I feel like I’m a pretty savvy grocery shopper. I know the dirty little secrets behind labels like “fat-free” and “sugar-free.” Are there others I should be looking out for?
Absolutely! Here are five other popular health claims that might not mean what you think they do.
This isn’t a real label, is it? It is! The technical definition of healthy was set in 1993 by the FDA — and hasn’t changed since. Which is a problem, since nutrition science has evolved, particularly about dietary fat intake. Nutritionists now believe that certain fats (those from plants) can support well-being, prevent disease, and provide flavor and a feeling of fullness that increase overall satisfaction.
That 1993 definition set maximums for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium while requiring minimum amounts of one or more beneficial nutrients such as vitamin A, C, calcium, iron, fiber, and more. Until recently, foods we’ve come to love and accept as being “healthy” choices (nuts, seeds, avocado, extra-virgin olive oil) were excluded from being labeled as healthy, but a fat-free, sugar-filled cookie could still pass the test.
Label lesson: Good news! An interim update in guidance (but not yet the law), issued in 2016, allows foods that are higher in fat to carry the “healthy” label, as long as the fat sources are plant-based fats rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Look for updates anticipated in 2018 to the definition of “healthy.”
Here’s another one you might not think is real, but is — just not in the way you think. When it comes to most foods, there is no FDA definition for “natural.” (Human food, that is — the FDA has a strong definition for animal food!) Packaged foods can make this claim without getting in trouble if they don’t contain artificial colors, flavors, or other substances that are considered “artificial.” But for meat and poultry, which are governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA, there is a definition for “natural.” Unfortunately it has nothing to do with the animals being raised humanely, without artificial hormones or nontherapeutic antibiotics. The USDA defines “natural” meats as having “no artificial ingredients or added colors and are minimally processed.”
Label lesson: Ignore “natural” — it’s mostly unregulated, and even on products where it is, it doesn’t mean what it should. (If this bugs you, join the “natural” campaign of Consumers Union).
MADE WITH REAL FRUIT
Trying to get in those two daily cups of fruit recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines? It’s wise to dig a little deeper when you see “made with real fruit” on beverages, granola bars, yogurts, and more. Labels on fruit juices must disclose the source and percentage of real fruit juice included in the product — but beyond that it gets sketchy. Other food categories don’t have the same requirements, meaning they may have very little real fruit.
Label lesson: Whole fruit is still your best bet for getting your fruit on, but if considering potential fruit-containing products, choose ones that list specific fruit(s) in the first three to four ingredients. (Ingredients must be listed in order of volume.)
The demand for gluten-free foods has been on the rise for more than a decade. In the early years, there was much debate on what the definition of gluten-free should be. But in 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration laid down the law (literally), defining “gluten free” as containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten — a level considered safe for most people with celiac disease, not just people with gluten intolerance.
That level is tough (if not impossible) to achieve in a kitchen that also handles wheat flour and other gluten-containing ingredients that can become airborne or leave traces on counters or equipment, versus a factory or a dedicated kitchen setting. Yet restaurants and some small businesses continue to use “gluten-free” on their menus and packaging. Technically, it’s not true, and it could very well be dangerous. That’s why Bon Appétit Management Company uses “made without gluten-containing ingredients,” which is a mouthful — but at least an accurate one!
Label lesson: Nationally distributed packaged foods that make gluten-free claims are usually safe even for those with celiac disease — particularly when the manufacturer is certified by a third party on their food-handling practices. But for gluten-avoiders dining out, it’s always best to ask a few questions.
LOW GLYCEMIC INDEX
Glycemic index is the measure of how much a specific food is predicted to raise blood glucose levels based on scale of zero to 100. These numbers were originally derived by measuring responses in multiple test subjects in a laboratory setting. Some say the lower the level, the better for conditions such as diabetes and weight management, and to avoid that dread post-food energy crash. But the full picture on glycemic index is a bit more complicated than just one number: the glycemic index of a single food changes when it’s combined with other foods, and with fruits, ripeness can change the number. That’s why claims about health benefits from consuming low glycemic-index foods are not approved by the FDA.
Label lesson: Factual statements from manufacturers that communicate the glycemic index of a food are legit, but you’ll need to do more homework (including talking with your healthcare provider) to understand if glycemic index should even be on your wellness radar.
THE BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to food labels, marketers are trying to stay ahead of smart shoppers by making claims that quickly push our “must-buy-healthy” buttons. Keeping up with what popular labels do and don’t mean something can save you time — and prevent the feeling of information overload from trying to read every nutrition facts panel and ingredient list in your shopping cart!
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected]