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A critique of nutrition facts and the food pyramid

The purpose of the food pyramid and the nutrition label is to educate consumers so they can make informed decisions about what they are purchasing. Let's look at another point of view.

Through the food pyramid we are taught that what we should eat can easily be divided into compartments and everyone needs just about the same thing, everyday. On top of the pyramid is junk food, which should be eaten sparingly of course. But just by putting junk food on the food pyramid, it implies that it is food. And secondly, that it should be eaten, even if it is sparingly. Yes, minimally processed sweets like chocolate and jam are fine. But heavily processed cheetos, not food. There were a lot of issues with the food pyramid and it has since been replaced with "myplate." Again we are compartmentalizing our foods without regards to who we are individually. And I'll just point out that do we really need a glass of dairy and a serving of fruit at every meal? This is not necessarily good for your digestion, ayurvedically speaking. I'm cringing just looking at this plate, and there's more I can say, but I digress.

And of course there is the nutrition panel on every food, again compartmentalizing nutrition. This breakdown of nutrients is interesting psychologically. It implies that the nutrients on the nutrition panel are more important than what's not on the panel. For example, Americans are generally deficient in vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium, and so in an effort to bring these nutrients to our awareness, they are required on all nutrition panels. That's why you see these often as 0% and may wonder why they are even there. The most important nutrient however, surely would be the one that's in big bold letters, right? And that would be the calories. Why would calories be there in big bold letters if they weren’t so important? The problem with this is that it reflects the thinking that "a calorie is a calorie" without regards to the quality or digestive process that calorie would take. For example, a calorie of fat is going to used slowly where as a calorie of sugar will burn quickly, and lead to eating more later. If you ate the same amount of calories in a balanced dish, you would be much better off than only eating one type of calorie. Fun fact: One calorie in food is the energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. As you can plainly see this has nothing to do with your well being. Another side note on the nutrition panel: the serving size is moving away from how much you should eat to how much the average person would eat! This irony makes the daily value of nutrients super confusing and almost pointless! (It's like saying, "if you over ate this product like most Americans do, then you would be getting 100% vitamin c.")

This is not to say that nutrients aren't important. But the nutrition panel implies that what can be measured is all that's important. Often people think that if a nutrient is added to bad food, then somehow it makes the food good. Low quality juice with added vitamin C tells you nothing about where the fruit came from, how long it was cooked or if it has any contaminants for example. But it does trick you into thinking that vitamin C can magically make an unhealthy product healthy. Can freshness or quality be measured on a nutrition panel? What about other nutrients that we haven’t discovered yet or can’t measure yet? By leaving them out we are teaching that they are non existent/not important. The opposite is also true: People assume that if a bad ingredient is taken out of a food, then somehow the food is better. Are chemical sweeteners really better than sugar just because chemicals aren't labeled? Why doesn't the nutrition label say the % daily value of poisonous chemicals? We are teaching that what is important is only the amount of nutrients that you can measure and label, rather than quality.

Lastly the nutrition panel teaches you to look at the food’s label, an outside source to determine your health, rather than looking within. Couldn’t you just eat a little bit of the food and see how it makes you feel? These labels have been abused and spruced up for marketing reasons. Vitamins are added to make up for a lack of quality in heavily processed foods. Why don’t fruit and veggies have a nutrition label stuck to each one in the grocery store? Because they are good food and don’t need the marketing.

Where in school are we taught about where our food comes from, it’s impact on the earth and its quality? Where are we taught to eat fresh, seasonal food? Certainly not in the cafeteria dishing out canned food every day. Where are we taught to eat locally grown food that supports the local economy? Instead we are distractedly obsessed over calories.

Though meant to inform consumers, and they do to a degree, the food pyramid, my plate, and nutrition panel have taught consumers to trust the label and the scientists, rather than their gut. We are taught that as long as food can check the boxes of vitamins then it is healthy. It's time to take responsibility for our health and trust our bodies. Nothing wrong with a peek at the label to make a more informed decision. Just remember that your body and belly can tell you far, far more than the box.

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