Remember when eggs weren’t “cage-free” and bread wasn’t “100 percent whole grain”? When yogurt didn’t contain “active and live cultures” and orange juice wasn’t “heart healthy with omega-3’s”? Those were the days—when navigating the supermarket didn’t require a master’s degree. While eating foods in their most natural state and shopping the perimeter of the supermarket is noble, we all eventually find ourselves in front of the frozen pizza case, which now comes with whole grain crust and toppings high in antioxidants. Here’s a guide to help you sort through the health claims haze.
“Made with Whole Grains”
The Facts: Whole grains are hot and have crept into everything from chips to pasta. That’s because the soluble fiber in oat bran and whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease and help maintain glucose levels. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommends half our grains be whole grain—that’s three to five servings of whole grain per day.
Best Sources: 100 percent whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, breakfast cereals that contain 100 percent bran or 100 percent whole grains and oatmeal.
Look for 100 percent whole wheat flour, oatmeal or other whole grain as the first ingredient to determine if the product is truly whole grain. You can also check for the whole grain stamp, which denotes a half or whole serving of whole grain.
Be wary of breads or cereals that say “multigrain” or “wheat flour” on the label. Wheat flour is nothing but white flour as all flour is made from wheat.
Caveat: Just because chips contain whole grains doesn’t mean they’re healthier as the fat and calories may still be the same .
“No Trans Fats”
The current darling food claim is “no trans fats.” The recent ban on trans fats in New York City, prompted a wholesale strike on these bad fats in everything from French fries to Fritos.
The Facts: Trans fats do indeed raise cholesterol levels and have been proven more dangerous than saturated fats. But the label “trans fat free” doesn’t mean fat free. It’s no indication that the product is lower in calories or total fat. So in one sense, it may be better for your heart, but not necessarily your waistline.
“Good Source of Omega-3s”
The Facts: Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to promote healthy arteries by reducing blood clotting and total cholesterol and triglycerides levels
Best Sources: Oddly enough our best sources—fatty fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, Atlantic herring and swordfish—don’t typically come with food labels. Walnuts, canola oil and flaxseeds (and oil) are also natural sources of omega-3s, but a different form, which is not as potent as those in fatty fish. Products fortified with omega-3s, such as Smart Balance® products and Silk® plus Omega-DHA soy beverage, contain the less potent form and probably not in amounts to make a difference. Omega-3 fortified eggs are a good source of the fat, but also cost twice as much.
What does “organic” mean? There is no easy answer as the definition is confusing and complex, but in a nutshell, organic foods are those grown or reared without pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones.
The Organic Foods Production Act has helped to regulate organic claims on food labels. A small sticker version of the USDA Organic label will be on fruits and vegetables, or check the signage in your produce section for the seal. The word “organic” and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.
100% Organic: Must contain only organically produced ingredients
Organic: Must contain 95 percent organically produced ingredients Made with Organic Ingredients: Must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, with strict restrictions on the remaining 30 percent.
Caveat: Just because a food is organic, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Many food manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon, producing organic versions of their overly processed foods. Organic doesn’t ensure that a food is nutritious, low fat or low calorie, just organic.
“All Natural” and “Fresh”
These terms are occasionally misleading, so here’s what they really mean. “Fresh” refers to food that has never been frozen or heated and does not contain preservatives. There is no legal definition for the term “natural,” so it’s unfortunately used without justification. It generally means that the product is minimally processed, with no artificial additives or colorings. But that doesn’t necessarily make it good for you.
“Burn calories!” AND “Boost energy!”
Claims are popping up on a variety of beverages, including teas, juices, flavored water and herbal drinks, with such promises for our frantic, over-scheduled society. Although these supposed benefits sound enticing, they are often unsubstantiated and not worth the money. Here’s why:
Energy Drinks: These products usually sport a long list of herbal supplements, such as gingko, ginseng and kava, which claim to increase energy and improve memory. But the Food and Drug Administration does not currently require evidence from the product’s manufacturers to support the claims, so the effectiveness of these added herbs is questionable. Caffeine and carbohydrates, rather than any added herbal supplements, are mostly what is providing the “energy” in these products.
Vitamin-Enhanced Drinks: There’s a new crop of beverages out there, including fitness waters and soft drinks, that now feature added vitamins—mainly B vitamins—which are known to support energy metabolism. Most people get plenty of B vitamins from the food they eat, and the added amount in these drinks provides little, if any, function. Vitamin-enhanced fitness waters may encourage fluid replacement after exercise, but remember to check the label for sugar content if you are counting calories.
Weight-Loss and Appetite-Suppressing Drinks: Protein waters now claim to “help you feel fuller longer.” Although these drinks usually have less protein than a cup of yogurt or one ounce of cheese, they may help with hunger between meals. However, the promise of actual weight loss could be the most misleading of all the claims. Many of these beverages contain chromium, L-carnitine and dietary supplements but no consistent scientific evidence shows that taking supplemental forms of these nutrients or herbs can boost energy, suppress appetite or improve physical performance. What they do take a chunk out of, is your wallet.
Chances are the more health claims printed on a product, the more processed the food is. And most processed foods are not as nutritious as their natural counterparts.