ban the word completely.”

In the end, that may not be necessary. The fear of litigation has already caused food industry giants like PepsiCo, Frito-Lay, Campbell Soup and others to abandon their use of the word on products, said Jason J. Czarnezki, the executive director of environmental law programs at Pace University. Across the food industry, the number of products claiming to be “natural” fell to roughly 22 percent in 2013 from about 30 percent in 2010.

“I think companies are moving away from words that in some ways might be considered consumer fraud,” Mr. Czarnezki said.

The F.D.A. should nonetheless issue a strict definition of “natural,” he said — one that not only excludes artificial, synthetic and genetically engineered ingredients but that also restricts foods that have a large carbon footprint. Mr. Czarnezki said it is up to the agency to help consumers make sense of all the confusion.

“Even the most educated consumer can’t know what the word means,” he said.

Related:

For more fitness, food and wellness news, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for our newsletter.

How Well Do You Know Your Food Labels?

Photo

Credit

New food products making claims about health and nutritional attributes are on the rise. With the average American grocery store carrying 42,214 items, it’s easy to see why a trip down the aisle can leave you scratching your head. Test your supermarket savvy with this quiz.

Sophie Egan is the author of “Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies — How What We Eat Defines Who We Are,” on which this quiz is based.