How to sort out food label deception


Making healthy food choices can be a daunting task especially when food manufacturing labels make claims that might not be in your best interest. There are ways to sort out what many experts contend is deceptive and consumers fall for hook, line, and sinker. 

Researchers from the University of North Carolina conducted a study to find out what's really in so-called healthy foods. The result might surprise you. 

Lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health has discussed how some products that are high in calories, salt, sugar, or fat  "..may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims."

Taillie’s current work focuses on how food policies affect our food choices and the impact on health in the United States, and globally. 

Stephen Devries, MD of the non-profit Gaples Institute, Preventive cardiologist, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Nutrition, at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, warns consumers that the word “natural” on food labels means…..nothing at all, and any of these claims should be ignored. 

Foods that have lower sugar fat and salt are also often those that are lowest in nutritional quality.

For example, if your low-fat chocolate milk is a good choice, you may have to rethink that purchase. 

The fat content may be lower but you're getting more sugar than in whole milk and more fat and sugar compared to other beverages.  

The reason food labels can be deceiving is because the  U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows it. Food manufacturers can label products differently, depending on the nutrient that is altered. 

Your cookies might be a few calories lighter, but there might be no difference in the amount of sugar. All the food industry has to do is change a product slightly from the original or from a comparable 'full fat' or 'full-calorie' item, which means the term reduced doesn't always mean healthier. 

"Essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient," Tailie said in a past media release. 

To add to food label confusion, foods that are low in - whatever - are allowed to be labeled as such if they are less fat or sugar than what we usually eat (reference amount customarily consumed, or RACC) - to be imprecise. 

Cheesecake, for instance, could be labeled low if it has less than 125 grams of fat. On the other hand, your low-fat brownie might have 40 grams of fatty stuff in it. 

Relatively speaking, that brownie has more fat than the cheesecake, Taillie explains. 

The study found the most popular low-content claims in food; in order are: 

  •  Low-calorie

  •  Low-sodium

  •  Low-sugar

Thirty-five percent of beverages and 13 percent of foods purchased by household families from 2008 to 2012 had some sort of low content claim. 

Taille’s study also found different groups of people buy different types of low-content food: 

  • Asians bought more low-salt, low-fat foods

  • Non-Hispanic whites purchased more groceries labeled low-calorie

  • Non-Hispanic blacks were the least likely to buy low-fat or other low-content foods

  • Higher and middle-income families bought more of any kind of low-content foods

Until food manufacturers and special interest groups become more honest with labeling, we’re left to sort it out on our own.  Just because your food is labeled lower fat, sugar, or whatever content doesn't mean it's necessarily nutritionally good for you or a healthier option. 

Making good food choices by reading labels instead of packaging claims is the only way to make nutritionally sound food choices until food manufacturers decide to come clean. Or better yet, don’t buy any food that claims anything special on the label. Instead, focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods. 

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