Supermarkets are filled with unhealthy health foods. These are foods and beverages that are marketed to make you believe that they’re a diet-friendly or better-for-you option but that isn’t always the case.
“Made with Whole Grains,” “Fat-free,”, “Low-fat,” “All-Natural,” “Sugar Free,” and “High Fiber.” If you’re looking for these claims on food labels you purchase, you may be getting fooled into purchasing foods and beverages that might not be as diet-friendly as you think.
Below are five of the most commonly confused terms used on foods labels.
Overly Processed Whole Grains
I know “Overly Processed” is a bit ambiguous because there’s no definition of overly processed. What I mean here are chips, crackers, cookies, otherwise white breads that have some form of whole grain added to them so that the package can make a “Made with Whole Grain,” “Contains whole grains,” or some other type of whole-grain claim.
Natural whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley and others are the foods that research shows helps reduce risk for certain cancers, heart disease and can help keep you thinner. They probably do so because they are calorie-controlled, have natural fiber and antioxidants and contain no added sugars. So don’t think that a cracker, cookie, cereal bar or even a doughnut is healthy and that you can eat more of them because they’re made with whole grains. Many people will eat foods that they normally wouldn’t because they believe that “whole grains” means it’s healthy. That’s not always the case.
Pumped Up with Man-Made Fibers
Fiber is one of the most important ingredients to have in any diet and most of us only get about half of what we need daily. (We should all get at least 25 grams per day and current intake is about 14 grams per day.) Fiber can help lower cholesterol, reduce GI transit time so that it provides GI benefits and research shows that it can help keep your weight in check. However, like whole grains, the vast research on high-fiber diets is based on food naturally rich in fiber—fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds and whole grains—not sweet treats that have been pumped up with man-made fibers. In fact, the research on the health benefits of synthetic fibers is still very limited and points to some GI benefits but not necessarily any weight loss benefits.
Like whole-grain foods, you need to look at the ingredient lists of foods that claim to be high in fiber. If any type of sugar is one of the first three ingredients, then you’re eating a treat not a health food. Try to make sure the bulk (no pun intended) of your fiber comes from the real deals listed above.
Sugar Free Foods
Just because a food is labeled as “sugar-free” doesn’t mean it’s going to help you magically lose weight. In fact, most foods that are labeled as sugar-free are often unhealthy foods to begin with like sodas, candy and other treats. What manufacturers do is replace the traditional sweeteners with blends of sugar substitutes—natural or synthetic. The research is still mixed on whether or not using sugar substitutes will help you lose weight. Many researchers believe that they just intensify your desire for sweet foods and after eating sugar substitutes, it’s hard to be satisfied with the mild sweetness of, say an apple, banana or orange. I have seen many women who can’t quit using sugar substitutes because foods and beverages are no longer sweet enough without them.
Americans used to be “fat-phobic” as they assumed that eating fat would make them fat. That isn’t the case, when the fat eaten is of high quality and is unsaturated. Fat-free cookies (anyone remember SnackWell’s?) and other junk food just means that added sugars are used to replace some of the fat that’s been taken out of the product. Researchers are starting to believe that excess sugar in the diet is more harmful than more fat. We already eat more than twice as much added sugars as we need, so read those food labels of fat-reduced foods and make sure that sugar isn’t one of the first three ingredients.
“Natural” & “All-Natural” Foods
We’ve covered this several times but it’s worth mentioning again: Natural means next-to-nothing and certainly has nothing to do with how nutritious a food is. The FDA says that foods can be labeled as “natural” if they don’t contain synthetic additives, flavorings or coloring agents. You can find “All Natural” claims on foods that contain high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified ingredients, gums and all kinds of other ingredients that most people wouldn’t think is consistent with the term “natural.” Look well beyond the “natural” claims on foods if you want to ensure that you’re buying something that’s actually good for you.
Check out this article to find out how to read a food label for the real facts that matter.
–Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD