Health Claims… Beware Shoppers

Health Claims… Beware Shoppers

If you’re like most nutrition-minded shoppers, the word ‘healthy’ on the front of a package can be pretty appealing. It might also be the reason for buying a specific food product. Yet these days you’re on shaky nutritional ground if you rely on front-of-package claims like ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ to determine which soup, sauce, cereal (or other canned, bottled or baggage food) is the best choice. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) definition of ‘healthy’ could lead consumers in the wrong direction.

A recent paper published in ‘Acta Psychologica Sinica’ concluded that consumers aren’t very good at estimating how many calories are in any given food. They are easily mislead by things like health claims. When a food has claims about less salt, they found that consumers assume it has fewer calories. In other words, low salt equals healthy equals don’t worry about the calories, buy more. According to a survey published in January 2017, nearly 59% of consumers have a hard time understanding nutrition labels, stating that health claims are pretty handy for confusing consumers.

Below are the FDA approved health claims that are often used on the front package labeling and what they mean:

  • Low calorie — Less than 40 calories per serving.
  • Low cholesterol — Less than 20 mg of cholesterol and 2 gm or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Reduced — 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product.
  • Good source of — Provides at least 10% of the DV of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.
  • Calorie free — Less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Fat free/sugar free — Less than ½ gram of fat or sugar per serving.
  • Low sodium — Less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
  • Sodium-free – less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Unsalted, no salt added or without added salt – Made without the salt that’s normally used, but still contains the sodium that’s a natural part of the food itself.
  • High in — Provides 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.
  • High fiber — 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.
  • Lean (meat, poultry, seafood) – Ten grams of fat or less, 4 ½ grams of saturated fat and less than 95 mg cholesterol per 3 ounce serving.
  • Light – 1/3 fewer calories or ½ the fat of the usual food.
  • Healthy (individual food item) – Low fat, low saturated fat, less than 480 mg sodium, less than 95 mg cholesterol and at least 10 percent of the Daily Value of vitamins A and C, iron, protein, calcium and fiber.
  • Low fat – 3 grams fat or less per serving.

By definition, ‘light’ can be put on a product when it has 1/3 the calories less or ½ the fat than the usual food, but this does not mean necessarily that this specific food item is light or healthy, it is just better than its original counterpart.
‘Low calorie’ means less than 40 calories per serving, but the serving can be ridiculously small, so when eating the actual satisfying amount, this will lead to eating too many calories.
Also, when you see ‘fat free’, this only means that it is has ½ grams or less of fat per serving, but it can have additional sugar and calories.

In addition to all that, many products use the word ‘all natural’ to make their food more appealing. However, don’t be fooled. ‘All natural’ doesn’t mean all that much. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t define it, although food makers won’t get in trouble as long as so-labeled food doesn’t contain added colours, artificial flavours, or ‘synthetic substances’.

That means there’s room for interpretation.

So a food labeled ‘natural’ may contain preservatives or, in the case of raw chicken, be injected with sodium. Some ‘natural’ products will have high fructose corn syrup. Companies will argue that since it comes from corn, it’s healthy, when in fact it isn’t.

What can you do?

Although food labeling isn’t ideal, it still offers useful information. To get the best idea of what you’re buying you may want to do the following:

  • Trust, but verify. If the front of the package says ‘healthy’, check the Nutrition Facts on the back to make sure you’re not getting too many calories from sugars. Remember, each gram of sugar has four calories.
  • Do the math. The serving size on the package is likely to be an underestimate of what you’ll eat. For a more realistic idea of your potential calorie intake, multiply the number of calories in a single serving by the number of servings in the package. Then estimate how much of the package you’re likely to consume.
  • Cut back on packaged foods. If you make your own sauces, dressings and soups from fresh produce, spices and vegetable oils, you’ll have more assurance that you’re eating for good health — and you’ll probably get better flavours in the bargain.

In conclusion, food labels are a very useful tool when shopping and comparing products because they contain all the information about a certain product. However, informed consumers should know how to read them correctly and not fall in the health claim traps that are used by the food industry.

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