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Health Behavior Change Food for Health and Behavior

Creative Food Labels Can Deceive! Can You Identify the Imposters?

woman sitting on floor and leaning on couch using laptop
woman sitting on floor and leaning on couch using laptop

‘Tis the season for bringing home fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers’ markets or harvesting those from your own garden! And what flavor there is from these wonderful gems, not to mention the exceptional nutritional value… While canning and freezing during the harvest is dawn-to-dusk work until all is finished, the pay-off of fresh fruits and vegetables is well worth the labor! Grow your own or buy from your local farmers when you can! But, even those who have vegetable gardens occasionally need food items from the grocery.

But what about foods that are purchased at the grocery? Does food packaging tell the whole story? What is the actual nutritional value? What should be kept in mind about this as we shop for ourselves or guide our patients toward their own goal of improved nutrition and healthy eating?

Food Selection and Health Behavior

A change in behavior during routine shopping trips can impact the health of our patients and practitioners by selecting the right foods.

Food labeling is generally regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)(1).

Basics of FDA Food Labeling Requirements

  • · Common name of the food (Principal Display Panel)
  • · Net quantity of contents (PDP)
  • · Ingredient list (PDP or information panel)
  • · Name & location of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor (PDP or information panel)
  • · Nutrition Information

While regulated food labels are helpful in many ways, the Center for Advanced Medicine(2) suggests that manufacturers do get creative when trying to:

  1. 1. sell as much as possible,
  2. 2. save on their processing and manufacturing costs, and
  3. 3. comply with US government’s food regulations.

While the US Food and Drug Administration and US Department of Agriculture regulates many terms and their definitions on food labels, many similar-sounding terms are not regulated. According to Consumer Reports (CR)(3), a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that shoppers gravitate toward labels such as “low sodium”, “low fat” and “reduced sugar”, but foods and drinks with these claims weren’t significantly healthier than similar products without the claims, and in some cases were less healthy.

The example CR gives is a low-sodium soup may fall well within the FDA guidelines of 140 mg or less of sodium per serving but could still be high in calories, fat, or sugar. “Low-sodium” labeling in this case, while true and may catch the consumer’s eye, doesn’t tell the whole story unless the label is read. Additionally, buzzwords such as nonfat, low carb, no trans fat, low calorie, and no cholesterol can be promoted on packaging even though the serving size would have to be reduced unreasonably to make these claims(2).

While rushing through a grocery or quickly browsing your online grocery items, it’s easy to note only what is on the package front as opposed to being concerned about the food label on the back. Food marketing can create packaging with buzz words that one may think signify one thing when it actually indicates something else or in some cases, Nothing!

Can you distinguish between the US-regulated term and the creative imposter?

  1. 1. Organic versus Natural
  2. 2. Pasture-Raised versus Free Range
  3. 3. 100% Whole Grain versus Made with Whole Grains
  4. 4. Low-sodium versus Reduced Sodium
  5. 5. Sugar-Free versus Unsweetened

*CR provides a closer look at the terms below.

Organic versus Natural

To be considered “organic”, the food must have 95% organic ingredients and be grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or GMOs, and contain no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors. Consumers often mistake “natural” to mean something similar to organic, which it’s not. Natural has no legal meaning for

food quality. Natural sugar is sometimes used in reference to that which occurs in fruits “by nature”.

Pasture Raised versus Free Range

Pasture-raised and Free Range have no real significance for egg production unless you see a “Humane-certified” seal in addition on the carton, which means the hens have plenty of space to roam outdoors.

Cage-free generally indicates hens raised in closed barns and may have no time outdoors. If the egg carton has no description on it or says “caged”, this generally indicates hens are in “battery” cages, i.e., a small cage with several birds in the cage, very little total space and no time outside the cage.

100% Whole Grain versus Made with Whole Grains

Made with whole grains can signify only a small amount of whole grain used with other refined grains, while 100% whole grain contains whole grains exclusively or have whole-wheat flour as the first ingredient listed.

Low-Sodium versus Reduced Sodium

Low sodium must have no more than 140mg of sodium per serving, while reduced sodium must have at least 25% less sodium than the full-sodium version of the same product.

Sugar-Free versus Unsweetened

Sugar-free must contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Many sugar-free items contain artificial sweeteners. Unsweetened products have no sugars or artificial sweeteners added, but may contain natural sugars.

In summary of food for health and behavior, we live in a “Grab ‘n Go” society. Reading food labels and being tuned in to marketing tactics on food packaging should not only be in the interest of our dietitians and nutritionists! We should be wise and take time to know what is in the foods we and our patients consume!

After all, we truly are what we eat!

Melinda Huffman, BSN, MSN,CCNS, CHC


The National Society of Health Coaches

*The NSHC has no financial alignment with Consumer Reports.

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