ShopSmart: Food Label Tricks and Truths
What’s Really in the Stuff You’re Eating? ShopSmart Debunks Food Label Myths
YONKERS, NY — Food marketers know that we all want food that’s good for us and tastes good too. But all too often they use come-ons to decorate the fronts of packages—with claims like “heart healthy” or “natural”—that easily trick us into thinking products are more healthful than they actually are. So what can you do to avoid these sneaky food label tricks? The December 2009 issue of ShopSmart magazine, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, investigates common food label tricks used by manufacturers and how to navigate past them.
“‘Less sodium’ doesn’t necessarily mean low sodium, ‘trans-fat-free’ doesn’t mean zero trans fats, and ‘natural’ doesn’t mean much of anything but, if you’re in a rush and not paying attention, it’s easy to get faked out,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief, ShopSmart. “The good news is that ShopSmart does the work for you with a guide to help you spot bogus labels fast.”
The ShopSmart Food Label feature also includes a rundown of the latest nutrition seals of approval, a clip-and-shop pullout and easy label-reading tips.
TRICKS vs. TRUTH: 10 Sneaky Label Traps to Avoid
- TRICK: A ‘Whole Grain’ label sounds like you’re getting a good dose of fiber. TRUTH: A reasonably good source of fiber has at least 3 grams per serving. Refined white flour shouldn’t appear, or it should show up near the end. However, the predominant ingredient in a package of Sara Lee buns is enriched, bleached flour, with only 1 gram of fiber per serving.
- TRICK: Added nutrients camouflage junk. TRUTH: You might get a reasonable amount of fiber per serving from Pop-Tarts with added fiber, but it comes along with high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil. Even with some fiber or vitamins thrown in, junk food is still junk.
- TRICK: ‘Made with’ highlights a minor ingredient. TRUTH: Terms “made with” or “made from” are virtually meaningless because they don’t tell you how much of an ingredient was actually used. For example, the first mention of fruit in the ingredients list for Mixed Berry Nutri-Grain bars is “apple purée concentrate,” after high-fructose corn syrup, glycerin, and sugar.
- TRICK: ‘Less’ is more than you might think. TRUTH: Less sodium cans of Hormel Chili have less than the regular version, but it still packs 710 mg per serving, about 30 percent of your daily allotment. “Less” or “reduced” just means it has one-quarter less of a nutrient or of calories than the regular version.
- TRICK: The label makes it sound like it’s a good-for-you food, but it’s not. TRUTH: Just because items like Welch’s fruit snacks are fat-free doesn’t make it a healthful food. You are better off with real fruit which is also fat-free and far more nutritious than candylike fruit snacks.
- TRICK: Claims make the food sound like it will cure what ails you. TRUTH: The FDA says General Mills crossed the line by implying that Cheerios works like a cholesterol-lowering drug with the ‘helps lower cholesterol’ label. And Dannon recently settled a class-action lawsuit in which it was charged with misleading advertising claiming that Activia will get your digestive system back on track.
- TRICK: It’s promoted as a special diet food, but it’s not special. TRUTH: Claims on a box, like Special K’s “Drop a jean size in 2 weeks,” don’t make it a diet food. You could drop a few pounds if you follow the Special K plan which limits two meals a day to 300-calories. But the type of food doesn’t matter and nutrition-wise you could do a lot better than Special K, especially if you don’t want to walk around hungry. (Hint: A little more protein would help.)
- TRICK: It says ‘natural’ but it contains unnatural stuff. TRUTH: The FDA doesn’t have an official definition for the term ‘natural,’ though it recently said that natural foods should be free of artificial or synthetic substances, including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). While Snapple has replaced HFCS with sugar in its new “all natural” bottled drinks, the canned peach green tea drink claiming “natural flavors” has HFCS. So check the ingredients to be sure.
- TRICK: The label misleadingly advertises zero bad stuff. TRUTH: If you see ’no trans fats’ on the label, don’t assume you’re in the clear. Check the ingredients for partially hydrogenated oils, a source of trans fat, which is in Country Crock butter alternative. The problem: the FDA defines trans-fat-free as less than 0.5 gram per serving. That’s not a lot, but it can add up, especially if you eat a few pats of this butter substitute every day.
- TRICK: ‘Good Source’ might not be great. TRUTH: Foods need only supply 10 percent of a specified nutrient to be labeled a “good source” Quaker granola bars, labeled a “good source of calcium,” have just 8 percent of your daily calcium needs or less than one-quarter of the amount in an 8-ounce glass of milk. That means those bars don’t even meet the standard if you eat just one daily. Quaker gets around the issue with tiny print under the calcium claim that says “10% daily value per 40 grams,” which is 1⅔ bars.
Launched in Fall 2006 by Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, ShopSmart draws upon Consumer Reports’ celebrated tradition of accepting no advertisements and providing unbiased product reviews. The magazine features product reviews, shopping tips on how to get the most out of products and “best of the best” lists. ShopSmart is ideal for busy shoppers who place a premium on time. ShopSmart has a newsstand price of $4.99 and is available nationwide at major retailers including Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Borders, Kroger, Safeway and Publix.
ShopSmart is now available 10 times a year. Subscribe at www.ShopSmartmag.org.