Don't Be Tricked By These 5 Food Label Claims
Reading food labels is one of the most important things you can do for your health. If you don't read food labels, you don't know what your are putting in your body.
But reading food labels, even for the pro label reader, can be very misleading. There are so many food label claims that seem healthy, but when taking a closer look may not be healthy at all. One of the things that makes me the most frustrated for my clients is when they think they are eating something healthy, but have been mislead by tricky claims on the food label. It's so frustrating when you are trying so hard to eat healthy and do the right thing only to be mislead by tricky wording. Unfortunately, the food industry is permitted to use words that can lead even the most health conscious consumer astray. I can almost guarantee you that you have seen at least one, if not several, of the words on my list and might even have been tricked into thinking the product was healthier for you then it actually was. Read on to prevent yourself from being fooled by misleading food industry food label claims.
One of the most surprising things I learned at a presentation I attended at fitness and nutrition conference last year was that there is absolutely no regulation on the word "natural" when it comes to food labels. A food company can put the word "natural" on any product they want to (I know...I was shocked too)! Certainly the word natural seems healthy, but if Frito Lay wanted to claim that Doritos are "natural", they could...without any legal repercussions (absurd...I know). If a packaged food claims to be natural, be wary. Reading the ingredients on the food label is way more important then being fooled by unregulated claims when it comes to evaluating the healthiness of a food item. A couple simple rules can help you make better decisions about the healthiness of an item then these tricky claims. First, the ingredients list should be short. Typically no more then 6 ingredients. Second, all the ingredients on the list should be things you would eat by themselves. For example, I would eat almonds by themselves, but I would not eat soy lecithin, which is a common food additive.
Just because a product claims to be sugar-free, does not automatically mean it is healthy. When a food label says that something is sugar-free, that also does not mean that there is no sugar in it! Confusing right? Sugar-free means a food item is free of refined cane sugar, but it can still contain either artificial sweeteners (basically chemicals) or natural sugars like agave or brown rice syrup. If you are trying to cut sugar out of your diet (a great idea by the way) be sure to read the food label and make sure that the item is truly sugar-free. Sugars in foods can appear on labels under the guise of many different names. To learn about the tricky ways food labels try to hide sugar and the many different names used for sugar on ingredients lists, read my blog post, 3 Tips to Avoid Hidden Sugar.
Gluten-free products are popping up everywhere. Gluten-free diets are trendy right now, and while I personally follow a gluten-free diet, I don't believe that just because a product is gluten-free it is good for you. The problem is that many of the gluten-free products popping up are still highly processed food items, and therefore not inherently healthy. Just because a product is labeled gluten-free doesn't mean it is better for you. Many gluten-free food products contain refined sugars and potentially inflammatory oils. If you want to go gluten-free, you are better off choosing naturally gluten-free foods like healthy fats, proteins like eggs and meat, and vegetables.
4. Cage-free or Free-range
Cage-free and Free-range are two labels you often see on whole eggs at the grocery store. And while they both used to make me picture chickens running free and living happy chicken lives, they are both somewhat misleading. Cage-free simply means that the chickens are not in cages, and not that they are free to roam the outdoors. In fact, most cage-free chickens are held in a barn with no access to the outdoors. Free-range simply means that the chickens have access to a door leading outdoors, but the fact is they rarely use it. The better label to look for is pasture raised. Pasture raised chickens generally consume some feed, but also lots of grass, bugs and worms...their natural diet. We've all heard the euphemism "You are what you eat", but if we are what we eat, aren't we also what the food we eat eats? Think about that for a minute (I'll wait...). And of course there is also the importance of raising our food sources humanely.
5. Whole grain / Whole Wheat
A product labeled whole grain or whole wheat is not necessarily a healthier option. A whole grain or whole wheat label does not guarantee the product contains only whole grains or wheat. A product that claims to "contain whole grains" can still have a significant amount of white flour. What do you need to look for instead? Look for labels claiming "100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat". These food products are higher in fiber. Diets high in fiber have many health benefits like maintaining bowel health and lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Reading food labels is a really important part of living a healthy lifestyle. And even though it can be overwhelming and time-consuming at first, it's a habit that over time and with practice becomes much easier. Now you know what to look out for when it comes to misleading food label claims! If you need help learning to read food labels, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!