Demystifying Food Labels
Fat free! Natural! Whole Grains! No HFCS! Do you often feel bombarded with buzzwords when it comes to food? Every time you look at a television commercial for food, or walk down a grocery aisle, do you see a new claim attempting to convince you to buy the product?
Reading and understanding food claims is now an important part of being a conscious and healthy consumer. It doesn’t require a four-year educational stint for a degree in nutrition, but it does mean sifting factual claims from marketing attention-grabbers. Take the time to brush up your knowledge of food labels, so you can look past the marketing spin. That way you’ll make the best nutritional decisions for you and your family.
Adhering to United States food laws, food companies must stay truthful about their nutritional content. Nonetheless, they still can over-emphasize certain qualities. The rule of thumb for reading nutritional information in food products is to disregard what’s on the front of the box. While they may be true, they don’t really give the whole picture. Depending blindly on these claims is not helpful.
Here are some of the latest food package claims on the front. Learn what they really mean for your health:
The claim “Natural” evokes images of fresh produce, healthy minerals, and process-free food manufacturing. Understand this: if it’s in a box, bottle, can or on a shelf, that food is always processed in some way. Every packaged food originates from natural food but this doesn’t mean it’s in its “natural” form on a grocery shelf. Modern food production has to use food processing and additives to keep food fresher and tastier for longer periods of time. Actual natural food, like that fresh Romano lettuce you bought for your salad, won’t survive ten days in your fridge without wilting.
This doesn’t mean that labeling potato chips as natural is untrue. “Natural” potato chips may use real potatoes (instead of flakes), but like regular potato chips, they are still a high-fat food choice with little nutritional content. Since the word “natural” is unregulated by the FDA, food manufacturers can spin it in different contexts and mislead consumers. In other words, food manufactures can use the claim “natural” to heighten consumer belief of purer ingredients, healthier nutritional content, and higher food safety.
Your best bet is to use common sense when deciphering these claims. Substituting white sugar for “natural” cane juice to sweeten “natural” candy does not make candy healthier. The candy’s caloric intake is still same. If you are interested in losing weight, it is important to read fat content and calorie numbers on the back of the box to get the real nutritional value of a food product. Avoid eating high-calorie food in excess, to prevent weight gain.
The claim “Fat Free” is a tempting food advertisement but it pays to be cautious. Take a product that hypes the fact that it is 95 % “fat free”. According to ‘The Loopholes of Food Labeling: What Food Manufactures Don’t Want you to Know,” if a product has only 5% fat, it sounds like a healthy choice, right? Not necessarily. The truth lies in how many calories the existing fat contains. Check the nutrition label for the actual number of calories and fat grams per serving. If it exceeds the number suitable for consumption in one serving, you’ll know the “fat free” label is mostly marketing spin.
Another example of unhelpful “fat free” labeling is when foods are naturally fat free. A carton of 100% orange juice advertised as “fat-free” may not be untrue, but it isn’t very helpful – especially since all oranges are naturally fat-free. This is a maneuver intended to have the orange juice brand stand out in the grocery aisle, but it’s not so great if you, the consumer, start replacing your 8 glasses of water with 8 glasses of “fat-free” orange juice. Think of how much sugar it’s adding to your body, that your water didn’t!
In some cases, the “fat free” label is very helpful. Obviously fatty foods, such as full cream milk, ice cream, and dessert, do have some truly fat free versions in the marketplace. Just make sure the caloric difference in the fat free versions is reflective of the claim.
Be aware that food with trans fats is unhealthy. Trans fats are similar to saturated fat, and raise the risk factor for cardiovascular diseases (i.e. cholesterol). Trans fats are made when oils are hydrogenated during food processing – a process used to give vegetables oils a solid texture.
What most consumers aren’t aware of is that the words “trans fat free” or “zero trans fat” can label any product with less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving. If you have several servings of such food, you may actually get quite a lot of unwanted trans fat in your diet.
So, what’s a surefire way of avoiding trans fats food? You need to check the ingredients list for partially hydrogenated oils. This is another word for trans fat, and its existence on a “trans fat free” product means that the product does contain trans fats albeit less than 0.5 grams per serving.
