How do you read the labels on American food products? And which labels should you trust? Following the recent publication of her book Bien manger aux Etats-Unis, Kansas-based pharmacist and French expat Isabelle Guglielmi offers her advice on how to improve our diets while consuming U.S. products.
France-Amérique: What is the number-one rule for improving diet in the United States?
Isabelle Guglielmi: Removing as many added sugars and additives as possible. The U.S. diet is far higher in sugars than the French diet. It is added to savory products such as ham, salad dressings, and tomato sauce, and is found in high quantities in processed foods. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is one of the most common forms of added sugar because it is so cheap. It is made using corn — a subsidized agricultural sector — and contains GMOs. What’s more, it is associated with type 2 diabetes and obesity. Other artificial sweeteners are used in products — even the ones that claim to be “sugar free”. The FDA also authorizes a list of 10,000 food additives such as flavorings and enhancers. It is therefore better to consume as few processed foods as possible, even if some are particularly hard to remove from your diet such as flour and bread.
Biologique in France and “organic” in the U.S.A. What do the labels mean?
We often hear that organic farming in the United States is not in fact organic, and that the sector is not particularly important. This is not true. In France, products with the biologique label are farmed organically. And in the United States, organic production rules are defined by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) according to a strict list of specifications. These rules apply to fruits, vegetables, and animal products (except fish), as well as processed foods containing at least 70% of organic ingredients. Food products with this label can also contain additives, but from a predefined list of generally natural sources.
What organic products should we buy?
Every year the Environmental Working Group publishes its “dirty dozen,” a list of 12 fruits and vegetables containing the most pesticides. They advise consumers to choose the organic option for these products. The 2018 list features strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and bell peppers. The Group also publishes a “clean fifteen,” a list of 15 fresh produce items containing the smallest amounts of harmful chemicals that consumers can purchase. This year’s winners were avocados, sweetcorn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen peas, papayas, asparagus, mangos, eggplant, watermelons and melons, kiwis, cauliflower, and broccoli.
What is the situation with GMOs in the United States?
French legislation does not allow for GMO farming. But GMOs have been used for years in the United States and are found in more and more products. They were first developed to boost the resistance of crops to certain herbicides such as Roundup, and also contain more pesticides. The five main OGM crops are corn, cotton, colza, soy and sugar beets. There are no labels to inform consumers if products have been genetically modified, and almost 80% of processed foods are made using OGM plants — without any indication given on the packaging. Consuming organic products is the only way to avoid both pesticides and OGMs. With regards to milk and meat, eating organic guarantees they do not contain growth hormones or antibiotics, and that the animals were fed a suitable diet.
Can you find seasonal produce in the United States?
The majority of supermarkets stock most vegetables throughout the year and more fruits in the summer — except from in California, where you can find everything all the time. Squashes and pumpkins appear in early September, which is as much to do with food fads as the seasons. Certain varieties such as butternut squash and red kuri squash have become popular in France, while many others are specific to America such as acorn squash.
Bien manger aux Etats-Unis : les bons réflexes pour une alimentation saineis the fourth book by Isabelle Guglielmi, founder of the Francophone website AmerikSanté.