Healthy vs. Diet Foods – The Truth Behind the Label

What's in a label?

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One stroll down the health food aisle at your local grocery store and you’re bombarded with promises of speedy weight loss, a faster metabolism, and more energy. While consumers are no strangers to diet foods and supplements, changes in the way these items are labeled are making waves in the food industry.

For decades, consumers have moved from one diet plan to the next. While some have undoubtedly found success, many found dieting to be unsustainable and highly-restrictive programs that just don’t stick long-term. While two-thirds of Americans admit to being on a diet, only 20% of people will lose weight and keep it off this year.

 

Leaving Dieting Behind

Today, more and more consumers are choosing to live a healthier lifestyle. Many are taking the old-fashioned approach like making healthier food choices, switching soda pop for water, and exercising regularly, while others opt for faster results, relying on so called “health” foods and supplements.

When we say “health” foods, we don’t mean fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains. We’re talking about pre-packaged foods with labels like “all natural” and “organic.” While these popular health terms sound good in hindsight, many consumers do not fully understand what these claims mean.

Over 60% of Americans purchase products labeled “natural,” but research has shown that these claims may be misleading. You may believe that you’re making a healthier choice by going “natural,” but not every “natural” claim is verified and every company uses its own definition of the word.

In fact, many “natural” products contain artificial flavors, chemical preservatives, coloring ingredients, and various other synthetic ingredients. Unfortunately, the “natural” label comes with virtually no oversight and enforcement by either the FDA or USDA, and therefore may contain artificial ingredients and may be genetically engineered.

While the days of diet fads may be over, a new scheme is well underway. Companies know that the word “healthy” sells better than “diet,” and they are taking full advantage. Many companies are not changing their products to meet the needs of the health conscious and are simply just changing their labels.

 

A Closer Look at ‘Health’ Foods

In a December survey regarding New Year resolutions, YPULSE asked 1,000 teens and millennials between the ages of 13 and 33 what they hope to accomplish in 2016. Their response? To get healthy. Results from the survey suggest that 48% of teens 13 to 18 and 60% of adults age 18 to 33 desire to get and stay physically fit.

To reach an acceptable stage of good health, many consumers will rely on “health” foods that include items like frozen dinners, diet soda, and protein bars. Manufacturers often market foods that are highly processed with terms such as “superfoods,” “cholesterol-free,” “12 grain,” or “low glycemic index.” What makes these buzzwords misleading is the hidden content. With a quick look at the label, you’re liable to see ingredients like enriched flour, soybean oil, and high fructose corn syrup.

In a survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, approximately two-thirds of consumers believe that a natural label means a packaged or processed food contains no genetically modified organisms, no chemicals or pesticides, and no artificial colors or ingredients.

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. While products that claim they have “no preservatives” and are “gluten-free” or “non-GMO” may have healthy aspects, it’s crucial to look at the label more closely to determine the real value. Until these “health” foods are better regulated, your health remains in the hands of money-hungry companies.

Food Label Controversy

As once-popular diet foods like Weight Watchers entrees and SlimFast shakes are left in the dust, companies continue to dupe consumers into buying similar products with new and health-conscious claims. While most of us are not fooled by supposedly healthy foods like “Whole Grain” Cocoa Puffs, other products can be easily deceptive.

If you have trouble deciphering food labels, you’re not alone. In fact, research has shown that more than 59% of consumers around the world have difficulty understanding nutritional labels found on most food packaging. However, just because a product says it’s healthy or nutritional, doesn’t make it so.

Let’s look at an example. In 2009, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group launched their newest soda pop, Cherry 7 Up Antioxidant. The soda claimed to contain 10% of U.S. daily recommended vitamin E dosage per serving. Following a lawsuit regarding misleading health claims, the beverage was pulled off the shelves by early 2013.

When consumers see the word “antioxidant,” they often believe that the product contains health benefits. In the case of Cherry 7 Up Antioxidant, the opposite is true. The soda is actually filled with mostly sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Even with a low dose of vitamins, any type of soda is undeniably bad for you.

 

The Move to a Healthier Diet

Front labels on food packaging are often used to lure in consumers. However, the labels found on the back or side of products typically contain the real truth. Product ingredients are generally listed by quantity, starting from the highest to the lowest amount. Therefore, the first ingredient listed is what the manufacturer used most in the product.

Look at the top three ingredients used in the product, it’s likely that these ingredients make up the bulk of the food. If the top ingredients include items like sugar, hydrogenated oil, or refined grain, there’s a good chance that the product is unhealthy. When reading food labels, you want the first ingredients to be whole foods.

Another general rule of thumb when reading food labels is to avoid length. If the list of ingredients is longer than two to three lines, you can assume that the food is highly processed. Highly processed foods contain a slew of artificial or synthetic ingredients, artificial colors, and preservatives that drastically lower their health value.

You’ll also want to watch out for serving sizes. When looking at a food label, you’ll notice that it states how many calories are in each serving, what nutrients are present, and in what quantities. The problem is that most people don’t look at serving sizes and generally eat more than the average small portion recommendation.

For example, Nabisco claims that the serving size of regular Oreo cookies is three cookies, which equals 160 calories, including 58 calories from fat. If you fail to look at the nutrition label, you may not realize the serving size. When consumers don’t know or understand serving size, they may wind up devouring more than the recommended three  cookies.

The bottom line is that most serving sizes listed on most food packages are misleading and very unrealistic. Manufacturers often list serving sizes that are much smaller than the normal amount of food people eat at one sitting. This can result in overeating and fast weight gain.

 

The Consensus

Package marketing has greatly evolved in recent years, leading more and more consumers down an unhealthy path of prepackaged snacks and so-called “health” foods. While flipping the package over and reading the nutrition facts on the back can provide great insight on what exactly you’re eating, it’s best to steer clear of prepackaged foods altogether. Opt for fresh foods like fruits and vegetables whenever possible, and use your instincts when buying any food spruced up in a box or a can.

 

Written by Brandy D.           

Brandy is a blog writer for LIVE WELL 360, a lifestyle brand specializing in the highest quality fitness and travel bags. Originally from New York, she carries a deep passion for health and fitness and enjoys leading and promoting a fit lifestyle (along with the occasional cheat meal, or two).

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