Claims on Food Packaging Can Mislead

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Shopping for food can be a bewildering experience especially if you're pressed for time, and/or trying to decide on purchasing something you've not used before. Both factors can have an impact on how much time, and effort you spend, to get information on the nutritional value of the food you're interested in.

I'm not talking about the "Nutrition Facts" panel that you typically see on the back of processed foods boxes or cans. No, this is about what you might see on the front of the package claims that the contents are natural, or contain whole grains, or are organic or non-GMO. Which of these might really impact the nutritional value of the product? Quite possibly none of them. Here's why.

First, labels that indicate that a product is organic must meet the criteria set by the USDA. But even if it does, that doesn't mean anything about the nutritional value of that product nada, nothing. Organic just means that the product was produced in a certain way, not that it is any better or worse for you (though it's likely to be more expensive than the conventional version).

A label that touts that the contents are "all natural" doesn't mean much of anything either, since there's no standard definition yet of what that word means. And that will be up to the FDA to determine. Don't forget that many all-natural items are downright poisonous (take arsenic, or the toxins produced by fungi or bacteria, for example).

Now we get to some of the trickier labels.

If a loaf of bread says it contains whole grains, or multi grains, does that mean it's a whole grain bread? Not necessarily, because just because it contains some whole wheat, for example doesn't mean that all the grain is unprocessed. You can tell by looking on the ingredients list in the case of a whole wheat loaf, the first ingredient should be whole wheat.

It's important to recognize that this list of ingredients has to be listed in order of amount of the constituent in the product so the first one listed is the one present in the greatest amount. If you look at the first three ingredients on the list, you'll have a good idea of what's really in that product.

Another claim that has become popular of late is gluten-free. It's not that such a claim isn't true, it's that being gluten-free doesn't have to mean it's healthful. Anything that has no wheat, spelt, barley or rye is a candidate for a gluten-free label say ice cream. Likely yummy, but a health food? Probably not.

A claim that a product is "low in added sugar" can also be misleading, since there can be many euphemisms for sugar, such as "evaporated cane juice," muscovado sugar, molasses, malt syrup, and on and on. Again, check the ingredients list to see if any such are in the product or not.

So to determine if a product will really contribute to health, check on the Nutrition Facts Label pay attention to the serving size and compare it to what you typically eat. At least what you see on that label has some science behind it.