9 “Healthy” Food Labels You Should Ignore

Apr 08, 2016 04:51 AM EDT | By Mark Jason Alcala

Food Prices Continue To Rise At Alarming Rate
MIAMI, FL - JULY 08: People shop in a grocery store July 8, 2014 in Miami, Florida. According to reports, food prices have risen significantly, with ground beef rising 10.4 percent, pork 12.7 percent and oranges 17 percent from a year ago this May. U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that food prices would rise and overall 2.5 to 3.5 percent this year, compared to 1.4 percent last year.
(Photo : (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Unless one is a nutritionist, deciding which grocery items are healthy or not can be quite tricky. This is especially aggravated by the confusing and sometimes misleading "healthy" labels on some products which are nothing more than a marketing ploy employed by manufacturers to get their hands on the clueless consumer's money.

Fortunately, Thrillist came up with nine of these confusing and sometimes misleading food labels. Compiled by Marina Komarovsky, consumers are better off in ignoring these nine labels when making their food choices.

1."Natural"

Natural is good right? In the true sense of the word, yes natural is best. If the natural one meant is raw, unprocessed kind of foods. But not the food items one finds in the grocery store packaged and labeled "natural."

This is because the processed food labeled "natural" does not have any meaning. Even the FDA has no set guidelines on what the agency is looking for when a product is to be labeled "natural", even saying that technically, a food would hardly quality for the "natural" label as it is already processed and "no longer a product of the earth." In addition, Consumer Reports explains that the term "natural" in food items has no meaning and its use is not regulated by any agency. For this reason, it may be stamped on virtually any product, even those made with genetically modified organisms, laden with pesticides or hormones and even those made with artificial ingredients.

Consumers Reports wants FDA to either remove this useless and misleading "natural" label or give it a well-defined meaning. For now, consumers can ignore the "natural" label and buy items not basing on it. It's just a marketing ploy to both increase the item's price and convince buyers to choose it for its perceived healthiness.

2."Good Source of" some nutrient

One should not think that eating some product labeled with "good source of" a particular nutrient can meet the body's daily need for that nutrient. Why? Because to qualify for the "good source of" labeled, a food needs to only have 10 percent of RDA for that particular nutrient according to FDA.

A slightly better option would be those food items labeled "high in", "rich in" or "excellent source of". For a product to be labeled with these, FDA mandates that it should contain at least 20 percent of more RDA for that nutrient.

3."Made With" something healthy

Another label - "made with"- is a potentially problematic and misleading claim according to the Thrillist article. The article cites the case of General Mills' Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups. In 2011, General Mills faced a class-action lawsuit because it labeled its Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups as "Made With Real Fruit" according to Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

While the label implies the goodness of real strawberries, the product does not actually contain strawberry and is "basically just dressing up a very cheap candy as if it were fruit" says CSPI. Steve Garner, CSPI Director, states that "General Mills is giving consumers the false impression that these products are somehow more wholesome, and charging more. It's an elaborate hoax on parents who are trying to do right by their kids."

The lesson here is that if General Mills did this misleading claim, there is that possibility that other manufacturers could be doing the deed as well.

4. "Fat-Free"

The 'fat-free" label is actually truthful when it says the food item has no fat. But when consumers buy these "fat-free" goodies thinking that it is healthier compared to items with regular fat content, they're actually picking the unhealthier choice.

The "fat-free" labeling was spawned back in the days when fat was blamed for almost everything including obesity and heart disease. In response, food manufacturers begin churning out various "fat-free" options touted as healthier. Since fat is one of the major factors that gives food its taste, these fat-free products are unpalatable. Manufacturers solved this tiny problem by pumping in loads of sugar and sodium into these fat-free products to improve its taste. So basically fat-free now becomes sodium and sugar-laden.

However, recent studies point out that excessive sugar intake, especially from the added sugars in processed food, has been linked to obesity, diabetes and cancers making sugar actually more dangerous than fats. Experts now advise getting the full-fat version in order to avoid the added sugars and other chemicals that come with the "fat-free" foods.

Another reason to avoid fat-free food is that fats are actually needed by the body to function. Fats are needed by the brain, important for vitamin absorption and in building cell membranes that it is insane to rob one's body of this important nutrient. Choosing foods with "healthy fats" is a better and healthier alternative to fat-free.

5."Free-Range" Eggs

People who want a more humane treatment to the chickens that gave them their eggs for breakfast would always choose eggs marked as free-range because it evokes an image of chickens happily sunning themselves outdoors. However, the reality is a lot less sunny than that because the USDA has a very minimal requirement on egg producers for them to label their eggs "free-range." The requirement is that the layers have access to the outdoors but do not specify the quality of outdoors the hens have access to or the amount of time they can roam freely.

6."Zero Trans Fat"

Trans fat is bad as it increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes while lowering good cholesterol and elevating bad cholesterol at the same time according to the American Heart Association. However, assuming that a food does not contain trans fat is a risky business because manufacturers often include the fact in the list of ingredients under different names. When shopping, look for hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated the vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, and margarine as they are other terms for trans fat as well.

 7."Whole Grain"

Thrillist mentions that the "whole grain" label could be a bit tricky because there are no guidelines as to how much whole grain a bread needs to contain in order to be labeled " whole grain" or "made with whole grain." For example, it is entirely possible that a white bread with a minute amount of quinoa sprinkled in could carry this label but it is still basically unhealthy white bread. To be on the safe side, Thrillist urges buyers to choose those labeled "100% whole bread." In addition, the article provided this link to guide shopper in identifying and assessing whole grain products.

8."Organic" Processed Food

People conscious of the possible adverse health effects of pesticide residue often choose organic produce, even with its premium price. However, processed food labeled "Organic" could still contain up to 5 percent of none-organic content excluding salt and water according to USDA. The problem is even greater in those food items labeled "Made with Organic" because the product could contain up to 30 percent non-organic ingredients and still qualify for this type of label.

The healthy shopper's best bet would be those food items labeled "100 Percent Organic" as USDA requires all ingredients to be certified organic before manufacturers can use this label.

9."May Reduce The Risk of..."

Labels like these are also known as health claim and this is one label that the Thrillist article does not give too much weight. While the FDA has a strict policy on exactly what words a food manufacturer may print as a health claim, the agency allows health claims even when it acknowledges certain claims to have a very little scientific basis.

For example, FDA allows for products with psyllium husk to make a health claim regarding its role in preventing type 2 diabetes yet state the lack of sufficient scientific evidence to back up the same claim. This is the exact wording of this health claim taken from the FDA website:

"Psyllium husk may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes although the FDA has concluded that there is very little scientific evidence for this claim."

It seems that FDA, while allowing the health claim to be printed on the products, also gives consumers the reason not to believe it, absolving any responsibility in the process.This is probably the reason why the Thrillist article calls it "the ultimate noncommittal claim."

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