When it comes to food and nutrition, misunderstandings and misinformation abound. While it’s bad enough that Nutrition Facts labels are rife with errors of an apparently accidental nature, food companies in some cases employ slyly-worded marketing claims that seem purposefully devised to deceive. Designed to sell more food – not to altruistically inform consumers – these tricky claims often lead my patients to make choices that are counterproductive to their health goals when grocery shopping.
Here are a few of the ones I find to be the most misleading.
1. “No sugar added.” I cringe every time I pass a popular bottled fruit smoothie with this bold proclamation on the front of the label … while the Nutrition Facts on the back reports 58 grams of sugars per bottle (actually, it reports 29 grams per serving, but one serving is half the bottle – as if anyone drinks just half of it). So what if all 58 of those sugar grams – equivalent to almost 15 teaspoons – come from fruit instead of being “added” to the beverage? Your body certainly can’t tell the difference. I’ve had plenty of overweight patients who would drink the equivalent of 300 calories of pure sugar each and every day under the mistaken belief that a “no-sugar-added” claim meant the same thing as “sugar free.”
Similarly, some marketers of kids’ chewy fruit snacks such as fruit leathers and gummy treats make the “no-added-sugar” claim based on the fact that all of the sugar in their products comes from “fruit juice.” But if you read the ingredient label carefully, you’ll see that they actually use fruit juice concentrate – or juice that has had most of its water removed in order to boost its natural sugar content. I wonder: How is this different from formulating a product with white sugar but labeling it as “cane juice concentrate” in order to make a “no-added-sugar” claim? (Apologies in advance if this rhetorical question sparked an idea at some company somewhere.)
2. “Cholesterol-free.” Presumably, a shopper attracted to a “cholesterol-free” claim is trying to avoid foods that would contribute to high cholesterol levels. What most people fail to realize, however, is that the association between dietary cholesterol intake and blood cholesterol levels is quite controversial and is not well supported by available scientific evidence. In fact, the 2013 American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk makes no recommendation on dietary cholesterol limits whatsoever, citing “insufficient evidence to determine whether lowering dietary cholesterol reduces LDL-C” – otherwise known as “bad cholesterol.”
The AHA/ACC guideline, however, does contain recommendations to reduce intake of saturated fats and trans fats based on strong evidence that lower intake of both these fats has been associated with a reduction in LDL levels. This is why it’s incredibly disingenuous when labels of foods high in saturated or trans fats boldly proclaim that they’re “cholesterol-free.” After all, someone who cares about a cholesterol-free claim would be misled into thinking such a food is appropriate or safe for them when, in fact, the opposite is likely true.
The most appalling example of this is the case of several leading brands of margarine that make a “no cholesterol” or “cholesterol-free” claim on the front of their packaging … while the back of the packaging lists 1.5 to 3 grams of trans fats per tablespoon serving! Cholesterol only exists in foods of animal origin, so any vegetable oil-based food is, by definition, cholesterol-free. But research has shown that the effects of cholesterol-free partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) are unequivocally more deleterious to blood lipid levels and cardiovascular health than are those of actual dietary cholesterol.
Thankfully, this is one misleading label claim we’ll probably soon see a lot less of as the FDA has taken steps toward banning trans fats from the food supply by revoking their status as “generally recognized as safe.” Still beware the “cholesterol-free” claim on any food or ingredient that contains more than a gram of saturated fat per serving, with the possible exception of a low-sugar dark chocolate, whose predominant saturated fat (stearic acid) has been shown not to have the same blood lipid-boosting effect as its comrades.
3. “With whole grains as the first ingredient.” This is a particularly bothersome claim pioneered by General Mills to confer a health halo to sugary kids cereals such as Lucky Charms, Count Chocula, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Trix. When one thinks of a whole-grain food, after all, there tends to be an expectation of something high in fiber and low on the glycemic index – neither of which applies to these cereals.
They all contain about 2.5 teaspoons of sugar per serving and a meager 1 to 2 grams of fiber. In fact, whole-grain content barely edges out sugar content in these cereals: Trix has 12 grams of whole grain for its 10 grams of sugar; Count Chocula has 11 grams of whole grain for its 9 grams of sugar. Compare these credentials to a cereal whose clam of “whole grain first ingredient” is true in both letter and spirit. Cheerios, for example, has 23 grams of whole grain, 3 grams of fiber and just 1 grams of sugar. In reality, most people would be better off getting no whole grains in their diets at all than getting a modest portion of them with such sugary strings attached.
Food marketers bank on the fact that the average consumer doesn’t have a PhD in nutrition, let alone the time to pause and mull over each and every package claim they encounter on a typical trip to the supermarket. As such, they correctly assume most of us won’t see past the obvious (but erroneous) conclusions that these misleading label claims suggest we draw. Generally, I’ve come to believe that if a company takes pains to convince me that their product is healthy by making multiple benefit claims … it probably isn’t.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog,www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.
Please note that the author cannot offer individualized medical advice to readers who contact her via email.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.