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What’s ‘healthy’ on food labels? Very little

  • McClatchy-Tribune
  • Published Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, at 2:37 p.m.

With New Year’s coming up many of us soon will be thinking about eating better. One of the most annoying obstacles to eating better is the incredible amount of misleading information on food labels. Every year I have a conversation with clients about why the thing that says “healthy” on the label is anything but, and is likely slowing down their progress.

To help you be as successful as possible, here are some of the most misleading health claims on food labels:

1. Gluten-free: Gluten free is very trendy. Personally I go out of my way to avoid gluten because it makes me feel terrible and aggravates my eczema, but I rarely buy anything that says “gluten-free” on the label. Basically, food marketers can slap “gluten-free” on a box of cookies and consumers look at this as a magical seal that makes this box of cookies somehow healthy. Don’t be fooled. Junk food (with or without gluten) is still just junk food.

2. Trans-fat free: Trans-fats are among the worst things that you can eat. Public awareness of this is increasing, and people are looking on food labels to help. Unfortunately if you see “0g of trans fat” on a package it probably has trans fat in it. By law, “0g of trans-fat” means that the “food” has less than .5 gram of trans fat per serving. So, you can actually have a product that is pure trans-fat – like margarine, and make the serving sizes very small (less than .5 gram) and label it as having “0g of trans-fat.” The only way to be sure of what you are or are not eating is to read the ingredient list – if it has hydrogenated vegetable oil in is, then you shouldn’t eat it.

3. Sugar-free: From a metabolic standpoint sugar is sugar – sweet, refined carbs (molasses, agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup). Sweet, refined carbs are terrible for your health, make your hungry, are as addictive as cocaine, and generally make people fat. However, from a legal standpoint sugar is not sugar. (I blame this on lobbyists.) If a product has less than .5 gram of sucrose per serving, then it can be legally labeled as “sugar-free.” To keep yourself safe, read the label – if you see sugar by any of its various names (agave, honey, sugar alcohols, etc.), then know that it has sugar. Also, look at the nutrition facts panel – look under “Total Carb.” This is where you will find the amount of sugar and/or sugar alcohols in this product.

4. “All natural,” “nothing artificial,” or “no artificial anything:” All these claims mean about the same thing – nothing. Natural has no legal definition whatsoever. You can slap “All natural” on the most processed, vile box of “food” and not violate any labeling laws. If you read closely, you’ll notice that “no artificial anything” is a registered trademark. This means it isn’t a nutrition claim, but rather a statement that someone owns for branding purposes. So, in terms of food labeling, this too, means nothing. The bottom line: Food marketing is big business, and there are powerful forces at work in Washington to get labeling guidelines created that favor the marketers of processed food. If it has a food label on it, and they make a health claim on the label, then you should probably be suspicious. Real food rarely has a label on it – it’s an egg, celery, beef, etc. Sure, there are some things that are food that come in a container – natural peanut butter that has two or three 3 ingredients would qualify.

Josef Brandenburg is a Washington, D.C.-area certified fitness expert with 14 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book Results Fitness.

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