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Don’t Get Tricked by Food Labels! A 3 Step Strategy

Studies find that consumers are less likely to turn to the back of a food package to look at the Nutrition Facts when there is a claim on the front. But that lack of investigating can lead to choosing foods that are less healthful than you think. The FDA recently surveyed over 4,000 consumers online and asked them to rate products for their perceived healthfulness based only on the claim on the front of the package. Consumers rated foods tagged as ‘low carb’ as healthier, more helpful for weight management, and lower in calories, which wasn’t necessarily true.


I take a lot of my clients to the supermarket and three other label claims in particular tend to trip them up: sugar free, light, and natural. When you’re at the store and in a rush, it’s easy to see one of these terms, think ‘green light go’ and toss a food into your cart – but a single label claim is only one piece of a product's nutritional puzzle. Here’s what I mean:


A ‘sugar free’ food may be high in fat and saturated fat. For example, just 5 sugar free Reese's peanut butter cups contain 5 g of saturated fat – that’s a quarter of the maximum amount of saturated fat you should have in a day.


For a food to be considered 'light' it must have 1/3 fewer calories than the regular version of that food, so while light ice cream is lower in calories than traditional ice cream, 1 cup can still pack about 250 calories. A 150 pound person would need to walk at 3.5 mph for 1 hour to burn that off.


And a 20 oz bottle of ‘natural’ soda of lemonade doesn’t contain anything artificial, but it may contain the equivalent of 11 tsp of sugar.


Bottom line: it’s important to look beyond the front of the package. I recommend a simple 3 step strategy:


First after seeing the claim check the ingredient list. Ingredients are always listed in order by weight, so if you see sugar higher up in the list that means more of what’s in the package is sugar. For example, the front of a movie theatre sized box of Swedish Fish says “a fat free food” but the first ingredient is… you guessed it: sugar. Reading the ingredients will also allow you to scope out any artificial colors and flavors, and potentially hidden trans fat.


The second step is to scan down through all of the nutrition information, including calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar.... A food may be low in something you’re trying to avoid, like saturated fat, but high in something else you’re also trying to limit, like sugar or sodium.


The third step is to look at the serving size, which may be surprising. For example, you may think of a movie theatre box of candy as a single serving, but one serving is actually 7 fish and there are 2 servings in the container. That means if you eat the whole thing you need to multiply all the nutrition facts by two.


Only after tackling all of this information can you truly put a food in perspective with your goals.  


So what’s your take on this topic? Do label claims trip you up? Do you grant a health halo to certain foods without even looking at the ingredients or digits? Please share your thoughts!


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