Can You Spot the Label Liars?
Food packages are riddled with righteous claims. But not all snacks are as innocent as they appear.
THE SUSPECT: LOW-FAT
“Fat is bad. So buy me instead!”
The Charge: Less fat should mean fewer calories, but here’s the thing: Fat is what makes many foods taste good! So some food manufacturers load low-fat and fat-free products with sugar and salt, just to add some flavor.
Check the Evidence: Compare labels, and if the low-fat one has less sugar or salt and fewer calories than the full-fat option, go low-fat. When in doubt, pick the one that tastes better, then measure out a single serving. (If food doesn’t taste good, what’s the point, right?)
THE SUSPECT: MULTI-GRAIN
“I want you to think I’m made with whole grains—but am I?”
The Charge: Whole grains contain the entire kernel, which holds the majority of nutrients (like fiber). But some food companies slap healthy-sounding terms like “multi-grain” or “7 grain” on products made with less-nutritious refined flour, making it easy to get confused.
Check the Evidence: Instead of relying on the name, look at the ingredients list. If you see the word “whole” before the first ingredient (such as “whole-wheat flour”), you’re in the clear.
THE SUSPECT: ALL-NATURAL
“I’m pure and innocent . . . or at least it seems that way.”
The Charge: “All-natural” foods can’t contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. It’s a vague definition and food manufacturers get away with some sketchy ingredients. For example, high-fructose corn syrup qualifies as all-natural, meaning foods with this label can be extremely high in sugar and calories.
Check the Evidence: Scan the ingredients list for words you don’t recognize, and ask yourself, “Would I still think this was a healthy food if it didn’t say all-natural?”
Food-Sleuth Secret Weapons
Don’t let labels fool you! Just find these key facts on the nutrition panel of any package.
1. Serving Size: Look here first, and know that every number that follows corresponds to this single serving size. (It’s crazy, but a bag of chips labeled “snack-sized” could contain two servings!)
2. Percent Daily Value (%DV): For sodium and fat, you want this number to be low (5% is ideal). But for healthy nutrients, like calcium and iron, higher is better!
3. Ingredients List: The shorter the list, the better. Also keep an eye out for sneaky names for sugar, like glucose, malt syrup, or fructose.