Here is a scenario you might be familiar with. You are quickly picking up a few groceries on your way home and you see a new product. The claims on the packaging sound great so you buy it without thinking about it too much. When you get it home and check the ingredients you are surprised by what it contains. The problem is that many terms used on food labels are not regulated and can be misleading. Even regulated terms do not guarantee that the product is good for you. Here is your complete guide to what these claims really mean.
Made with …
You will often see a label that says “Made with real fruit” or “Made with whole grains”. This does not mean that real fruit or whole grains is the primary ingredient.Take a look at the label and you may find that fruit is down the label after sugar or that the whole grains are below processed grains.
This is one of the most misleading terms on food labels. It is not regulated so it can mean just about anything. You probably assume that it means the product has minimal processing or is organic, but this is not necessarily the case. According to this article by Consumer Reports people believe that a product that says natural on the label is healthier.
Low fat, fat free or reduced fat
The FDA has rules regarding how these terms are used. Fat free must have less than 0.5 g of fat per serving. Low fat must have less than 3 g of fat or less than 30% of calories from fat. Reduced fat must be 25% less than a “reference” food. Though there may be some truth in advertising in this case. These foods are not necessarily healthier. Often the removed fat is replaced with sugar, salt or food additives to make them taste good.
Light or Lite
Products that are called light or lite must also meet certain criteria by FDA rules. Generally they should have 50% fewer calories from fat than the original product or the calorie content must be reduced by one third. Light can also be used to convey the colour or texture of a food.
Low sugar, sugar free or reduced sugar
Sugar free is similar to fat free. Low sugar is not allowed by FDA since it is not defined. Sugar free foods often contain artificial sweeteners so if you are trying to avoid these, check the ingredients list.
Low Cholesterol or no cholesterol
Low or no cholesterol is controlled by the FDA in similar ways to low fat, etc. There are a couple of problems here. Similar to the low fat label, these labels are often used to imply that a food is healthier because it doesn’t contain cholesterol. The other problem is that foods containing cholesterol do not raise cholesterol in most people.
Gluten free is an important label if you have celiac disease, a gluten allergy or are gluten intolerant. For people that do not fall into any of these categories it does not mean the food is healthier. Gluten free food can still contain plenty of sugar or fat or be highly processed. Check the ingredient label for whole, not refined grains (ie. brown rice instead of white rice).
Foods labelled as organic must meet requirements of containing mostly organic content (95% in Canada). Organic foods can be healthier than conventionally farmed products, but they can also be highly processed. Organic does not imply healthier, so check the ingredients list.
Multigrain or Whole grain
Multigrain simply means that the product contains more than one grain. Unless it says whole grain it likely contains refined versions of most of these grains. Bread will often be labelled as multigrain. The ingredients label will likely reveal that it contains wheat flour (which is white flour), and other refined grains. It may also have molasses or caramel to give the bread a healthy looking brown colouring. The term whole grain refers to food which has all parts of the grain included. These foods contain more fibre, vitamins and minerals (not fortified) and are slower digesting so they tend to not raise blood sugar as quickly as foods containing refined grains.
What to do
There are other terms used on food labels, but hopefully this helps to demystify what words on the labels mean. Search for unprocessed foods as much as possible to avoid worrying about what the label means.