Do you have your detective skills and magnifying glass ready for your next trip to the grocery store? Even those of us in the food world have to be like Sherlock Holmes to make sense of confusing labels. At first glance, products may appear healthy on the front label, but they really are not when you look closely at the ingredient list and nutrition facts.
Here are just some of the most misleading claims:
- “Made with whole grain” – claim found on cereals, breads and crackers
Instead, look for “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” as the first ingredient. Manufacturers would have you believe many products are loaded with 100 percent whole grains. Not true. Case in point: Bread that says “multigrain” or “made with whole grains” actually can have white flour and water as its first two ingredients. Whole-wheat flour is listed later on the label, possibly along with added isolated fiber to boost fiber content.
- “Reduced sugar or lower-sugar items”
Most of us know that flavored instant oatmeal packets are loaded with sugar, so when I saw reduced-sugar packet oatmeal, I innocently thought it would be a natural, less-sweet version of the original. Again, not true. Artificial sweeteners may be present in the the product, with no mention on the front label. There are hundreds of items that have artificial sweeteners buried in the ingredient listing if you look closely.
- “All natural”
Foods labeled as "all natural" can still be loaded with high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated fat. That doesn’t mean the food is good for you. Arsenic is natural, too!
- “Trans-fat free”
Often, trans-fat-free products are loaded with artery-clogging saturated fat from palm kernel oil and similar fats. Watch for other sources of fat that raise saturated fat levels.
- “Low fat”
One of my students felt noble purchasing the healthier “low fat” toaster pastries. I hated to break it to her that they had more sugar than the original, plus, they were devoid of any whole grain attributes. Low-fat items often have more sugar and/or salt in them.
- “11 essential vitamins and minerals, good source of calcium and vitamin D” – a claim found on cereals
Most of these are sweet cereals made of more than 1/3 sugar. Some cereals claim to have fruit in them, only to clarify in fine print that they contain “flakes” of fruit, or have no fruit at all. A check on a strawberry-flavored cereal revealed artificial flavoring, red dye No. 40 and gelatin.
The list could go on. But the good news is that legislators are proposing the modernizing of food labels. The proposed bill would require the amounts of added sugars and caffeine to be disclosed. Also, shoppers would know when foods are artificially colored or sweetened. Products using whole grains would have to list the percentage of whole grains in the product. Deceptive health claims would not be allowed and calorie contents would be highlighted. It’s long overdue. We shouldn’t need a doctorate to read labels. Sensible, informed choices are what we want and deserve.
Until that happens, here is a little label-reading savvy. Go for short ingredient lists. Foods are mostly made up of the ingredients at the beginning of the list. If the ingredient list is really long with all sorts of complicated words, it’s likely a poor choice. Pass up high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. And most of all, shop for fresh food – no food label needed!
For more reading, check out 9 Funky Food Labeling Fiascos - and 1 Solution from the Huffington Post.