Decoding Food Claims

Stroll down any isle in your grocery and you’ll see products that are natural, organic, and multigrain. Sounds good for you, right? Not always. Some food label claims make a product sound healthier than it is. In fact, many food label claims aren’t regulated. Here are some misleading food labels.

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2% milk. Sounds great! What you may not know is that whole milk contains only 3.25% fat. So 2% milk contains less fat, but not very much. Only 1% milk and fat free (also called skim milk, which has less than 0.5% fat) meet the low-fat standard. The American Heart Association and other health experts recommend that adults choose 1% or skim milk.

All natural. FDA guidelines allow the use of the words if the product has no added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. This in no way indicates nutritional value. “All natural” foods can have added sodium, corn syrup, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That is why it’s important to read nutrition labels to determine whether a product is right for you.

Cholesterol free. Products with this claim may contain up to 2mg per serving. (Low-cholesterol products may contain up to 20mg.) The American Heart Association recommends less than 300 mg of cholesterol daily for people who are considered healthy.

Fat free. This is a notoriously misleading label. When the dangers of saturated and trans fat became clear, the market was flooded with products that touted their fat-free status. The problem — they sometimes contain as many calories as full-fat versions. Compare the calorie content to choose the best product.

Free range. Don’t assume your bird was scampering around Farmer Brown’s barn because the label makes this claim. While the USDA defines free range, there are no requirements for the amount, duration, or quality of outdoor access.

Gluten free. Gluten is a protein found in grains that is harmful to those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Gluten-free products are becoming easier to find, which is great for those with gluten intolerance. For everyone else, there’s no advantage to buying them. In fact, gluten-free whole grains may have less fiber.

Immunity booster. Companies can make claims such as “immunity blend” or “supports the immune system” when a product contains certain vitamins; however, the claims are sometimes used to give an aura of health to a product, deserved or not. In 2008, the company that makes the vitamin product Airborne agreed to settle a $23.3 million class-action lawsuit. The product's label said it could “boost the immune system” and was marketed as a way to prevent colds without sufficient evidence that it worked. Light. A food label may say a product is light; however, manufacturers often use the term to refer to the flavor rather than the ingredients. So read the nutritional facts. To be considered a light product, the fat content has to be 50% less than the amount found in comparable products.

Lightly sweetened. Although the FDA defines reduced sugar, no added sugar, and sugar free, companies sometimes come up with marketing lingo. One of those terms is “lightly sweetened,” which is not defined by the FDA.

Made with real fruit. Products with this claim may not contain much at all or none of the type on the box. While companies must list ingredients, there is no requirement to disclose the percentage used. In 2012, a California woman filed a class-action lawsuit over Fruit Roll-Ups, which contain “pears from concentrate” and no strawberries (in the case of the strawberry flavor).

Multigrain. Avoid “multigrain” or “made with whole grain” products and opt for “whole grain” or “100% whole wheat.” Whole grains, (such as popcorn, brown rice, and oatmeal), have more fiber and other nutrients than those that have been refined, a process that strips away the healthiest portions of the grain. Don’t go by color alone. Some darker breads or crackers have caramel coloring and are no healthier than highly refined white breads.

No sugar added. Don’t mistake this for NO SUGAR. For a manufacturer to make this claim, it cannot add sugar or ingredients that substitute for sugar (fruit juices, honey) during packaging or processing. However, ingredients used in the recipe (chocolate chips) may contain sugar.

Omega-3 fatty acids. There are three main types: eicosapentaenoic (EPA), docosahexaenoic (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which doesn’t have the proven heart benefit of EPA and DHA. Some foods are higher in ALA, such as flaxseed, than EPA and DHA. Eggs may contain omega-3 if chickens are fed flaxseed or fish oil, but eggs are not considered to have a heart health benefit because of their cholesterol and saturated fat content. If you are looking for a good helping of omega-3, stick to fish and seaweed products.

Organic. While organic was once open to interpretation, it is no longer. If a product has a USDA organic label, 95% or more of the ingredients must have been grown or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (among other standards). A label that says “made with organic ingredients” must have a minimum of 70% of ingredients that meet the standard. Keep in mind that organic is not synonymous with healthy. In fact, it may be anything but. Organic food can still be packed in fat, calories, and sugar.

Serving size. Food manufacturers can be tricky with serving sizes. To make a product look low in fat or calories, they may list information based on an unrealistic serving size. FDA recommendations on serving size tend to be outdated because they are based on eating habits of decades past. For example, the Reference Amount Customarily Consumed (RACC) for ice cream is a half-cup or one scoop, a lot less than what most people now eat in one sitting.

Sugar free. It doesn’t mean a product has fewer calories than the regular version. It may have more. (Although manufacturers are supposed to tell you if a product is not low calorie.) Sugar-free products have less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving, but they still contain calories and carbohydrates from other sources. These products often contain sugar alcohols, which are lower in calories (roughly 2 calories per gram, compared to 4 per gram for sugar). Common sugar alcohols are mannitol, xylitol, or sorbitol. PLEASE NOTE: Sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea so don’t consume a lot in one sitting.

Zero trans fats. Unfortunately, federal regulations allow food labels to say there’s zero grams of trans fat as long as there’s less than half a gram per serving. Keeping in mind that many packages contain more than one serving, you could be eating more trans fat than you think. Check the list of ingredients to see if partially hydrogenated oil — the primary source of trans fat — is included. The American Heart Association recommends that people limit trans fats to less than 1 percent of total daily calories.

This information is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of the subject matter nor a substitute for medical advice. Always consult your primary care physician or healthcare provider before beginning any diet or exercise program.

Active Medi-Weightloss® patients should consult the experts at their location on whether the foods and/or recipes mentioned are appropriate for their stage of the program.