The Buzz: “Free from X” Health Claims

What’s the buzz?
Choosing sugar-, gluten-, dairy-free, or other free-from foods is a fast track to healthy eating

What does the science say?
Sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free, and you-name-it-free are everywhere on package labels and restaurant menus these days. For some, the surge of new products made without specific ingredients can be very helpful in managing a medical condition, food allergy, or food intolerance without feeling deprived of some favorite foods. For example, the explosion of the gluten-free bread aisle allows those with celiac or a gluten intolerance to enjoy a sandwich. However, for many, the health claims creates some confusion about what is actually “healthy.” If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “should I be avoiding [insert food item]?” because of a health claim on a package, or attracted to a new line of products because they tout the absence of that ingredient, you may want to think twice.

Just because a food is sugar-free, dairy-free, or free of any other nutrient, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically healthy for you. In fact, it may be just the opposite. Most likely the food just contains something different. For example, sugar-free foods may contain sugar alcohols (which have been known to send people running to the bathroom) or artificial sweeteners, which may be no better, health wise — and may trigger the same cravings as the real thing. A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie, and a dairy-free ice-cream still contains plenty of calories and sugar. (Not long ago, fat-free was the fad du jour and food companies just replaced fat with sugar.) Often these free-from foods are still highly processed and are comprised of a long list of other questionable ingredients.  

What’s the takeaway?
Marketers aim to please consumers and stay ahead of food trends — it’s their job! Take pause when reading labels and don’t be fooled by health claims. You can’t go wrong by aiming for whole foods first, and when choosing packaged foods, read the actual ingredients list and choose foods with ingredients you can recognize. Instead of focusing on what’s NOT in your food, think about the foods you can add to your diet that will make you feel your best and choose those most often.

Read more about food labels to watch out for.