Reading labels can be tricky. Since so many people are health-conscious these days, food manufacturers often use misleading tricks to convince people to buy their products. Have you ever seen a box of Cocoa Puffs labeled as “whole grain”? They try to make it look so healthy, but in reality, it’s still loaded with sugar and it’s not good for you at all.
The regulations behind food labeling are complex, so it’s no surprise we have a hard time understanding it. Front labels are often used to lure people into buying products; however, most of these labels are highly misleading or completely false. Today we’ll look at food labels in a bit more detail and learn what’s really going on with the food inside the package.
Look at the Ingredients List
- Product ingredients are listed by quantity from highest to lowest amount. That means the first listed ingredient is what the manufacturer used most of.
- If the first ingredient includes refined grains, some sort of sugar, or hydrogenated oils, you can be pretty sure that the product is unhealthy.
- A good rule of thumb is to look for foods with a short list of ingredients. If the list is longer than 2 to 3 lines, you can assume that the product is highly processed.
Watch Out for Serving Size
The back of nutrition labels state how many calories and nutrients are in a single serving of the product. These serving sizes are often much smaller than how much we actually eat. In this way, manufacturers try to deceive us into thinking that the food has fewer calories and less sugar than it actually does. They’re tricky. If you want to know the real nutritional value of what you’re eating, you need to multiply the serving given on the back by the number of servings you consumed.
A perfect example of this is a bottle of Coca-Cola. They now advertise on the front of the bottle that there are only 100 calories per serving. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? The problem is, there are 8 servings in that bottle!
Misleading Label Claims…and What They REALLY Mean
Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is healthy. These are super sneaky because they make certain foods sound so good for you. If something says “organic” or “gluten-free,” don’t you just feel like you’re making a healthy choice? That’s not always the case though. Here are some common terms and what they REALLY mean:
- Light: The term “light” or “lite” indicates that a food has one third fewer calories, 50% less fat, OR 50% less sodium than a comparable product. Many times these products are simply watered down. Check the ingredient list carefully to see if anything has been added to replace the fat. For example, many times manufacturers will add sugar to replace fat. In this way, a food could contain 50% less fat (and be called “light”) but actually have double the sugar content.
- Multigrain: This sounds very healthy, but it simply means that there is more than one type of grain in the product. Typically, this means multiple types of refined grains that are stripped of their natural nutrients and fiber. Look at the ingredient list to learn more. If you see refined grains listed, put it down and look for a product that uses “whole grains” instead.
- Natural: Foods labeled “natural” do not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives, and the ingredients are only minimally processed. However, they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals. Regulations are fairly lenient.
- Organic: If it’s organic, it’s good for you. Right? Not so fast! Foods labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and the other 5% must be approved by the USDA. These foods cannot be produced with antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, petroleum, or sewage-sludge based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Not all organic foods are good for you though. For example, organic sugar is still sugar!
- 100% Organic: Foods labeled “100% organic” must consist of ONLY organic ingredients and processing aids.
- Made with Organic Ingredients: Foods with this labeling must consist of at least 70% organic ingredients and none of the ingredients can be produced with sewage-sludge based products or ionizing radiation. Labeling cannot include the USDA seal or the word “organic” in any principle displays. (See how this gets so confusing?)
- No added sugar: The term “no added sugar” does not mean a food does not contain sugar or that it is low in calories or carbohydrates. Some products are naturally high in sugar. This term simply means that the manufacturer has not ADDED sugar to the product. Again, read the ingredients. Sometime unhealthy sugar substitutes have been added instead.
- Low calorie: Low calorie products contain 40 calories or less per serving. Remember to check the serving size!
- Fat Free: Foods labeled as “fat free” might actually contain some fat! By definition “fat free” foods must contain less than 0.5 g per serving. If a food had 0.4 grams of fat per serving and you consumed 5 servings, you would actually consume 2 g of fat from this “fat free” food.
- Low Fat: This label almost always means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Be very careful and check the ingredient list on the back. Technically, the term “low fat” means a food has 3 g of fat or less per serving.
- Low Sodium: Foods labeled as “low sodium” contain 140 mg or less per serving. I can’t say this enough….check the serving size. If you’re using 3 servings of the product, your sodium intake might not be so low, after all.
- Made with whole grain: This simply means there were whole grains used to produce the food. Why is this tricky? Because it doesn’t tell you how much of the product was made with whole grains. There’s a good chance very little whole grain was actually used. Check the ingredient list and see where the whole grain is placed. If it’s not in the first 3 ingredients, the amount is negligible.
- Enriched and fortified: “Enriched” means nutrients that were lost during food processing have been added back. An example is adding back certain vitamins lost in processing wheat to make white flour. “Fortified” means vitamins or minerals have been added to a food that weren’t originally in the food. An example is adding vitamin D to milk.
- Gluten Free: Just because a food is labeled as “gluten free,” it doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Gluten is a mixture of proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley, and crossbreeds of these grains. Many foods are gluten free but can be highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar. According to the rules set by the FDA, the criteria for using the claim, “gluten free” is that the gluten level must not exceed 20 ppm (parts per million).
- Fruit-flavored: Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavor, such as strawberry yogurt. In reality, there may not be any fruit in the product, only chemicals designed to taste like fruit.
Different Names for Sugar
Sugar goes by countless names, many of which you may not recognize. Food manufacturers use this to their advantage. They purposely add many different kinds of sugar to their products, so they can hide the actual (total) amount. By doing this, they can list a “healthier” ingredient at the top of the ingredient list and mention sugar further down. So, even though a product may be loaded with sugar, it doesn’t necessarily appear as one of the top 3 ingredients.
To avoid accidentally consuming a lot of sugar, it may be wise to look out for the following names in the ingredient lists:
Types of sugar: beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, raspadura sugar, evaporated can juice, and confectioner’s sugar.
Types of syrup: carob syrup, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, and rice syrup.
Other added sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.
There are many more names for sugar, but these are the most common. If you see any of these in the top spots on the ingredients list OR several kinds throughout the list, then you can be sure that the product is high in added sugar.
The Bottom Line
The best way to avoid being misled by these labels is to avoid processed foods altogether. Keep in mind that whole food doesn’t need an ingredient list because the whole food IS the ingredient. When you do have to buy packaged foods, though, use these tips to sort out the junk from the higher quality products.
Stay happy, healthy, and N motion, AND REMEMBER…age is just a number!