Glycemic Index Often Misused

The phrase "glycemic index" - GI - is being tossed about a lot in wellness foods circle lately. We heard a lot about the glycemic index within the patois of the low-carb diet craze. Most of what was said and written about GI was in the form of misguided, misunderstood or deliberately misdirected information.

By David Feder, R.D., Editor

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The old sales credo, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak" often raises a whiff of snake oil. When the focus of a marketing campaign is on a secondary quality - no matter how accurate - consumers can get the impression they are deemed soft targets for someone who has nothing more in mind than the turning of a fast buck.

The phrase "glycemic index" - GI - is being tossed about a lot in wellness foods circles lately. We heard a lot about the glycemic index within the patois of the low-carb diet craze. Most of what was said and written about GI was in the form of misguided, misunderstood or deliberately misdirected information. But the signs are that it was just a shot across the bow, the chatter preceding an all-out assault.

As described in our April issue's cover story, "Diabetes Under Control", the GI system was developed to help persons with diabetes tell how a food would affect blood sugar. On our Wellness Foods website, it was further explained that the glycemic index was meant to "give persons with diabetes and other metabolic disorders some comparative and quantitative data. But something got lost in translation." (See "GI Blues.")

The something that was lost was the fact that glycemic index is a measure of a reaction - the body's reaction to ingestion of carbohydrates - and not a "cause" of obesity, as it is seemingly portrayed.

In the past year, as the Atkins diet crashed and the low-carb/high-protein fad faded, "glycemic index" has been slipping in through the cracks to fill the fad vacuum. Some manufacturers of sometimes dubiously healthful (or worse, utterly unhealthful) foods are touting products as being "low GI." The labels are starting to pop up, too.

This is all too convenient for the unscrupulous purveyor preying on a public already confused over what to do in their fight against the obesity epidemic.

The foods that yield a low glycemic index aren't always the healthy choice for consumers. For example, on a glycemic index chart, potato chips come out ahead of potatoes, ice cream makes a better dessert than dates, and bacon and eggs are a smarter start to the day than oatmeal and fresh fruit.

In a nutshell, GI can no more cause obesity than size-14 shoes can cause big feet.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when cholesterol panic pervaded, "no cholesterol" labels were slapped on any and every food possible. Then in the 1990s and 2000s hardly a food was packaged without a "low carb" label of some sort. Now it looks as if we're going to be sentenced to a decade of labels touting "low GI" planted on everything from beer to pork rinds, and especially meal replacement bars that offer no more nutrition than a candy bar with a multivitamin.

Let's call this a plea to all marketers of health-oriented foods to show restraint and buck the next wave of planned confusion. It's time to give consumers a break.

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