Are You Being Fooled by Food Labels?

By: Laura DeAndrade, ANP-BC

Have you ever wondered exactly what your food labels meant?  Are you being lured into purchasing items that are otherwise not very healthy simply because you fell for a marketing scheme?  Chances are that mostly everyone has picked one food over another because it included the words “all natural” or “multigrain”.  Do these words mean they are healthier?  Usually not.  Let’s investigate some of the common food labels out there and discuss what they really mean.

“All natural” or “Natural”– According to the USDA (US Dept. of Agriculture), food that is labeled as all natural or natural does not contain artificial ingredients or preservatives.  The ingredients are supposedly only minimally processed.  The FDA has not actually endorsed this labeling of food as of yet.  The FDA has only considered that the term “natural” meant that nothing synthetic or artificial has been added (including color additives). These foods can still contain added sugar, trans fats and genetically modified ingredients (GMO’s).  All natural does not mean that the product is grass fed, free range, or organic.

“Multigrain”-The only thing multigrain means is that the product contains more than one type of grain.  These grains may be refined and stripped of their naturally occurring nutrients and fiber.  Sometimes a food label will also list a product as whole grain but the only whole grain is listed as the very last ingredient in the food.  A product can claim itself as “whole grain” even if they use mostly processed white flour and add a pinch of whole grains at the end of processing.  If you’re buying something that is multigrain, make sure that the first ingredient on the list is a whole grain. Some darker breads also have caramel color added to them to make them appear to be whole grain but they are actually no healthier than having plain white bread.

“Made with real fruit”– Don’t be fooled that this means you are getting in a serving of fruit!  Would you equate eating a fruit roll-up to eating a few strawberries?  A box of Fruit Roll-Ups usually states that it is made with real fruit.  “Made with real fruit” is probably one of the most misleading food claims.  What it means is that real fruit made it into the production process at some point.  This could mean one strawberry or one blueberry only.  The FDA does not indicate how much REAL fruit has to be used for companies to make these claims so things like fruit juices, fruit snacks and cereals often contain this claim.  Don’t be fooled.

“No Sugar Added”-This does NOT mean the product contains no sugar!  What this label means is that there has not been any sugar ADDED to the production process.  Sugar containing ingredients include honey, molasses high fructose corn syrup, cane syrup and malt syrup.  These products do not mean sugar free.  Remember that many foods have naturally occurring sugars in them (fruit, milk, and even vegetables). If you look at a fruit juice that states it has “no sugar added”, turn it around and look at the sugar content on the nutrition label and you will find it is indeed mostly sugar.

“Light”– To be considered a light product, the fat content must be at least 50% less than the amount found in other comparable products.  Usually, if you take fat out of something you need to replace it with something equally as delicious.  So to maintain appeal to the consumer in regards to taste, fat is usually replaced with more sugar to make it taste good.  Make sure you know what you are buying.

Learn how to read your food labels.  Don’t be duped into thinking something is healthy due to smart marketing.  Companies are trying to appeal to the consumer with tricky labels.  Always look at your ingredient list when you are not sure.  If it seems to good too be true, it probably is.

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