Green Wash

Everyone’s jumping on the green bandwagon. Seems like every brand in the grocery store is now green, “eco-friendly” and filled with “natural goodness.”

The Philippines does not have a strict labeling system.  While we have the Bureau of Product Standards and the BFAD, their mandatory requirements fall short of what consumers should actually be told. BFAD only requires manufacturers to write: name, ingredients, net content, manufacturer and a telephone number for complaints. A Nutrition Info Table (which is also misleading) is only required when there are nutrition or health claims. For organic products, the OCCP is the organic certification body.  They do have a training and certification program. However, the use of the term “organic” for food packaging is not strictly regulated. In fact, there are numerous local “organic” products in the market but only a few actually certified by the OCCP.

These (what I think) are the most abused labels:

1.  “All Natural” and “Natural”

There are no standards for the use of these phrases. And so manufacturers follow the market trend and label their products “natural.”  The standard? A semblance of any fruit or vegetable. It does not matter whether these “natural” substances have been chemically processed, are food concentrates, or heavily induced with additives.  Products that contain reconstituted vegetables or fruits and high fructose corn syrup are on the shelves posing with the “Au Natural” label. Candy and boxed cereals have colorful pictures of healthy (smiling) fruits on them. Anything that has a teeny drop of fruit or vegetable in it is now “Natural.”  Even Knorr Pork Cubes is on the “Natural” shelf because it has itty-bitty pork in it, never mind the MSG.  Instant Pancit Canton proudly labels “No artificial preservatives added.”   Even yoghurt is now green-washed. Read the ingredients and except for some Lactobacillus and bits of fruit, it’s all calories and sugar.

2.Healthy

Now this is pure marketing genius. Sexy actress sipping the beverage with the tagline: “for a healthier you” and you’ll have people drinking themselves silly with sugar. Look at the popularity of sugary drinks, now being marketed as having “freshly brewed tea leaves.” The most common deception is to highlight just one or two benefits, without disclosing the entire package. Think “for a healthy heart” and a picture of an old couple in tai chi poses. Or boxes with children and rosy cheeks, reciting A to Zinc. The claims are not approved by the BFAD and there is no scientific proof to support their claim.

3.  High-fiber

High fiber is another misleading label that I didn’t quite understand. But I read about it and found out that while fiber can come from traditional sources like whole grain or vegetable, it can also come from inulin, maltodextrin, pectin, gum or other purified powders. Read the ingredient list (you might have to use a magnifying glass.)

4.  Sugar Free

I was deceived too many times by this claim.  My stepfather and father-in-law are diabetic and so sugar-free options were supposedly the choice for them. But these are often made with artificial sweeteners. And it’s not even the lesser of two evils.  For example, Splenda, Nutrasweet, and anything with aspartame are quite controversial and have been linked to cancer.

5.  No transfat

I say be wary of this one.  Often, if you really check, it may have 0 trans-fat but loads of saturated fat and total fat elsewhere.

6. Organic

Now this can just be “fibbing.” There are a lot of traders passing off their products as organic. Unlike the US, we do not have strict organic standards and labeling is not being regulated. In other places, you need to put the percentage of organic ingredients.  You also have to make sure that the land where the produce comes from has been without chemical fertilizers for a number of years. And you can only use USDA Organic if you meet the standards. It seems like the requirements here are that you think little or no synthetic inputs were used and that there are no food additives. It’s mostly self-regulation and the label organic is easily abused. You also never know if the products have genetically modified ingredients.

No one really knows whether the farmers actually comply with the “organic” standards. I have passed by market stalls selling organic produce, and I wonder how in the tropical world did they manage to grow those vegetables organically.  Locally grown, big and robust red peppers and large salad tomatoes are for me, not organic (unless they have found a magical way to grow them in our tropical climate.) You simply cannot grow them like that here.  Well, unless under strict growing conditions and roofing, which only a VERY few farms have. (Or maybe we just don’t know how.)  I have also been to an “organic” strawberry farm. They wouldn’t let us enter the neighboring patch because these had just been sprayed. But this other patch, they said, “it’s organic.”  As if the wind of chemicals won’t drift.

But seriously, until we’re able to regulate the use of the organic label here, it’s important to really know and trust your farmer, your trader, or the manufacturer selling his/her organic products.

7.  Pasture-raised- This one is not yet common but I do think it will be one day.  Most animals will be raised with some pasture but with a lot of access to grain. As of now, there is no requirement on how much percentage of pasture is needed to properly label a product pasture-raised.  The animals can also be fed antibiotics or injected hormones.  Similarly, there is no standard for grass-fed.  The only requirement is access to grass during its life.  There is yet no restriction on the use of antibiotics or hormones either. For me, true grass-fed, even pastured, should be fed grass from start to finish, and without antibiotics or hormones. 

8.  Eco-friendly, Environmentally-friendly- This is easy. Color your bottle green, use earth tones, rustic fonts, and put images of trees, leaves and butterflies. These alone will do the trick.

But you really cannot blame companies for doing their utmost to market their wares. (I actually jumped on the  bandwagon too.) And maybe they can indeed put pretty pictures and color their boxes green, even highlight the good about their products. But I do hope the white lies, the deception and fibbing stops. More than these, the most prudent thing to do is to be a more conscious consumer. Read the label, and then the fine print. Be informed.  What is high-fructose corn syrup? What good is an artificial sweetener? What about enriched flour? Why the tiny font on ingredient list (I actually cannot read some!)  Who am I supporting by buying this or that?

And I’m not saying you can’t eat anything else but.  I still enjoy Choc-Nut. I would give in to potato chips. Some spicy food just won’t do without Coke. I can’t say no to Boy Bawang. And there’s always the Pancit Canton temptation after a hang over. Eat your Boy Bawangs and Choc-Nut, but eat it (with gusto) KNOWING that you’re feasting on finger-licking good MSG and insulin-spiking sugar. I’m all for informed choices, healthy or not. I just don’t want you proudly slurping on a “freshly brewed tea” sugary drink deluded into thinking you’re on your way to a healthier you.

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