Pages Navigation Menu

UA’s packaged-food labeling incorrect

A packaged mix of fruit, nuts, and cheese from the University of Arizona’s Red & Blue Market has nutritional information that is incorrect. (Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

The saying “You are what you eat” only applies when you know what you are eating. If you buy food from the University of Arizona under its “Red & Blue Market” label, you can never be certain.

That’s because the nutritional labeling – required by the Food and Drug Administration on every piece of packaged food – is commonly incorrect. Calorie content can be absurdly high, or the entries in the “percent daily value” section could be a significant part of a day’s recommended sugar intake – in one plastic cup of fruit.

A small package of dried fruit and nuts claims to contain over 400 calories, with 25.1 grams of fat. A container of carrots, celery, and peanut butter is listed as having 616 calories, 50 grams of fat, and 25 grams of protein – despite having only about a serving of peanut butter. Shoppers may grab a prepackaged turkey sandwich, only to find a label that claims the sandwich has 736 calories, 38.7 grams of fat, and a whopping 47.4 grams of protein.

Arizona’s UMart in the Student Union. This sandwich is listed as having 736 calories,
an unrealistic figure.
(photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

These discrepancies are surprising given the Student Union’s efforts to serve healthier, nutritionally dense foods. This push for healthier options has been spearheaded by the Student Union’s resident dietician, Christine Carlson. Her position is a first for the University, and she’s been on the job for two and a half years with an annual salary of $73,500.

“It’s been noted and I’m working on it,” Carlson said.

According to Student Union Director Todd Millay, Carlson was first alerted to the issue when she received a concerned email from a student in March. Despite the more than 30 days since gaining knowledge of the issue, the labels of food items for sale are still incorrect.

“The issue has gone on for longer than that,” Millay said.

The issue with mislabeling began before Carlson started at the UA. There was no allergen policy, and the entire labeling operation was ran by one employee whose only qualification for doing so was their familiarity with the computer system – and has since been let go for reasons that Millay would not specify. According to Carlson, it took several months to sift through and organize the nutritional information.

“It was a while in the making,” Carlson said. “I hear students say they want healthy.”

While she has advocated for healthier options and nutritional education for UA students, she hasn’t managed to clean up the nutritional labeling, one of the goals for creating her position.

A Red & Blue Market label on a refrigerator in the UMart store at the University of Arizona. Purchasers don’t have access to accurate nutritional information.
(Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

The evidence-based process for determining nutritional issues that Carlson uses involves managing a single data-entry specialist . Thaat person enters the nutritional information of ingredients into an online database, which is used to develop nutritional labels. Carlson also enters that nutritional information into an online nutrition calculator, her own pet project set to be finished by December,

A chicken salad sold by the University of Arizona’s Red & Blue Market label at Highland Market. This salad’s label claims to have 46.7 grams of sugar, along with 36.5 grams of fat. (Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

Of the food options offered at the Student Union, seven restaurants are fully-documented on this calculator, which is being developed as a cellphone app as well. However, food offered under the Red & Blue Market label is noticeably absent – and not to be completed until July of this year, according to Millay.  

“It’s only been loaded with the restaurants that have accurate information,” Millay said. “If it’s not accurate, it doesn’t work.”

According to Millay, the inaccuracies are potentially numerous, with input errors reaching back years. Before Millay locked down the system, other people potentially had access to the labeling software and entered in recipes without any oversight. Millay said that other restaurants on campus are likely to have inconsistent recipes or nutritional information.

“We’re still working on cleaning it up,” Carlson said.

The nutritional cleanup has taken a backseat to a host of nutrition programs, healthy eating workshops, and new restaurant initiatives that focus on healthy living and nutritional awareness. Part of that is the UA’s participating in Food Allergen Research & Education (FARE) Pilot, one of 12 colleges that are a part of the program. According to the Student Union’s website, this means that the college has trained “over 100 culinary staff and 200 residence advisors on food allergens.”

Carlson herself is a master trainer for allergen awareness – despite an issue cropping up with milk allergens being labeled on dairy-free food. Carlson said it was an error stemming from the person who recorded the information, who she said was a student and not Carlson –  the dietitian in charge of the labeling.

“It’s been noted and I’m working on it,” Carlson said.

Despite the more than 40 eating establishments run by the UA on campus and the slate of nutrition programs offered by the Student Union, the problem remains – meaning students shopping anywhere from UMart to Highland Market have no idea what they are really eating.

“Particularly if you have allergies or are diabetic, it’s not good,” Millay said. “I know we are in that position, and we have to move forward.”

For high-resolution photos go here.

Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Contact him at ekolsrud@email.arizona.edu

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *