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August’s Theme: Figuring Out Food Labels

Get the most out of this educational series by interacting with the challenges and questions on Facebook and Twitter.

Last week we reviewed rules for reading food labels. Any ah-ha moments this week? Share on Facebook. 

Let’s continue our exploration of food labels by understanding packaging claims—because who wants to be duped by marketing buzzwords?

Marketing buzzwords, unfortunately, often have us duped! We read the front of a box or container and easily believe that the “low fat,” “gluten-free,” “natural,” or “whole grain” claims have our back. The reality is that food marketers have developed highly effective buzzwords that lure us into purchasing a supposedly healthy item that may actually be more hurtful than helpful.

Cold cereal is notorious for misleading health claims—gluten-free, whole grain, heart-healthy, low-fat, antioxidant rich, high in fiber, multi-grain, and even claims to boost your child’s immunity are everywhere. Guess what? Most foods with these health claims have several questionable ingredients. Many parents I work with feel defeated when they learn that even the “healthy” brands of cereals that they have been buying are full of sugar and harmful ingredients.

I was perusing the cereal aisle today—inspired by writing this post—and I found myself persuaded by healthy claims and natural looking graphic design. When I picked up the box of a potential health food candidate to read the ingredient list I would consistently only need to get 2-3 ingredients down the list before the junky stuff (like added sugar and refined grains) was apparent. I was so disheartened and angry! How easy it is to be deceived by marketing.

A study conducted at Yale University asked parents how various health claims on cereal boxes would affect their willingness to buy the product. And the survey said:

  • Overall, parents believed that cereals containing health claims were more nutritious and provided health-related benefits for their children.
  • Approximately 1/4 of parents believed that the “whole grain” claim and “calcium and vitamin D” on popular sugar cereals meant these cereals were healthier than other children’s cereals.
  • Approximately 1/2 of parents stated that the claims would increase their likelihood to buy these cereals.
  • 3/4 of parents believed that the ‘immunity’ claim on a popular chocolate sugared cereal meant that eating this cereal would keep their child from getting sick.

This is not good! We need tighter regulations on health claims so that we aren’t so confused when trying to make the best decisions for our families. I have yet to find a cold cereal that meets my standard for health food—so we don’t eat cold cereal at our house. Here is a nut-porridge recipe that my family loves.

Granola bars, popular snack foods, and frozen meals have similar misleading health claims. Wouldn’t you think that “natural” granola bars, nut butters, frozen meals, and jams would be healthy? Not necessarily. The only way to know is to read the ingredient label—which I read on every food product I purchase. As a result of this habit I now make my own nut bars, granola bars, fruit snacks and even applesauce so I can feel good about the ingredients and the amount of sweeteners added. Here is a trail mix “granola” bar recipe that we love and a couple fruit and nut bar recipes that are staples at our house. As far as frozen meals—I stay out of the frozen food aisle all together unless I am buying frozen fruit, veggies, or meat.

When I see the following claims I am automatically suspicious and always investigate further by following my easy rules for reading food labels before I purchase. 

Low-Fat or Fat-Free—When fat is removed sugar is usually added to preserve the taste. Fat is not the enemy we have believed it to be for the past 40 years. Rather, beware of the sugar.

Multi-Grain—This claim simply means that there is more than one grain in the product. None of the grains are required to be “whole grains”—so refined white flour counts. It is not a useful claim….but man it sounds healthy, doesn’t it?

Whole Grain—A whole grain is a grain that contains the germ, endosperm, and bran (refined grains—like white flour—are processed to remove the germ and bran, leaving only the starchy and nutrient lacking endosperm). Often one ingredient in the list might be a whole grain but there are usually many other refined grains and added sugars throughout the rest of the list. One popular children’s cereal claims to be “whole grain” on the front of the package. The first ingredient listed on the back is indeed whole grains. Next in line are sugar, cornstarch, and corn syrup, followed by more sugar, then more corn syrup, and more cornstarch. Healthy food choice? Hardly!

Natural—If a product claims to be natural, it means that it wasn’t made from artificial ingredients. Sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and white flour are all derived from natural ingredients and, therefore, are included within the term “natural,” despite being highly refined and harmful to our health. There are no regulations on the term “natural.”

Organic—It is true that “organic” confirms certain standards over conventional products; however, being “organic” in and of itself does not ensure that the product is healthy. There is a lot of organic junk food out there, like organic cookies, organic ice cream, and organic candy. Being organic only speaks to how a product is grown or raised. It doesn’t say anything about the nature of the product—for example, organic sugar. Even if the package says organic it is still important to read the ingredients.

Sugar-Free—This seems like it would be a good thing, right? Well, artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, are usually the replacement for sugar and it is best to steer clear from artificial sweeteners.

No High-Fructose Corn Syrup—Although it’s true that avoiding HFCS is important, check to see that other sugars have not been added in its place.

Heart Healthy or Lowers Cholesterol—It is often misleading and unfounded. When you see this marketing claim, review the ingredient label and make your own judgment about the product. If you truly want heart healthy foods find the produce aisle.

Gluten-Free—Most processed “gluten-free” products replace gluten with starchy substitutes (tapioca starch, potato flour, corn starch, and rice flour) and often contain high amounts of added sugars, making these products hard on blood-sugar levels and insulin release. For healthy gluten-free options, shop the produce aisle or make products at home with trusted ingredients.

The outrageous and misleading claims that we find on so many food products are frustrating. Unfortunately, we can’t blindly trust any health claims on packaged food, but instead we need to question, doubt, and inquire further about the quality of the food for ourselves. Begin by reading the ingredient labels on every item that you put into your cart, and you will find yourself miles ahead of the game!

Weekly challenge: Notice marketing buzzwords on packaged food items. Continue to read ingredient lists to help you choose healthy food options for your family.

Let’s chat on social: What are your go-to healthy foods for breakfast and snacks?