Tricky Packaging: Food is a Market Too!

With all the hype about eating healthy now-a-days, it’s not too surprising that food companies would want to appeal to those who prefer “all natural” or “zero trans-fat” preferences.  Like any product that is being marketed to persuade customers to buy it, food is no different.  This week I hope to bring light to what the food labels are stating and what their claims aren’t adding up to be.  First off, let me give credit to food companies; there are special guidelines that they must reach according to the FDA and USDA in order to put claims on their packaging; so we aren’t talking about actual wrong-doing, just creative finagling of words.

“Cholesterol-free”, “light”, “reduced”, and “low-sodium” all come with having to meet requirements of ‘less than’ or a ‘certain amount of’ something in order to claim that label.  For example, if a food is claiming that their product is “USDA organic,” boy howdy, it is: in fact that product has to have at least 95% organic ingredients in order to claim that it is in fact an organic product.

I’m talking about what the food labels aren’t telling you; the tricky little ways products are being marketed without telling you the full story- that’s what I am talking about here.

Let’s take products that claim to be “fat-free” for instance.  “95% fat-free” is not necessarily fat-free because it still means that 5% of that product contains fat.  The FDA lets a company put “fat-free” on their packaging if there is less than 1/2 g of fat in a serving.  So even if a product contains .049 g of trans fat per serving the company is allowed to say that there is “0 trans fat” on the product.  In addition, if the package says that there is 0 g of trans fat but lists partially hydrogenated soybean oil as an ingredient (which contains trans fat) they really shouldn’t market that it has 0 trans fat.  Similarly, If a product claims to be “all natural” and has high-fructose corn syrup then I’m sorry to say, that product is not “all natural.”  When a product claims to be “high in fiber” they may be counting carbs such as maltodextrin and polydextrose too which do not actually lower cholesterol- this is going against the reason why you are buying that high fiber product, right?  These other carbs that are being considered in the equation only prevent the product from looking and feeling too gummy.  The fiber in a product should list only the fiber contained from whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit that provide the right kind of nutrition on the package and not include the fibers that make the product more aesthetically appealing.  If a product claims to”support” bone growth or “maintain” good heart health you should look at how much of the ingredient that is claiming to do this is really in the product.  The FDA says that a product is a good source of nutrient if it contains 10%-19% of a nutrient.  So if there is only 10% of calcium in this product it is at the lower end of being a good source for bone growth.  Please do not think that this product substitutes the calcium nutrition of cereal and milk because it doesn’t.  You have to take account of all the added sugars, sodium, and fat that is being added to your minimal intake of your good source of calcium.  Products make claims based on just a small percentage of vitamins contained in their packages and frankly there is not much evidence to back up their claims.

So now that you are aware that packaging doesn’t tell the whole story, let’s look at ways you can outsmart the packaging.

First things’  first: look at the serving size.  This is where all the nutritional value is based on.  If the serving size is 1/2 cup and you decide to eat 1 full cup, just make sure you are doubling the intake amounts of everything because you are taking more than what the label lists.  So true, you are getting double the nutrition, you are also getting double the sugar and fat content too.  If a product claims to be “low-fat” or  “reduced-fat” watch out.  If a product is cutting back on fat, you can bet that they are increasing the salt or sugar intake to still make the product still taste good.  Next time you see a product listed as “fat-free” turn over the package and compare the number of calories per serving to the number of calories per fat.   If half the calories are coming from fat, then you know the percentage of “fat-free” that you’ve been told on front of the package is misleading because it is giving you the TOTAL volume that is fat-free, (counting water) rather than basing it on the percentage of calories, which they should be doing.  Packaging saying that they are “loaded with berries”,”fruit”, or -(fill-in-the blank)- are usually loaded with more sugar and vegetable oil.  If these advertised ingredients are listed third or fourth in line after glucose, corn syrup, and/or fructose then you should fly your red flag.  If you are trying to replace real fruits with these “made with” or “made from” versions, then you are sadly short-changing your nutrition.  If a food sounds too-good-to-be-true then it probably is.  “Fat-free,” “excellent source of fiber” and “rich in antioxidants” may all be key words to get items in your shopping basket, but they are far stretches from what your nutrient needs are.  Foods can have all the key stuff that consumers are looking for but simply do not offer the full nutritional value as its natural counterpart.  Like for instance, having real fruit will always be much better than having a fruit snack, period.

Speaking of going “all-natural,” when a product claims this, it does not by any means mean that their product is all-natural.  High fructose corn syrup may simply be exchanged with regular sugar on these products which means companies can say that they are “all-natural” now.  If you seriously want an all-natural product there should be NO artificial substances.   If sugar and water are listed as the first couple of ingredients on the ingredient list then you’ve been duped.  Ever wondered what the DV stood for on a nutritional label?  This is the daily value of how much a day’s worth of everything listed on the label adds up to based on a 2000 calorie diet. Just to put things into perspective: 5% listed on the label is considered low and 20% is considered high.  So for example, if a product has 18% sodium and 3% calcium for its daily value then you know that you better be limiting the rest of you day’s salt consumption and increasing your intake of calcium.  Unfortunately,  there is currently no daily value listed for sugars, protein, or trans fat on current nutritional labels so it is hard to know what your limits are.  Maybe for good reason too because one product can easily package 1/4 of your daily allowance for salt consumption and surpass your sugar intake by 20%- now that’s scary!

2010 is the supposedly the year that the FDA is going to change how the front of packages look.  It’s been 20 years since it’s label make-over and hopefully this will cut back on misleading information. I know all this stuff is pretty intense when dealing with percentages and intake and obviously if you aren’t into this stuff as much as I am,you need an “user-friendly” approach to figuring all this stuff out. Proposed symbols going to be required on packages include giving consumers a quick reference for what the key nutrients are; red color warnings of high amounts of saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, salt, or sugar; and even listing the amount of caffeine per serving.  Other changes may include changing fonts and bullets to make the information easier to read, and listing percentages by weight of key ingredients. Also, allergy information and the percentage of grains that are whole would be listed separately.

It’s hard enough for all of us to decipher what is good for us when shopping at the supermarket.  Knowing what the “key” words are on packaging should only be an invite to reading that product’s nutritional label and ingredient list- not an automatic go.  And if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of reading those dreaded nutritional labels you can always load up on the products that don’t come with any- like the ones found in the fruit and vegetable isle 😉

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Smart Snacking « Have your cake and eat it too!
  2. Trackback: Why everything in moderation is harder than it looks « Have your cake and eat it too!

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