Food companies know that health—or the appearance of health—sells. According to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2012 Food & Health Survey, the healthfulness of foods and drinks influenced 61 percent of buying decisions.
But labels can mislead. Studies show that buzzwords like “organic” can make consumers believe food is also low in calories or “high in protein” is perceived as beneficial to their health, even though the food may be highly processed, full of sugar and/or high in calories. Even when these labels are factually correct, people over-infer the healthiness of the food because “these labels create health halos, and they extend way past what the food actually does,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., EatingWell advisor and director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell. And that can lead to over-consumption.
Here are 7 examples of how labels can mislead.
—Rachael Moeller Gorman
That tabbed banner of nutrition information emblazoned on the front of various products (cereals, granola bars, pasta) is called Facts Up Front and is food-industry-created. You’ll see numbers for saturated fat, sodium, sugar and calories, as well as two "nutrients to encourage." For example: Lucky Charms cereal can tout its calcium and vitamin D levels, even though a 3/4-cup serving has 10 grams of sugar and marshmallows is the second ingredient. In addition, nutrient-content callouts, such as "low fat" or "cholesterol free," sometimes appear on unhealthy foods. Sure, Jujubes are a fat-free food, but they also have 18 grams of sugar per serving.
In a 2010 report, "Food Labeling Chaos," the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that many ingredient lists are intentionally unclear. "They are often printed in small, condensed type, and many manufacturers use all capital letters that studies show are more difficult to read than [a combination of] upper and lower case letters… some companies print the list in various colors of ink against poorly-contrasting backgrounds or insert the ingredient list in a fold or other area where it will not be visible unless the consumer makes an extra effort to reveal the list."
Phrases such as "Helps Support Immunity!", "Helps protect healthy joints!" that describe how a food component may affect the structure or function of the body can be vague or misleading. A 2010 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that nutrition marketing, such as health claims on the front of a box, is commonly used on products high in saturated fat, sodium and/or sugar, and more often in kids’ products. Stick to the Nutrition Facts Panel to determine how healthy a food is.
Sixty-six percent of consumers look for the phrase "high fiber," according to Technomic, a food-industry consulting firm. Yet the product might be "high fiber" because it contains isolated fibers in the form of purified powders, such as maltodextrin. These fibers don’t have the same beneficial health effects as intact fibers from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Other faux names: oat fiber, wheat fiber and oat hull fiber.
The phrase "Made with Whole Grains" doesn’t guarantee the product is made predominantly of whole grains. In fact, only a miniscule amount may be there. Look for the word "whole" (whole wheat, whole grain, whole + name of grain) listed first in the ingredient list. Similarly, the Whole Grain Stamp—which appears on products that contain at least 8 g whole grains per serving—doesn’t guarantee the healthiest choice. A recent study in Public Health Nutrition found some grain products marked with the stamp higher in sugar and calories than grain products without the stamp. The best way to identify the healthiest grain product? Look for at least 1 g fiber for every 10 g total carbohydrates.
To get around FDA labeling regulations (which don’t cover product names), companies create wholesome monikers for their unhealthy foods and beverages. Vitamin Water, for example, is basically sugar water (31-32 g sugar per bottle) with some vitamins thrown in. Other health-evoking product names include thinkThin nutrition bars, SmartFood popcorn and Snackwell’s snacks.
Tiny serving sizes make unhealthy substances (fat, sugar) look less bad. Example: a 15-ounce can of organic soup labeled "healthy" contains "about two" servings; each serving has 480 mg of sodium. The FDA says that a food can’t be called "healthy" if it contains more than 480 mg per serving. But most people eat the whole can (960 mg). A better way: a February 2013 study found that for products containing two servings that are customarily consumed at a single eating occasion, displaying two columns (one for the entire package and one for a split of the package) on the label helps consumers make healthier choices.