by Nikki Tucker
Food labeling is required for prepared foods such as bread, cereals, canned food, frozen food, snacks, desserts, drinks etc. Labeling for raw produce is currently voluntary, according to the Food and Drug Administration. However, even with food labeling, many people are misinformed about what’s healthy and what’s not thanks to confusing marketing terms. Terms such as “no high-fructose syrup,” “all natural” or “organic” insinuate a product is good for you, but in reality it may not be.
The most common labels that may deceive the average consumer are: gluten-free, trans fat-free, no high-fructose corn syrup, whole-grain, low-fat and organic.
Gluten-free: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Celiac disease is a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine making it challenging, or impossible, to absorb gluten. Anyone suffering from celiac disease must avoid gluten. But for the rest of us, it depends.
Mark Haub, an associate professor and interim head of Kansas State University’s Department of Human Nutrition, found that gluten-free products more than likely contain as many calories as gluten products. By excluding gluten from your diet, you potentially lose out on a satisfactory amount of fiber. The consumption of fiber has its benefits such as controlling diabetes, weight control, etc.
Haub also points out that for the average person gluten is not bad, since humans have been consuming wheat, rye and barley products for years and without exhibiting any type of health issues. Some individuals do have gluten sensitivity, and report feeling bloated or having gastrointestinal issues after consuming gluten.
If you’re trying to avoid gluten, make sure you have other whole grains and fiber sources in your diet. Just keep in mind that gluten-free does not always equate with a healthier carb count or higher nutritional value.
Trans Fat-Free: Trans fat is created when oils are treated with hydrogen gas to increase shelf life.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trans fat increases low-density lipoprotein, commonly known as bad cholesterol. This can essentially lead to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in America.
Many cities like New York, Baltimore and Boston have banned man-made trans fat from restaurants.
What most people don’t know is that manufacturers can label their product as trans-fat free as long as the product contains half a gram or less per serving. Thus, if you consume more than one serving you may still consume a lot of trans-fat.
The easiest way to avoid trans-fats when grocery shopping is to skip products that contain “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.
No High-Fructose Corn Syrup: High-fructose corn syrup is a common sweetener in sodas and fruit-flavored drinks that has been linked to increasing rates of obesity.
When a product is labeled as “no high-fructose corn syrup,” other sugary ingredients are used in its place, such as honey, molasses, sucrose, fructose, and fruit juice concentrate. If any product has these sweeteners as one of the first four ingredients you should avoid purchasing it.
Whole-Grain: Whole-grains are a great source of fiber, selenium, potassium and magnesium. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of the grains you consume should consist of whole grains.
However, don’t be fooled when most products state “made with whole grains,” as the actual percentage of whole grains isn’t reported. Always purchase products that state “100 percent whole grains.”
Low-Fat: According to a health survey, more than 1,000 individuals consume foods labeled as “low-fat,” “reduced-fat” or “light” because they believe those foods have fewer calories and are healthier.
Labeling regulations define “low-fat” as containing less than 3% of fat, whereas “reduced-fat” and “light” must contain 30% less than the full-fat product.
Most consumers are unaware of what the terms “reduced-fat” and “light” means. Out of 1,005 individuals who were surveyed, only 16% of shoppers could identify that these products must have 30% less fat compared to the standard. By not knowing exactly how much fat is in a serving, the tendency is to overindulge.
When purchasing a product that states low-fat, be sure it contains less fat compared to the original product. And remember that some fat is needed by the body for healthy function. Always check the grams of fat per serving size to know exactly how much you can afford in your daily diet.
Organic: When you purchase organic products, look for the USDA Organic seal to be sure all ingredients are organic. “USDA Organic” means that the product has been certified as organic by meeting a federally-established set of criteria. Food marketers can used the term “organic” if some of the ingredients are organically-grown.
Skip the marketing terms and go straight to the nutritional information. Regardless what the front of the packaging says, your best bet is to flip it over and read through the ingredients list and the nutritional breakdown. The first four ingredients are the bulk of the product, but read through the entire list to make sure there aren’t any surprises. And always check the serving size and nutritional information per serving to make sure you’re making the healthiest choice.