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The Claims Game: Decoding Confusing Nutrition Labels

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

It shouldn’t take an advanced degree to make sense of food products in the grocery store—but somehow making great choices isn’t as easy as it seems. A quick sweep through the aisles is likely to turn up scads of foods that claim to boost your health and improve your nutrition status. Unfortunately, most of the fancy labeling is a result of savvy advertising trying to coerce you to buy one of the many choices crowding the shelves. And though the claims you see aren’t exactly false (because label laws prevent untrue claims), you’re often led to believe a product is healthier than it really is.

So what’s a health-minded man to do? Our best advice is to skip the splashy label claims on the front and go directly to the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list on the back of the package—that’s where the real truth lies. If you remember the basics—a healthy diet includes a variety of lean meats, low fat diary, whole grains and fruits and vegetables, while keeping calories, saturated and trans fat as well as sodium and sugar to a minimum—while you read the label, you’re more likely to end up with something worth buying.

For a little extra help in the claims department, we’ve pulled together a list of some of the most common label statements and have cracked the code for you.

All Natural
According to the Mintel Global New Products Database, words like “natural” and “organic” were among some of the most frequent claims to turn up on new food and beverages in 2008. While these claims are enough to woo many customers into buying a “healthier” product, don’t follow the pack and become entranced by the “natural” spell at first blush. Just because something claims to be natural doesn’t mean it’s better for you: double cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, and triple chocolate fudge ice cream can be made with “all natural” ingredients. According to the FDA, as long as a product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, it can be called “natural.”

Organic claims are tricky to navigate, too. While there are some organic foods that are better for your health than conventional choices (for example, some produce like apples, peaches or grapes), an organic label does not mean that a product is always a better choice. Take, for example, organic cheese snack crackers. While the ingredients may be organic, and that’s a bonus, they can still be high in fat, and low in nutrients. You’d probably be surprised at the number of people loading their carts up in the health food store with organic, high fat, low nutrient junk food—thinking they’re doing their health a favor. If you’re committed to eating organic, take care to look beyond the claim to make sure what you’re getting is a truly healthy food.

Contains Fiber for Digestive Health!
In a perfect world, adding a single food to your diet would improve your health—or fix your digestive woes. But that’s a lot to ask of your yogurt (or whatever else). While the added fiber might help, it’s not the best way to add more bulk to your diet. As a general rule of thumb, don’t depend on fiber-added products to ratchet up your intake to the recommended 38 grams per day. It’s always better to get the fiber you need from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, instead of added to juices or other foods. Building up your fiber with produce and whole grains gives you the bonus of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that fiber-added foods simply can’t. Plus, foods with fiber added to them are often more expensive than their ordinary counterparts (say, regular yogurt vs. fiber-added yogurt). Use the cash you save to buy leaner cuts of meat, high quality produce—or a new music download to wake up your workout.

No High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Poor HFCS. Before you raise your brow, let us explain: HFCS is no innocent additive, but it’s taking the brunt of the bad press other empty-calorie sweeteners deserve, too. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that there is no link to obesity exclusive to consuming products with HFCS. Plus, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog organization, states that HFCS is no worse for you than regular sugar. But buyer beware: Trouble ensues when manufacturers proudly advertise that their product does not have HFCS (that’s good), but make no mention that it contains another type of sweetener that drives up the calorie content just as HFCS would (that’s not good). Your best defense against marketing trickery is to take a good look at the total calories. If it’s going to require another 30 minutes on the treadmill to burn off the empty calories from sugar, honey, or HFCS, make another choice. The bottom line is, keep a watchful eye on how much you take in of all sweeteners since they add calories—but no nutrition—to your diet.

Packed with 15 Vitamins and Minerals!
Don’t let a laundry list of vitamins and minerals sway your grocery buying decisions. True, the product may contain an impressive number of vitamins and minerals—but just how much of each does it contain? The percent is probably negligible. Even a childhood favorite (ok, so maybe an adulthood one, too) like toaster tarts will claim to be a good source of a number of vitamins and minerals—but if your aim is to be health-conscious, you know that’s not a good breakfast, despite the glitzy claim. If it’s extra vitamins and minerals you’re after, a simple multivitamin (FYI: If your multi contains 100% folic acid, it is recommended that men take one every other day because of the folic acid/prostate cancer link) gives you enough of the extra coverage you need, rather than depending on additions from vitamin and mineral-enhanced grocery products.

Made with Real Fruit! (or Whole Grain!)
Your simple tip-off to label claim trickery is the key word “with”—if you see it splashed across the front of a package, you can bet that food won’t bring you much closer to your daily fruit or whole grain goals. In fact, it’s more likely that other ingredients like sugar or fillers trump the amount of actual fruit in foods such as cereal bars, yogurt or snacks. And as for whole grains, you can believe they are in the product somewhere—but probably just a tiny percentage. Food laws don’t require manufacturers to disclose how much of the good stuff is actually in the box, so that leaves a lot of room for you to imagine it brimming with healthy grains. Think of it this way: most people wouldn’t buy something that that claimed “Made with one percent whole grain!”, but plenty of people buy products that sport ambiguous claims like, “Made with whole grain.” Your best bet for nutritious products: Ignore the claims on the front of the package and just read the ingredients list, looking for 100% whole grain first or second, or name fruit at the top of the list, way above preservatives and sugar.

With these tips in mind, you should be ready to tackle the grocery aisles without fear. Go forth and conquer!