Before I became nutritionally savvyl, I used to be fooled by clever food marketing tactics. Do not be tricked into thinking processed and packaged foods are as "healthy" as they purport to be. Let’s examine some common sneaky labeling tricks used by food manufacturers:
1. “Fat Free”
The media and junk food industry try to convince us that eating “fat-free” foods will actually make us thin and healthy. I used to buy into this concept – and was left feeling confused when my daily ritual of eating fat-free licorice made me fat. So exactly why is the North American population getting fatter and fatter while consuming this “low-fat/fat-free” food?
Low-fat is a synonym for HIGH SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES (SUGARS!) Check the labels on low-fat/fat-free foods. Look how high the sugar and carbohydrate levels are! Simple carbohydrates (sugars) spike our insulin levels. This suppresses fat oxidation (i.e. fat burning), making eat easier for dietary fat to be stored whenever you eat in caloric surplus. Remember: Excessive caloric intake of any food is what makes you fat.
Key point: Whenever fat is removed from a food product, the only way the company can keep the food palatable is by overcompensating with more sugar, sodium, artificial sweeteners and other questionable chemicals.
2. “Made with Real Fruit”
How many times have you read “Made with Real Fruit” on the packaging of juice boxes, fruit snacks, gummy candies, cereal bars and even toaster pastries? These sugary foods are made with fruit puree. Their high sugar content; however, is not coming from the fruit, but rather from loads of added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup!
You are further ahead buying real fruit (apples, bananas) that provides fibre, vitamins and antioxidants.
RULE: If you want to increase your fruit intake, then buy fruit. If you want candy, then buy candy. Do not confuse the two.
3. “Made with Whole Grains”
Products such as bread, cereal, crackers and potato chips will proclaim themselves to be “multigrain,” “12-grain,” “made with whole grains” or “made with whole wheat.” At a first glance these seem fantastic because we all know that “whole grain” and “whole wheat” provide an excellent source of fibre and is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and digestive problems. But do not assume these labels mean the product is made with 100% whole wheat. For all we know, the food is made with only a “sprinkle” of grains, which may be whole or refined.
RULE: Look for “100% whole wheat." It will be the first ingredient on the package because ingredients are featured in order of quantity, from most to least. And remember that a good source of fiber has at least 3 grams per serving. Minimize consumption of products with refined white flour appearing in the list of ingredients. Note: you don't have to demonize white flour. Click here to learn how to factor discretionary calories into your diet without sabotaging your micronutrition.
4. “Fortified With...” or “A Good Source Of...”
Added nutrients camouflage junk food. Perhaps your toaster pastry has added fibre, but do not overlook its high sugar, salt, high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil content.
The latest trend among food manufacturers is adding fibre to foods such as ice cream, yogurt and even juice. But do not assume all fibre is created equal. The fibre being used in many foods are “purified powders” such as inulin, polydextrose and maltodextrin. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, these isolated unnatural fibres are unlikely going to lower your blood cholesterol or blood sugar, and some of them will not even promote regularity. Why purchase pasta made with refined flour and added inulin, when you can purchase 100% whole wheat pasta that contains traditional sources of heart and bowel-friendly fibre?
And perhaps your granola bar is labeled as a “good source of calcium." But did you know that a food product only needs to contain 10% of a specified nutrient to be labeled “a good source of…”? It turns out that eating one granola bar provides you with a mere 8% of your daily recommended amount of calcium. You would be further ahead eating cancer-fighting broccoli, which provides you with more calcium than a glass of milk, as well as fibre, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, vitamin K and B6, potassium, lutein and vitamin A.
RULE: Despite added omega-3, fibre and vitamins, junk food is still junk food! Buy the real deal instead: 100% whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans!
Remember: junk food is fine in moderation. Just make sure the overwhelming majority of your daily calories are nutrient-dense and loaded with fibre. The key is not to exceed your daily caloric limits if you don't want to gain fat!
5. Tactics to Disguise Sugar:
Manufacturers will use a combination of different sweeteners to fool you into thinking their products are healthy and low in sugar. They use sweeteners such “organic evaporated sugar cane juice” instead of refined white sugar. Although evaporated sugar cane juice does not undergo the same degree of processing as refined sugar does, it is still SUGAR! The same is true for cane sugar, dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. When a product contains multiple types of sweeteners, the total sugar content will not appear on the food label. Instead, it appears as several separate ingredients. Since many consumers do not know terms such as dextrose or sucrose, food companies use this labeling loophole to fool you into thinking their products contain less sugar.
RULE: Sweets don't have to be demonized. You can factor them into your daily discretionary calories, which represent ~10-20% of your total daily calories. Click here to learn how to start flexible dieting today.
Check the list of ingredients before believing the product contains very little sugar. Do not assume the product is "healthy" because the sugar is minimally processed or organic.
6. “Made with Zero Trans Fat”
It is no secret that trans fats increase your risk of coronary heart disease. Studies have demonstrated that trans fats increase your LDL “bad” cholesterol levels and lower HDL “good” cholesterol levels.
Food companies are required to disclose trans fat content on their packaging, which is why so many labels read “Zero Trans Fats!”. The problem is that many companies have replaced trans fats with saturated fats, which are just as responsible for contributing to heart disease!
RULE: Eliminate trans fats from your diet and keep saturated fat intake to a minimum. If you eat a diet high in saturated and trans fats, this will elevate your “bad” LDL cholesterol blood levels, which increases your risk of developing coronary heart disease.
In Canada, a company is legally permitted to label a product as “sodium-reduced” as long as the sodium content is reduced by 25%. But oftentimes, 25% is still not enough! Example:
- 1 cup of chicken broth contains 983 mg of sodium.
- 1 cup of “sodium-reduced” chicken broth contains 735 mg of sodium!!!
RULE: Take the label, “sodium-reduced” with a grain of salt, or in this case, a bag of salt. Look for products that state, “no added salt or low in sodium." Remember that we should only be consuming 1500 mg of sodium a day. Unfortunately, Canadians consume closer to 3400mg of sodium daily.
Before buying food labeled as “healthy,” read the ingredients and nutrition facts to get the whole story. Your best approach is to minimize consumption of processed food. If you want to learn how to factor discretionary calories into your diet without sabotaging your health or fat loss, then please click here to learn my approach to flexible dieting.
For your better health,
Dr. Sara Solomon