Food Labeling: Beware the “Health” Halo

by in Grocery Shopping, Label Decoder, January 7, 2011

Food Labels

Many folks read food labels to gain better insight on the foods they choose. However, with so many claims plastered on labels, things can get really confusing. Even worse, food companies use these claims to push certain products and make you think they’re healthier than they really are. We’ve rounded up the top 10 food label boobie traps.

#1: Natural
The term “natural” is not very well defined by the FDA. The definition is so loosey-goosey that a ginger ale company was caught using the term on their label even though it contained high fructose corn syrup. So when you see the term “natural” on the label, just ignore it.

#2: Cholesterol-Free
All foods that come from a plant like fruits, veggies, grains, nuts and seeds are free of cholesterol. So when a food label on a package of nuts or raisins touts that their product is “cholesterol-free” don’t fall for it — all other brands of nuts, raisins and any other foods derived from plants are also cholesterol-free.

#3: Trans-Fat Free
Trans-fat free is defined as a food that contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. But be aware that trace amounts of trans fat can be hidden in these foods. The giveaway: look for words like “partially-hydrogenated” on the ingredient list. And don’t overlook the rest of the nutrition information — even if gummy bears are touted as “trans-fat free,” it doesn’t mean they’re a healthy choice.

#4: Organic
A food labeled organic (or certified organic) means they were grown without conventional pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, hormones or antibiotics. Organic foods cost a pretty penny, but aren’t always worth it. Be strategic about splurging your hard-earned cash on organic products — these shopping tips for buying organic can help you out.

#5: Sugars: Added Versus Natural
Some folks read the amount of sugars on a label and assume the sugar was added. This isn’t always the case. Take yogurt for example: It contains a natural sugar called lactose found in all dairy products. Look at the ingredient list to decipher if the sugar is natural or added to the product.

#6: Omega-3 Fats
Not all omega-3s are created equal. Those from flax (called ALA) don’t have all the benefits (like helping with heart health) when compared with the omega-3’s derived from fatty fish like salmon and tuna (called DHA and EPA). Knowing which types of omega-3 fats are in the food is the important part.

#7: Fiber
Just like omega-3 fats, not all fibers are created equal. Some fiber is added to food products and may not be as healthy as fiber that’s naturally-occurring. Foods like yogurt, crackers, bread, beverages and even sugar substitutes are now sporting these man-made fibers. Scan the ingredient list for words that indicate fiber was added like inulin, pectin, cellulose, polydextrose and oligosaccharides is important.

#8: Reduced-Fat
In some cases, reduced-fat may mean more sugar was added to replace some of the flavor. This holds true for peanut butter and that’s why it made our list of healthy foods to skip. Sometimes a small portion of the real deal is better than any modified version.

#9: Serving Size
The most common mistake around: Thinking the calories on the label are for the ENTIRE product. Always read the serving size and how many servings per package or container.

#10: Added Vitamins and Minerals
Just because a product has 100 percent of the daily value for vitamins and minerals doesn’t mean it should be in your shopping cart. Many sugary cereals add loads of vitamins and minerals to their product and then use it as a selling point. There are tons of other ways to get in your vitamins and minerals without choosing a product loaded with sugar and/or fat.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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