Food labels can guide you toward healthier choices. Or they can lead you astray.
Consider this: “Organic” doesn’t always mean low-calorie, but consumers tend to link the two, according to some research. And even a true label claim may influence you in the wrong direction; such is the case with a “reduced calorie” label that actually makes you eat more. Don’t get swept up in the “health halos” of common claims.
Here are some ways labels might mislead you:
1. Be wary of nutrient callouts: That tabbed banner of nutrition information emblazoned on the front of various products (cereals, granola bars, pasta) is called Facts Up Front and is food-industry-created. You’ll see numbers for saturated fat, sodium, sugar and calories, as well as two “nutrients to encourage.”
For example: Lucky Charms cereal can tout its calcium and vitamin D levels, even though a ¾-cup serving has 10 grams of sugar and marshmallows is the second ingredient. In addition, nutrient-content callouts, such as “low fat” or “cholesterol free,” sometimes appear on unhealthy foods. Sure, Jujubes are fat-free, but they also have 18 grams of sugar per serving.
2. Read the fine print: In a 2010 report, “Food Labeling Chaos,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that many ingredient lists are intentionally unclear: “They are often printed in small, condensed type, and many manufacturers use all capital letters that studies show are more difficult to read than (a combination of) upper and lower case letters. … some companies print the list in various colors of ink against poorly contrasting backgrounds or insert the ingredient list in a fold or other area where it will not be visible unless the consumer makes an extra effort to reveal the list.”
3. Beware of health claims: If you’re not well-versed in FDA food-labeling regulations – and, really, who is? – it’s hard to distinguish among the various types of “health claims” that appear on food products.
• Don’t believe high-fiber fibs.
Sixty-six percent of consumers look for the phrase “high fiber,” according to Technomic, a food-industry consulting firm. Yet the product might be “high fiber” because it contains isolated fibers in the form of purified powders, such as maltodextrin. These fibers don’t have the same beneficial health effects as intact fibers from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Other faux names: oat fiber, wheat fiber and oat hull fiber.
• Look for whole grains.
The phrase “Made with Whole Grains” doesn’t guarantee the product is made predominantly of whole grains. In fact, only a miniscule amount may be there. Look for the word “whole” (whole wheat, whole grain, whole plus the name of grain) listed first in the ingredient list. Similarly, the Whole Grain Stamp – which appears on products that contain at least 8 grams whole grains per serving – doesn’t guarantee the healthiest choice.
A recent study in Public Health Nutrition found some grain products marked with the stamp higher in sugar and calories than grain products without the stamp. The best way to identify the healthiest grain product? Look for at least 1 gram fiber for every 10 grams total carbohydrates.
4. Don’t judge a product by its name: To get around FDA labeling regulations – which don’t cover product names – companies create wholesome monikers for their unhealthy foods and beverages. Vitamin Water, for example, is basically sugar water (31-32 grams sugar per bottle) with some vitamins thrown in. Other health-evoking product names include thinkThin nutrition bars, SmartFood popcorn and Snackwell’s snacks.
5. Small serving sizes: Tiny serving sizes make unhealthy substances (fat, sugar) look less bad. Example: a 15-ounce can of organic soup labeled “healthy” contains “about two” servings; each serving has 480 mg of sodium. The FDA says that a food can’t be called “healthy” if it contains more than 480 mg per serving. But most people eat the whole can (960 mg).
A better way: A study earlier this year found that for products containing two servings that are customarily consumed at a single eating occasion, displaying two columns – one for the entire package and one for a split of the package – on the label helps consumers make healthier choices.
CLAIMS TO CONSIDER
The claim: Health
What it is: Links a nutrient to a health condition or disease.
Example: “Calcium may reduce risk of osteoporosis.”
What to know: Must be pre- approved by the FDA. Only 24 of such claims are authorized for foods – and all are supported by strong scientific evidence. The food also can’t be too high in unhealthy substances. These claims are reliable.
The claim: Nutrient content
What it is: Tells how much of a particular nutrient a food contains – low, high, reduced, free, etc.
Example: “A good source of calcium” or “high in calcium.”
What to know: Less regulated. May be used without FDA review, but FDA defines the level of each nutrient that constitutes “high,” “low,” etc. These claims are reliable.
The claim: Structure and function
What it is: Describes the effect of a nutrient on the normal function of the body (with no reference to disease).
Example: “Helps support your immunity.” Or “calcium builds strong bones.”
What to know: Least regulated. Manufacturers self-police to ensure claims aren’t misleading. They also must have research to support the claim in the (unlikely) event that the FDA asks for evidence. These claims are unreliable.