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(Un) Healthy Foods

What nutrition labels are really saying about “healthy” foods

December 29, 2013
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

Once the holiday season ends, the diet season begins. New Year's resolutions of eating healthier and losing weight will elbow past cookie dough and egg nog on their way to the yogurt and turkey bacon. "Health foods" are not always that, however. Food companies take some liberties with marketing and definitions in order to sell their products. Gaining a better understanding of the terminology could make those resolutions a lot more effective.

All Natural,

100 percent Natural

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Look for “whole grain” on labels rather than “multigrain” or “whole wheat.” Whole grains are more filling and more useful to the body, thus more helpful to dieters. It can be as easy as eating oatmeal for breakfast or adding barley to soups.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "natural" as "existing in or produced by nature; not artificial." That cuts a wide berth. The Food and Drug Administration's definition isn't much tighter: "nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food."

A 2012 survey by a market research company found that more than 50 percent of American shoppers look for the "all natural" label. Not surprising, food corporations have developed products within these lax guidelines and policing that made $40 billion last year. However, consumers have begun wising up and suing said companies for false advertising, and the FDA has started reining in opportunists with warnings. Fewer "all natural" labels are appearing on products from Ben & Jerry's, Skinny Girl, Frito-Lay and Kellogg's. Highly processed ingredients (like high fructose corn syrup and alkalized cocoa) and genetically modified organisms are the bases of many of the lawsuits.

Only 47 percent of shoppers trust the labels, according to another research firm. That isn't surprising considering the FDA website itself says it is "difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth."


This is another enticement for shoppers given all of the headlines about the benefits of fiber and the American diet's lack of it. "Multigrain," "seven grain" or even "whole wheat" does not mean "whole grain." Most of the nutritional value (vitamins and fiber) is in the bran and germ of grains. Unfortunately, the refining process removes nearly all of that and leaves the least nutritious portion, the endosperm. As an example, whole wheat flour has about half of the nutritional value of whole grain flour and is higher in fat, too.

Food companies can label a product multigrain because technically the ingredients may include wheat, flax, oats, rye or any number of grains in even miniscule amounts. The product may not have the vitamins and fiber that the consumer expects. How does one know whether bread, cereal or other items are healthier than their counterparts? The ingredients list will begin with "whole grain."

Since those labels, usually found on the sides or backs of the packages, are formatted to begin with the most plentiful ingredients, they are the best indication of what one is getting. The "nutrition facts" portion of the label, above the ingredients, will list the fiber content.

Sugar free/fat free

These labels, too, prey on hopeful dieters as well as those trying to control sugar and fat for health reasons. Buyer, beware. Both sugar and fat enhance flavor, especially in highly processed foods. Generally, whenever a company removes or reduces one of them, it increases the other. For fat free products, many companies add high fructose corn syrup, hiking the calorie and sugar content up to as much or more than the original, regular product. This is the case in fat free yogurts and salad dressings especially.

For instance, the label on Yoplait 99% Fat Free Fruit Flavors yogurt says it contains 110 calories, 1 gram of fat and 18 grams of sugar in a 4 ounce cup/serving (113 grams.) Yoplait's Original Strawberry yogurt contains 170 calories, 1.5 grams of fat (1 g saturated) and 26 grams of sugar in one 170 gram container/serving. The fat free serving is only two-thirds the size of the regular, so, allowing for the adjustment of approximately one-third, the same serving size would mean the fat free version has 143 calories, 1.33 grams of fat and 24 grams of sugar.

Sugar free products like ice creams or whipped toppings often use sugar alcohols like xylitol, mannitol or sorbitol which are sweet but have fewer calories, and the products still may have carbohydrates and calories from other ingredients. Some people have gastrointestinal reactions (such as bloating and diarrhea) to sugar alcohols.

Illustrating the marketing twists that companies use to keep a steady flow of customers perpetually dieting are three Breyers ice creams. The first is Natural Vanilla, and Breyers is a company that keeps its ingredients simple: milk, cream, sugar, tara gum and real vanilla. In one half-cup serving, there are 130 calories, 60 of those from fat (46 percent); total fat 7 grams, 4 grams saturated; 14 grams sugar.

Breyers "1/2 the Fat" Creamy Vanilla is made from skim milk and weighs in at 100 calories (half-cup serving), 25 of those from fat (25 percent); 3 grams of fat, 2 grams saturated; and still 14 grams of sugar. One half-cup serving of their "CarbSmart" Vanilla has 120 calories, 50 of them from fat (42 percent); 6 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat; 4 grams of sugar. However, the Breyers website notes that while there are only 4 grams of sugar, there are also 5 grams of sugar alcohols and 4 grams of fiber, which "have minimal impact on blood sugar."

In some cases, it may be best to simply eat less of the "real" food with simpler ingredients rather than get on a perpetual teeter-totter of fat free versus sugar free.

Greek yogurt

Within the past couple of years, it has been infiltrating the dairy case. Real Greek-style yogurt is thicker and a little drier with a slightly sour or tart taste. During manufacturing, the whey (liquid) is strained from this product giving it the thicker, drier texture, less sugar and more protein. But, just as with the "natural" label, the FDA hasn't determined specifics on what can be called "Greek" yogurt. Therefore, companies can process it differently, add thickeners and sugar instead of straining, and vary the protein content.

Once again, reading the ingredients labels - not only the front packaging - is key to getting the healthiest product. The list on Greek yogurt, as it is intended with high protein and lower sugar, should begin with two ingredients: milk and live active cultures. There should be no sugar at the beginning or whey concentrates or corn starch at all.

If one is serious about dieting or leading a healthier lifestyle, reading ingredients should be de rigueur. Even labeling a product "organic" doesn't mean it is health food. It means that the ingredients were grown and the food was processed within a strict set of guidelines. This writer has seen organic toaster pastries, candy and frozen pizzas, which, while healthier than their mainstream counterparts, are not exactly the healthiest dieting choices.

Strive for fresh foods whenever possible, avoiding boxed or frozen dinners that are highly processed. Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables over canned varieties, the best choices being locally grown or organic. A good rule of thumb: foods with the shortest lists and with pronounceable ingredients are most likely the healthiest choices.

Valenti can be reached at



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