Like it or not, food has become a victim of fads and trends with food manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon whenever they see fit. With claims such as “low in calories”, “all-natural” and “source of probiotics” plastered on food products at all ends of the spectrum, ranging from water to granola bars, it can be overwhelming to decipher which are valid and which are irrelevant. With more and more people becoming health conscious, it is important to understand the meaning behind these buzzwords to ensure we are not duped into buying “health” foods that aren’t so healthy after all. So, here is a guide to food label health claims to help you decode the marketing jargon, avoid the gimmicks, and ensure you are getting the healthiest options no matter what you are buying.
What do food label claims really mean?
Terms like “all-natural”, “organic, “gluten-free” and “source of fiber” are on just about every product that lines the grocery store aisle, but what exactly do they mean? And are they really important? Here is a quick guide to nutrition food label health claims so you know exactly what’s relevant and what’s not.
Although this might seem confusing, just because something is labeled all-natural, does not mean it deserves a spot in your grocery cart. According to Health Canada, the terms natural, nature, or nature’s way are said not to contain, or to ever have contained, an added vitamin, mineral, nutrient, artificial flavoring agent, or food additive. Albeit this may seem like a good thing, just because a product is “all-natural” does not mean it is healthy. For instance, Ginger Ale is made with 100% natural flavor, however, with the added high fructose corn syrup, I would suggest steering clear of it. The best way to know if a product claiming to be “all-natural” is a healthy choice is merely to read the ingredients list to see what else it contains.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, fat-free does not mean healthy. In fact, I would argue that fat, specifically from whole foods, is an important part of a healthy diet and should not be avoided. Fat provides nutritional value, in the form of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, helps to balance our blood sugar, keeps us fuller longer, and also gives food flavor. Not only is fat beneficial, but the absence of fat in whole foods typically means the addition of something else. When it comes to processed foods, such as salad dressings or yogurt, the absence of fat typically leads to the addition of sugar. Once you understand the important benefits of fats present in whole foods, you can stop fearing it, and ignore the fat-free, low-fat or zero-fat health claims because I can assure you they are not necessary.
You’ve probably seen a food product with health claims thanks to a specific vitamin or mineral. Fortification is a process by which vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are added to a specific food product. In Canada, certain processed foods must be fortified with specific vitamins or minerals, however, once you take a look at the list you’ll quickly notice that all of the foods with mandatory fortification are processed foods. It is important to understand that just because a food is fortified with a specific nutrient does not mean you will absorb it the same way. Many experts would argue that the body does not absorb foods with fortified nutrients the same way it does naturally occurring nutrients in whole foods. A simple example of this would be non-fat dairy products fortified with vitamin D; the milk has been processed to remove the fat, but vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin so you will not benefit from it to the same degree. The best way to know if a product has been fortified with a specific vitamin or mineral is to read the ingredients list to see if it is listed.
Gluten refers to the proteins found in certain cereal grains’ endosperm, commonly found in wheat, as well as barley, rye, spelt, and triticale. In addition to whole foods, gluten is often used as an additive in many processed foods such as sausages, sauces, soups, and veggie burgers. Gluten is intolerable for individuals with Celiac disease, and can also cause digestive upset for other individuals. However, just because a product is labeled “gluten-free” does not make it healthy! Processed foods are processed foods whether they contain gluten or not, so just because you are buying gluten-free crackers, muffins or cookies does not mean that you are doing yourself any favors. These types of processed foods still contain refined sugars and vegetable oils, making them a less-than-ideal choice. Implementing a gluten-free diet in the most beneficial way means removing all processed foods, and when you need to use grains, opting for properly prepared whole grains that do not contain gluten in the first place.
High in Protein
For the past 10-20 years, protein has been the superstar macronutrient said to be the solution to weight loss and muscle mass. Albeit protein is an important macronutrient in our diet, in addition to carbohydrates and fat, just because something is high in protein does not mean it is always a good choice. For instance, this popular protein peanut butter and chocolate granola contain 10 grams of protein per serving, however, it also contains 15 grams of sugar from sugar, dextrose, tapioca syrup, and refiner’s syrup, as well as a laundry list of ingredients. If you are looking to add protein to your diet, that’s fine, but you are better off focusing on whole food sources of protein, such as meat and seafood, or planted-based sources such as beans and lentils, and avoiding processed carbohydrate-based foods with added protein.
