Monday, March 11, 2013

Can You Trust Food Labels? (Part I)

I, like so many others, have been trying to find new ways to be healthier. That means exercising more, making healthier and cleaner food choices – cutting down on processed foods - and eating in smaller portions. To the untrained eye, though, it can be so easy to get fooled by all the gimmicks and misleading advertising that are so common in the supermarket or grocery store.  We may look out for “whole grain” or “low fat” products thinking we’re making healthy choices. We may even get carried away into thinking that we can get away with more serving because it won’t budge our waistlines. But just because something says “whole grain” or “low fat” doesn’t necessarily mean its completely harmless.  So how do I avoid these deceptive traps? Read on to find out more!

Whole Grains

Whole grains contain 25 percent more protein and 78 percent more fibre than white flour so it is definitely healthier. Manufacturers have made concerted effort to capitalize on this fact. A reported 71 percent of Americans were trying to consume more whole grains, according to the Food and Health survey in 2007. Yes, its not surprising since the number of whole grain products grew 18 percent in 2005, a drastic jump from less than 1 percent annually in 2001-2004 (Post, 2007). But with so many different products to choose from, how do you separate the real from the fake? By ensuring you read food labels carefully. Ensuring that the product you buy is labeled 100 percent whole grains rather than “made with whole grain”. That’s because while the latter may contain whole grains, it may also contain mostly refined or white flour. Another clue is that the first ingredient should state whole. The fibre content also can help differentiate from the pretenders. Genuine products usually have three to four grams per serving.

Low-Fat & Fat-Free

 More than 2,000 new low-fat or reduced fat products hit the market in 1997 (Prepared Foods). According to another survey, 88 percent of the U.S. adult population consumes low or reduced fat products. And why not? With all the hype surrounding trans fat, cholesterol and saturated fat, its no surprise products sporting these labels seem like a safe bet. But don’t be fooled. Where these products lack in amount of fat, they make up for in calories. Sometimes they contain nearly as much as the full-fat counterparts. Rule of thumb - if they say “fat-free”, they usually contain a ton load of sugar and vice versa with “sugar-free” products. So be sure to check the labels. Compare these low-fat, reduced fat and fat-free products with the full-fat version to see whether there is really much of a difference. Its also good to remember that fat is not all bad. In fact, including 30 percent of fat to your diet can actually help you lose weight. That’s because fat helps to fill you up so you eat less overall. That adds up to pounds being lost. If the counterfeit products just aren’t cutting it, all hope isn’t lost. Aim to boost your intake of monounsaturated fats such as avocado pears, sesame seeds, almonds and olive and canola oils in addition to omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon.

Trans Fat

Trans fat occurs when hydrogen molecules are added to a polyunsaturated fat. Though this may happen naturally in trace amounts in some foods - meat, lard and dairy products – but for the most part, it occurs in food production process when making vegetable oils. Because this form of fat is more stable, it helps to increase the shelf life of food products. But what’s good for the shelf isn’t always good for your heart. Studies show that higher intakes of these fats are linked to increased risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases (Stender and Dyerberg, 2004). But before you buy the next “trans fat free” product, you may get more than what you bargained for. “No trans fat” may actually mean 0.5g per serving. Multiply those servings and you’re getting a significant amount of trans fat in your diet. Another trick is that food companies have come up with a stable fat that can be termed trans-fat free by using fully hydrogenated oil. But scientific research reveals its true nature which shows that it lowers the good cholesterol while causing a considerable increase in blood sugar levels. So avoid the pitfalls by check the food labels. Key words to look out for are “hydrogenated” – whether fully or partially.


Food & Health Survey. (2007). Consumer Attitudes toward Food, Nutrition & Health: A Trended Survey. Retrieved from

Post, Robert. (2007, November). Just Ask for Whole Grains. Kansas City, USA. Retrieved from

Stender, S., Dyerberg J. (2004). Influence of transfatty acids on health, Annuals of Nutrition & Metabolism, 48(2), 61-66. 

***DISCLAIMER***: Photographs used in this blog entry should be used as examples of common food labels. Author makes no inference with regards to the integrity of the claims made by these food labels or their companies. It is recommended to use to the guidelines mentioned in the blog to decide which products live up to their claims.

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