We have all fallen prey to the food label myths of the marketing industry. In fact, studies show that health claims on food packages lead consumers to perceive the products are healthier than they are. Before we know it, we are spending more money on food we think is good for us but offers no real nutritional payoff. Whether it’s about what’s healthy, what’s safe, or what’s better for the planet, our decisions are largely guided by complicated nutrition advice.
Let’s look to see which food label myths are influencing our perceptions and offer some advice for not falling prey to them.
The 5 Big Food Label Myths
The Myth: Something that’s lower fat has fewer calories, so you can eat your favorite foods—like yogurt or cheese—with less risk of weight gain.
The Truth: Low-fat doesn’t necessarily mean fewer calories. In fact, you’ll likely end up eating more than you would with the full-fat alternative simply because you think you’re making the smarter choice and because fat leaves you feeling fuller longer.
The Conclusion: If you’re about to buy something because it’s labeled as low-fat, read the nutrition facts and ingredient list to determine what’s making it palatable.
The Myth: Foods with this label are better for you and the environment. It’s basically like eating organic without the hefty price tag.
The Truth: All-natural labels try to capture the crowd who aren’t quite willing to make the jump to pay for organic but still want to feel like they’re putting something good into their bodies. But all-natural is not the same as organic. The FDA and USDA regulate organic foods and have strict guidelines on what qualifies. All-natural foods, remain unregulated, so there’s no guarantee these products have fewer modified ingredients or cleaner production practices.
The Conclusion: Either buy organic, preferably locally sourced, or save your money and buy foods made with healthy, whole ingredients and without any fancy labeling.
The Myth: Vitamin-fortified foods are healthy because they provide essential vitamins without the need for a supplement.
The Truth: Many brands add vitamins to foods that are inherently unhealthy—cookies, candies, chips, and other snacks foods in order to call them nutritious. The vitamin craze has affected purchasing behavior. A study showed that when presented with a healthier, whole-food-based snack option and one vitamin-fortified option—consumers were more likely to buy the latter, without checking the ingredients. The problem is those added vitamins don’t make up for the empty calories, sugar, and unhealthy fats acting as their vessel.
The Conclusion: Get your vitamins in foods that should have them, like fruits and vegetables.
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)
The Myth: They’re not good for you. So, you shop at natural-food stores or buy the foods labeled as “non-GMO” at regular supermarkets.
The Truth: The GMO battle rages on, with farmers, industry giants, and agricultural biotech firms all making their case either for or against GMOs. But the science remains murky: There’s no definitive take on what GMOs is doing to the body and the environment. Some people argue that foods that are genetically modified in any way often last longer, have higher levels of antioxidants or vitamins, and might even taste a bit better. Research shows that consumers who don’t know much about the GMO debate will pay an upcharge for products labeled “non-GMO. It’s only when they’re introduced to the controversy, that they balk at buying foods with modified ingredients.
The Conclusion: We’re all still confused on this one. Focus on looking at a food holistically for its health benefits rather than fixating on one item from the label.
The Myth: Organic foods are healthier, safer, and better for the environment.
The Truth: The USDA gives its stamp of organic approval to products that “rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.” For produce, that means the soil has to be pesticide-free for three years; meats must be antibiotic- and hormone-free and raised in conditions that emulate their natural environments; and 70 percent of the ingredients in processed, packaged goods must adhere to these parameters. Organic foods enjoy tremendous popularity among the health-conscious crowd. Consumers believe that just being labeled as organic implies a slew of health and environmental benefits. When the first national standards for the organic label were issued by then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, he made it clear that “the organic label is a marketing tool, not a statement about food safety or a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” The label remains marred in conflict over how it suggests these foods are healthier and safer than conventional alternatives without definitive evidence to support such claims.
The Conclusion: This isn’t to say that there’s no value in buying organic. You shouldn’t make it your go-to on the assumption that it’s better for you, safer, and more eco-friendly. If you want to go organic, stick with local farmers markets and community gardens to support your local economy and small-scale farmers.
Most of these food label myths are the result of the marketing industry trying to make foods sounds healthier for you. The best way to ensure you are making healthy choice is to read the ingredients. Fewer ingredients are often better. Ingredients that you cannot pronounce probably is not a good thing. If it comes from a farm, it probably good. If it comes from a factory, you may want to avoid it.
Obviously, we cannot avoid all factory produced foods, but we should try to look for the healthiest choices.
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