Food Packaging: Don't Be Fooled

reading a nutrition label on food packaging with magnifying glass

A typical trip to the grocery store involves a plethora of small decisions as you balance the demands of staying within your budget, planning your menu for the week, and choosing fresh, tasty, and nutritious food that pleases the people you live with.   As if grocery shopping weren’t already complicated enough, food marketers have slyly perfected the art of enticing shoppers with misleading and meaningless claims on food packaging.  Read on for a discussion of some of the most commonly used misleading phrases and the importance of factoring in serving sizes.

Learn to Read Between the Lines

“No Trans Fat.” Many food manufacturers have removed trans fats from their products in the last few years, and this is a very good thing for the health of Americans.  However, foods that are free of trans fats are not necessarily low in saturated fats, cholesterol, and added sugars.  Still, consumers are often lulled into a false sense of security when they see the label “No Trans Fat”—so often, in fact, that, in a special report entitled Food Labeling Chaos: The Case for Reform, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends that the FDA and USDA prohibit the use of the term “0g trans fat” on foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol.

“No High Fructose Corn Syrup.”  With consumers increasingly aware of the presence of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods, more and more food labels are proclaiming “No High Fructose Corn Syrup”.  Yet the absence of high fructose corn syrup, however, does not necessarily also mean that the food does not have added sugars.  It can be hard for purchasers to correctly gauge the amount of added sugar in a specific food; the ingredient list often divides up the sugars.  Food Labeling Chaos advises that all types of  sugars remain together in the ingredient list, which would highlight the lesser known sugars like lactose, fruit juice concentrates, and sugar alcohols.

“All Natural.”  Many foods claim to be “All Natural” yet in fact contain highly processed ingredients.  Among many other examples, Food Labeling Chaos makes reference to the beverage Minute Maid “All Natural” Cranberry Apple Juice Cocktail; this drink has both citric acid and high fructose corn syrup. The article also cites Hormel’s “Natural Choice 100% All Natural Deli Turkey,” which contains water, salt, sugar, carageenan (from seaweed), and lactic acid starter culture.  The FDA and USDA guidelines for the use of the term “Natural” are currently so broad that it is often rendered meaningless. 

“A Good Source of Fiber.”  Many foods labeled as “a good source of fiber” contain “isolated” sources of fiber, such as chicory root (the main ingredient in Fiber One bars).  These non-traditional sources of fiber have not been shown to provide the same health benefits as beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

“Made with Whole Wheat.”  When manufacturers represent a product as healthy because it contains whole wheat, they should divulge the percentage of whole wheat in the food.  Many of these products are made primarily with refined flours and contain only a small amount of whole wheat flour.

“Supports the Immune System.”  Some of the most entertaining and beguiling statements on food packages are the health claims that companies make for the ingredients in their products.  It’s not technically lying when Nestle’s Carnation Instant Breakfast advertises itself as containing “antioxidants to help support the immune system,” but it’s wishful thinking to suppose that the small amount of cocoa in this sweet drink mix will help to protect your body from disease.

The Frightening Facts about Serving Sizes

To really know what you are buying, you must take the packaging claims with a grain of salt and then read both the nutrition facts label and the list of ingredients.  Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order of predominance—so the first ingredients are the main ones and the last ingredients in the list may be present in very small amounts. 

As you decipher the nutrition facts label, be sure you consider the serving size!  Serving sizes are sometimes surprisingly smaller than the amount that an average eater typically consumes.  The serving size for a bag of Lay’s Ruffles Potato Chips is 12 chips, which equals 150 calories and 10 grams of fat, but it is so easy to lose count of those chips!  Many ice creams also typically supply the nutritional information for a modest half cup serving—no where near the amount of a full bowl of ice cream.  In addition, many foods that come in what appear to be large single-serve packages actually contain two or more servings.  Soups sold in microwavable cups are a good example; Healthy Choice Old-Fashioned Chicken Noodle soup actually contains “about 2” one cup servings, even though almost no one eats only half the container.

Hidden Trans Fats

It may also surprise you to learn that the FDA allows foods to claim that they are “trans-fat free” when they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.  To be sure that a food has absolutely no trans fats, you must check the ingredients list.  If hydrogenated oils are listed, the food has a small amount of trans fats.  When you eat these foods frequently, those unhealthy fats will add up.

The Debate about Serving Sizes

Companies may tweak their serving sizes at times so that they can spin the nutritional facts for their products.  But another reason why serving sizes are so small is that they are based on surveys of eating habits from the 1970s, when Americans really did eat smaller portions (and may have also underestimated what they actually ate).  Many critics would like to see food manufacturers list the nutritional facts for larger, more realistic serving sizes, if only to scare consumers into making healthier choices.  This is an interesting debate because one effective strategy for weight control is to learn to identify and eat smaller portions, and no one wants to encourage Americans to continue to supersize their meals.  Many stakeholders do agree that serving sizes (and their corresponding nutrition facts) should be more prominently listed on food packaging in order to more clearly communicate with consumers.