Anytime you read a food label you are trusting that the information it contains is accurate, but this is not always the case. Even if the information is accurate it may be intentionally misleading.
The food industry is designed to make money – NOT to keep us healthy and well informed. To keep their profits high, food manufacturers go to great lengths to make a product sound a lot more healthful than it might actually be. The general public is ill informed when it comes to the clever marketing ploys used on most products lining store shelves.
One thing many consumers fail to understand the importance of is the ingredient list. The ingredients on a nutrition label are listed in order of their proportion in the product. This means the first three ingredients matter far more than anything else. The top three ingredients are what you’re primarily eating. So if it says water, sugar, red dye #3 then you are pretty much consuming red sugar water. Not very healthy even if there are other ingredients listed like “natural orange flavor” and “pureed apple.”
Deceptive Terms Used in Food Labeling
In an effort to help you navigate the murky waters of food labeling, here are some of the top deceptive terms and misleading claims to watch out for:
- Natural: A product labeled as “natural” must not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, according to FDA policy. However, it may still contain genetically modified ingredients (GMOs), high fructose corn syrup and be heavily processed, which negates what many consumers think of as natural. Another caution is that ingredients lists don’t have to list chemical contaminants. Foods can be contaminated with pesticides, solvents, acrylamides, formaldehyde, perchlorate (rocket fuel), fetal tissue, and other toxic chemicals without needing to list them at all. The best way to minimize your ingestion of toxic chemicals is to buy organic, or go with fresh, minimally-processed foods.
- Healthy: A “healthy” product must meet certain criteria that limit the amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and require specific minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other beneficial nutrients. However, it may still contain large amounts of sugar, artificial ingredients or preservatives, which are not healthy at all.
- Made With Whole Grains: Many products claim that they’re a healthy source of whole grains, when in reality refined flour is the first ingredient. The FDA does not define what percentage of grain must be whole in order to use this claim, so be sure “whole grain” or “whole wheat flour” is listed as a primary ingredient. Typically, you can tell if bread is truly made with whole grains by picking it up; it will be heavier and denser than those with refined grains.
- Organic Does Not Mean That Every Ingredient Is Organic: Organic produce is certainly 100% organic but organic processed foods many not be as organic as the package leads you to believe. Also, organic foods from other countries (notably China and Mexico) are typically not very organic at all. The organic guidelines are not as stringent as the United States. Therefore, organic products from ethnic markets may not be what you think.
- Misleading Package Images and “Made With Real Fruit”: Just because a bottle of juice or box of fruit snacks has pictures of fruit on its label does not mean it contains fruit. Many products even claim to be “made with real fruit” when they contain only a small portion of fruit concentrate.
- Food Names Can Include Words That Describe Ingredients Not Found In The Food At All: A “cheese” cracker, for example, doesn’t have to contain any cheese. A “creamy” something doesn’t have to contain cream. A “fruit” product need not contain even a single molecule of fruit. Don’t be fooled by product names printed on the packaging. These names are designed to sell products, not to accurately describe the ingredients contained in the package.
- Fancy Sounding Ingredients: Don’t be fooled by fancy-sounding herbs or other ingredients that appear very far down the list. Some food manufacturer that includes “acai” towards the end of the list is probably just using it as a marketing gimmick on the label. The actual amount of amount of acai in the product is likely miniscule.
- Lightly Sweetened, Low Sugar, Sugar Free: Reduced sugar and sugar-free claims are regulated by the FDA, but the term “lightly sweetened” is not. If a product claims to be “lightly sweetened,” it could technically contain any amount of sugar.
- Calorie Counts: The FDA allows a 20 percent margin of error when it comes to calorie counts. So your 500-calorie meal could actually contain up to 100 calories more. Further, researchers from Tufts University found that packaged foods may contain an average of 8 percent more calories than their labels claim, while restaurant meals may contain 18 percent more.
- 0 Grams of Trans Fats: If a food contains 0.5 grams or less of trans fat per serving, it can claim to be trans-fat “free” or to have “0 grams of trans fats.” However, many people eat double, triple or more of the recommended serving size of foods, which means you may be ingesting 1 gram or more of trans fat per serving, even if it claims to be trans-fat free. This amount can add up over time, so check the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated oil” — if this is listed, the food probably contains a measurable amount of trans fat and is better off avoided — even if it claims to be “trans-fat free.”
- Serving Sizes: Many foods you may think are single servings are actually divided into two or more on the Nutrition Facts panel, making you think it contains less sugar, fat and calories than it really does. Some of the biggest offenders to watch out for are large muffins, bagels, ice-cream pints and personal size pizzas, which often contain multiple servings even though they’re sold as “individual” sizes. Also be aware that many serving sizes are smaller than you think. For instance, most ice cream manufacturers count a serving as one-half cup, when most people eat more than that at a sitting.
- Certain Health Claims: The FDA does regulate certain health claims, such as “may reduce the risk of cancer” but others like “helps maintain a healthy heart” or “supports the immune system” are not. A food item can claim any number of ambiguous health statements that may or may not be scientifically valid, making it a truly buyer-beware market.
What SHOULD I be Buying?
I’m sure you are wondering what you SHOULD be looking for on food labels. Here are five tips to help you make the healthiest selection.
1. If the ingredients list contains long, chemical-sounding words that you can’t pronounce, avoid that item. It likely does contain various toxic chemicals. Stick with ingredients you recognize and can pronounce and spell.
2. Look for words like “sprouted” or “raw” or “whole” or “unrefined” to indicate higher-quality natural foods. Sprouted grains and seeds are far healthier than non-sprouted. Raw ingredients are generally healthier than processed or cooked. Whole grains are healthier than “enriched” grains. An unrefined oil is always healthier than one that has been heated and stripped of its beneficial properties.
3. Don’t be fooled by the word “wheat” when it comes to flour. All flour derived from wheat can be called “wheat flour,” even if it is processed, bleached and stripped of its nutrition. Only “whole grain wheat flour” is a healthful form of wheat flour. (Many consumers mistakenly believe that “wheat flour” products are whole grain products. In fact, this is not true. Food manufacturers fool consumers with this trick.)
4. Don’t be fooled into thinking that brown products are healthier than white products. Brown sugar is a gimmick — it’s just white sugar with brown coloring and flavoring added. Brown eggs are no different than white eggs (except for the fact that their shells appear brown). Brown bread may be no healthier than white bread, either, unless it’s made with whole grains. Don’t be tricked by “brown” foods. These are just gimmicks used by food giants to fool consumers into paying more for manufactured food products.
5. Watch out for small serving sizes. Food manufacturers use this trick to reduce the number of calories, grams of sugar or grams of fat believed to be in the food by consumers. Many serving sizes are arbitrary and have no basis in reality.
Stay tuned for part 2 in this series where we will take a more in depth look at exactly how food manufacturers can legally deceive consumers.