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The good the bad and ugly of food package labeling and how to figure out what is the real good.
I review food package labels daily for patients through texted photos. When reading packaging more often than not they become confused with the message on the front of the packaging. It seems as though the main purpose of the labeling is to distract us and lead us to believe the contents of the food packaging is healthier than it is. When I get contacted to approve the ingredients as healthy or appropriate I always ask them to turn the package around and send a photo of the nutritional facts and ingredients. This misinformation campaign requires detective work to decipher the real health content of the packaging in order to make the healthiest choice. This blog post and the next one that will follow will hopefully guide you in analyzing labels.
S.O.S.is usually a term reserved for a distress signal but I will be using this as a catchphrase for a warning regarding foods and ingredients that are not really “healthful”.-Salt-Oil-Sugar is going to be used to bring awareness when selecting foods for yourself and your family. The closer you get to eliminating SOS the closer you are to nutritional health. Generally these three unhealthy ingredients-salt,oil, sugar are manipulated to change the taste of a food with deceptive labeling exchanging one for higher levels of the other. Low sugar may have higher salt. Low fat would have high sugar. And most oils are responsible for excess and unnecessary fat in foods with no nutritional benefit other than taste.. And all this is without even discussing the new fake fats and sugars, and artificial flavors and colors to imitate your favorite tastes and textures.
Breaking the packaging code:
Front label and packaging -Is where the deceptive marketing takes place to get your attention in hopes of influencing your decision to purchase the food product without further investigation. Oftentimes the practice uses misleading wording and a confusing message to make you think it is a healthier product inside the package than it really is. This includes wording such as “natural” or ” real”, “ recommended protein”, “organic”, “low fat”, “sugar free”, “gluten free”, “ fiber”, “whole grain”, “ vegetable oil”, “heart healthy”.
Nutritional highlights, which includes main nutritional information you want to see, is placed prominently on the front packaging to sway you from looking at the rest of the labeling.
Deceptive language: Terms to be aware of when selecting a healthy product!
Natural or real– really has no meaning. It is allowed for manufacturers to write “natural” because the product starts off natural , but it does no legally mean anything else added to the package is natural. It does not represent unprocessed. And it certainly does not mean organic, or preservative or chemical free. This is legal and the FDA is looking at changing the law. But for now natural usually means very unnatural.
Protein – does not mean good protein like the whole grain or natural source they try to get you to believe. There usually is added processed protein sources to fulfill that packed with the alleged good protein pitched amount.
Organic- even the term organic can be misleading by having an organic ingredient like organic salt, or sugar, but not everything has to be organic to say “ made with organic ingredients “
Free range– chicken or beef. Does not mean what you think. We visualize chicken roaming free in an idyllic rolling hills. But it only means the chicken have to be let outside or even have real sunlight for brief period each day.
Gluten free – the latest catch phrase to make you think it is healthy . But many products are already gluten free. Like fruit, vegetables, etc. Gluten free is now the main packaging distractor from all the other additives like sugar, salt, and fat .
Fat labeling- unsaturated, low fat, etc. some are good , but usually another bait and switch for health. There is always something else they add. Once again sugar, salt, or chemicals. Check the total fat. There might be more unsaturated fats but the overall saturated fats might be the same.
Heart health- all they have to do is add any fiber products, healthy or unhealthy ones. or vegetable oil , or whole grain part and they can say heart healthy.
Fiber- generally connotes something healthy for your heart and gastrointestinal system. But this number and comment makes very little distinction between healthy natural fiber and processed fiber like plant cellulose ( wood has plant cellulose).
Vegetable oil- this is prominent message making you believe it is good vegetable or soy oil. But this often can mean processed Palm, and soy oil neither of which is particularly healthy!
Salt content ( low salt)- may have substitutes such as “ amino acids” which itself has sodium or other forms of sodium like sea salt which is sold as healthier form of salt.
Low or no carbohydrate- does not really indicate any healthier value to a food in the package. Only recently included to make it seemingly trendy and healthier.
GMO free– can mean some of the ingredients are gmo free. The FDA is trying to pass laws to tighten the loopholes for GMO labeling once again read the fine print.
Nutritional highlights- usually on top or bottom corner of the container. It’s purpose here is to tell you what they want you to think. There is a good amount of protein, fiber, grain, carb, etc. But this gives you no information regarding the type or source of these. They are hoping you do not need to look further at the fine print and believe then
Healthful MD message: The closer you can get to real honest to goodness natural – from the ground untouched and unprocessed the better. Spend a few extra minutes evaluating the ingredients from top to bottom front and back of a package.
Convenience usually comes with a price both financially and healthfully !
Environmental conscience- every time you recognize the additives in packaging have come at an environmental cost and choose to make a healthier selection you are indirectly influencing the company’s choice of what to add and hopefully alter where they get their products.
Part 2 of advanced label reading will deal with what is in the small print and ingredients.
Warren Krantz MD, FAAP