Light. Calorie-wise. Less sugar. Low sodium. Fat-free.
Many foods make these or other ‘healthy’ claims right on the packaging. While the claim itself may be true, does it actually mean that the product is healthy or good for you, or even any better than its original version? Maybe – and most often – that’s not the case. Just because something has a ‘healthy’ label doesn’t mean you should stop considering the ingredients and checking the facts on the nutrition chart.
Here are some points to help you decode the food label myths:
- When you’re reading that nutrition chart (the box that’s usually located on the side of the package), pay attention to the serving size that is used for the data. You may be surprised to discover that the indicated amount of sodium in your favourite crackers is ingested when you eat only a few crackers. Most charts use this trick of using a serving size that isn’t the typical serving someone would actually consume.
- 10% (or any percent) less of something doesn’t mean it’s any better than the 100% version. For example, the fact that something has “10% less sugar” or even “no sugar added” doesn’t mean that the product doesn’t contain a high amount of naturally occurring sugars.
- Speaking of sugar, the “no added sugar” claim doesn’t mean that sugar alcohols aren’t used in place of the sugar. Common ones you’ll see include mannitol, xylitol and sorbitol (all of which can be causes of diarrhea).
- Companies can claim their product is “all natural” as long as it doesn’t contain any added colours, artificial flavours, or synthetic substances. All kinds of other “non-natural” things could be included in the product, but it is acceptable for it to be labeled as “all natural” because it meets the other criteria. For example, it may contain preservatives and/or be injected with salt (sodium) to act as a preserving agent; companies will use corn syrup claiming that it comes from corn and is therefore natural.
- 0 trans fat can mean that there is less than 1 gram of trans fat – always check for hydrogenated oils and shortening in the list of ingredients.
- Even when a package says “fat-free,” the item could be loaded with sugar (since sugar is not fat), and “sugar-free” products could be loaded with fat. Check the nutrition box to determine the amount of calories and carbs per serving (and don’t forget to consider the serving size!).
- A “light” product needs to have 50% less fat content than the amount found in comparable products.
- An item that “contains real fruit” doesn’t have to contain the same fruit listed on the label and the amount of real fruit content can be very low.
- Foods that say “reduced cholesterol” or “less cholesterol” only need to have 25% less than the amount in comparable products. The liver makes cholesterol, so only animal products such as eggs, meat, dairy and butter can contain cholesterol. Any plant-based product that claims to be cholesterol-free has no benefit over any other similar product, because none of them contains it. For example, corn oil has no benefit from a cholesterol standpoint over any other vegetable oil, because they are all free of cholesterol.
The Eat Right Ontario website has an excellent reference regarding nutrition labels. Make sure you check it out and clear up any questions you may have.