Misleading Food Label Claims and What to Do About it

What does this all mean anyway?

What does this all mean anyway?

The other morning I was having some granola for breakfast and as I was pouring it from the package I laughed because one of the claims on the package was that it was “Cholesterol Free!” as if that was some huge revelation.  The ingredients are oats, flax, honey, amaranth, millet, vanilla and apple puree.  Not a single one of those ingredients contain cholesterol and that is because cholesterol only comes from animal foods.  Did you know that?  Most people don’t and that is why the marketing on food packaging is so confusing. In this particular case, it is technically true that the granola doesn’t contain cholesterol but it’s slightly misleading when the package next to it on the grocery store shelf has the same ingredients but doesn’t have that claim on the label.  More people want to buy the product that boasts that it’s  “Cholesterol Free” (but they are both free of it!!!!).  Cholesterol in our food isn’t always our enemy anyway, but that’s another blog post for another day.

It’s important to understand what the food label claims on your food package really mean before choosing one product over the other. In the US, some words in food packaging have legal definitions and others don’t.  Unless you know what they mean, you could be purchasing something that isn’t as healthy as you think.  There’s no way I can go over all of the misleading and confusing claims that are out there (there are far too many!) but these are just a few examples of marketing tricks to watch out for.

Natural / All Natural
There is no legal definition or standards for using this label on a food product, except in the case of meat and poultry.  Meat and poultry can’t contain artificial preservatives and can only go through minimal processing to use this label.  It does not mean they are free of hormones, antibiotics or raised in a humane environment.  Other foods that use the term “Natural” means absolutely nothing.  It does not mean that a product is organic or that it is even remotely healthy.

Healthy
To use this term on it’s label, a food must meet specific requirements for the amount of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium in the product.  It doesn’t mean that it’s actually good for you.  A food labeled “Healthy” could be full of preservatives like BHT or BHA or have an ingredient list where you don’t recognize more than a few items.

No Trans Fat
If you see this claim on a label and then the ingredient list contains “partially hydrogenated oil” put it down!  The FDA allows manufacturers to use the claim No Trans Fat or 0 g Trans Fat if a product has less than .5 g of trans fat per serving.  There is no safe amount of artificial trans fats to consume.  What is so worrisome about these types of claims is that most of us use far more than just one serving of these foods and you could easily be getting a couple grams of trans fats every time you eat your favorite butter spread or cooking spray.  Have you ever used just 1/3 of a second of cooking spray?  I didn’t think so.

Good Source of Whole Grain
Whole grains are great, but products that contain some whole grains are not necessarily better for you.  A product that claims it’s a “Good Source of Whole Grain” must contain at least 8g of whole grain per serving.  But if the serving size is 30 or 50g, then the majority of the product is refined grains.  That 8g isn’t really doing you a heck of a lot of good, especially if those whole grains are in junk food like cookies or crackers.   A product that contains the Whole Grain Council’s 100% Whole Grain Stamp only needs to contain 16 g of whole grain per serving to have that stamp on it.   But again, it doesn’t mean that the product is made from nothing but whole grains.  Look at the weight per serving and subtract the whole grain and everything else is likely refined.  If you really want to increase your servings of whole grains, start using them more at home.  There are so many delicious and easy to cook grains available today:  quinoa, amaranth, millet, kasha, wheatberries, bulgur, farro, etc.

Free Range Eggs
The term free range has some definition when it comes to some poultry products but there is no standards for egg production.  Hens that produce eggs that are labeled free range need to have some access to the outdoors but there is no criteria for what that means.  Are these hens allowed out of the barn for 20 minutes a day in crowded small fenced in area or are they allowed to roam freely out of barn all day in a large grassy field?  You don’t know. Free range does not mean they are raised more humanely (beak cutting and forced molting are still allowed) or that they are fed a higher quality food.  The only thing it probably means is that they’re not kept in cages.  It doesn’t mean that they are not sitting on top of each other in a crowded excrement filled barn.

Reduced Fat
Foods that are labeled as “Reduced Fat” must have 25% less fat than the original version of the food.  It doesn’t mean that it is low fat or low calorie.  You may have noticed that reduced fat foods often have the same amount of calories (or sometimes slightly more) than the regular fat version of the food.  This is because when manufacturers take fat out, they usually replace it with sugar or some sort of bulking action fiber.  Worse, they often add extra salt or chemicals to make the food still taste ok. Why is it better to eat more sugar, salt and chemicals than fat? It’s not.

So what do you do?  Completely Ignore claims made on the packaging.  The packaging is there partially for transporting the food but it’s main purpose is free advertising for the manufacturers.  Don’t fall prey to it.  Ignore it and look for the facts by reading the ingredient list and the nutrition label.

As far as purchasing eggs goes, try to buy from someone local or call the brand in question and ask them specific questions about how they raise their hens.

Try to make the majority of your food whole foods that don’t come in a package and isn’t made in a processing plant. Keep your eyes and ears out for new marketing claims – new ones are popping up all the time as marketers realize consumers are paying more attention.  There’s no sign they’re going to start being more honest anytime soon so the best defense is to not put any stock in what they’re trying to promote.

What labeling claims do you tend to look for? Is there a claim that you are wondering about? What do you find frustrating about grocery shopping today?

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