It should be relatively easy to make healthy decisions these days, right? With every visit to the grocery store there are more and more products on the shelves toting new claims of health, like “good for your heart!” or “now containing no unnecessary ingredients” or “all natural”. But do these words really mean that these products are actually good for you?
Sadly these labels can be very misleading. Although there are regulations for what needs to be listed on the ingredients and nutrition label, the packaging itself has more flexibility. Often the claims are more focused on what a company’s advertisers would like you to hear (and believe), rather than what is actually true.
Navigating a grocery store for the healthiest options can be daunting, but we’re here to help. We have found seven things to keep an eye out for while shopping for your week.
The Biggest Lies that Food Labels Tell You
Now that it’s grilling season this is a good one to notice. You’ll see this claim on bacon, hot dogs, and other meats. Although nitrates and other artificial preservatives do cause health issues, it doesn’t mean that the product doesn’t also contain other harmful ingredients (such as BHT, BHA, sulfates, and benzoates for example). Choose organic grass-fed meat whenever possible, and read your labels.
Fat-Free or Low-Fat
Although fat was once the enemy of a healthy diet, new research has shifted the issue to sugar content instead. It may feel strange to begin purchasing full-fat products again, but the high amount of sugar that is used to make low-fat and fat-free products taste satisfying is more damaging than the fat.
This statement is nothing farther from the truth. Lately food companies have been capitalizing on the “natural foods” movement and slapping this label on everything from crackers to chicken. The truth is that there is no legal definition to this term, which means it usually means absolutely nothing. If you want natural, seek products labeled as certified USDA organic or without artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.
Contains One Full Serving of Vegetables
Yes, vegetables are very good for you. However processing, pasteurization, and packaging removes any of those valuable vitamins and minerals that they contain. What’s the point of drinking a vegetable juice if you aren’t gaining any nutrition? Stick to fresh whole fruits and vegetables instead of packaged, canned, or bottled. Store fresh produce properly to make them last as long as possible!
Although this claim isn’t a lie, people have begun associating being “gluten-free” as also being healthy. However, those potato chips have always been made out of potatoes so they’ve probably always been gluten-free. Jellybeans? Also gluten-free. That doesn’t mean you should be stocking up on them.
Free Range Eggs
It would be lovely if all chickens were free to roam the hillside and eat whatever is natural to them. Sadly, “free range” just means that chickens have an open door to the outside world – they’re still mainly indoors and packed in tight, uncomfortable quarters. Seek eggs at a farmers market, or talk to your grocer about which eggs are from the most responsible farm. If the chicken is healthy and happy, their eggs will be too!
Made with Whole Grains
Whole grains are fantastic, however the only thing that companies need to label their product with this statement is putting a grain somewhere in that box. That means that even if the grain is processed with all nutrition completely destroyed (like enriched white or wheat flour), the product can still make that statement. Instead choose a product that says “100% Whole Grains.” The USDA has regulations for that type of labeling.
When it comes to food labels, don’t trust everything you read. Follow these tips and use your best judgement. Read the list of ingredients on the back of food products before you buy them. If there’s a long list that contains a myriad of words you can’t understand, it’s better to leave it on the shelf!
[Credit: Hilton Andersen, Charlotte. “Are You Falling for these 10 Food Label Lies?” Shape Magazine]