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Don't Let Deceptive Food Labeling Derail Your Diet
By Carolyn Richardson
Going to the grocery store is much like going window shopping. Just as the mannequin's clothing is pinned and tucked to make them look perfect, food items on display are complete with pretty pictures and health claims that are enticing. But the big difference between shopping for clothes and shopping for food is you can try an item on in a dressing room before you spend your hard-earned cash. But without checking out, most food purchases are based solely on front-of-package labels. Sure many grocers provide samples of certain items to customers, but it's few and far between.
A recent article in Consumer Reports shows just how disparate pictures of food on the box is from what's inside. Aside from making food appear larger than the serving inside, food companies also dress up food to look fresher, healthier, and more colorful than the real thing. It's the deceptive practice that keeps food stylists and photographers in business. To guard yourself from buying less food than you expected, check the box size and serving size of similar items from another manufacturer. Even if the numbers differ a bit, you'll be able to tell which is the better value. Most stores also post the cost per ounce of items on the shelf. This will help you save money as well. If a certain item boast chunky, succulent chunks of vegetables, check to see where certain vegetables are listed in the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If vegetables are far down the list, don't bet you'll get what's pictured.
Accentuate the Positive
Nice how certain packaged foods point out the most positive thing they've got to offer without mentioning the downside. Wouldn't it be nice to see, 'low-sodium, but high sugar' in bold letters? I'm sure you've seen the fat-free and sugar-free claims as well, but I've bet you've never seen all three on one label. The reason is most processed foods need a little help in the taste department. In the absence of fresh herbs and spices adding flavor, you might find sugar, oil, and salt as the major ingredients in foods that make these health claims. Check the serving size of the foods that carry these claims and you may find they are smaller than the regular, seemingly less healthy version. Also, bear in mind just because it says it's reduced fat doesn't mean it's significantly less calories. A fat-free vs. regular calorie comparison on the National Institutes of Health's website shows the caloric difference is usually small, between 10 and 30 calories less per serving for items such as frozen yogurt, peanut butter, and tortilla chips.
Risk Increasing Nutrients
A tuna can claims to be a good source of omega-3's, but 18 grams of fat per serving is a disqualifying amount. That's what a lawsuit against Bumble Bee Foods is claiming, saying their product is misbranded because it doesn't disclose the presence of "risk increasing nutrients" like saturated fat and sodium. The Facts-Up-Front program introduced by the the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute was supposed to address this very issue, but the truth is, it's keeping consumers' eyes from reading the FDA regulated nutrition facts label. The label is required to include a per serving accounting of calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. The issue however is the fact that unlike the nutrition facts label, the Facts-Up-Front label doesn't include the total number of servings in a package, nor does it delineate if sugars are added or naturally occurring. The additional icons, such as the potassium and fiber tidbits below, can be those the food manufacturer deems as "nutrients to encourage" consumption of.
Another deceptive way food manufacturers catch your eye is by branding reformulated items as healthier. For example, 'now less sugar,' or 'no high fructose corn syrup.' But these misleading claims only point out the fact that these products may have been retooled with artificial sweeteners and food additives that most of us may not easily find in the longer ingredient list. For example, a more fiber claim may mean the addition of inulin, a food additive that's been proven to cause gastrointestinal discomfort. A no trans fat claim, may mean a switch to corn or cottonseed oil, hardly a healthful solution.
Do you read the "facts up front" nutrition icons or the full nutrition facts label on the back?