Top Food Lies at the Grocery Store

Kristin Kirkpatrick


Aisle-by-aisle, shelf-by-shelf, grocery shoppers are inundated with nutritional claims inserted on the front of food packages. For most consumers, these claims create distraction, confusion, or worse -- a false sense of healthfulness. In a 2012 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, the majority of participants reported that they are trying to improve at least one aspect of their eating habits. Food manufacturers have responded to increased consumer demand for more nutritious options by increasing their nutrition marketing strategies. Rather than reformulating foods to actually increase the nutritional value, many companies are simply increasing nutrition-marketing efforts by dropping a healthy line on the front of their packaging.

Unfortunately for health-conscious shoppers, the grass seems to be greener on the outside of the food box. The colorful claims in bold font do not influence the actual nutrient composition or quality of the food within the package. While your eyes might be drawn to names and claims that sound good, the body knows no difference between a sugar-filled fiber bar and a plain old candy bar. Next time you go grocery shopping, skip these five reoccurring buzzwords that add no worth to the nutritional value of your food.

[Read: 6 Ways the Food Industry Is Tricking You .]

Wheat bread

Food Lie: With an increased awareness of the health benefits associated with consuming whole grains, food manufacturers are labeling bread as "wheat bread." They want you to buy into the idea that wheat bread and 100 percent whole wheat bread are interchangeable.

Food Truth: Wheat bread is more similar to white bread than it is to whole wheat bread. Wheat bread and white bread are both made from refined wheat flour. Refined grains have become a staple in American diet because food manufacturers are able to remove the nutrient-dense, exterior layers of wheat to increase shelf-life and improve texture. When the bran and the germ are stripped from the wheat kernel, nutrients like fiber, protein, and B vitamins are also removed. The end result is white or wheat bread that is made up of starch and chemically "enriched" nutrients that are added back at the end of processing.

When purchasing bread, look for "100 percent whole wheat" or "100 percent whole grain" on the front of the loaf. There are two important words that should be included: "100 percent" and "whole," to ensure that the loaf of bread is entirely whole grain.

Cage-free

Food Lie: Egg manufacturers want you to believe that their "cage-free eggs" are of higher nutritional value than conventional eggs on the shelves.

Food Truth: The word cage-free on the egg carton is not all that it's cracked up to be, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The word cage-free indicates that the hens are able to roam freely in the barn, building or indoor space with unlimited access to food and fresh water. While the term does mean that the hens were not confined to their cage, it does not protect against purchasing eggs from hens that were raised in stressful, overcrowded environments, without access to outdoors. The cage-free label also does not insinuate that the nutritional quality is better than standard eggs.

[See: 'Healthy' Foods You Shouldn't Be Eating .]

Natural

Food Lie: Often companies will include claims such as "made with natural sugar" or "contains all natural ingredients" on the front of the package. Their goal is to make you believe that "natural sugar" is different from regular old sugar -- and it appears to be working. According to a new Consumer Reports survey of 1,000 people, nearly 60 percent look for the term "natural" when they go shopping. The consumers reported believing that products labeled natural are more nutritious that those without the claim.

Food Truth: Of all the claims used by food manufacturers, "all natural" is one of the most deceptive. There is no official definition for the term natural or its derivatives, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The USDA defines the term natural for meats and poultry as a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is minimally processed. The bottom line is that "natural" food claims do not ensure that food products are high in nutritional value. Start paying attention to the quality of the food by checking the ingredient list, rather than trusting the word "natural."

[Read: The Incredible Arrogance of Thinking 'Natural' Means 'Good' .]

Made with real fruit

Food Lie: The produce section seems to be expanding to the middle aisles of the grocery store, as fruits and vegetables are incorporated into cereals, energy bars, candy, juice boxes, and other snacks. Companies first dove into this advertising strategy by calling sugary chew snacks, "fruit snacks." This was an easy sell to most parents who felt better about purchasing "fruit snacks" instead of sugary candy.

Food Truth: The box of your energy or cereal bar might claim to be "made with real fruit" on the front, but if you flip over the box, there's a chance that real fruit is not even included in the list of ingredients. More often than not, the "fruit" that companies are referring to is a concentrate, puree, powder, or sweetened form. The ingredient contributes more to your added sugar intake than it does to your fruit consumption.

If you can't identify the shape or color of the fruit, then it should not count towards your fruit intake. The only fruits that truly contribute to your intake are those that are unsweetened and come from the farmers market or produce and freezer sections of the grocery store.

[Read: 8 Ways to Eat Well and Save Money at Home .]

Reduced

Food Lie: Products all over the grocery store feature the word "reduced" followed by a harmful ingredient such as sodium, sugar, fat, saturated fat, etc. What manufacturers want you to assume the food is low in the harmful nutrient listed.

Food Truth: When companies use the word reduced it does not mean that the food is necessarily low in sodium, it just means that the levels are lower than the reference food. The food industry must follow the FDA content claims for reduced/less food, which are defined very differently than content claims such as "low" or "free." For a food to claim to be "reduced-calories," it must contain 25 percent fewer calories per serving size, compared to a reference food. Since the reference food could be high in calorie, reducing the calorie content by 25 percent may not make the product "low calorie." This is the same for fat, sugar, sodium and all the other harmful nutrients.

Your best bet is to pay attention to foods that are low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium. Try not to rely on "reduced" claims to indicate the nutritional value of the food item.

As consumers we have a responsibility to demand high-quality products, along with more accurate nutrition information from food companies. When grocery shopping, try choosing products that are able to backup their health claims with nutritious ingredients. The best foods to incorporate into your diet are those that require no claims at all -- fruits and vegetables.

[Read: Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reduce Sodium Intake .]

Contributor: Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, Nutritionist at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute


Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, is the manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. She is an experienced presenter, an award-winning dietitian, an author and a regular television guest on both local and national shows, as well a contributor to several national magazines and newspapers. The Huffington Post recently named Kristin "one of 25 diet and nutrition experts you need to follow on Twitter." Kirkpatrick's career began in Washington, D.C., lobbying for Medical Nutrition Therapy reform, and from there she went on to become the Regional Coordinator of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's Hearts N Parks program in Maryland. Follow her on Twitter at @KristinKirkpat.