Reading Between the Lines of Food Label Advertising

There are so many products on the supermarket shelves today that food manufacturers need to use catchy phrases to convince you to choose their product over the competition. The average consumer is health and fitness conscious so advertising blurbs sure to catch the buying public's attention are words like calorie-reduced, non-fat, cholesterol-free, lite, etc.

You can be assured that food manufacturers cannot use these phrases without complying with the government's definition of these terms. So, they are telling the truth when they claim that their product is "salt-free" but as I mentioned in last week's column, the truth can be stretched a little.

A product can legally claim to be salt-free although it is high in sodium because "salt" refers to "sodium chloride". If the product contains only sodium but no chloride, it really is "salt-free". However, if you are salt-sensitive, it doesn't mean it is safe for you because it is the sodium part of salt that causes high blood pressure and water retention, not the combination of sodium and chloride. By the way, many products that aren't salty at all contain substantial amounts of sodium. Check out the nutrition label at the back of your favorite breakfast cereal. You just may get surprised.

So, the manufacturers are telling the truth but that truth may not mean what you think it means. Here are more examples of why you need to read between the line of food label advertising.

Anything that contains the word "free" as in fat-free, cholesterol-free, sugar-free or salt-free means that the product contains negligible amounts of whatever it is advertising to be free of. Additionally, the product cannot use the word "free" if the original product did not naturally contain the substance it is claiming to be free from. For example, peanut butter, which naturally does not contain cholesterol, cannot be marketed as being cholesterol-free because that is pointless and redundant. It is like advertising that water is calorie-free!

Unfortunately, as pointed out previously with the term "salt-free", the legal definition still has its loopholes. "Sugar-free" may refer to the fact that the product is free from table sugar but it may contain other sugars in the form of fructose, lactose, dextrose, corn syrup and etc. This is misleading because all those other forms of sugar contain as many calories as table sugar.

"No added"
At first glance, the phrases "no added sugar" or "no added salt" seem to indicate that the product has no sugar or salt. However, it could also mean that no sugar or salt was added to a product that already contains sugar or salt in its natural state. For example, 100% natural fruit juice can be advertised as having "no sugar added". The manufacturer is telling the truth but you might misinterpret that truth as meaning that the product has no sugar or it has less sugar than another product that has sugar as one if its ingredients.

The word "reduced" means that the product has at least 25% less calories, fat, sugar or sodium than the original version. For example, if the original version of ABC Cookies has 200 calories per serving, the reduced-calorie version should be 150 calories or less per serving.

Many people think the "savings" is substantial and this notion leads them to eat more servings than they should. Oftentimes, they would have consumed fewer calories by eating one serving of the "real thing".

The next time you are tempted to buy a "reduce-calorie" product, remember to eat it in moderation as if it contained as many calories as the original product. Otherwise, the only one you are fooling is yourself. The same goes for products advertised as being reduced in fat, sugar or sodium.

"Lite" or "light"
The good news, according to "The Tufts University Guide to Total Nutrition", is that "light" means that "calories in a nutritionally altered food have been reduced by at least one-third of what they were in the regular product, or the fat reduced by one-half". The bad news is that "light" or "lite" can also refer to the color or texture of a food and not necessarily the calories or fat. Tufts says that the label must be specific about this like, for example, "made with light brown sugar". Unfortunately, many people only see the words "light" or "lite" and automatically assume it means low in calories and fat.

"Less" or "fewer"
This is similar to the definition of "reduced" (25% less calories) except manufacturers can compare two different products. For example, a popcorn product can be advertised as having less or fewer calories than potato chips.

Obviously, food manufacturers will only use the word "high" in relation to vitamins, minerals, or some other beneficial nutrient. Who wants to advertise that their product is high in fat unless that fat is monounsaturated (considered heart-healthy fat)? "High" means that one serving of the product contains 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for that particular nutrient. Therefore, since the Daily Value for fiber is 25 grams a day (for a 2,000-calorie diet), a product can say it is "high in fiber" if it contains 5 grams of fiber per serving.

"Good source"
A product that advertises itself as being a "good source of", for example, vitamin C, must contain 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value per serving for that nutrient.

A product can say it has "more" of a particular nutrient if it contains at least 10 percent more of the Daily Value than is contained in the regular product. The example given by Tufts is calcium-fortified orange juice, which can claim to have "more" calcium than regular orange juice (which doesn't contain any calcium at all!).

"% Fat"
There is lots of room for twisting the truth here. Judith Wills of The Food Bible points out that the percentage of fat quoted by manufacturers on the front of their products is usually the percentage of fat as compared to the total weight of the product not the calories. As you will see in a little while, the reason they do this is to make their product appear to be less fattening. Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? Probably not. I will let Wills explain in her own words.

"Another anomaly regarding fat claims is that the percentage of fat content often quoted (e.g., French fries - only 5% fat) is misleading to say the least. By this, the manufacturer means that the fries contain 5% of their total weight as fat - i.e., 5 grams of fat per 100 grams of food. This does not mean that the fries only contain 5% of the total calories in the food as fat. All food - including fries, meat, cheese, and so on - contains a high or fairly high percentage of water (e.g., lean meat is 74% water, oven fries are about 60% water, hard cheese is about 36% water) which is calorie-free. So 5% of fat by weight turns out to be a much higher percentage of the total calories. Five grams of fat equals 45 calories, as there are nine calories per gram of fat. There are about 160 calories in 100 grams of oven fries. So the real amount of fat in the fries is 28%!"

Watch out then for products claiming to be, for example, "95% fat free" because it does not mean that the product only has 5% fat out of the total calories. You still have to look at the nutrition facts label at the back of the product for the total calories and the calories coming from fat. You may just discover that the product is actually 60% fat because it has 75 calories per serving and 45 of those calories come from fat (five grams of fat multiplied by nine calories).

Read between the lines
Wills gives a few more examples of advertising half-truths. She writes, "Some manufacturers banner claims such as "free from artificial colorings and preservatives" on their products to distract from the fact that they do contain, say, artificial sweeteners and flavors". She adds, "A UHT (ultrapasteurized) carton or can with a tempting photo of citrus fruits on the front, calling itself "citrus fruit drink" may contain as little as 10% real juice, the remainder being made up of water, sugar, colorings, and flavorings. Not quite so good for you. And this is legal. Strawberry flavor yogurt may never have been near a real strawberry or even real strawberry extract; it will simply use artificial flavoring. This, too, is legal."

You really have to be savvy consumer these days to read between the lines!  

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