By Melissa Bell
The plastic soup can looks as if it’s a single-size meal, a healthful lunch option for one hurried customer. But the nutrition label on the back says otherwise. Gummy fruit snacks show a shower of strawberries on the label, which reads “naturally fruit flavored.” Customers would be hard-pressed to find any strawberries in the ingredient list.
Because of rising obesity rates and a push for more healthy living, many new products in the supermarket claim to be low-fat, immunity-boosting, vitamin-added foods. Some brands have become more healthful. But many manufacturers are promoting a product’s healthful ingredients while playing down its less nutritional qualities. It is a food label sleight-of-hand that Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit advocacy group, calls a “rip-off” for consumers.
“There are deceptive claims all over the place: low-fat, high-fiber, light. Definitions are used arbitrarily,” Silverglade said, adding that the unclear labeling is “dangerous for public health.”
Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said last year that the creation of a uniform front-of-package symbol would be one of the agency’s priorities in the coming years. “Some nutritionists have questioned whether this information is more marketing-oriented than health-oriented,” Hamburg said then. “Judging from some of the labels that we’ve seen, we think that this is a valid concern.”
In March, the FDA sent warning letters to 17 food manufacturers, including Dreyer’s, Nestle and Pom, insisting that they change wording on their labels. And recently Michelle Obama and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity recommended that labeling on food packages be more clearly defined.
Those label changes could take years to go into effect. Until then, be wary of the words and phrases you’re reading in the grocery aisles. Here’s a cheat sheet to the marketing mayhem.
‘Natural’ or ‘organic’
A company can use the term “natural” to mean just about anything. Consumers often assume it implies “organic,” but that’s not the case. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has strict guidelines for a company to meet before it can label a food organic. Example: Silk Soymilk introduced non-organic soybeans to its product line and switched its organic soy milk to a green box. The product that is labeled “original” has the old red packaging with one small change: The word “organic” has been replaced by “natural.” Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit organic-industry watchdog group, said many grocery stores stock the “original” product among organic foods, not realizing the change had occurred.
‘Made with whole wheat’
If it does not say 100 percent whole wheat or 100 percent whole grain, then be wary: The food may contain only a trivial amount of whole grain. Example: Thomas’ Hearty Grains English Muffins lists “unbleached enriched wheat flour” as its primary ingredient. That is just a fancy phrase for ordinary white flour.
To use the word “healthy,” companies must meet certain FDA regulations per serving size. Some companies increase the number of serving sizes per product, rather than change the ingredients. If a person eats the entire jar or drinks the whole bottle, it would not meet the regulations. Mike Bishop, the executive director of Wellspring, a weight-loss program for young adults, said the manipulation of serving size is the most dangerous problem in food-labeling confusion. “You’ve really got to be careful,” Bishop said. “Is that a realistic serving size for me? Or am I going to eat a lot more than that?”
Example: Healthy Choice Minestrone Soup appears to be a single serving of soup, but the nutrition panel says it contains about two servings. If a person consumes it in one sitting, it would not meet the FDA requirements on healthy sodium content.
‘Support’ or ‘a source of’
These are loose terms that insinuate the food helps protect against a popular health concern. The latest trend is a lack of Vitamin D, because of concerns that a deficiency in Vitamin D may play a role in autism. If a food says it is an “excellent source of Vitamin D,” it may only mean: As a part of a normal diet, in which you get vitamins and minerals, this food will provide a minute amount of Vitamin D. Example: Kashi Heart to Heart Instant Oatmeal says it “supports healthy arteries” because it includes green tea, but Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said there is no FDA-approved evidence that green tea protects arteries.
‘High in fiber’
Many foods contain “isolated fibers” to boost the fiber content. But it is unlikely these isolated fibers, usually inulin, polydextrose and maltodextrin, provide the same health benefits as “intact fibers,” such as whole beans or oats. Example: Fiber One Oats & Chocolate bars say they provide 35 percent of daily fiber, but the fiber comes mainly from chicory root extract, which contains inulin.
‘Zero trans fat’
In 2003 the FDA announced that trans fat was a contributing factor to coronary heart disease. If a product says it contains few or zero grams of trans fat, look at the nutrition label. Often it will be loaded with saturated fat, which can be just as unhealthful as trans fat. Example: Edy’s Dibs Nestle Crunch bite-size frozen snacks make the zero trans fat claim on the front of the label, but the Nutrition Facts panel shows it has 17 grams of saturated fat, 80 percent of the daily value of fat a person should consume.
‘Naturally fruit flavored’
Some snacks picture fresh fruit on the front label and state they are “naturally fruit flavored!” But often the real fruit contained in the package comes from a small amount of pear juice concentrate, a highly sugared form of fruit. Example: Betty Crocker Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers are made primarily from pear juice and contain about 12 grams of added sugar.
‘Contains antioxidants,’ ‘contains vitamins,’ ‘contains omega-3s’
Sometimes foods are fortified with nutrients, such as orange juice with calcium. But fortifying a junk food does not offset the food’s negative qualities. Example: Froot Loops says it “now provides fiber.” But the 26 grams of sugar in each 3/4 -cup serving of the cereal could have far more negative effects than any benefit from the slim amount of added fiber.