“Low fat,” “no salt” and “reduced sugar”— the labels look like surefire clues that a food is a healthful winner. But in reality, such products are often nutritional duds.
In fact, products with low-content food labels often are less nutritious than the “bad” foods they are meant to replace, according to a recently published study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
For example, low-fat chocolate milk often has more sugar than plain milk — and more sugar and fat than many other beverages.
Food companies cleverly use low-content labels such as “sugar-free” to appeal to our tendency to make fast decisions at a glance, says Nancy Farrell, a Fredericksburg, Va.-based registered dietitian nutritionist.
“Many of us are in a rush, yet we need to eat to survive,” she says. “So we tend to like those quick identifiers pointing us in the ‘right’ direction so we can move on to the rest of our life.”
Research shows that consumers typically make food product decisions within a few seconds, says Farrell, who is also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So, these short labels pack a powerfully persuasive punch.
Hot food trends, lukewarm benefits
In addition to being bamboozled by hyped-up labels, we also fall prey to cutting-edge trends that are less healthful than they appear.
Today, many people have sworn off wheat and embraced gluten-free products instead. But that’s not necessarily wise, says Janet Bond Brill, a Hellertown, Pennsylvania-based registered dietitian.
“Many gluten-free alternative foods are higher in sugar, sodium, fat and calories than the original gluten-containing food,” Brill says.
Food companies add such ingredients to gluten-free products to make up for the texture and taste lost when gluten is removed, Brill says.
Brill says most people should stick with whole wheat and ignore the siren song of the gluten-free trend, unless they have a specific medical condition like celiac disease. “Only about 1 percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease,” she says.
Brill notes that whole wheat is a rich source of source of:
Eating whole wheat also has been linked to a significant decrease in the risk of heart disease.
“If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, then by all means avoid wheat products,” Brill says. “(But) for the large majority of Americans, wheat is truly the staff of life.”
Other dicey foods that sometimes masquerade as health products include:
- Granola. A long-time favorite of people committed to healthful eating, it is often loaded with added sugar.
- Juices. Nobody would argue with the nutritional benefits of fruits such as oranges, grapes and apples. But when these fruits are juiced, they often are combined with a lot of sugar.
- Flavored yogurt. You guessed it — added sugar is the main culprit again, despite yogurt’s other benefits.
- Canned soups. Chicken soup is said to be good for body and soul, but canned soups of all varieties typically have startlingly high levels of sodium.
In all of these examples, the core food itself generally is healthful. But added sugars and sodium can all but cancel out the health benefits.
Eating a more healthful diet
Switching to a more healthful diet requires you to step back and look at the big picture, rather than narrowing your vision to simply avoiding wheat, or strictly adhering to a no-fat diet.
“We tend to fixate on one element of a healthy diet,” Farrell says. “Nutrition is much more complex than that.”
Grabbing a pint of low-fat ice cream or a package of sugar-free pudding might sound responsible. But Farrell says it’s important to “find, read and interpret” the Nutrition Facts and ingredients boxes carefully.
“A low-fat pudding or low-fat ice cream could simply be made with a nonfat milk,” Farrell says. “A sugar-free pudding or ice cream could be made with artificial non-nutritive sweeteners.”
If you are having trouble teasing out what the packaging it telling you, seek the help of a registered dietitian. “RDNs are in an ideal position to help consumers translate these terms into usable actions,” Farrell says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also offers some helpful tips for reading labels at its website.