On the Cheetos package are the words "0 grams trans fat." They must be healthy, right?

Grocery store packaging is one of the main ways that consumers get information about food and diet. We also hear about recent nutritional research on the nightly news, we look up specific information on the internet, and we see the latest diet books on the shelf at our local bookstore. Some information sources provide basic facts about food items, while other sources aim to influence our philosophical and moral attitudes towards food and food production.

Evaluating all of this information can be tricky. The folks providing this information have a range of motives (most often, they want your money). Luckily there are some general things that can guide us in our search for credible, useful and reliable information about diet and nutrition.

If you are looking for basic facts, the best source of information is right on the back of the package: the standardized "Nutrition Facts" panel that we all know and love has appeared on all packaged food items since 1994. It provides consumers with standardized information about the food inside the package. That advertisement on the front of the Cheetos package is only one small selective part of the overall nutrition profile and is picked to make Cheetos seem healthier than they actually are. Although Cheetos may not have any trans fat, a 28 gram serving has 10 grams of total fat! I suppose I ought to eat more than just Cheetos for lunch.

broccoli and cheetos

I love Cheetos and I can tolerate broccoli but I'm not sure they make a good pairing. CC-BY image courtesy of Flickr user Krista (scaredykat).

Consumers want to know more about their food than just the nutrition facts, and some food-related labeling is more tightly controlled than others. The United States Department of Agriculture started certifying organic food in 2000 through its National Organic Program and regulates the use of a label to indicate that the food inside the package is pesticide free.

USDA Certified Organic Label

USDA Certified Organic Label

Many countries provide some kind of national certification as a way of protecting consumers against unscrupulous food producers who might just slap an "organic" label on foods grown using pesticides. The certifications also provide an agreed upon list of standards about what makes a food product "organic."

Many folks have also called for standard labels to help customers understand when food is GMO free, free range, natural or many other words that have meaning in the food industry. If you see a certification on a food package, make sure you know where it is coming from: a government office, an industry group, and independent service, etc.

Outside of the grocery store we are constantly bombarded with food and health related information. Websites, commercials and infomercials all tell us how good particular products or diet plans are. Filtering out the good from the bad requires a bit of critical thinking.

The first question to ask is, "Are they trying to sell me something?" And almost always, the answer is a resounding "YES!" Sometimes the sales pitch is overt (as with TV commercials). Sometimes it is more subtle (such as "informational" websites created and owned by the folks who just happen to make a product to help you with the issue you came seeking information about). We have to remember that whatever information these folks are giving us is only because they want us to buy something. This website about pork provides a lot of information and recipes. They want you to buy pork. This book about a new diet fad wants you to buy the book (and the cookbook and the follow up book, etc). While these information sources might not be lying to you (federal advertising regulations limit that), they may only be providing selective information, or influencing your emotions with images meant to evoke a healthy lifestyle.

Since getting away from ads is almost impossible, we can mitigate the dangers of that information working its way into our brains. First, try to corroborate any information you hear. Does another (hopefully) more reputable source, see below, make the same claim? Second, what do experts in the field think of that product or diet? WebMD has a great resource of expert reviews of various diet plans that can help in decision making.

Second, the savvy consumer of nutrition and diet information will ask "Where does the information come from?" Of course, this is directly related to our first question: if the information comes from someone trying to sell you something, you need to be more skeptical of the claims made. Beyond the sales aspect of information, it is important to know something about the author and the original source of the information. Journalists often report on recent nutritional research, but they occasionally get it wrong. Again, finding corroborating evidence can be important. Look for references to the original source of the material. Be skeptical of general statements like "Scientists say eating Cheetos three times a week isn't healthy" and look for specific source information such as "Researchers from John Hopkins University discovered that Cheetos aren't healthy, according to a study published in this week's issue of Science." When an original source is cited, think about the nature of that source. If an article suggesting that bananas are the most nutritious food ever gets its information from the Australian Banana Growers Council, be skeptical. Look for sources that include peer reviewed journals.

Finally, it is important to take note of your existing biases. If you are against GMOs, an article describing potential health benefits of a new genetically engineered strain of rice might be met with more skepticism than an article discussing potential health hazards. If you love bacon and can't go a week without a good prime rib, an article suggesting the health benefits of a vegetarian diet might be easily dismissed. If you think Cheetos are a gift from the gods, articles discussing the health benefits of corn-based processed foods might be easily believed. Understand your biases. When you come across an article confirming those biases be more skeptical about claims made, look for corroborating source and be more diligent in tracking down sources.

We are all bombarded with food and diet information from the supermarket to the world wide web. Thinking critically about the information sources we come across can help us make smart food choices and healthy decisions overall.

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