A few days ago, UK newspaper The Guardian ran a piece that had us questioning if antioxidant-and-nutrition-packed foods — or “superfoods” — are essential building blocks to good health, or just so much marketing fluff. A recent review of scientific studies failed to find a clear link between vitamin supplements and lower breast cancer risk. And back in 2011, one study even linked vitamin E supplements to an increase in prostate cancer. This has us questioning some firmly held beliefs about nutrition and food.
Over on this side of the pond, words like “superfood” are becoming increasingly widespread on food packaging. And it doesn’t end there. Before you go out and spend your hard-earned money on food, believing the label’s cues that it holds the key to good health, do you really know what’s in the food you’re eating? These 5 terms are currently unregulated in the US.
Superfood is a term you may have seen on packaging or in health magazines, when referring to a food that contains high concentrations of nutrients important to your overall health, compared to your average food. While it sounds great (who wouldn’t want food that’s “super”?), superfood is not a regulated term, nor does it refer to anything specific scientifically, so you can slap it on any old food product to your heart’s content as a marketing term, and nobody can stop you. My microwaveable mac and cheese? A super food. Ok, maybe not. But while many foods offer health benefits such as fiber, protein, and a high density of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins (quinoa, plums, broccoli), most nutritionists agree that focusing on a balanced diet with a variety of unprocessed foods rather than chugging massive amounts of green tea, or scarfing acai berries, is the way to go. So go ahead and eat some dark chocolate in moderation. But do it because it is freaking delicious, not because it will give you X-ray vision. It won’t.
While the FDA admits that it “has not objected to the use of the term [natural] if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” they have no definition of the term; so again, you can label anything you want “natural.” Currently on the market as “natural” food products: frozen chicken nuggets, highly processed sugary cereal, and an artificial sweetener.
If you’re buying maple syrup, Grade A does not mean it’s awesome, and top of the maple syrup graduating class. It refers to the color and taste. Things are about to get even more vague, since a new maple syrup grading system started in Vermont in January 2014, and new USDA regulations on maple syrup grading are apparently in the works. Currently, Grade A can refer to a maple syrup that ranges in taste from “delicate” to “robust” and in color from “light” to “very dark.” So although everyone has his or her personal preferences, you could basically have a maple syrup that everyone agrees tastes just god awful, and it is still Grade A. Or it might be great. You never know. But the term “Grade A” in and of itself doesn’t tell you a whole lot about what’s in the bottle.
Ever made tuna tartare or ceviche at home? You’ll notice a lot of cookbooks list “sushi-grade” fish as an ingredient. You’ll also see it at the supermarket or fishmongers, or on expensive menus. But it’s not actually a term defined or regulated by the FDA. It doesn’t refer to a fresh or sustainable seafood source, necessarily. So not only is it legally meaningless in terms of guaranteeing freshness, but it’s definitely not worth blowing a paycheck on. Buying from a reputable source, and asking lots of questions about your seafood’s provenance is a better bet. And Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a source a lot of chefs use to select healthy, sustainable seafood with the least environmental impact possible.
Although it sure sounds great when you’re at the meat counter, a “premium” cut of meat is not a thing. Depending on the type of meat, the FDA grades include terms like prime, choice, select, standard, and good. Of course “good” sounds a bit vague, and not very reassuring, so vendors can use words that sound a bit sexier, like “premium.” The idea is that they have the cuts of meat that are of the best quality. But yeah, the word doesn’t actually have to mean anything.
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