02/06/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Telling the Truth About Food Ingredients Helps the Consumer, the Economy and the Environment

Food ingredient labeling makes headline news these days. On January 22, 2013, ABC News reported that an estimated seven percent of the United States food supply contains fraudulent ingredients. These are unlabeled ingredients that are used as cheap substitutes -- for example, industrial dyes masquerading as paprika. Proposition 37, the California ballot measure that would have required labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods, was narrowly defeated in the November 2012 elections; however, the battle rages on.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to approve GM salmon soon after a 60-day public comment period ends on February 25, 2013. Under current rules, labeling of GM salmon would not be required. Recent polls indicate that over 90 percent of Americans think GM foods should be labeled. As of December 18, 2012, over one million people had asked the FDA to label GM foods.

The stakes are high, because food labels cause problems for food companies. For example, on January 30, 2013, Network news reported on a lawsuit against a food manufacturer for using partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (a trans fat) in frozen pizza, a fact that is disclosed on the pizza box. Negative health effects have caused many countries to ban or limit the use of artificial trans fats, including Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and the Republic of South Africa. California and 13 cities and towns in the United States also restrict the use of trans fats in settings such as restaurants and schools.

"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1913. It is time to shed more light on the substances we consume, not only by labeling GM foods and verifying food ingredients, but also by disclosing much more. Even if risks of some unlabeled ingredients are unclear, consumers should be allowed to make informed choices about what they eat.

First, existing labeling should be improved to communicate in terms that are meaningful to average citizens. For example, in addition to stating the number of grams of sugar in a can of soda, the label on a 12-ounce can of soda could also state that it contains eight teaspoons of sugar. Many people can relate better to teaspoons of sugar than grams and might be inspired to think, "Yikes, I don't want my family drinking that."

Food ingredients that today are not labeled in the United States include:

• GM foods: in which a modified gene or a gene from another organism has been inserted into a food organism, via techniques of genetic engineering. Though the United States does not require that GM foods be identified on food labels, 50 countries do. Many people question the safety of GM products and prefer to avoid them.
• Hormones: for example, bovine growth hormones, which are banned in Europe. Many people are concerned that hormones may cause earlier onset of puberty and other endocrine disruption.
• Antibiotics: 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used to raise chickens, pigs, cows, and other livestock, yet producers of meat and poultry are not required to report how they use the drugs, despite growing alarm over antibiotic resistance. (Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a microorganism to withstand the effects of an antibiotic, thereby reducing or eliminating the effectiveness of the antibiotic.) The European Union (EU) bans the use of antibiotics to boost animal growth. In 2011, the EU adopted a non-binding resolution to further curb antibiotic use in agriculture, in response to an increase in antibiotic resistance.
• Agents other than antibiotics that are designed to kill organisms, such as pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides, along with the unidentified "inert ingredients" (which the United States Environmental Protection Agency says are not necessarily non-toxic) that are mixed with them: in animals, these chemicals come from the plants the animals consume and chemicals used to control pests in the animals' environs. It is not unreasonable to wonder whether substances that harm other organisms harm humans as well.
• The identity of uninformative -- if not downright misleading -- terms such as "natural flavorings." What is in "natural flavorings," and does "natural" mean "safe"? Cyanide is natural.
• Post-harvest additives and agents: for example, shellac and other coatings applied to produce for longer storage life, gases used to ripen fruit, and chlorine bleach used to make sugar white.
• Chemicals that enter food from storage containers: for example, bisphenol-A and phthalates, which are suspected to cause hormonal and reproductive effects.
• Questionable amendments applied to agricultural soils, such as sewage sludge (containing heavy metals and a slew of organic chemicals) and wood ash (containing the "known human carcinogens" arsenic and dioxin, as well as radioactive cesium-137.) (Elevated concentrations of arsenic in rice, possibly from pesticides and natural sources, recently made headlines.)

If food suppliers were to make known some or all of these unacknowledged additives, ingredient lists could be encyclopedic. Such disclosure might motivate consumers to purchase whole, organically grown foods. Many celebrated doctors -- including Joel Fuhrman, Mark Hyman, and Andrew Weil -- promote a diet of whole, and preferably organically grown, foods.

Doctors have good reasons to recommend organically grown food, one being cancer risk. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that, "Despite overall decreases in incidence and mortality, cancer continues to shatter and steal the lives of Americans. Approximately 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, and about 21 percent will die from cancer. The incidence of some cancers, including some most common among children, is increasing for unexplained reasons." The NCI report states, "The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals" and recommends choosing foods grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones.

Doctors also have good reasons to recommend whole foods, one being diabetes. According to Dr. Hyman, in less than 30 years, from 1983 to 2011, worldwide cases of diabetes increased tenfold, from 35 million to 366 million, and that number is projected to grow to 552 million in 2030. A diet based on processed foods is a major culprit. "Ninety-five percent of diabetes is lifestyle-induced type 2 diabetes," he writes, adding that when the collective cost of obesity-related disease -- heart disease, cancer, dementia, strokes, infertility, depression, and more -- is accounted for, it is the single biggest contributor to our health-care expenditures and our national debt.

In 1960, the federal government spent 9.5 percent of all its money on health care; in 2012, it spent 25 percent; and a decade from now, the Congressional Budget Office predicts it will spend 33 percent. In fact, health-care expenditures are expected to increase to account for nearly one-fifth of the total United States economy (gross domestic product) by 2021. Health-care costs are an enormous drain on our individual and collective economies, and poor diet is a major driver.

If accurate food labeling encourages consumers to choose organically grown food, the environment will also benefit. Organic farming is less damaging than conventional farming to water and air quality. Our water supplies remain cleaner in the absence of herbicides, pesticides, soluble fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics. Organic farming generates one-third to one-half the greenhouse gas emissions of industrial farming, a fact that is hugely important given that one-third of our global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Author Frances Moore Lappé writes that by moving worldwide to organic farming practices, agriculture could become carbon neutral. The environmental benefits of organic farming translate to economic benefits as well, because less environmental damage means lower mitigation costs.

Ultimately, consumers must demand better regulation of our food supply. We are what we eat. For starters, let's insist on full disclosure about what's in our food. Maybe it will lead to more optimistic news headlines about our health, economy and environment.