11 Food Labels That Sound Healthier Than They Are

Understanding food labels can get tricky. Read our expert tips on how to shop wiser.
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Health Halo: Trans-Fat Free

The Facts: In 2004, when the FDA confirmed that trans fats are more harmful than saturated fats, companies began removing them from their products. They did this, however, by using more saturated fats-such as palm, palm kernel and coconut oil-which are the main cause of high cholesterol, according to the American Heart Association. Shop Smart: Read the fine print on all types of fats before chowing down. The American Heart Association recommends getting less than 16 grams of saturated fat and less than 2 grams of trans fat daily. And remember: By law, a product can contain up to .5g of trans fat and still claim it contains none. While that may not seem like much, when you consider that many of these products are snack items that contain multiple servings, those seemingly small doses can add up fast.
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Health Halo: Made with Real Fruit

The Facts: Unless a product says it’s made from 100% fruit juice, there’s a chance it contains very little fruit at all. Be especially aware of fruit juice "cocktails," says Milton Stokes, MPH, RD, CDN, owner of One Source Nutrition, particularly those made with cranberry juice, which often contain more water and sugar than actual cranberries. Shop Smart: Limit yourself to 4 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice a day, recommends says David Grotto, RD, author of 101 Optimal Life Foods and founder of Nutrition Housecall. And as an additional precaution, check the label for added sweeteners, such as high-fructose corn syrup and cane juice. "Displaying the word "fruit" predominately on the front of a juice bottle can be deceiving for consumers because regular fruit juice often has the same amount of calories per ounce as regular soda," says Grotto.

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Health Halo: High Fiber

The Facts: "Not all fiber is created equal," says Elisa Zied, RD, registered dietitian and author of Nutrition At Your Fingertips. Some foods, especially snack foods and breakfast bars, fail to mention that the fiber in their products is artificially added, which research shows may not carry the same health benefits (such as lowering cholesterol or blood sugar) as naturally occurring fiber. Plus, they may also contain large quantities of fat and sugar. Shop Smart: Women need 21-25 grams of fiber daily. Get it from 100% whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans, which also contain a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals, says Zied.

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Health Halo: All-Natural

The Facts: The FDA doesn’t regulate the term "natural," meaning these products can still contain artificial or added ingredients like citric acid, high fructose corn syrup, and food colorings. They may also originate from concentrate, according to a Center for Science in the Public Interest report. And keep in mind: Even if a product is free of artificial ingredients and additives, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. "Sugar and salt are natural, and products that market themselves as ‘natural’ can often be high in fat and cholesterol too," Grotto. Shop Smart: When choosing between two products, don’t automatically grab the "natural" box with a bucolic picture of a farm on it. Check the nutrition label for fat, calories, sugar, etc… as you normally would. And avoid products that contain ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Health Halo: Reduced Fat

The Facts: If a product is labeled reduced fat, it only means that it has 25 percent less fat than the original version-not that it contains a healthy amount of fat. The other problem with this, says Zied, is that these kinds of products tend to have more sugar, which could be worse for you than the saturated fats taken out. Shop Smart: When choosing between a regular product and its reduced-fat counterpart, compare the fat, calories, sugar and ingredient lists. If a product contains less saturated or trans fat (but still a high amount), and added sweeteners, you may be better off with the original version. This tends to be the case most often with salad dressing, peanut butter, yogurt, crackers and packaged snack foods. For instance, "the fat in peanut butter is an unsaturated fat, a fat that is good for your heart in moderation," says Stokes.

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Health Halo: Low-Sugar

The Facts: Many foods, such as fruit and yogurt, are naturally high in sugar but also contain a variety of nutrients that make them healthy. Other products -snack foods especially -contain copious amounts of added sugars, which provide plenty of extra calories but no extra nutrients. To get a better idea of what kinds of added sugar-and how much of it-are in a product, look at the ingredients list, says Zied. Shop Smart: Avoid products that list sugar as the first ingredient (which means it’s the most plentiful) or list multiple sugars throughout the list-which is a trick companies use so they don’t have to list a sugar first. "Any type of syrup or word that ends in "-ose" (like sucrose, fructose, and dextrose) should be a red flag," warns Zied.
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Health Halo: Multi-Grain

But…: If you are looking for a healthy bread, chip or cracker, forget the boxes that advertise multi-grains, says Grotto. Multi-grain is an ambiguous term that can also include refined grains. Foods made with whole grains are a better alternative since they contain more fiber and nutrients, along with less fat. Shop Smart: Even products marked "whole grain" can be unhealthy. The manufacturer may have used very few whole grains and added an artificial coloring to make the food look dark and wholesome. Choose foods labeled 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat or have a whole grain, such a whole corn, listed first on its nutrition label.
Whole Grains Council

Health Halo: Fresh Fruit

The Facts: Because fresh fruit often travels over 1,000 miles before hitting the shelves (especially when it isn’t in season), it’s exposed to more oxygen, which affects the taste and its levels of health-boosting nutrients, notes Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, in her new book, Read It Before You Eat It. Frozen fruit actually provides a bit of an advantage because it’s picked at its peak ripeness rather than prematurely like its fresh counterparts. Shop Smart: If you choose to find your fruits in the frozen aisle, proceed with caution by checking the labels for no added sugars, recommends Taub-Dix.

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Health Halo: Free-Range

The Facts: Free-range is another label that translates to higher prices for consumers without defined nutritional gains. While it may conjure up images of chickens soaking up the sun on a bright green pasture, manufacturers who use this claim are only required to let the animals outside for an "undetermined period each day," which sometimes is only for a short period of time, says Taub-Dix. And their outdoor access could be nothing more than a patch of grass or slab of pavement. Cage-free chickens don’t have it any better, according to the Humane Society. Most live in large flocks that never go outside, have their feed controlled, and often have their beaks burned off to thwart aggressive behavior. Shop Smart: Look for poultry products labeled Certified Humane Raised & Handled. This designation shows the birds were raised with sufficient and clean space, shelter, food, and water and without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.

Certified Humane Program

Health Halo: Organic

The Facts: Some research shows that organic products aren’t necessarily healthier or even more nutritious, says Zied. According to the Organic Foods Production Act, organic simply means that non-essential pesticides and fertilizers were not used to harvest the product. Some products labeled "organic" are wholesome, but others are loaded with sugar, fat and sodium. Shop Smart: According to a report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people are paying premium prices for organic products because they think they are healthier. "If you can afford to shop organic that’s great, but have the right reasons for doing so," recommends Zied. If you’re worried about pesticides but are on a budget, limit your organic purchases to the 12 fruits and vegetables the Environmental Working Group considers the most contaminated. Topping the charts: celery. Check out the full list here. And be sure to look for the green and white USDA organic logo, which ensures the food has been produced, processed and certified to national organic standards.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Health Halo: Supports Immunity

The Facts: In order for food companies to claim that their product can help prevent a specific disease, they must submit scientific evidence to the FDA which can take up to 540 days to get approved. However, an increasing number of manufacturers are using language that falls outside the law, essentially allowing them to make unsubstantiated health claims, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For instance, companies cannot say that a nutrient in their product "helps reduce the risk of cold and flu" without FDA approval. They can, however, say it "supports immunity." Shop Smart: No single food product is going to ward off a specific illness. That’s not to say some of the foods making these claims are unhealthy-but as with any other packaged food, you need to read the nutrition facts label. In the end you’ll do best by your body by sticking to a wholesome diet, low in sugar, fat, salt and artificial ingredients.
kristian sekulic

First Published Mon, 2010-07-26 13:48

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