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Originally published Friday, March 28, 2014 at 4:22 PM

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Guest: Fix food labels so we know what we’re eating

Fix food labels so we know what we’re eating, writes guest columnist Kurt Dammeier.

Special to The Times

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THE federal Food and Drug Administration is moving to finally ban trans fats from our food supply. In February, a national study showed the childhood obesity rate is dropping instead of rising. And the FDA is preparing to update the nutrition label for the first time since 1994.

It’s too early to celebrate. These events represent just a small step in the right direction and the FDA’s proposed changes to food labels fall short. But these events do speak to the power consumers are wielding in the marketplace by recognizing and moving away from unhealthy foods.

As a father of three, I’ve always been distressed by how much access my kids have to highly processed foods laden with unhealthy additives. They were like rats in an experiment — they simply did not know the difference.

According to a new book on the processed-food industry, “Pandora’s Lunchbox” by Melanie Warner, 70 percent of the average American diet comes from processed foods, many chock-full of harmful industrial and artificial food additives.

Many of these artificial flavor enhancers, preservatives, sweeteners and colors have been linked with health problems and chronic disease and have been banned in other countries, but are still found in hundreds of foods here in America.

Government regulations will not make people adopt healthier eating habits. But the overdue move away from trans fats and toward increased transparency in nutrition labeling is certainly a good thing.

Nine years ago, my company started the Beecher’s Flagship Foundation, which sponsors a nutrition education and cooking workshop for fourth- and fifth-grade students in schools around Puget Sound.

Our workshop teaches kids to be wary of marketing claims, and how to find out if a food is as healthy as it’s cracked up to be by investigating the nutrition label and ingredient list.

Students and their families don’t just absorb the information, they embrace it, becoming food detectives themselves, reading labels while grocery shopping and cooking more at home. When people’s curiosity is sparked about what’s really in the foods they eat, and they take the time to read labels, studies show they make healthier food choices.

The FDA proposes several updates to the nutrition-facts label on food packages to make it easier for people to understand what’s in their food. With the proposed changes, it would be easier for consumers to figure out whether the serving size is a realistic one. New nutrition labels would differentiate between healthy and less healthy fats. They would also indicate whether foods contain natural or added sugars.

Unfortunately, the FDA did not propose requiring food manufacturers to disclose more details about ingredients, including whether they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The debate about whether GMOs are safe for humans will no doubt grow, and go on for years to come, especially given how little research has been done.

Consumers have the right to know whether the foods they eat contain GMOs, regardless whether they are concerned about GMOs personally. It’s no different from having the right to know whether a food contains monosodium glutamate (MSG). Some people have no problem eating MSG, and some have serious allergic reactions.

It’s called transparency. Some retail grocery stores and food companies are moving ahead to require GMO labeling even when it’s not mandated by law. More than a dozen states have active initiatives to require GMO labels on food.

I supported Initiative 522 last year to require such transparency in Washington. I was disappointed to see it defeated as a result of massive out-of-state industrial food manufacturers spending to fight the labeling.

We consumers have to take responsibility for what we eat. We need to be food detectives to determine what’s really in the foods we are buying, and vote with our dollars for foods free of harmful additives.

When consumers reject highly processed foods loaded with industrial additives, food companies will listen.

Kurt Dammeier of Seattle is CEO of Sugar Mountain, which owns and operates Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Pasta & Co, Bennett’s, Fraunhofer Meat & Fish, Maximus-Minimus and Liam’s.

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