One of the most rewarding parts of my job as a disease prevention nutritionist is teaching others how to uncover the truth about health claims on food labels. I’ve mentioned this topic before in the Hidden Sugars post and the Why is America So Sick article, but it bears repeating.
Everything that you read, hear, or see about packaged food has a heavy dose of marketing spin behind it. We are all exposed to carefully crafted brand stories that tout so-called benefits, but omit truthful information. Where is this truthful information found? On the Nutrition Facts Label and in the Ingredient Line. Both are found on the back or side of most food packages.
The easiest way to drive this point home is with some real food examples from recently-introduced products.
A Closer Look at Health Claims on Food Labels
When I read about this new product in my food industry newsletter, I thought maybe it would be a welcome breakthrough. A pasta made with cauliflower sounds healthy, right?
But let’s dig in.
The Caulipower® website unites all of their products under the marketing umbrella of “A Tastier Healthy.”™ Besides the healthier halo, this pasta product is marketed with numerous certifications: gluten free, wheat free, vegan, vegetarian, peanut free, tree nut free, American Heart Association, and no preservatives.
But we shouldn’t get excited about all of those marketing claims until we look at the ingredient line: Cauliflower, Corn Flour, Potato Starch, Rice Flour, Lentil Flour, Psyllium, Citrus Fiber, Sunflower Seed Oil, Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum.
A big letdown. Yes, cauliflower is the first ingredient. But it goes downhill after that with a host of refined, starchy flours that fall into the unhealthy carbohydrate category. These simple carbs act like added sugar in your body. Plus, the psyllium, citrus fiber, and gums may cause stomach distress. No thank you.
The nutrition label supports these facts. This pasta is basically all carbs with minimal protein and good fat to offset the carbohydrate load.
I’m definitely drawn in by artisanal products with a nutrition story.
This brand’s point of difference is zero cane sugar.
That’s a good start. Let’s see what ingredients are used for their gourmet chocolate bars and gelato products marketed as “better-for-you.”
Bon AppeSweet Chocolate Bars
I’d give the chocolate bars a thumbs up.
The ingredient line for the 70% Deep Dark Chocolate bar is simple with just organic cacao, organic cocoa butter, and organic dates.
In this case, the marketing is truthful. Instead of cane sugar, they use real fruit in the form of dates. That’s a solid replacement.
However, one of their chocolate bars, the Sea Salted Butter Pecan, has an ingredient line that runs counter to their marketing promise to produce chocolate bars made only with whole dates.
Here’s the ingredient line: organic cacao, organic dates, pecans, organic date syrup, organic agave nectar, cashew butter, and sea salt.
The problem? Although there’s zero cane sugar, the organic date syrup and organic agave nectar aren’t much of an improvement over cane sugar. They sound better because they’re marketed as “organic,” but they are still simple sugars.
Bon AppeSweet Gelato
I love gelato, but haven’t indulged since my trip to Italy many years ago. That spoiled me forever.
Anyway, the marketing spin here is zero cane sugar — sweetened with only fruit-based sweeteners. Fruit-based sounds wonderful but the ingredient line tells a different story.
Their gelatos are made with date syrup, coconut sugar, and agave nectar. Calling these sweeteners fruit-based is misleading. There isn’t any whole fruit like the dates used in their chocolate bars. And although they use zero cane sugar, their processed sweeteners of choice — date syrup, coconut sugar, and agave nectar — really aren’t much better than cane sugar.
King Arthur Baking Company™ — Baking Sugar Alternative
I listen to food industry podcasts. Currently, there’s a push in many food science labs to introduce alternatives to added sugars. When I heard about King Arthur’s Baking Sugar Alternative, I was curious.
Here’s the marketing pitch: 0 net carbs, 0 calories, 0 aftertaste, and a 1:1 substitute for regular sugar in baking recipes. Plus, it looks, acts, and tastes like real sugar.
I wanted to be excited about King Arthur’s new baking sugar. But I’m not.
Here’s the ingredient line: erythritol, soluble corn fiber, allulose, cane sugar derived fructan fiber, monk fruit extract, natural flavor, stevia leaf extract.
I grimaced when I saw this ingredient line. This may take the cake (no pun intended) for being hoodwinked by marketing promises. This highly processed potpourri of alternative sugars represents one more way to play on our insecurities about what we eat.
When I work directly with Lady Moxy members, I ask that they refrain from consuming packaged goods with all of the sugar substitutes found in King Arthur’s Baking Sugar Alternative. Most of these sweeteners are several hundred times sweeter than table sugar. Although the scientific research findings are mixed, one theory is that these no-calorie, super sweet sugar substitutes may trigger cravings for additional sweet foods and drinks. Ultimately, this could result in excess calorie consumption overall.
Conclusion – 6 Food Label Tips for Savvy Shoppers
Tips to uncover the truth behind health claims on food labels when you purchase packaged foods:
- Look for a short list of ingredients. The shorter, the better.
- Look at the first ingredient. If it’s an added sugar or a refined carbohydrate, that’s not healthy.
- Look for added sugars in hidden places. Some examples are pasta sauces, nut butters, salad dressings, yogurt, cereals, and condiments.
- Look at the concentration of sodium. Many plant-based foods marketed as healthy have high levels of sodium.
- Put your skeptic hat on when you grocery shop. Turn packages around and read the Ingredient Line and Nutrition Facts. Ignore the marketing claims on the front of the package.
- When you research a brand online, be sure to click on the nutrition information. Know what you’re really eating. Ignore the marketing claims on food websites.
Good luck, and let me know what food products you’ve found that overpromised and underdelivered