Big Food Is Concerned You May Be Confused

You’re probably familiar with the rule of thumb for ingredients labels, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it.” It’s a rough guide, to be sure, but useful when buying processed food. (Though we recommend a diet based on whole foods, most of us will buy at least some processed .)

At least one industry front group is deeply concerned that this rule might be steering people away from wonderful products.

The editorial ran in the July/August issue of the Food Insight newsletter, which is produced by the International Food Information Council (funded by Coca-Cola and a slew of other industry giants).

For example, a very scary-sounding and hard to pronounce ingredient is “cyanocobalamin.” It sounds like cyanide – so could it kill you?

Like “gunny sack” sounds like gun – so it could shoot you? But we digress…

But cyanocobalamin’s other name is good old vitamin B12. So there is no need to avoid this ingredient; in fact you might want to seek it out. So the question comes up: “Why not just put vitamin B12 on the label?” Well, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration labeling rules say the long, scientifically accurate name has to be on the label. Although a food producer can put the commonly recognized and friendly name in parentheses if they choose to, the less familiar name has to come first and sometimes there isn’t room for both. Other uncommon names for common ingredients include: pyridoxine hydrochloride, otherwise known as vitamin B6, calcium pantothenate—vitamin B5, and ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C.

You have to admit, they have a point…until you start thinking.

Any vitamin that’s listed on an ingredient label is something that was added after the fact. Sometimes, as with white flour products, they’re used to replace nutrients lost in processing. Sometimes, they’re used to cast a health aura, such as calcium added to orange juice. These fortifying agents are typically synthetic forms, which are not always well assimilated by the body. It prefers to get its nutrients from food.

So while, no, those hard-to-pronounce names may not be “bad,” they still signal a product that’s, to varying degrees, different from what we evolved to eat. If your goal is to eat as natural of a diet as possible, these are probably not products you regularly want anyway. And if you’re conscientious about your health, chances are you’re already aware that cyanocobalamin is B12, EPA and DHA are omega-3s and so on.

One last note, because the irony of one other piece of the IFIC’s “argument” is rather, well, delicious:

The “hard-to-pronounce-equals-unhealthy” notion is related to a similar notion that “natural” is good and “artificial” or man-made, is bad and you can assume it’s “artificial” because it has more than one syllable.

Sort of like the Corn Refiners Association and Sugar Council touting sugar as better because it’s “natural”? Or the former petitioning (unsuccessfully) FDA to start calling high fructose corn syrup “corn sugar”?

Image by nicolasconnault, via Flickr

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