Have you noticed how many packaged foods are good for you these days?
Strolling through the lanes of my local supermarket, it struck me that we are inundated with products claiming to be healthy in some ambiguous way.
On one side of me was a vast collection of snack crackers and cookies claiming to be “all natural” or “made with whole grains;” on the other was an impressive array of ice cream bars and popsicles bathed in green labels with taglines like “excellent source of calcium” or “made with real fruit.”
After recovering from the shock of how disingenuous the snack food industry can be, I continued my trek through the store, trying to identify all the deceptive health claims along the way. Before making it through a second aisle, though, I gave up and came to one, inevitable conclusion: these companies are not trying to make you healthy – they are trying to sell you a product.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few ways these manufacturers can lure you into thinking their prepackaged, processed foods are better for you than they really are.
1. Just because a nutrition label says 500 calories, doesn’t mean it’s accurate
Like many other health-conscious consumers, you probably rely on the black and white panels of nutritional information to make informed decisions about what you foods eat. What you may not realize, however, is how inaccurate and misleading they can be.
A 2011 report1 showed that 24% of nutritional labels were grossly inaccurate: that’s 1 out of every 4 products on the shelf! This is not surprising when you consider that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows calorie counts on the standard “Nutrition Facts” labels to be off by as much as 20% before they even think about getting involved. So that 500-calorie frozen dinner you’re eating may actually be as many as 600!
While they do a respectable job of making sure packaged foods have labels that meet their standards, the FDA simply does not have the resources to verify the accuracy of information on the labels, investigate claims or even enforce violations once they are found. This means that, effectively, it’s left to the manufacturers to make sure their labels are accurate.
2. Food companies can mislead you by manipulating serving sizes
Even if the label information is accurate, though, many companies will intentionally manipulate serving sizes to make the information seem healthier. I very distinctly remember stopping for a quick breakfast and being totally shocked when I looked at the nutritional panel for a muffin I was about to put in my belly: 600 calories and 18g of fat per serving: with 3 servings per muffin! How many people do you know who eat a third of a muffin at a sitting?
It’s also not uncommon for a company to reduce the serving size of a product by 25% and then claim something like “Now with 25% less sugar!” Illegal? No. Inaccurate? No. Misleading? Yeah, I’d say so.
3. If you see 0g of trans fats, the food product may still have trans fats
A little known fact about nutritional guidelines in the US is that any amount of fat or sugar under 0.5g per serving can be listed as 0g.2
This creates a lot of room for misleading statements and confusion about the nutritional value of foods.
One side effect of this rule is that more and more foods are hitting the shelves stamped with “0g of trans fats” in big, bold type on the front of the package. If you look closely, though, many of these products list some kind of partially hydrogenated oil in their ingredients – a primary source of the dangerous fats. And since the recommended daily allowance is only 2g, unintentionally ingesting up to 0.49g of trans fats per serving can have serious ramifications.
4. “Fat Free” and ”Sugar Free” products may not be healthy at all
Popular culture has spent the last few decades alternating between villainizing fat and sugar (both essential nutrients, mind you), prompting food producers to unveil fat-free and sugar-free lines of their most-popular products. But just because something is missing fat or sugar doesn’t necessarily make it healthy; in fact, it can be quite the contrary.
To make up for a lack of fat, companies will often add artificial chemicals like Olestra or extra sugar to enhance the taste of their product. This can lead to even higher calorie counts than their full-fat counterparts. Conversely, sugar-free products generally contain added fat and artificial sweeteners, which have caused all kinds of controversy in the health world and may actually promote weight gain3. Not great for your health.
Products promoting themselves as “99% fat free” have become quite common throughout the prepackaged food industry, as well. What you need to realize, though, is that this is usually calculated by weight, not calories. Soup broth is a good example because it gets most of its weight from water, but may get over half of its calories from fat. Similarly, 2% milk is deceiving in that while fat only makes up 2% of the total weight, it accounts for over 1/3 of its calories!
5. The word “natural” can be slapped on just about any food product
This little gem of marketing genius is becoming more-thoroughly abused all the time…and it sounds great! I mean, given the choice, what health-conscious consumer wouldn’t want to buy natural food, right? When I think “natural”, I tend to think organic, healthy food that is inherently good for me. But here’s the thing: the FDA has no definitions or regulations for what “natural” means.
Producers are free to slap the term on anything that doesn’t contain “added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances”. hat leaves an awful lot of gray area, especially when the definitions of “artificial flavors” and synthetic substances” are just as vague and the FDA gives its full blessing to ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup as “natural”4.
