All natural. High in fiber. Lightly sweetened.
You might think that you're making a healthy choice when you purchase food products that carry such labels. But the truth is that these labels – and similar terms used by the food industry to sell products as more nutritious – don't mean what you'd think.
In fact, such labels mean almost nothing at all, from a regulatory standpoint, explains registered dietitian Nicolette Pace, founder of NutriSource
in New York.
"Food labels are misleading in the fact that they use terms that don't actually mean what they say," she tells Newsmax Health. "Consumers are confused by food labels because they trust what is written on the package and many feel that the wording suggests that a product is healthier than it really is."
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She adds that even the calories and nutrients in labels often represent just one serving, which may not be clear to consumers.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates and defines food labels. Some do require manufacturers to meet certain standards – such as those labeled "organic." But Pace notes manufacturers continue to invent new labels that don't have any real definition, but are designed to convince you that the foods you're buying are a healthier option.
At the same time, most consumers have no idea what the FDA-sanctioned labels actually mean, since they are not explained on food packaging. The net result: Food labels may do more to confuse than enlighten consumers, Pace argues.
With that in mind, here's are six of the most misleading food label terms, along with useful consumer information provided by Pace and from the FDA's guidelines:
1. "Natural or "All natural." This common label means that it probably doesn't contain a lot of processed foodstuffs, artificial colors, flavors, or additives. But the truth is the FDA has no specific definition for "natural" or "all natural" labels, which makes it hard for consumers to separate highly processed foods from those that are not.
Consumer tip: See how long the ingredients list is. The fewer the ingredients, the less processed the food generally is, and the more likely "natural" ingredients are primary elements of what you're buying.
2. "Lightly sweetened." The implication here is that the product is either a low-sugar item or has very little added sweeteners. But FDA guidelines have no standards for such claims, which means such products can, in fact, be loaded with natural or artificial sugars and still be labeled "lightly sweetened."
Consumer tip: Buy foods that have few or no ingredients with an "–ose" ending — such as sucrose, sucralose, and fructose – which are actually sugars and sweeteners.
3. "Made with." This term implies that the ingredient mentioned – such as a real (not artificial) flavoring – is a primary component of the food product. But the truth is it only means at least a little bit of the ingredient is contained in the product, with no FDA requirement to spell out how much of it is actually in the food.
Consumer tip: Check to see if the ingredient is at or near the top of the ingredients list. If so, that's an indication the food product contains more of it than if it is listed near the bottom.
4. "Low," "light," and "reduced." You'd think products that carry such labels have fewer calories, lower levels of fat, salt, or sugar. But all this means is that the product has less of that stuff than the original variety. The FDA allows foods that contain half the fat or one-third the calories of the original version to be called "light." Food manufacturers can also say their products are "reduced sodium" if they have 25 percent less than the original or other similar foods. But Pace notes when companies remove fat and salt from foods, they often replace it with sugar and additives.
Consumer tip: Compare any product with "low," "light," or "reduced" nutritional label with the original and similar products to see how they truly differ and what new ingredients have been added to compensate for the newer variety. Sometimes, you’re better off going with the full-fat, regular-calorie item, to avoid food additives.
5. "Free." This is perhaps the most misleading of food labels. The implication is that the product contains none of the ingredient in questions – be it fat, sugar, or salt. But the truth is "free" actually means "very little," when it comes to guidelines allowed by the FDA. Such products can contain up to 5 calories, 0.5 grams of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium, or 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, according to the FDA.
Consumer tip: Side-by-side comparisons of food products can reveal the actual contents and guide you to a smarter decision.
6. "High in fiber." Thinkproducts that carry such a label are loaded with natural fiber? Not necessarily. For a food to be labeled high in fiber, FDA guidelines say it must provide 5 grams of fiber or more per serving – but it doesn't have to be natural.
Consumer tip: Choose products with whole grains listed high on the ingredients list. If they're among the first few on the list, the fiber is probably natural and plentiful.
Pace says she believes the FDA should make food labeling more clear.
"It has been proven that people made healthier choices when the nutrition labels were altered to show the calorie count of an entire package, instead of just one serving," she tells Newsmax Health. "Additionally, if they make the labels slightly larger and more visible, consumers will pay more attention to the ingredients."
In the absence of such changes, she recommends keeping in mind that a label is often nothing more than a marketing tool and that truth in advertising isn't a top priority for some food manufacturers.
"I recommend that consumers constantly remind themselves that what is shown on the label may not be what they are actually consuming," she says. "They have to remember that they must pay attention to serving sizes. Additionally, consumers should familiarize themselves with what all of the terms mean so that they truly understand what they are consuming."
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