If you’re embarrassed to hold up traffic in the grocery aisle because you’re debating between four versions of tomato sauce, wondering which one is healthier, don’t worry; almost everyone else is doing the same. Nearly nine out of 10 people say they're willing to pay more for healthy food, and (you're not going to believe this) companies are in a mad scramble to get that money.
One of the fastest ways to a consumer's pocket is through "healthy" labels. But one issue is that the labels food producers slap on their products are hardly informative. Exactly what does "all-natural" mean? Is this cereal really a top-notch source of fiber?!
It wasn’t always like this. People used to be able to skip through the grocery store throwing whatever food in their baskets that they actually liked. Nutrition labels only started to appear in the 1970s (thanks, mom and dad), and that eventually led to processed food companies waging war over market share through various claims on the front of their products. Despite efforts at regulation, many of those labels are at least kind of bullshit. Here are some of the big ones that aren’t quite as good as they sound.
This is officially one of the fluffiest food labels out there. There's so much confusion over what it means that the FDA is looking at whether or not it should define it more formally. The agency acknowledges the problem posed by processed foods, though: "From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives." When you're in the grocery store, you can basically assume this word is meaningless.
"Good source of" something you should have in your diet
A cereal bar that’s a good source of fiber isn’t going to make you really healthy, or even make you poop well. "Good source" can actually mean that a food has as little as 10% of the daily value of the nutrient, in which case you’d need to scarf down ten of those babies to meet the recommendation. This would get you close to your calories for the day and constitute the opposite of a balanced diet, plus some bathroom issues, probably. When something is "high in," "rich in," or an "excellent source" of something, on the other hand, we’re talking at least 20% of the recommendation -- a little better, but still pretty bogus.
"Made with" something healthy
When something is made with a credibility-inspiring ingredient that you’ve actually heard of, ditch the optimism and take that very literally. "Made with" is totally different from "made of." General Mills was actually sued because, as it turns out, their strawberry fruit roll-ups -- "Made with real fruit!" -- were not made of strawberries but with a real fruit ingredient, in the form of concentrated pear juice. Nothing resembling the plump cartoon strawberries on the box, sorry.
In this case, "fat free" food actually has no fat in it. But the bullshit part of it is that many people assume that choosing a box labeled "fat free" will mean that YOU won’t put on any extra fat, either. Unfortunately, that's false. This label is sort of a vestige of when we were under the impression that fat was the culprit behind obesity and heart disease. But foods low in fat are often high in sugar and other carbs, which scientists have found can actually be more problematic. The fat-free and low-fat foods are also often more processed and contain additional preservatives -- because how do you think they took a major component out of the food and still made it work?
A rustic-looking box of nice, brown "free-range" eggs may conjure up images of fluffy chickens frolicking out in the sun. But the requirement is only that the chickens have some undefined amount of access to an outdoor area. The situation is almost definitely less idyllic than what you’re imagining, so you either want to pay the premium for organic -- which is more regulated -- or resign yourself to the fact that your wallet isn’t big enough to stop animal cruelty and go for the cheapest eggs around, because they might be just about the same.
"Zero trans fat"
While a moderate amount of fat in your foods is actually totally fine, and may mean choosing less processed products, trans fat is something you really want to avoid. Trans fats are the Frankensteins of fat: liquid oils that have been converted to solid fat. They’re so unhealthy that the FDA is working to ban them on a national level.
At this point though, a food that’s labeled with a proud "zero trans fat" can still have half a gram of the stuff in it. That means that you’ll have to turn over the package, pull out your magnifying glass, and inspect the ingredients for a mention of "partially hydrogenated oil."
This one is apparently so complicated that the Whole Grain Council had to create a web page called "Identifying Whole Grain Products." The key thing, though, is that if bread is "whole grain" or "made with whole grains" it could be white bread with a bit of quinoa sprinkled in. If you want to be sure that you’re actually getting some health benefits in there, a "100% whole grain" stamp is really the only safe bet.
"Organic" processed food
This is a strange one, since the Department of Agriculture has an established definition of organic food, and if something has the USDA Organic seal, it's actually been verified as organic. BUT: when it comes to processed foods, or products with several ingredients, "organic" doesn’t necessarily mean "100% organic." Up to 5% of a product's ingredients (not including salt and water) may be nonorganic, and a package can still have that pretty "Organic" label slapped on it.
"May reduce the risk of..."
When a food company wants to say that a food might prevent a specific disease, that’s called a "health claim." Luckily, the FDA has come up with very concrete sentences that food companies can put on packages. For example, here’s a trendy one that they label with an exciting "NEW" on their site: "Psyllium husk may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, although the FDA has concluded that there is very little scientific evidence for this claim."
This is clearly helpful, especially since you probably have no idea what psyllium husk is, and since it looks like it may not even protect us from diabetes. On the other hand, you have some pretty broad allowable statements -- consider the fact that gum with xylitol can claim that it may reduce cavities, but if you drink three sodas a day, that stick of gum probably won't help you. This is the ultimate noncommittal claim, since a food could just as credibly claim the reverse. Imagine a gum package loudly proclaiming, "May not reduce your risk of cavities!"
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