How food-label savvy are you? Although food labels are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cutting through the fat (ha!) to understand the fine print can be difficult for even the sharpest of grocery shoppers. Here are 10 sneaky ways food manufacturers cash in on your healthy intentions:
1. If the label says "0 Grams of trans fat..."
A mad-scientist project gone wrong, trans fats are created in a lab by partially hydrogenating healthier oils. This process destroys the many good benefits of the original fats. What's worse, consuming trans fats ups your risk for heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Most nutritionists recommend avoiding them altogether, which doesn't sound so hard except current labeling guidelines allow manufacturers to round anything less than 0.5g/serving down to zero. Eat more than a few servings, and you've consumed a significant amount of the Frankenfood.
Avoid it: Anything that says "partially hydrogenated oil," "hydrogenated vegetable oil," or "shortening" on the ingredients list contains trans fats, no matter what the label says.
2. If the label says "100 percent natural" or "all natural..."
You may think buying an "all natural" chicken is better than buying its unlabeled counterpart, but the truth is that "natural" has no legal definition, meaning that companies can stick the phrase on anything they want.
Avoid it: Check the ingredients list and label for what you're most concerned about. "USDA-certified organic" means the food has met certain guidelines. You can also check for genetically modified ingredients (if it doesn't specifically say it's non-GMO and it's corn or soy, then it likely is), artificial colorings and flavors, or preservatives.
3. If the label says "made with real fruit..."
Everyone knows that fresh fruits and veggies are healthy. Sadly, manufacturers take advantage of that trust by slapping this label on anything with a fruit product in it. This may include fruit concentrates, which are essentially just sugar and things like beet juice for coloring. Many popular fruit roll ups are mostly high-fructose corn syrup and food coloring. Sure, some "real" fruit might be in there, but it certainly doesn't have the benefits of an actual piece of fruit.
Avoid it: Eat real, whole fruits and vegetables. They should have exactly one ingredient.
4. If the label says "made with whole grains..."
Whole grains are great for providing essential minerals, fiber, and energy, but all this label means is that there are some whole grains somewhere in the product with typical white flour-confusingly called "enriched wheat flour"-as the main ingredient.
Avoid it: Check the ingredients list . Whole wheat (or some other grain) should be listed first. Ideally it should be the only type of grain used. "100-percent whole grain" is defined by the USDA and means exactly what it says. Look for this label on foods and don't get confused by those that say "8g of whole grains per serving!"-they're just trying to distract you from the fact that it's not made with only whole grains.
5. If the label says "packed with antioxidants..."
Antioxidants, the latest health wunderkind, are amazing little nutrients and enzymes that inhibit the potentially harmful (but inevitable) process of cellular oxidation. You don't have to understand all the science to know they're incredibly good for you, with everything from anti-cancer to anti-aging benefits. The problem is that this label does not have a formal definition. When you see "packed with antioxidants," it usually means that the food was either made with something that once had antioxidants in it-like fruit juice used for coloring cereal-or that the food was fortified with some vitamins. Unfortunately nutrients extracted from food don't have all the health benefits of nutrients eaten in their natural state.
Avoid it: Whole fruits and vegetables are the best sources of antioxidants-and are easy to recognize.
6. If the label says "sugar-free..."
Sugar is fine in moderation, but many processed foods contain much more-and in different places than you'd expect. Since ingredients are required to be listed from most to least on food labels, manufacturers often break up the sugar into smaller amounts of lesser-known sugars , making the food appear healthier. Another issue is that real sugar is often replaced with artificial sweeteners, which can cause bloating and stomach discomfort.
Avoid it: Nutritionally speaking, there's not a huge difference between different types of sneaky sugars so knowing the pseudonyms is half the battle. While there are more than 50 names for the sweet stuff, common tricky ones include brown rice syrup, barley malt, caramel, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, and anything involving corn syrup.
7. If the label says "reduced-fat" or "fat-free"...
While fats aren't the dietary demon they were made out to be in the past, many health-conscious consumers still seek out lower-fat or fat-free options. But since removing fat also removes flavor, many companies replace fat with sugar. This label is often used as a smoke screen to give an otherwise unhealthy food, like gummy bears, an aura of health. Of course gummy bears have never been made with fat; they're pure sugar.
Avoid it: Don't be afraid to eat healthy fats in your diet. Even some saturate fats like those found in coconut oil and grass-fed dairy have significant health benefits. Plus, fat is satiating so in the end, you'll eat less and enjoy it more.
8. If the label says "free range or vegetarian fed eggs..."
Who doesn't prefer to think of happy chickens roaming merrily through a barnyard getting fed by a singing Snow White? The truth is that factory chickens are kept in very tight quarters and "free range" only means they had access to an open door, not that they ever used it. Also, "vegetarian fed" is not a good thing. Chickens are natural omnivores and when they are forced to eat a vegetarian diet (often consisting of processed soy) their eggs contain less nutrition.
Avoid it: If you are truly concerned about buying fresh, organic, natural, or free-range eggs, local farmers are your best bet. Look for them at farmer's markets or find one on LocalHarvest.org. Even if the farm isn't certified organic, many small farmers use the highest standards and are happy to have you come check out their farm.
9. If the label says "no nitrates..."
Nitrates, nitrites, and other artificial preservatives are definitely bad for you, increasing the risk of certain cancers by up to 50 percent. Unfortunately while consumers are getting wise to the evils of nitrates, they're still overlooking other problematic preservatives.
Avoid it: Check the labels, especially those of processed meats like lunch meats and sausages, for BHA, BHT, benzoates, sulfates, and sorbates, among others.
10. Calorie counts and serving sizes:
The number of calories per serving is usually the first thing people read when they look at a food label. But beware: The USDA allows manufactures to use an estimate that can be up to 20-percent off! And because the serving size is a minimum amount rather than an exact amount, it's more likely that the food has more calories per serving than the label leads you to believe.
Avoid it: If you're being very conscious of calories, some nutritionists recommend automatically adding 10 percent as a buffer and carefully weighing and measuring your food. A more reasonable approach: Listen carefully to your sense of fullness and stop eating when you're satisfied-even if you haven't finished a whole serving.
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