Cracking the Codes of Nutritional Buzzwords

If you find yourself looking more carefully at food labels in the grocery store, you’re not alone. More people than ever are seeking healthier options, consumer research shows. One Nielsen survey found that 80 percent of North Americans are even willing to pay a premium if they believe products are healthier.

Of course, food manufacturers and marketers know this. In order to grab attention and draw consumers, they often use nutritional buzzwords and potentially misleading claims to influence purchases. Wading through all the hype can be confusing.

“There are a lot of people who are interested in making intelligent choices about what they are putting in their bodies,” said Andrew Forster, M.D., an internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care in Miami Beach. “But unfortunately, they don’t have the knowledge or information they need.”

Dr. Forster advises people to purchase fresh, unprocessed foods for the healthiest eating. “Fresh broccoli does not need a label. It’s just broccoli,” he said. “People should buy food that looks as close as possible to what it looks like in nature. Those foods may require more time to prepare, but they are better for you — and you know what went into them.”

Most of your food shopping should be done in the outer perimeter of the store, where you can usually find the fresh produce, dairy, meat and fish departments. Read packages carefully. The Nutrition Facts portion of food labels is regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and is fairly straightforward. Although it will be undergoing an update in the coming year, the Nutrition Facts are still the best source of information for consumers, Dr. Forster said.

If you find yourself gravitating toward boxed, processed or prepared foods, here are some tips from Baptist Health nutritionists, the American Diabetes Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other health advocates on things to watch for:

  • Healthful vs. Healthy. Many companies slap the word “healthful” on their products to attract the attention of consumers. However, there is no official definition for this term. The FDA does not regulate how the word is used on food labels, so it can be used to give consumers the wrong impression. “Healthy” is a better word to look for, because manufacturers must follow a set standard from the FDA to use this term.
  • Multi-grain vs. whole grain. The claim of multi-grain, often seen on bread or crackers, is another description that sounds healthy. Again, not necessarily true. More than one type of grain may be included in the product, making the claim technically correct, but the grains may be refined and highly process, stripping away the healthiest part of the grain along with fiber and nutritional content. In fact, even white bread that can be labeled “multi-grain” if it has grains and seeds sprinkled on top. Sometimes, color or molasses are added to make products look darker and more “wholesome.” The Whole Grains Council concedes it can be confusing. To get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck, look for foods that specifically say “100 percent whole grain” or “100 percent whole wheat.” Beware of the boast, “Made with whole grains.” The claim may be correct, but it does not indicate how much whole grain is actually included — it may be a negligible amount.
  • Made with real fruit. What could be healthier than real fruit? Pretty much nothing. Remember that when purchasing something that boasts “Made with real fruit!” Don’t be mislead. Although it is intended to make a product sound wholesome, this claim does not make the item equivalent to the real thing — or even close. The term is unregulated by the FDA, and many products that claim to contain real fruit have only a tiny amount. Sometimes, it isn’t even the fruit pictured on the package. Check the Nutrition Facts label to see what fruit is used and how far down it is on the ingredient list. The lower down it is, the less of it is included in relation to the other ingredients.
  • Zero-calorie and negative-calorie foods. Logic would seem to dictate that foods labeled as having zero calories would have no calories, but that is not necessarily true. The FDA allows foods to be labeled as having zero calories if they have up to five calories per serving. If the servings are small, and you have multiple servings daily of these “zero-calorie” items, you may be consuming more calories than you realize. Also, ignore the myth of negative-calorie foods — foods that supposedly require more calories to chew and digest than they contain. While celery, cucumbers, cabbage and other veggies are always a great choice, they should be consumed as part of a balanced diet. There is no science to support the notion that they cause fat to burn away, so don’t make them the entire focus of your food plan.
  • Sugar-free or no sugar added. Don’t assume that a product is healthier just because it says sugar-free or “no sugar added.” Sugar-free products have less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving, but they still contain calories and carbohydrates from other sources. And “no sugar added” does not mean a food contains no sugar. There is naturally-occurring sugar in most foods, including milk, vegetables, fruits and grains. Blood sugar is raised by carbohydrates — which can be simple sugars or more complex starches. If you’re concerned about calories and carbs, maybe because you have diabetes or are trying to prevent it, remember to check the label for carbohydrates and calories as well as sugar. Watch for sugar that may show up in products you wouldn’t expect, such as tomato sauce and bread. And don’t forget to look carefully at what manufacturers consider a serving. It might be a far less generous amount than you would expect, meaning you may be consuming several servings and doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the food’s impact on your diet.
  • To gluten, or gluten-free? Gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat and rye, has become a hot topic among people seeking a healthier lifestyle. For those who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, this is a legitimate issue. But the growing fad toward going gluten-free has caused many people to alter their eating, whether they need to or not. Some even consider going gluten-free as a path to weight loss. Because gluten has become one of those nutritional buzzwords, you may find claims about it on many packages. But if you don’t have a bad reaction or sensitivity to gluten, gluten-free products may not be the healthiest option. They may contain less fiber and more calories than other foods because of the types of grains used to make them. If you believe you have a problem with gluten, talk to your doctor.
  • Natural vs. organic. You may be drawn to products that promote themselves as natural, but the term does not hold much meaning. The FDA doesn’t define it, and manufacturers are in the clear so long as they don’t include things such as added colors, artificial flavors or “synthetic substances.” That doesn’t mean the foods don’t include added ingredients, however. For example, some products include high-fructose corn syrup under the premise that it comes from corn, making it “natural.” The foods may also contain preservatives or be injected with a sodium solution, as in the case of raw poultry. While the term organic was once like the term natural — open to interpretation — that’s no longer the case. If a product has a U.S. Department of Agriculture label that says organic, 95 percent or more of the ingredients must have been grown or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. A label that says “made with organic ingredients” must have a minimum of 70 percent ingredients that meet the standard. Still, organic is not necessarily synonymous with healthy. Organic food can still be packed with fat, calories, and sugar, so read the Nutrition Facts carefully.

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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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