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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sneaky Food Labeling Tactics

With my quest for fitness and improved health (and let's face it, a better looking body), I've been trying to eat healthier. But the more research I do, the more I realize just how difficult it can be in a marketing-based environment!

Let's take your typical grocery store foods. Once you wander past the fresh fruits and vegetables, you're bombarded with food claims like, "No Sugar Added," "Trans Fat Free," "Made with Whole Grains," "High in Fiber," and "Contains Omega 3 Fatty Acids." WOW! It must be easy to eat healthy with all of these packages containing these types of labels, right? Think again!

The food manufacturers know that consumers have started to make healthier choices, and they also know that people primarily rely on packaging, including the Nutritional Information Table required by the FDA, to tell them whether a product is healthy. So they've found sneaky ways to include unhealthy ingredients in food while making the Nutritional Information Table look good.

I'm going to talk about three of my most hated sneaky labeling tactics that companies use to trick you into thinking their product is healthy.

1. Trans-fat Free. You might find this on the label of a package of food sold in the U.S.A., where I live. And when you check the Nutritional Information Table, sure enough, Trans Fat will be listed as 0g. However, check the actual ingredient list. The F.D.A. allows food manufacturers to label a product as trans-fat free if it contains less then .5g of trans fat per serving. Another term/claim I've seen used is, "0g Trans Fat per serving," which is at least more honest than the former claim, but still misleading. I had a lengthy discussion with someone who told me that her butter replacement spread was trans-fat free. Once we checked the ingredients, she was shocked to find out that it actually did contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (that's code for trans fats!). So in the area of trans fats, don't believe the food claim, don't look at the Nutritional Information grid, just check the ingredients. If you see "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" anything or "shortening," there are trans fats. Put it back and look for something else.

2. No Sugar Added. This is a tricky one. Sometimes, it means just what you'd expect -- that you have an unsweetened product. But other times, it's a buzzword for sugar substitutes like Splenda or Aspartame. Food producers will use sugar substitutes to reduce the calories and carbohydrate grams in a product. I'm a firm believer that when you are limiting your exposure to sugar, you shouldn't do so by relying on foods containing sugar substitutes. Instead, buy products that are truly sugar- and sweetener-free, and add some of your own sugar while you transition your palate to be able to enjoy unsweetened foods. Better yet, add some fruit to give your meal a natural sweetness! So again, I encourage you to check the ingredient list. If you see saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, or acesulfame potassium, the product is using sugar substitutes. I'm not saying you can never enjoy these products, but don't think of them as being sugar-free in the true sense. And personally, I'd rather have something with a small amount of sugar than a large amount of a chemical sugar replacement!

3. Made with Whole Grains. This is a food claim that sounds great on the surface, but is now being used to tout hundreds of junk foods and treats as healthy snacks. There is a whole line of breakfast cereals, each made with whole grains, that contain more than 30g of sugar per serving - and let's be honest and admit that most people don't limit themselves to just 1/2 C of cereal when they pour their bowl. You may even see products that have high fiber numbers in the Nutritional Information Table. So here are a few tips. First of all, just because something has whole grains in it, doesn't mean that you have a free pass to eat it. Still use your basic rules regarding sugar content and basic nutritional value. In other words, those new Chips Ahoy cookies made with whole grains are still a rare treat! Second, a product can contain whole grains, but still be made primarily with white flour. When checking ingredients, look for "whole wheat flour" as the first ingredient. "Wheat flour" or "enriched flour" both mean white flour, and do not indicate a significant amount of whole grains. Finally, don't be misled by those high fiber grams! Manufacturers know consumers are trying to increase their fiber content, so many of them have taken to adding processed fiber from peas or other foods. These processed additives do not have the same nutritional benefit as the regular whole grains you think you're eating. So AGAIN, check those ingredient lists, look for WHOLE grains as one of the first or the first ingredient, and beware those sneaky additives that artificially boost the fiber grams.

So that's it - my three most hated sneaky food labeling tactics used by food manufacturers. Although it may take you more time to do your shopping, I highly encourage you to READ those ingredient lists. Look for short lists without lots of chemicals, and beware of these and other sneaky tactics designed to make you regard unhealthy foods as healthy food. Sometimes shopping in the organic food section can help you find foods that aren't using these tactics, but unfortunately that's not a free pass anymore either!


  1. Great post Liz.
    I think it would be great if you could post more of the food tips you used to attain such a fabulous figure!
    This is something I know I need to get on track with. I'm starting today. :)

  2. Thanks, Kelly! I will try to put together some more posts like this one - maybe I'll focus on at least one nutrition and one fitness post per week to get that variety.

  3. Hi Liz,
    This question doesn't relate to this blob entry, but I got here by following a link from another site (can't remember which one). I believe it was a fitness site. You mentioned on the other site that you have used Brad Pilon's Eat Stop Eat method. Is it something that you use all the time or only part of the time? I've purchased TT and ESE and I'm just getting started this week. What do you think is best for fat loss: 5-6 small meals each day or ESE? I already did one 24 hour fast and it was not as difficult as I expected. And I actually didn't gorge myself afterwards.

    Your results are absolutely awesome. You look great! Keep up the good work. I'm glad I found your blog and I will check back often.


  4. Hi M! I'm guessing you followed my link on Gyminee.com. Yes, I did use ESE regularly during both the first and second TT contests I did. I am not that great at planning out my meals, and ESE not only gave me a break from planning three meals over 24 hrs (twice a week when I was in fat loss mode), but also took off some of the pressure to eat low calorie the rest of the days. Since my target calories were around 1200-1400, splitting that into 5-6 meals meant each of those meals was really small and unsatisfying.

    But I'll say that both methods work, so it's more about your personality and which options you like best. If your first fast was easier than you expected, then it sounds like you CAN use ESE if you choose to do so.

    I'll put a note in my files to work on a post regarding my use of ESE and why it helped me with my results. Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you again soon!

  5. Liz,

    I've become quite an advocate of the Paleo Diet for Athletes. One benefit I didn't even realize until reading your post is that I don't have to really read any labels as nothing I eat has been processed at all. Paleo certainly isn't for everyone but I've had great energy and great results!

  6. Great point, Sandy! From what I've read, Paleo is similar to the diet proposed by Michael Pollan in "In Defense of Food," which is a diet of natural, unprocessed, whole foods. Of course, if you're eating primarily single-ingredient foods, you don't have to worry about these sneaky tactics. I've heard good things about people eating Paleo-type diets, and I myself have benefitted significantly from reducing my exposure to processed foods even though I'm not quite at the Paleo end of the continuum. I don't think I could cut out dairy!