We’ve all done it: walked through a grocery store feeling smug because our cart is filled with packages of food boasting the words “healthy!” or “all natural!” in big, bold type across the side.
I used to enjoy that feeling myself. Then I dug a little deeper. Turns out what you read on the front of a food package is often pretty much the opposite of what you’ll find on the back. In fact, many of the most common food packaging claims have almost no regulation and even less nutritional meaning. And that’s a problem if you’re relying on them to make good choices.
So my fellow Health Coach Diana and I went on another stroll through a local supermarket, this time armed with a pen and paper and a lot more knowledge about misleading food marketing claims. Take a look at some of the biggest offenders we’ve jotted down – and next time you go shopping, leave those lies on the shelf.
Often accompanied by pictures of the outdoors and packaging made from recycled materials, this one really lures us in. The word “natural” here is so ambiguous that it can be slapped on just about anything as long as it has no added colors or artificial flavors. But we see that word on a box of cheesy puffs and we believe that until they were in our hands, those salty snacks were running barefoot through the woods, leaving a trail of all-natural cheese dust behind them. Remember, even lard is “all natural”. Doesn’t make it healthy.
If our food is fat-free, we could be fat-free too! If only. See, when you take the fat out of a product, it doesn’t taste so good anymore. And since food companies don’t want their profits to suffer, they often make up for the lack of delicious fat by pumping their food with something else tasty, usually sugar. This makes up for the taste and leaves the fat content on the nutrition panel at a satisfying “0g”, but it still ends up a zero for your health, too.
While better than plain old white bread, multigrain still doesn’t cut it. “But there’s more than one grain it it!” you argue. Well, that’s lovely, but are those grains whole? Often, they aren’t. Whole grains are much healthier than others because they haven’t been stripped off all their nutrients, including the ever important fiber. Even better than whole grains are “intact” grains, that haven’t gone through any milling or processing at all. All the multi-grain really means is that there is more than one type of (potentially highly processed and refined) flour in it. Again, that definitely doesn’t make it good for you.
Surely “light” foods have fewer calories, right? Wrong! While that may be the case sometimes, “light” often refers to the flavor content of the food, not the nutritional profile. A great example of this is with olive oil. Olive oil contains healthy fat, but it is a fat nonetheless and therefore has a lot of calories in even a small serving. You may be tempted to reach for the one labeled “light” thinking that you can still get the benefits of olive oil without the calories and fat from the regular one, but a quick comparison of nutrition labels will show you that the calorie and fat content are exactly the same.
Made With Real Fruit!
A gummy apple a day keeps the doctor away! Wait, what? That’s what this label wants you to believe: that by eating this product (mostly sugar and artificial flavors), you’re really just eating some fruit. Unfortunately, companies aren’t required to disclose exactly how much real fruit is in their product, which means it can easily be a miniscule amount. A more accurate label might be: “Loads of artificial flavors, chemicals, sugars, processing, and just a touch of real strawberry!” But I guess that’s too much of a mouthful.
There certainly are some people who should avoid gluten due to allergies or intolerances. For the rest of us, gluten is just protein found in wheat. And wheat is almost always consumed in a processed form (unless you’re eating puffed wheat or wheat berries). Processed carbohydrates in general are a great food to avoid due to their potential to spike blood sugar and therefore cause inflammation, high triglycerides, and increased hunger. So going gluten-free can be beneficial but only if you’re also limiting other processed ingredients like grains and sugars. Otherwise that gluten free pasta, bread, or cookie just isn’t doing you any good.
The Name Game
Some companies have figured out that the restrictions placed on health statements on packaging are just too burdensome. So if they feel like marketing their product as a healthy regardless of ingredients, they can just put their claim into the name of the product or even the brand name. People will be sure to buy our processed grain and sugar cereal if we name it, “Healthy Mornings”, right?
No Added Sugar!
Just because a food doesn’t have any added sugar to it doesn’t mean that it’s not high in sugar. A 12 ounce glass of orange juice has all the calories and sugar from 6 oranges, and none of the fiber that keeps us full. How likely are you to sit down and eat 6 oranges in one sitting? Probably not very likely, but even if you did, you would be full for at least a few hours. “Sugar-free” foods are often no better. The sugar-free version of a food might have even more calories than the regular version and can also contain other processed carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols, which are used as a substitute for sugar, can still cause blood sugar spikes and even diarrhea when consumed in large quantities. Still feeling hungry?
When it comes to any food claims, my new rule of thumb is to read the label all the way around to the back panel before tossing it in my cart. And the more fabulous the claim on the front, the more time I’ll spend scrutinising the back. Or just steer my cart back over to the fruits and veg, where I can simply buy whatever I want without needing to worry. There’s something strangely satisfying about just skipping all the products screaming for my attention, anyhow. Maybe next time, marketers.