Have you ever picked one grocery item over another because of the health claims on the label? You may have been duped. That's because terms like fat free or all natural are often slapped on a food item that may not be healthy at all.
Frustrated? You're not alone. Nearly 59% of consumers have a hard time understanding nutrition labels, according to a Nielsen survey.
Here's our list of the 16 most common — and most misleading—phrases manufacturers use on food, with advice on how to look past the hype to make smarter supermarket choices.
Don't be fooled, all natural doesn't mean all that much. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't define it, although food makers won't get in trouble as long as so-labeled food doesn't contain added colors, artificial flavors, or "synthetic substances."
That means there's room for interpretation.
So a food labeled natural may contain preservatives or be injected with sodium, in the case of raw chicken. "Some natural products will have high fructose corn syrup and companies will argue that since it comes from corn, it's healthy," says Stephan Gardner, director of litigation at the Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). "Well, that isn't true."
When shopping for healthy bread and crackers, look for the words whole grain or 100% whole wheat. It's not enough if it says multigrain or made with whole grain.
Whole grains, (which include 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.
And don't go by color alone: Some darker breads or crackers have caramel coloring and are no healthier than highly refined white breads.
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No sugar added
If you're concerned about calories and carbs (maybe because you have diabetes or are trying to prevent it), you may toss no sugar added products in your grocery cart.
But foods, including fruit, milk, cereals, and vegetables naturally contain sugar. So although these products may not have added sugar they still may contain natural sugars. And no sugar added products still may contain added ingredients like maltodextrin, a carbohydrate.
Carbohydrates — which can be simple sugars or more complex starches — raise blood sugar, and no sugar added doesn't mean a product is calorie- or carbohydrate-free.
Sugar free doesn't mean a product has fewer calories than the regular version; it may have more. (Although food makers are supposed to tell you if a product isn't low-cal.) 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), but compare labels to see if the sugar-free version is any better than the regular version. (Common sugar alcohols are mannitol, xylitol, or sorbitol).
Caution: Sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea so don't consume a lot in one sitting.
Zero trans fat
Trans fat is bad for your heart, and the ideal intake is zero. But products that say no trans fat can actually contain less than 0.5 grams per serving.
"If a product says 0 trans fat on it, it isn't actually at zero," says Gardner. "If the consumer were to have two servings, then you would get a good amount added to your diet."
Check for words on the ingredient list such as hydrogenated oils and shortening, which mean trans fat is still present. There are some products that are more likely to contain trans fat than others.
Companies can use words like immunity blend or supports the immune system if a product contains certain vitamins, but such words are sometimes used to give an aura of health to a product that may or may not deserve it.
In general, companies must walk a fine line here. If they make medical claims, it can trigger intense scrutiny from the FDA and the federal trade commission.
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.
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