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Don’t Be Fooled by Misleading Food Label Descriptions

March 12, 2013

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All natural! High-fiber! Multigrain! Only 2 grams of fat per serving! Contains real fruit!

Food marketers have taken full advantage of Americans’ growing interest in the connection between good nutrition and good health. They pile on words chosen for their emotional appeal, to make the food seem healthy.

But some of the most common food descriptors don’t carry any real meaning. Others falsely imply health benefits, or intentionally mislead consumers into believing a product is a healthy (or healthier) choice. Here are a few of the most common:

Natural Except for meat and poultry products, this popular terms isn’t regulated. It just implies the product and all of its ingredients originated at some point in nature.

Fat-free, sugar-free Just because a product is genuinely fat-free or sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s lower in calories or healthier.

Good source of fiber Unlike fiber-rich whole, unprocessed grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, many processed food products (including candy bars contain added “functional fibers,” some of which are synthetic and others are extracted from food.  So far, there’s no proof these added fibers offer the same health benefits as the fiber you get from eating whole, unprocessed plant foods.

Contains... made with... So a product contains real fruit, is made with whole grains or real butter. But how much does it contain? The manufacturer may have shaken a bit of whole-wheat flour over a vat of dough, or blessed the granola bar with a whisper of apple concentrate. Look for the ingredient list on the package. The ingredients in a food product must be listed in descending order of predominance by weight. Your product may contain twice as much sugar as whole grain, and the “real fruit” may not be from the bowl of berries and grapes on the package, but from a whisper of apple concentrate that appears way down the ingredient list.

Multigrain Unless the label on a flour-based product says 100% whole grain, words such as multigrain, stone-ground, even organic (see below) probably mean that the product is made from all or mostly refined flours, which have had the nutritious germ and bran removed.

Contains no... For example, many products now advertise themselves as containing no high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). But substituting cane sugar or some other caloric sweetener doesn't make the product healthier. The calories from the added sweetener still add up, and may contribute to the health problems associated with overweight and obesity.

Serving You often see only...of...per serving on a label. But really, who eats only half a cup of ice cream, or a teaspoon of salad dressing? Read the product’s nutrition label to see how much fat (or sugar, sodium, etc.) you’ll get in the amount of the product you actually eat.

Made with real... See “contains” above. 

Lightly sweetened Reduced sugar, no added sugar, and sugar free have legal definitions, but lightly sweetened doesn’t. You’ll see it on boxed cereals, beverages, any of which may contain more sugar than you’d consider “light” sweetening.

On the other hand, the word “organic” has a strict, highly regulated meaning. The USDA Organic label  indicates that the food has met strict standards of production and (if applicable) processing. The standards prohibit use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering. 

On the USDA's organic consumer-information page, you can also learn the meanings of various other terms such as free range, cage free and grass fed.


A few takeaways

Choose real, unprocessed food As long as you follow good food-safety practices, you won’t go wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs from the shell, unprocessed poultry and meats, wild-caught fish, whole grains and whole-grain flours, dry beans and lentils.

Read before you buy/eat Learn to read and understand nutrition labels and ingredient labels. Government regulations specify what must appear on these labels, although, as this lengthy report details, there’s huge room for improvement. This Center for Science in the Public Interest document is worth a close read.

Choose grain-based products promoted as “100% whole grain” Words such as stone-ground100% wheat, unbleached, enriched, and multigrain often describe products made with refined flours. If the first ingredient listed on the label is 100% whole (wheat, rye, corn, etc), that assures you that the product contains only whole grain(s).

Cook from scratch With a little extra planning, making meals from scratch really doesn’t take that much more time. Think simple: Whole-grain toast, eggs and fresh fruit makes breakfast. A bowl of salad greens topped with leftover chicken for lunch. A pan-grilled fish with steamed vegetables. Fresh fruit and a cube of favorite cheese for dessert.

Want goodies? Make your own. Even if you’re using highly refined white flour and sugar, your homemade goodies will contain fewer or no artificial ingredients, and you’ll be able to avoid the plethora of synthetic ingredients, trans fats and excess salt/sugars/fats found in most commercial snack and dessert products.

 

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

Comments

Pretty straight forward

By Roads End Llamas

Pretty straight forward information and is consistent with my recent 'nutritionist' visit. Here's an interesting catch 22 that may be presenting itself to at least a significant percentage of the population NOT confronted with obesity, but who have a need to revisit cholesterol levels via diet control (like me). Like you, who appears to have a very active physical life on or in a farm environment, I spend as much as 20-30 hours a week on top of a desk jockey job involved in all the physical activities associated with managing livestock. Average daily calorie intake just to maintain body weight runs between 3,000 and 5,000 calories DAILY. Would be interested in seeing something on how to balance the whole 'no saturated, no polyunsaturated' fat and accelerated fiber diet with that kind of calorie intake needs. I recognize obesity is a universal concern, but the challenges confronted by those with 'other' issues appears to be discounted as not quite so important. Trust me, losing weight when you are at optimum but need to alter diet is as equally problematic. Might make for an interesting flip side post.

You had me until you

By Loey Breur Krause

You had me until you recommended the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This organization of attorneys and activists are devout Vegans pressuring the world population to adopt their personal habits. There is NO real science or solid research involved, only Michael Jacobson's personal opinion.

Hi Loey, Please note that I

By Margaret Boyles

Hi Loey,

Please note that I didn't recommend the CSPI itself, only their food-labeling publication linked in my blog post.

I myself advocate only for healthful eating, not a specific dietary regimen. I do believe that food consumers ought to have simple, clear, and unambiguous labeling that describes what's in each package of food offered for sale. Furthermore, I believe food-marketing literature and labeling should be free of deceptive or misleading claims.

I thought the CSPI publication was thorough, fact-based, and balanced in its (albeit strong) recommendations for improved food labeling. I didn't find any activism on behalf of a particular diet, personal point of view, or way of life.

Have you read it? If not, I suggest you spend some time with it. If you have, please point out the sections you find objectionable. Perhaps we can have more discussion on the topic, here or in some venue outside the blog.

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