The low amount of trans fat grams that allow food labels to boast “zero trans fat” should not be taken lightly. For example, if a box of cookies has a zero trans fat label, it is easy to eat more of them than you would a regular box of cookies. If you eat 4, 6, or 10 cookie servings, you’ll actually consume 2, 3, or 5 grams of trans fats – which is a huge amount in one sitting. This is very unhealthy, especially since there is no safe level of trans fat consumption.
The label “zero trans fat” can create a false illusion that “zero trans fat” cookies are “healthier” snacks. The key is to be aware of the fact that they are not and avoid eating in excess. Read the fat and calorie amount on the Nutrients Facts Label to evaluate the real level of healthiness of the “zero trans fat” food. Don’t replace healthier snacks like baby carrots or celery sticks with “zero trans fat” cookies anytime soon!
One of the latest food trends in fruit snacks, cookies, cereals and drinks is the claim “made with real fruit”. It’s important to know that there is no law on how much real fruit must be used in a product to validate that statement. A single gram of strawberry, or one drop of orange juice, is enough to make that statement true of a food product. In other words, the “made with real fruit” label is no guarantee that the food product contains any of the healthy nutritional content that real fruits provide on their own.
What can give you a true idea of the nutritional value of “real fruit” content in a product? Read the ingredients list. Ingredients that form the bulk of a food product are listed first. So, if real fruit is on top of the ingredients list, you know that you have a truthful “real fruits” claim. However, if high fructose corn syrup, or sugar, is listed among the first few ingredients, you know the benefits of any “real fruit” content has been sacrificed to create a sugary food. Don’t get sucked into a “made with real fruits” claim if the major ingredients in a “fruity” snack are unhealthy!
This is a marketing claim that took off in the wake of increasing consumer awareness around the benefits of fiber intake. Today, there are “whole grain” logos on almost every type of grain products.
Unfortunately, the fact is that refined white flour, with any amount of whole wheat mixed in, can be labeled as “whole grain”. The amount of whole wheat added in could be 50% of the final product – or less than 0.05%. There is no regulation on the “whole grain” term just yet.
Again, it’s not a good idea to trust the words on the front of the food package. Read the information on the back of the box. Look at the list of ingredients every time. Make sure to understand what the bulk of this food product is made of. For a cereal to be true to its “whole grains” claim, “whole grain” is a term that should be first in the list of ingredients. Instead, if additives like sugar and high fructose corn syrup are appearing earlier, you can be assured that this is a sugary cereal instead of a healthy, fiber fortified one. Also, ingredient listings of corn, rice, wheat, or oat flour are always processed. They would be explicitly listed as whole rice, whole wheat or whole oat flour if they were unrefined.
Make sure your cereals and grain products are high in fiber and protein content, as opposed to sugar content. Otherwise, the “whole grains” label fools you into assuming you are eating healthier, without any actual nutritional benefit.
Most people don’t realize that fat has more calories per gram, than protein or carbohydrates.
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
This means that if 5% of the total weight of the food is fat, (which may not seem like much), it’s double the calories per gram compared to the food that’s 5% of protein or carbohydrates.
5 grams of fat in 100 grams of ground or dark-meat turkey means that 1/4th of the calories in that serving is in the fat!
Today, halal is a burgeoning food and beverage market in North America. In the US alone, halal food sales are estimated to comprise a hefty $20 billion food market. For small to medium sized food companies, halal can be a very profitable market to grow and expand.
This means halal claims are steadily rising on food products. What do consumers need to know about navigating halal food claims?
Little Yasser and his family were having dinner at his Nanna’s house. When everyone was seated, the food was served. As soon as little Yasser got his plate, he started eating right away.
“Yasser, please wait until we say our dua,” said his father.
“I don’t have to,” Yasser replied.
“Of course you have to,” said his mother. “Don’t we always say a prayer before eating at our house?”
“Yes, but that’s our house,” Yasser explained. “This is Nanna’s house and she knows how to cook!”