Food Label Traps
Is your shopping cart as healthy as you think it is? Learn what sneaky nutrition terms on common foods really mean
Do you read food labels as you make selections for you and your family? If not, you should! But how do you read them? What do you look for? And what does it all mean? I must admit it is tricky and the labels can be misleading. Educate yourself so that when your shopping you know how to read the labels, how to avoid the misconceptions, and how to select items that are healthy for you and your family.
There are four big misleading labels used on several products to watch for. Let’s look at them a little closer.
The label says: Fat-free. If it’s fat-free it must be healthy, right? Not always. In order for a food label to state fat-free, the product must contain less then 0.5g of fat per serving. Well, 0.5g doesn’t sound too bad right? Not if you have one serving. However, if you read the label carefully and the serving size is five, and you eat the entire package, then you have just consumed 2.5g of fat. Another caution when labels state fat-free: look at the sugars and carbohydrate content. Often products that lack in fat make up for it in the sugar and carbohydrate department.
The label says: Trans fat-free. If it’s trans fat-free it must be a healthy product, right? To understand this, we must first understand the different types of fat. Yes, it’s true that all fats have the same amount of calories; however, some fats are more harmful than others. Let’s look at the different types of fats:
Saturated Fats: These fats are derived from animal products and found in items such as fatty cuts of meat and dairy. This type of fat is linked to bad cholesterol levels and should be avoided.
Trans Fats/Hydrogenated Fats: These fats are used in several products to help preserve foods. They’re often found in cookies, cakes, donuts, chips, and other junk food. This fat raises bad cholesterol levels while lowering good cholesterol levels—a double whammy! Like saturated fats this one should be avoided.
Unsaturated Fats: These fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which are derived from vegetables and plants. They’re found in foods such as olive oil, nuts, peanut oil, avocadoes, safflower, and soybean oil. These fats actually lower bad cholesterol and help maintain good cholesterol levels. In moderation, these fats are “good for you” and an essential part of a healthy diet.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These fats are critical to maintain good health. They’re found in cold-water fish, walnuts, and flax seed. These fats boost our immune response, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Understand the different types of fats can help you to make selections when reading food labels. As a rule of thumb: stay away from saturated, trans, and hydrogenated, and incorporate in moderation unsaturated and Omega-3’s into your daily diet.
The label says: Sugar-free. This one can be misleading. Sugar-free is different than no added sugar. “Added sugar” refers to sugars added to a product during processing. Natural sugars may still be present in products that are labeled “no sugar added.” Another common label is “no refined sugar.” This simple means no added sugar, but it does not always mean “better for you.” Another common label is “reduced sugar.” A product can be labeled this if the food contains 25% less sugar then the original version. So does “reduced sugar,” “sugar free,” “no added sugar” always mean it contains fewer calories, and therefore making the product better for you? Not always. Much like the lowfat versions of products, if a product is lower in sugar, it may contain more carbohydrates or fat to make up for the lack of sugar.
The label says: Low carb. If it’s low carb it must be better for me and I can eat more of it, right? With the new craze on low carb, Atkins-type diet food manufactures are blowing up the stores with “low carb” products but we must be careful to avoid the trap! The FDA has yet to determine what constitutes “low carb,” so essentially food manufactures can slap the label “low carb” on anything. And yet again, when a product is lower in carbohydrates, you must look at the sugar and fat. Often these will be higher to make up for the reduction in carbohydrates.
So now you’re asking me, what the heck do I eat? Well, knowledge is power; educating yourself on how to read food labels can help you avoid the traps that many fall victim to. Let’s take for instance two salad dressings:
Salad dressing (A) has 5g fat (4.5g monounsaturated and .5g saturated), 2g carbohydrate, 2g sugar
Salad dressing (B) is labeled low fat and has 2g fat (2g saturated), 6g carbohydrate, 4g sugar
Which dressing would you chose knowing what you know about fat? Dressing A has more fat but look at what kind of fat it is. Option A contains less saturated fat and more healthy fat, making it the better option.
Another important thing to remember: packaged foods often contain not-so healthy fats, carbohydrates, and added sugars. Sticking to the produce section of the store is your safest way to shop. The majority of your cart should be fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and carbohydrates with a lower glycemic ratings such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, rice cakes, oatmeal, cream of rice, cream of wheat, and whole-wheat breads and grains.
So put your knowledge to the test, take a trip to the store and see for yourself the many mislabeled and misleading food items and determine if what’s in your cart is indeed what you thought it was!