No doubt about it – the best foods have no labels unless it happens to be an organic sticker. These foods, in their natural state, are usually located along the perimeter of the store and have one ingredient – the food itself. It would be ideal if those were the only foods we ate. However, sometimes we’re in such a rush that we have to grab something quick, convenient, and wrapped in a package.
Here’s the good news. Not every food you buy in a package is bad for your health. In fact, frozen fruits and vegetables are one of the best options when you’re pressed for time. The trick is to avoid frozen produce that contains too much added sodium or an unhealthy sauce.
You also have to be aware that the labels on packaged products are deceptive. After all, a manufacturer is out to sell a product and portray it in the most favorable light. So, be ready to do a little detective work. Here are five ways you can get fooled at the grocery store.
Calling Not So Healthy Ingredients by Another Name
If there’s one ingredient manufacturers want to downplay it’s sugar. So, rather than calling it sugar on the ingredient list, they give it a more cryptic name. They have a lot to choose from. In fact, there are more than 60 names for what is essentially sugar. Fortunately, life recently got a little easier. Manufacturers now have to state how much ADDED sugar is in a product on a separate line on the label. The key is to make it a habit to read the nutritional information and the line that lists added sugar.
What does added sugar include? According to Sugar Science, a website devoted to scientific information pertaining to sugar:
“added sugars are any sugars – including table fructose, sugar, and even honey – either used in processing and preparing foods or beverages, added to foods at the table or eaten separately”
Sugar isn’t the only ingredient that assumes disguises. If you’re sensitive to MSG (monosodium glutamate), it probably won’t be listed as such on the label. Instead, it’ll be under the guise of hydrolyzed vegetable protein or yeast extract.
Certain ingredients have a “health halo.” For example, when you see flaxseed, green tea, or spirulina in a product, you think you’re getting a product designed with health in mind. Not always. In fact, manufacturers often add a tiny bit of a “healthy” ingredient to a product just so they can say it’s in there, even if the amount is too small to be of benefit. This gives the impression their product has health benefits even if the rest of the ingredients include high-fructose corn syrup, salt, MSG, and synthetic colorings.
How can avoid being a victim of label padding? Look at where the healthy ingredient is listed on the ingredient list. If it’s at the bottom of the list, there’s probably not enough to impact your health one way or the other. It certainly won’t compensate for the other unhealthy ingredients.
Using the Word Natural Too Loosely
Who doesn’t feel good when they hear the word “natural?” Don’t take it too literally. In the world of product labeling, natural is a term that manufacturers can freely apply to labels even if the product contains GMOs or high-fructose corn syrup and even if the ingredients were grown or raised with pesticides or antibiotics. The only requirement the FDA has for products labeled natural is that the product contains no synthetic colors, flavors, or ingredients. They can still be high in sugar and sodium. Natural says nothing about how healthy a product is for you.
Some people think natural and organic are synonymous but they’re not. Certified organic products conform to a strict set of standards. Food grown or raised organically must be free of synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, antibiotics, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers and cannot be the product of genetically modified seeds. Organic is regulated while natural is not.
There are several different organic designations. If a product is labeled as 100% organic it must be free of non-organic ingredients. If it’s simply stamped “organic,” 95% or more of the ingredients must be organic, whereas “made with organic ingredients,” means 70% or more must be organic. Remember, organic may mean lower in chemicals and pesticides but it doesn’t always equate with healthy.
Although the FDA is committed to eliminating trans-fat from all foods, with a few exceptions, it may still be a few years before it’s universal. Fortunately, more manufacturers are reducing or eliminating trans-fat from their offerings. One thing you can’t depend on though is reading the nutritional information. Trans-fat doesn’t always mean zero trans-fat. That’s because the FDA defines “zero” as 0.5 grams or less of trans-fat per serving. That means the zero trans-fat product you’re holding in your hand may STILL contain trans-fat. The way to know is to read the ingredient list. If it lists hydrogenated oils, like hydrogenated soybean oil, it’s not trans-fat free.
The Whole Grain Deception
Research shows people who eat more whole grains have a lower risk of premature death. Therefore, manufacturers want you to think their product is made with whole grains. Where they get sneaky is by mixing whole grains with refined grains and then labeling the product as “multi-grain” or “made with whole grains.” Neither of these terms means the item is 100% whole grain. If it truly is a whole-grain product, whole wheat or whole grain should top the ingredient list, not be an afterthought at the bottom of the list.
The Bottom Line
These are just a few of the “tricks” manufacturers use to make you think their product is healthful and nutritious, or at least not as bad as you think. Don’t get deceived. Ignore the marketing speak and buzzwords like “natural” and “wholesome” and make your own judgment. You’ll only get the truth by reading the ingredient list carefully. There’s a reason they list those ingredients with such a small font. They’re hoping you left your glasses at home and will make your decision based on the front of the package. Don’t do it.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Food Labeling Guide”
Sugar Science. “Hidden Sugars may have serious effects on children’s heart health”
United States Department of Agriculture “Organic Standards”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Eating more whole grains linked with lower mortality rates”