Thinking that all calories are created equal is like thinking that a golf cart is like a Rolls Royce just because they both drive. Although a calorie does measure the total amount of energy in a food, the source of the calories is what determines how beneficial they are, or aren’t. For instance, if you compare a 100-calorie pack of Oreos to a 100-calorie handful of almonds there is a dramatic difference in their nutritional value and how they will support the function of your body. The purpose of eating is not to avoid calories, but rather, it is to seek nutrients. Processed food is processed food no matter how many calories are in it.
Low in Cholesterol
To consider this claim, we need to do a little bit of a review. Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in all your body’s cells. Cholesterol is an important part of a healthy body, as it is produced by the liver and has many roles in the body including building cell membranes, and hormone function and much of your brain is made up of cholesterol. Cholesterol also metabolizes all of the fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are essential for health. Animal food sources, such as eggs or butter, are natural sources of cholesterol, however, research has not demonstrated a link between these foods and increased danger for heart disease. Rather, processed foods high in trans fast, sugar, or deep-fried foods in vegetable oils are said to have negative health impacts. Therefore, just because a product claims to be “low in cholesterol” does not mean it is a healthy choice, it always comes down to what other ingredients the product contains, such as added sugars, vegetable oils, or preservatives. Don’t shoot the messenger, but your Cheerios or Special K are likely doing you little to no favors in the cholesterol-lowering department if the rest of your diet isn’t in check.
Low in Sodium
Generally speaking, this health claim is beneficial. Although there are different definitions for sodium-free, low in sodium, and reduced in sodium, avoiding refined salt is recommended. That is not to say that all forms of salt are to be avoided, in fact, some are beneficial, however refined sodium in processed foods has many negative impacts. Ideally, opt for whole foods, as they don’t contain added sodium, and season your cooking with natural sea salt as needed to help control your sodium levels.
Made with Real Fruit
I hate to point out of obvious, but the only thing “made with real fruit” is real fruit. Apples, oranges, bananas, and any other fruit you can think of. Although the claim “made with real fruit” does mean that the named ingredient is present in the food, it does not dictate the type (i.e. – frozen powdered, ground, concentrated, etc..) nor does it dictate how much real fruit is actually present in the product. Therefore you will often find this claim on processed food products such as fruit snacks, granola bars, cereals, and juice that actually contain very little real fruit. For instance, although these strawberry kiwi popsicles are “made with real fruit”, they also contain sugar and glucose as ingredients, and a whopping 23 grams of sugar per bar, which is equivalent to one serving of chocolate ice cream. The only way to determine if a food with “made with real fruit” health claims is a good option or not is to read the ingredients list to see what else it contains.
The terms multigrain, 7-grain, 12-grain, or any other combination of grains may seem like a better option, but these nutrition buzzwords are in fact irrelevant. The term multigrain suggests that the bread, cracker, or grain product was made of flour from multiple types of grains, such as wheat, spelt, rye and/or barley, but it does not specify the quality or type of flour used. Although these products might be made with multiple types of grains, making it a multi-grain product, if all of the grain flours are refined and/or bleached flours it is a moot point. Instead, opt for whole grain, sprouted grain, or sourdough options to ensure you are getting a superior quality product.
Organic production does not permit the use of synthetic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, or growth hormones for animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Generally speaking, opting for organic is a good choice, however just because something is organic does not mean it is always a healthy choice. I hate to break it to you, but organic boxed mac n’ cheese is still boxed mac n’ cheese. Yes, perhaps the wheat used to make the noodles was organic, and the dairy used to make the ice cream was organic, but please be mindful of the food itself.
