Food beyond the numbers. Forget about the statistics on the nutrition label and choose food that’s actually good for you.

perspectives

This month I had my first Odwalla juice, complete with a picture of brightly colored fruit and environmentally-friendly plastic. The nutrition label both stunned and somewhat disgusted me. It wasn’t the 400-something calories in the bottle or the sugar count, but rather the fact that it had 1500 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. In other words, in weeks it takes for this column to be submitted, edited and printed, I might just have begun to run low on the vitamin C I got from that juice.
The drink’s name was “Strawberry C Monster,” which probably should have clued me in, but I have to wonder why someone would need over two weeks’ worth of vitamin C in one drink. (Besides, the label announced, “Keep refrigerated, extremely perishable,” so I couldn’t even take it to the middle of a desert, where it might be of some use.) Yes, the juice contains apples, oranges, grape juice and strawberries (10, to be exact, according the label), but it also contains ascorbic acid, which is probably responsible for the freakishly high levels of Vitamin C in the drink.

Food isn’t meant to be consumed this way, in the form of liquid vitamins. Fifteen hundred percent’s worth of Vitamin C, while a little surprising, isn’t even really all that special, considering it came from a chemical. We shouldn’t make judgments on what to eat based on just the nutrition label. For one thing, there are the recent concerns that vitamin supplements may not actually be that good for you. In a study called The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial, men who took Vitamin E had a 17 percent higher risk of developing prostate cancer than non-users. In a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, women who took supplements of folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper had a slightly higher risk of dying early.

Not all nutrients are created equal. Calcium from a pill and calcium from a bottle of milk may not do the same things for your body. Research has found that milk is more effective at helping burn fat than just calcium. A pill strips away many of milk’s other nutrients, taking away the essence of the food and leaving just the chemical. The crusty yellow stuff that builds up on sinks? That’s also calcium.
By “stripping away,” I also refer to the supposedly “unhealthy” substances in milk. We were taught that because it had a higher calorie count and more fat than skim or 2 percent, whole milk must be bad. However, this might not be the case; whole milk contains several proteins that may actually boost metabolism and more effectively build muscle. Although the practically translucent skim milk has the same amount of calcium as whole milk with no fat, and certainly looks healthier on paper, it may be missing some important nutrients for your body.

All too often we only look at the numbers. At a school board meeting, for example, the members discussed whether or not to sell sports drinks in the middle schools. One of the justifications for this motion was that the sports drinks had fewer calories than the apple or orange juice served at school. To me, it sounded almost as if sports drinks trumped juice due to its calorie count. However, when making decisions likes this, administrators should remember to examine a food’s actual nutritional value. Although it has a fair amount of sugar and calories, fruit and fruit juices provide many vitamins naturally. The same cannot be said of the lower-calorie artificially colored water from a bottle in a vending machine. Calories are not the only factors that need to be taken into account when looking at nutrition.

Clearly, nutrition labels cannot tell the whole story, and we can’t only use calorie counts or fat levels to decide if a food is healthy. Sometimes a little common sense is in order. It makes sense that a little white pill and a glass of milk may not be equivalents. It makes sense that more nutrients often come with more calories. It makes sense that a “juice” which contains 15 times the amount of Vitamin C you need in a day probably didn’t come by all of it honestly. And it makes sense that if we really want to consume fewer calories, we should try eating less, and not merely cut down on the quality of food. Nature has decided that food should be both delicious and good for us, and we really need to stop interfering.

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