Food labels: Who’s telling the truth? |

Food labels: Who’s telling the truth?

Photo by Josh Miller/Sierra Sun

Ever notice as your walking down the aisle at your local grocery store all the messages yelling out to you from the different food products? Low-Carb! Fat-Free! Reduced-Fat! Organic! 100% Fruit Juice! Do you ever feel the need to cover your ears, close your eyes, or turn your head away?As you begin the New Year making efforts toward a healthier lifestyle, a simple trip to the grocery store can become a very overwhelming experience. You have decided to try and eat better, incorporating more fruits and vegetables, eating more whole grains, using skim or 1 percent instead of whole fat dairy products. Yet each time you enter the supermarket, your efforts are plagued by all the mixed-messages you see on food labels. You are left in a state of confusion, not really knowing how nutritious the foods you have just purchased actually are. The truth is food corporations spend billions of dollars each year on marketing their products. Often this means tuning into the latest health craze hitting the country. Have you noticed how in the past year everything from a bag of carrots to a package of chicken proudly shouts, carb-free?But product labels can be deceiving.

According to national guidelines, a food may be marked as reduced fat if it has at least 25 percent less fat than the original version. True, reducing fat is an important factor in eating a healthier diet, but labels arent always very good at being honest about the health benefits of certain products.Take Jif Reduced-fat Peanut Butter, for example. This version does contain 4 grams less fat than the original, but it is actually the good, heart-healthy fat that has been removed. And if we look just a little bit closer, we will find that there is the same amount of calories and saturated fat in both products. Why exchange the good fat for more sugar and chemicals?Plus, because it says reduced-fat on the label, many of us will often end up eating a larger serving. So, be cautious of reduced-fat labels and remember to read all the facts!

A food may be marked as low fat if it contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving. But low fat does not necessarily mean healthy. Often the removal of fat in a product is compensated by added sugar or salt so the amount of calories in a low-fat food can still be very high. Look at Ben & Jerrys Chocolate Fudge Brownie Low-Fat Frozen Yogurt, which contains 190 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, and 36 grams of carbohydrates per serving. Now compare that with Breyers Chocolate Ice Cream, which has 160 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 18 grams of carbohydrates per serving.You can see that although it does contain less fat than the ice cream, it has more calories and twice as many carbohydrates.

A food may be called Fat Free if it has less than 0.5 grams of fat in one serving. But how realistic is the serving size? I Cant Believe ItsNot Butter Spray for example claims on its label that it has zero calories and zero fat. But thats just for a few sprays. If you were to spray two pieces of toast with 25 sprays, you would be having an added 20 calories and 2 grams of fat. And though it still may be low compared to other products, it is certainly not zero.Pam Cooking spray is another good example. Although it does contains the qualifying 0.5 grams of fat per serving, the product is virtually 100 percent fat. If you are to use more than the few sprays in a serving size, you could be adding several grams of fat to your meal. Even the FDA thought that this might be misleading, and determined that instead of labeling it fat-free, Pam and similar products were to be labeled as, for fat free cooking. Not too much clearer though, is it?

Beware of low carb labeling. Unlike the low-fat, reduced-fat, and fat-free products, there are no national guidelines regarding low-carb labeling.At a nutrition workshop I recently attended, the presenter demonstrated just how misleading low-carb labeling can be. She showed us three different types of cookies: a low-carb labeled version, a sugar-free version, and regular Chips Ahoy. We looked at the serving sizes for each cookie and examined the total calorie, fat, and carbohydrate content. The serving size for the Chips Ahoy and the sugar-free variety was three cookies, while you were only allowed two of the low-carb cookies per serving. When she broke down the nutrition facts per cookie, the carb-free kind had more calories, fat, and carbohydrates than both the sugar free and regular Chips Ahoy. What she was trying to demonstrate here is just how deceiving marketing can be. They labeled their product low carb simply because the serving size was two cookies as opposed to the typical three.So, in the end the lesson learned is that we must be cautious of food labeling. Companies are very good at marketing their products around our health concerns as well as manipulating the nutrition guidelines. Be sure to read all the information on a label. If a food seems too good to be true, it probably is. If it is marked as low fat, make sure to look at the carbohydrates. If it is sugar free, are there extra fats? Remember the keys to a healthy diet: variety, moderation, and balance. How do the foods you eat and the lifestyle you lead revolve around these ideas? Sarah Levi is the community education coordinator for Project MANA.

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