Last year, a Rhode Island grocer removed all Kashi-brand products5 from its shelves after it was discovered that the “all natural” cereals were made with genetically-modified and non-organic ingredients. This, of course, prompted a flood of angry calls and social media to parent company Kellogg who responded with a collective shrug.
6. Products that claim “Made With Whole Grains” or ”Made With Real Fruit” may contain very little of either
“What’s wrong with fruit and whole grains?” you may ask. Those are both healthy, right? Absolutely! The problem is that the FDA doesn’t regulate how much of either must be present to spew those phrases across the front of a package.
You’ll often find products “made with whole grains” are mostly made of refined flour, with whole grains buried way down at the bottom of the ingredient list. For example, in 2008, Sara Lee was forced to remove claims of “whole grain goodness”6 from the packaging of its “Soft and Smooth” bread after a consumer advocacy group accused them of misleading customers because the bread was primarily made with white flour.
Similarly, products “made with real fruit” usually have minimal amounts of fruit concentrate added for flavor or coloring, while the rest of the product is refined flour and sugars. Take Pop Tarts, for example: they boast being made with real fruit, but only about 5% actually comes from fruit and are mostly made of enriched flour and corn syrup: hardly a nutritional powerhouse! You’re much, much better off just eating a piece of fruit.
7. “Fortified” food products are not nearly as healthy as their whole food counterparts
A particularly devious tactic of the food industry is to take a food product that is almost completely devoid of nutritional worth and fortify it with vitamins, minerals or whatever hot new nutrient is making headlines. Right now, you couldn’t walk down an aisle at your local supermarket without seeing any number of foods shouting about their fiber, antioxidant, or Omega-3 content. But here’s my take:
Junk with added nutrients is still junk!
Though it is essentially just sugar water with minor amounts of added vitamins, Coca-Cola promoted its Vitamin Water drink with famous athletes and phrases like “healthy, pain-free functioning of joints.” So it should come as no surprise that they were slapped with a lawsuit7 in 2010 for “deceptive advertising” and subsequently lost. Their defense?
“…no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitamin Water was a healthy beverage.”
These companies are not trying to help you. Snack crackers with added fiber are not as good as fresh fruit and vegetables; sodas fortified with antioxidants are not as healthy as fresh nuts and berries; and cookies with minuscule amounts of Omega-3s pale in comparison to the benefits of eating fresh salmon. I’m okay with splurging every once in a while, but don’t ever be fooled into thinking that snack foods and sugary drinks are healthy.
Bonus Fact – If a food product has to convince you it’s healthy, it probably isn’t
Back in 2009, the FDA sent a warning to General Mills about some bold health claims on their Cheerios-brand cereals, particularly their statement that Cheerios “can lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks!” While the claim may or may not be accurate or medically-supported, the biggest problem the FDA had with the statement is that you’re not allowed to quantify your claims. Unless the claims are extraordinary, like with POM Wonderful’s “cheat death” advertisements 8, the FDA is pretty lenient in packaging claims.
The most obvious and simplest way to make your stuff sound healthy is by putting healthy-sounding words right in the product name “Healthy Choice”, “Skinny Cow”, “Smart Start” and “Nutri-Grain” all come to mind. Less obvious, though, are more-specific, but still-ambiguous statements about what the product can do for your health. Here are a few you may find strolling through your local grocer:
- “Supports your immune system!”
- “Helps maintain a healthy heart!”
- “Part of a healthy breakfast!”
These are typically not backed by scientific studies and should be taken with a hearty dose of skepticism. Remember this: if a product has to convince you it’s healthy, it probably isn’t.
What Can You Do About Misleading Food Marketing?
By now, I hope you’ve realized that the processed food industry is not our friend and they are not looking out for our best interests. They bombard us with healthy-sounding buzzwords and phrases, but, for the most part, are trying to catch our attention to sell us cheap, non-nutritious junk.
Trying to get your bearings in this jungle of propaganda can seem daunting, but there are a few simple keys to finding your way:
- Be informed – the best thing you can do for yourself is to become knowledgeable about what foods you should be eating.
- Be skeptical – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Shop the perimeter – spend most of your trip to the supermarket on the outside aisles – that’s where you’ll find the fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and dairy.
No matter how many labels and fancy words you find on a package, processed foods are almost always inferior to their fresh, nutritious alternatives. Always remember that the best food comes from nature, not a processing facility.