A friend once said to me, “You can have more of this cake. It’s vegan so it’s healthy.” I have nothing against having a slice cake (vegan or not). But is a slice of refined sugar, flour and oil really “healthy” because it’s vegan? The vegan-ness of the cake does not inherently make it healthy. Food marketing has the potential to help us make positive choices. However, it is often used to trick us into thinking that certain products are “healthy”. Why? Because there is money in health and wellness and people are willing to pay extra for healthier options.
Companies are listening to consumers. In its 2018 Health & Wellness Progress Report, Deloitte shared that in 2017, 88% of companies in the Consumer Goods Forum reported that they reformulated products; 68% of the companies reported reducing sugar (+12% since 2016) and 50% reported reducing saturated fat/trans.
Unfortunately, as consumers, we still have the challenge of determining what is best for our bodies while avoiding the food marketing traps. Here are some of the buzzwords that catch my attention in the supermarket. All these words and phrases have very real meanings; however, none of these words mean “healthy”.
Multigrain & Whole Grain
The term “multigrain” simply means that more than one type of grain was used to create the product; it does not mean a significant quantity of whole grains were used to create the product. The grains in multigrain products may be refined and stripped of their nutritional goodness. Whereas, products containing whole grains, use the entire grain. So how do you spot the difference? Products that use the whole grain include the word “whole” before the grain in the ingredients list.
What about foods labelled with “whole grain”, “made with whole grains”, “contains whole grains”, etc.? Manufacturers can use these terms in a deceiving way as well; sometimes they use only a very small quantity of whole grains in their products.
Instead: Look for products that list whole grains at the top of the ingredients list.
Low Fat and Fat Free
“If the fat was removed, then what did they add so that I would want to eat it?” That’s the first question that comes to my mind every time I see products labelled as “low fat” or “fat free”. Flavor aside, fats play a very important role in our health. Fats facilitate proper brain development, blood clotting and absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. This satiating macronutrient is also the most calorie dense macronutrient: 1 gram of fat provides 9 Calories, compared to 1 gram of carbohydrates or proteins that provide 4 Calories. Therefore, it is important to monitor your fat consumption especially if you are attempting to stick to a strict caloric budget.
When food manufacturers remove the fats from certain foods they need to add something else. For example, companies add sugar to low fat and fat free yogurts in order to make then taste good.
Instead: Read the nutrition facts label and ingredients list before purchasing low-fat or fat free foods.
Gluten is a protein in some grains (not all) like barley, rye, spelt and wheat. Baked goods get their chewiness from gluten. Unfortunately, there are people who are genetically predisposed to celiac disease–an autoimmune disease that causes damage to the small intestine when gluten is consumed. 1% of people suffer from celiac disease and another 0.4% are diagnosed with a wheat allergy.
For these people, gluten free foods are a must. But over the years “gluten free” has become synonymous with “healthy”, “low calorie” or “low carb”…LIES! Yes, if you switch to a gluten free diet you may experience some weight loss. However, that weight loss may most likely be a result of the elimination of problematic ingredients (like refined carbohydrates) from your diet. If you do not suffer from celiac disease or a wheat allergy, there is no health benefit to you purchasing the more expensive gluten free products.
The Gluten-Free and Regular Foods: A Cost Comparison study published in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research found that gluten free products are on average 242% more expensive that regular products. Also keep in mind that gluten free products can be just as unhealthy for you as regular products: gluten free cupcakes are still cupcakes. Check out this video where Dr Mark Hyman explains how a gluten free diet can become incredibly unhealthy.
Instead: Be more strategic about your health by monitoring your overall caloric intake and fill your diet with nutritious whole foods. Also, read the nutrition facts labels and ingredients list of your food.
For many of us a certain image comes to mind when we see the word “natural”. However, this word means nothing right now when it comes to food labeling. In November 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested public comments on whether it is should even define the term “natural”. That is because, to date, the FDA does not have an official definition for the term “natural” for food labeling. So, it’s a free-for-all when it comes to what products can be labelled as “natural”. Here’s a snippet of the FDA’s comments on the use of the term “natural” on food labeling:
Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term “natural,” we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of “natural” in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term “natural” should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.
U. S. Food and Drug Administration (2017). “Natural” on Food Labeling. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm456090.htm
You are responsible for determining whether a manufacturer’s definition of “natural” aligns with yours.
Instead: Read your nutrition facts label and the ingredients list. If you have the time, do some research on ingredients that you do not know.
Organic fruits and vegetables are awesome! For the most part, they haven’t been kissed by pesticides (or other harmful substances and processes). However, beautiful pieces of 100% organic produce can be used to make 100% no-good-for-you food products. The word “organic” does not shield our bodies from excess sugar and calories.
Instead: Be strategic and buy organic foods that aid in your health and fitness goals. Think twice when buying processed organic foods.
It’s a tricky world out there, folks and we need to remain sharp. So the next time you’re in the supermarket, keep an eye out for these traps. I only listed five potentially deceiving food labeling terms, but there are many more out there. Here are few honorable mentions: Sugar-Free, Greek Style, Lite, Enriched and Fortified, Grass-fed, Cage-free, Fresh and Vegan
For the most part, we can avoid falling into most of these traps by reading the nutrition facts labels and ingredients lists on our foods. What do you think? What are some other food marketing traps you’ve noticed?