Do you ever find yourself in the supermarket, confused when trying to decide which are actually the healthy foods and which only claim to be? For example, being a fan of blueberries, the other day I found myself perusing a box of Blueberry Pancake Mix. On the cover was a photo of ripe, luscious blueberries, under which was the text, "Bursting with blueberry flavor." Curious, I turned over the box and looked at the actual ingredients, to find a slightly different claim in tiny letters – "Artificially Flavored" – and an explanation that the "blueberries" in the mix were in fact dextrose, flour, cellulose gum and other chemicals, injected with blue dye #1 and #2.
Unfortunately, this was not an extraordinary experience; it happens to most of us every shopping day. The claims made for the foods we eat on their labels are not always truthful. Truth be told, some of them are outright lies. The fault lies in the reluctance of agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to come up with food labeling standards that are actually meaningful, and thus useful. Manufacturers are free to use phrases like "Lightly Sweetened" for foods that contain up to 100 grams of added sugar, because that particular phrase is not regulated by the FDA. They are also free to use phrases like "Made With Real Fruit" under photos of real fruit, when none of those fruits are used in the actual product, only tiny amounts of some other fruit juice.
So how do we, as consumers, protect ourselves from labeling that isn't telling the whole truth? Some of the following hints may help to raise your awareness of claims to be wary of.
- "Natural" – The FDA has no formal definition of this term, and so basically any manufacturer or food provider can put it on their labels.
- "Low-Calorie" – The first thing you should do when you see this claim on a food's packaging is to read the actual nutrition label, to find out what the calorie count per serving really is. For example, a bottle of flavored "vitamin water" lists its calorie count as 50 calories per serving, but fails to tell you that the bottle contains 2.5 "servings," so the calorie count per bottle is much higher.
- "Serving Size" – This is a key item to look for when analyzing nutrition claims. If you read the fine print on a package of Doritos, you discover that the manufacturer's idea of a "serving size" is 11 chips. When was the last time you limited yourself to 11 tortilla chips while watching a football game?
- "Made With Whole Grains" and"A Good Source Of Fiber" – Neither of these terms are regulated by the FDA, and thus are basically meaningless. The product may contain only trace amounts of whole grains, with the balance provided by highly refined corn flour. And the "fiber" may be provided by fiber additives that do not have the nutritive value of the fiber found in real grains and vegetables.
- "No Trans Fats" – Most of us who are trying to eat more healthy foods are aware that trans fats are bad. What we are not as aware of is that the same people who put this buzzphrase on their labels have merely replaced the trans fats with partially hydrogenated oils, which are similarly bad. Also any product with less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat is legally able to say it contains no trans-fat.
On the plus side, there are terms that are regulated and meaningful, such as "Certified Organic." In the U.S., this means that the farm or ranch must have been herbicide-free and pesticide-free for three years. The bottom line is that the buyer must beware. The only way to be sure is to educate yourself on how to read the nutrition label on the back of the package, and learn to decipher their often equally-confusing information.