The Truth About Food Labels

Deciphering the hype of health claims on food packaging
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Consumers are more health conscious than ever, so food manufacturers are compelled to convince shoppers that their products are healthy — especially processed foods. Research shows adding health claims to front labels affect people’s choices by making them believe a product is healthier than the same product that doesn’t make similar claims. Food companies tend to use health claims that are misleading to trick people into thinking their product is healthier than it actually is.

The front of a food package has one purpose: to make you buy the product. There are very little restrictions and rules to what companies can write on food labels and packages, so it’s hard for consumers to navigate what’s actually healthy and what’s not. Here are some examples:

All Natural: Words like “natural” on a package are used to persuade consumers into thinking a product is made with healthy ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration has no regulation on what qualifies as natural for labeling, thus touting a product as “all natural” can mean a lot of different things depending on who is making the product.

Multigrain: This may mean more than one type of grain is in the product, but those grains are likely refined, stealing away the value of multigrain. Read the ingredients list to see what grains are included.

Made With Whole Grain: This can be misleading. Check the ingredients list and see where “whole grain” is placed. If it is not in the first three ingredients, then the amount is negligible.

Made With Real Fruits and Vegetables: If a label says that it’s made with fruits and vegetables, check the ingredients list to see what fruits and vegetables are included, and look to see where they fall in the list. If they are listed toward the bottom, you’ll know very few were used to make the product.

No Added Sugar or Reduced Sugar: Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t make them healthy. Unhealthy artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, may be added to those products that claim to have reduced sugar to give them their sweet flavor.

Gluten-free: Gluten-free does not equal healthy. It simply means that the product doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye or barley. Many healthy foods are naturally gluten-free, including rice, veggies, meats, nuts and seeds, but gluten-free foods can just as easily be highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar as other processed foods.

Low-Fat: This label almost always means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar or artificial sweeteners. Be very careful and read the ingredients listed on the back.

Low-Carb: Processed foods that are labeled low-carb are usually just processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat junk foods. Carbs are the body’s primary energy source, we need them, but it’s important to read the label to see what ingredients are used.

Light: Processed to reduce either calories or fat, but some products are simply watered down. Carefully check the ingredients list to see if anything has been added in making the product “light,” including sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Zero Trans Fat: This term actually means “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.” If serving sizes are misleadingly small, the product can actually contain a lot of trans fat. Also beware of partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list of products labeled zero-trans fat.

Fortified Versus Whole Foods

When it comes to fortified or enriched products, artificially derived nutrients have been added that our bodies don’t recognize, can’t always digest and may be loaded with added sugar, so it’s best to get your vitamins and nutrients through real whole foods.

Juice: Many juices are fortified with necessary vitamins and minerals, including a daily dose of vitamin C. Juice, however, is very high in sugar content, even when no sugar is added. Instead, offer strawberries or a mandarin orange. Both are packed with vitamin C and are a sweet treat.

Vitamin C is also found in broccoli, potatoes and tomatoes.

Cereal: Many cereals are fortified with vitamin B6 and B12, but pay attention to the serving size and sugar content. Beans, dark leafy greens, poultry and fish, especially salmon, are good sources of vitamin B6. Vitamin B12 is found in poultry, eggs and dairy products.

Oatmeal: Fortified oatmeal typically is high in B vitamins, folic acid, vitamin A and iron, but packaged instant oatmeal is often laden with added sugar. Opt instead for whole or steel-cut oats that can be done overnight or in advance and then add yogurt and fruit to make a tasty, healthy bowl of oatmeal.

Samantha Eaton studied at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and is owner of Healthy Eaton. Based in Charlotte, she coaches clients using a holistic approach to make eating easy, fun, nutritious and delicious.