6 Nutrition Claims That Need a Second Look

5782038776_fc5faae3c4_bAll eyes have been on front-of-package nutrition labeling recently, with the release of the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations to help bring some consistency to front-of-pack systems. That’s great if we can unify the various efforts that call out nutritional attributes on packaged foods. Not sure if these new recommendations totally nailed it, but this is certainly an issue worth tackling.

What you see on the front of the label, however, is never going to be the full story. It’s still important to turn the package around and look at the Nutrition Facts panel that provides more detailed data on what’s inside. Consumers say they’re reading these labels, but an interesting study published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association begs to differ. Researchers at the University of Minnesota used an eye-tracking device to see if shoppers were truly scouring those nutrition labels like they said they were.

The shoppers said one thing, but their eyes said another. Among the 203 study participants, 33% said they always look at the calories on the nutrition label, yet the eye-tracking tracking device found that only 9% actually checked the calories. Only 1% looked at other components on the label, even though they said they almost always look at total fat (31%), trans fat (20%), sugar (24%) and serving size (26%).

What shoppers do tend to look at are the nutrition claims on the front of a package. And that’s the topic of my latest post on the WebMD’s blog Real Life Nutrition.  I wrote about the 6 claims that need a second look before you toss the products into your shopping cart.

  • Trans fat free. Just because you see the words “trans fat free’ on the label is doesn’t mean the food is healthy. It could still be high in saturated fat or have lots of empty calories. Turn the package around to see what you’re really buying. If you see the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list, there could be some trans fats. A label can declare “zero grams” if there’s less than ½ gram per serving. So consider how many servings you might be eating. The trans fats can add up quickly.
  • Made with whole grains. Look for the words “100% whole grain” or check the ingredient list for the words “whole” in front of wheat or other grains. Made with whole grains could mean made with very little. Some of the grains inside may be whole, but it could be as little as 5 percent.
  • No high fructose corn syrup. This is no indication of the amount of sugar that’s in the food or beverage you’re about to buy. And just because you see a so-called “natural” sugar like agave nectar, there’s no real nutritional advantage unless the overall sugar content is reduced.
  • Omega 3. When you see omega-3 touted on a food label (and it’s not fish) it’s likely ALA omega 3. Unless you see the words EPA or DHA, or you spot fish oil or algal oil in the ingredient list, it’s safe to assume that you’re only getting ALA – especially when the product contains flax, soybean oil or canola oil. That’s fine, but you should know that not all omega-3s are created equal. Our bodies need to convert ALA to the more potent DHA or EPA omega 3 that’s found in fish (and less than 10% is typically converted). You might be getting less of these beneficial fatty acids than you think.
  • Detox. This has become an uber trendy term, but it’s basically meaningless. However, you’ll find it featured on the front of the label of protein bars, juices, teas and other beverages.
  • Natural. It’s the big buzz word on package labels and there was even a recent food fight with the FDA to determine if high fructose corn syrup really qualifies as natural. Other companies have gotten their hands slapped for playing the natural card. We’re arguing over technicalities and the word has lost all meaning. I think if a food wasn’t actually plucked from a tree or grown from the ground, then it shouldn’t claim to be natural.

So what does this all mean? Go beyond the trendy words on the front of the package and check the nutrition facts and ingredients on the back to know what you’re really buying. Keep your eyes wide open when evaluating claims.

Image via libertygraceO on flickr

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