Source of Omega-3
Technically speaking, in Canada food manufacturers can not make health claims based on the presence of omega-3 fatty acids in foods, however, they can indicate that foods are a “source of omega-3”. Omega-3s are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids, that contain what are called “double bonds”; special connections that make them more flexible and interactive as fatty acids. For general health, it is recommended to eat a well-balanced diet of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, however, given the standard North American diet has become very high in omega-6 fatty acids, specifically from vegetable oils, omega-3 fatty acids have become of greater importance. Unfortunately, in some cases, food manufacturers will push the envelope on products that contain even the smallest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids. For example, highly processed foods such as margarine will suggest they are a source of omega-3 fatty acids when in fact they contain more omega-6 fatty acids and/or very few omega-3 fatty acids. If you are looking to add more omega-3s to your diet you are best to simply opt for whole food sources such as sardines, salmon, walnuts, grass-fed beef, or flaxseeds.
Source of Probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast that are beneficial for our health. Probiotics, or our gut bacteria, make up our body’s microbiome which has many important influences on the body. In fact, research continues to show how incredibly interconnected our bodies are to our microbiome, some research even considers our microbiome an organ itself. Probiotics are naturally made via fermentation, and it is important to note that probiotics are not a new concept. Throughout history, cultures have produced and consumed at least one form of fermented food in their diet, as fermentation was a form of preservation long before refrigeration. Opting for whole food sources of probiotics such as sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented vegetables, tempeh or cultured dairy is beneficial to the diet. However, unfortunately, as our understanding of the importance of probiotics grows, so does their use as a nutrition buzzword on processed foods, yogurt is one of the biggest offenders. If you want to ensure you are actually getting true probiotic cultures and not just health claims, ensure you know what to look for on the label.
Made with Sprouted Grains
The term sprouted refers to the way the grains were prepared before the flour and product were made. Sprouted grain bread is made from whole grains that have been allowed to sprout (or germinate), before being milled into flour. Sprouted grains are by necessity whole grains since you can not sprout refined flour. The sprouting process helps to eliminate anti-nutrients and makes the grains more easily digested when consumed. Generally speaking, sprouted grain bread will be a better choice than conventional whole-grain bread, next to real sourdough bread. However, please keep in mind whether you are buying sprouted grain bread, crackers, or cereals, be sure to read the ingredients list to see what the product actually contains as the addition of refined vegetable oils or sugar can make sprouted grain products a less ideal choice and nothing more than compelling health claims.
Source of Fibre
If you walk down a cereal or granola bar aisle, you have certainly seen the claim ‘good source of fiber’ on many boxed foods, and for decades fiber has been touted as an essential component of a healthy diet. Yes, fiber is undoubtedly an important part of a healthy diet, however just because your cereal or granola bar claim to be a “source of fiber” it does not immediately make them a healthy choice. For example, this incredibly popular fiber-rich granola bar is made with 43 ingredients (43!!), and 9 grams of sugar, and the first ingredient listed is glucose-fructose, a code word for high fructose corn syrup. The only reason this granola bar contains enough fiber to make health claims is that it has added chicory root extract (inulin fiber) listed as an ingredient. If you truly want to add fiber to your diet, avoid processed foods with added fiber, and opt for whole foods such as vegetables, legumes or whole grains with naturally occurring fiber.
Made with Whole Grains
A grain of wheat in its natural form contains three edible parts; the germ, endosperm, and bran. Each layer contains different integral nutritional components of the grain; the germ contains B vitamins, some protein, and minerals; the endosperm contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals; and the bran layer contains antioxidants, B vitamins, and ﬁber. When a grain of wheat is made into flour it can be done one of two ways; by grinding the whole grain, all parts intact, to make whole wheat flour or by removing the bran and germ to make refined wheat flour. Because the bran and the germ contain most of the integral nutrition components of the whole grain, many of the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients are lost in the process of many refined flours. If you are opting for grain products, whole grain options are generally superior, however, always read the ingredients list because the additional ingredients will determine whether it is a good choice or not.
The Bottom Lime
At the end of the day, the only way to know if a food is a good option or not is to read the ingredients list. Food manufacturers can stretch the evidence to their benefit and litter packaging with health claims, so reading the ingredients list is the best tool at your disposal. Remember, ingredients are listed in descending order by weight so pay attention to the first ingredients listed so you know exactly what you are getting and can make an informed decision.