Walk down any grocery store aisle and you will be flooded with variety of foods, all with different health claims: “All natural!” “Organic!” “Fat free!” “Multigrain!” just to name a few. We all want to make healthier choices for ourselves and our families, but are all these health claims really healthier, or are they just hype?
Sadly, a lot of these food labels are misleading phrases. Companies like to add these types of magnetic words to food labels to make you think it’s healthy. In this article, I want to walk through some of the biggest deceivers in our food aisles and what we can do to stay in control of our food choices.
The term “all natural” might not mean what you think it means. The FDA has yet to define “all natural,” so food companies can put this label on nearly anything as long as the manufacture had a natural source to work with at some time during the process. This ultimately means that “all natural” products can still be full of preservatives, additives, and other junk that would make it seemingly unnatural. And even if a food is “all natural,” that doesn’t keep a food company from filling it with sodium and added sugar.
“Organic” is also a tricky contender with food companies. Organic is defined as any item with at least 95 percent organic ingredients—no hormones, genetically modified ingredients, additives, antibiotics, or radiation. So with this you can easily find organic chocolate crème cookies, sports drinks, cheese puffs, and ice cream—all foods that can still be packed with fat, sugar, and sodium. The AHA recommends men not consume more than 37 grams of sugar a day and women no more than 25. Organic sugar is still sugar. The negative effects of organic sugar are often the exact same as the refined sugars! If you want to eat organic, it’s better to aim your focus towards healthy foods that should frequently appear in your diet such as fruits (especially ones with permeable skins), vegetables, eggs, etc.
“Fat free” isn’t always the best option when comparing foods. We actually need fat in our diet. Healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (found in good fats like olive oil, avocados, and flaxseed) can help lower cholesterol and heart disease risk. Also, due to the fact that fat is slower digesting than carbs or protein, it’s actually good at helping us feel full longer, which helps prevent us from snacking throughout the day. However, there are bad fats, also known as trans-fat, that we want to keep out of our diet. Claims for “no trans-fat” can be misleading. Food companies can actually have up to 0.5 grams of trans fat and still market it as containing “zero” trans fats. That number may sound small, but too many servings can quickly add up. It’s important to read that nutrition label and make sure that “0” truly is listed in the trans-fat line. Also look at the ingredient list, and watch for words that say “hydrogenated,” which is just another fancier term for trans-fat.
“Multigrain” is usually associated with being whole grain—which is exactly what the food companies want you to think; however, these are very different terms to watch for. Something marketed as being multigrain just means that there is more than one grain in the product, even if that means multiple refined grains. Along with that, I also want to address “gluten free”. This is another buzzword food companies have been putting on as many labels as they can. However, unless you have metabolic problems like Celiac disease or other food allergies, gluten free products will NOT help with weight loss and can still be high in calories, sugar, and/or sodium.
These are just a few of the biggest offenders food companies like to put on food labels to misguide consumers. There are many more to watch out for, and the best way for consumers to fight back is by staying aware. ALWAYS look at the food label. Make sure you look at how much sodium and sugar is in the product. Remember the AHA recommends that adults have no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. If you are African American, over the age of 50, or have high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic disease, that recommendation is lowered to 1,500 milligrams per day. Look at the serving size on the nutrition label as well. Some numbers may look small, but when you compare the serving size that number can add up quick.
Lastly, look at the ingredient list. The ingredients appearing on the food label are listed in order of quantity, from most to least. You can know what you are getting the most of in each product by looking at the order of the ingredients list. If you look at an ingredient list and see sugar or sodium in the first 3 ingredients, you can know there is a high amount in the product.
These are all tips on how to be a more mindful consumer; however, one of the easiest way to prevent being misled is to do your best to avoid processed foods altogether. You don’t have to worry about food labels when you are having whole foods—because the whole food is the ingredient. However, if you decide to buy anything packaged (containing a nutrition label), make sure you are sorting out the claims and making better choices to improve your health and wellbeing.