It's a fact of the grocery store that the most healthy food often has the least marketing muscle behind it. The best source of fiber and vitamins are fresh vegetables and fruit, and yet it's the processed, packaged junk food fortified with vitamin and fiber powder that screams for attention. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently published a comprehensive report on the subject, a persuasive indictment delicately called "Food Labeling Chaos."
reading food labels
"Consumers need honest labeling so they can spend their food dollars wisely and avoid diet-related disease," said CSPI senior staff attorney Ilene Ringel Heller, co-author of the report. "Companies should market their foods without resorting to the deceit and dishonesty that's so common today. And, if they don't, the FDA should make them."
Like listening skeptically to a politician speak, however, you can often decipher the truth amid the lies and misdirection by carefully reading food labels. Here we take a look at four of the most common ways food labels lie, so you can prepare before your next trip to the grocery store.Made With Whole Grains
You're standing in the grocery aisle, faced with a choice. On the one hand, there are the Thomas' English Muffins of your youth: white and filled with nooks and crannies practically screaming to be filled with pools of melted butter. On the other: Thomas' Hearty Grains English Muffins, which is "made with the goodness of whole grains." You reach, somewhat grudgingly, for the healthy option, since experts tell you that 50% of your grains should be whole grains.
What you don't realize is that unbleached wheat flour is the main ingredient; whole wheat flour is the third on the list, "indicating that the product contains relatively little," according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Once again, one truth - the presence of whole grains, masks another, that whole grains make up an insignificant portion of the food. Some products that trumpet their whole grain credentials (like Keebler's Zesta saltine crackers) use caramel to mimic the brown color that results from the use of whole grains; in fact, according to CSPI, the crackers have almost as much salt as whole grains. Other purportedly healthy crackers have more sugar than whole wheat. So much for healthy whole grains (or truth in advertising).Ingredients Bill Cosby chocolate cake quote - Eggs are in chocolate cake! And milk! Oh goody! And …
What could be more straight-forward than ingredient lists? So you might think, but there's a lot of room for deception and misdirection in the average ingredient list. Exhibit A, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest: the Tasty Living Mocha Cherry Double Chocolate Layer Cake. The first ingredient is enriched bleach flour, and everyone knows that ingredients are listed in order from most to least. This cake must be sort-of nutritious, since it's mostly made out of nutritious wheat flour, right? After all, as Bill Cosby reminded us so many years ago, "Eggs. Eggs are in chocolate cake! And milk! Oh goody! And wheat! That's nutrition!"
Sorry, Bill. The biggest ingredient in this cake is sugar, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest Points out. How is it possible? Just add up all the sugars that go by different names: sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup and white grape juice concentrate. Boom! This cake is nearly one-third sugar.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest argues that U.S. nutrition labels and ingredient lists should be a more consumer-friendly. By grouping major ingredients and separating minor ingredients, we'd all be better able to make smarter purchases. Which can of diced tomatoes is 60% tomato and 40% water, and which is 70% tomato? How much fruit is actually in that fruity-looking "health" bar? Right now, there's no way to know ... without a chemistry kit.Serving Size
A 20 oz. soda fits easily in your hand, fits easily in your car's cup holder and might even come free with a sandwich at the local deli. But even if a reasonable person might perceive that bottle as a single-serving delivery system, there are 2.5 official servings in there, meaning 100 calories per "serving" ... but 240 calories per bottle.serving size reading food labels
While major soda bottlers have begun spelling out this single-serving conundrum to the junk food-consuming public, most serving size calculations are based on standards developed when Die Hard, Beetle Juice and Rain Man debuted on the big screen. Some are based on standards as old as Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever! Just try to remember the size of the sodas and popcorn customarily dolled out in 1977 at the drive-in, compared to today at the megaplex, and you get a sense for how much our sense of portion proportion has gone out of whack (er, changed) in the last generation.
And yet, the serving size data on our foods reflect a slimmer more restrained era, when an 8 oz soda was a weekly treat, not a single glug between fistfuls of Cool Ranch Doritos (serving size: 11 chips). How many people do you know restrain themselves to 11 chips? Or to a 1/2 cup of ice cream? Or a single cup of cooked pasta?Fiber
Fiber is fiber is fiber. Right? Who would have any reason to think otherwise? You might if you knew the fibers advertised in many foods are mainly "purified powders" called inulin, polydextrose and maltodextrin, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. These "isolated" unnatural fibers are unlikely to lower blood cholesterol or blood sugar, as other fibers can, and two of the three won't even "help with regularity," according to the CSPI. "Currently, fiber is being added to foods such as ice creams, yogurts, juices and drinks so that manufacturers can brag about their fiber content," the group contends. "But these products do not contain the traditional sources of fiber associated with a variety of health benefits."