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Food label shenanigans
Read nutrition labels carefully and do not fall for these misleading claims
In a perfect world, people would source their food directly from local farms, cook from seasonal ingredients, and never have to waste time and energy deciphering packaged food labels. But in the real world, most of us rely on convenience foods now and then, if not most of the time – and we need to know how to interpret the nutrition labels that accompany them.
The problem is twofold:
The rules allow for a lot of wiggle room. Labels can be up to 20% off and still pass muster, according to the FDA.
Many of the terms you see on labels are confusing and misleading. This is because they are used as marketing strategies, rather than factual information.
For this edition of Fix the Food, we’re highlighting some of the claims that should make you pause and choose another brand.
Sugar-free or no added sugar
Sugar-free does not mean keto-friendly. Often, these products contain aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, or maltitol. Maltitol is especially problematic because it has a glycemic index almost as high as sugar – meaning, it may easily cause an insulin spike, as well as GI upset, even though it is a sugar alcohol that gets deducted from total carbs to calculate net carbs.
Popular brands that use maltitol as a non-nutritive sweetener include Hershey’s, Bryer’s, and Maple Grove. Don’t take sugar-free claims at face value. Do your homework and read the specific ingredients to find out what’s really going on. Erythritol, monk fruit, stevia, and allulose are better sugar alternatives, but even these may cause cravings and have lasting effects on your gut.
There is no governing body that certifies foods as being keto-friendly. Keto works by restricting carbs to a very low level of intake, below 25 grams of net carbs per day. In theory, a wide variety of foods can be part of a ketogenic diet. It all depends what else you are eating that day.
Grass-fed and pastured
This term used to mean “cows raised on pasture, eating the way nature intended,” but it has been co-opted by Big Ag and nowadays, grassfed or pastured meat can come from an industrial farming operation anywhere around the world. If you are paying a premium for grass-fed products, make sure they are 100% grass-fed and grass-finished, and ideally single sourced from a farm or ranch that you can find on a map. Otherwise, you likely are paying extra for conventionally raised meat.
Some stores like Natural Grocers have implemented their own ranking systems for evaluating meat standards, which can be a helpful point of reference when you are starting to prioritize higher quality foods.
Have you noticed that egg cartons now come with a dizzying list of labels? All natural, free range, organic, vegetarian, free of corn and soy, tended by hand, regenerative… what does it all mean?
Most of these terms are not regulated, and they do not tell you how the chickens were raised or what kind of nutrients their eggs contain. Organic feed should be free of pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate. Corn-free and soy-free claims suggest the chicken feed is tested to make sure it does not contain traces of those grains.
The best policy, short of raising your own birds, is to find a local farmer who can tell you exactly what they feed their chickens. When in doubt, buy a dozen and see for yourself. When chickens eat bugs and worms, their egg yolks will be a dark yellow or orange color, not pale.
Dairy products that advertise no rBst are stating the norm in the dairy industry today. There is nothing special about their product, and this claim is not a sign of higher quality. Dairy that is made from the milk of grass-fed animals, and raw or low temp pasteurized may have more of its nutrients intact. Full fat is another descriptor worth seeking out if you are following a keto way of eating, since you’ll get more of the healthy fat in each serving.
Healthy fat claims
Speaking of healthy fats, foods that claim to be a source of “good” fats, but contain industrially processed seed oils such as canola, safflower, corn, cottonseed, peanut, or high oleic sunflower oil, are a no-go if you’re trying to minimize inflammation and restore metabolic health. Instead, choose animal fats like tallow, lard, and schmalz – or cold-pressed olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. Read labels carefully, as brands like Hellmann’s have been know to advertise “made with olive oil” on a label, when the first ingredient is soybean or canola oil.
What about “Heart Healthy?”
Last month, we wrote a whole article debunking cholesterol myths, and pointing out how the Heat Check Mark issued by the American Heart Association is meaningless. Definitely ignore this marketing when you’re deciding what foods to buy.
Natural sounds better than artificial, and it’s easy to fall for this sleight of hand. Make sure you understand what “natural” means in this context. To be labeled as a natural flavor, the additive must be derived from plant or animal material vs. synthesized in a lab. In reality, natural and artificial flavors can be quite similar, maybe even indistinguishable.
Organic produce should mean no sprays, ever, period. No pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides used at any point in the growing process. Ideally, these foods should be tested for glyphosate residue as well. Many small farmers will tell you they grow crops according to these principles, but that it’s too expensive to get certified by the USDA. Support them!
It’s also worth noting, this term isn’t strictly regulated by the FDA on food labels, so manufacturers can put “organic” on their labels even if only one ingredient meets the standard. It’s better to look for USDA certified, or doublecheck the ingredient list to confirm whether the product meets your own expectations.
This is an important label if you have celiac disease or are trying to avoid gluten, but it doesn’t mean that a product is healthy. Many GF products contain harmful ingredients like vegetable oils, preservatives, and artificial flavorings.
Packaged foods with this label are some of the most highly processed items in the grocery store. Dairy and meat alternatives contain vegetable oils, monocrops, preservatives, and filler ingredients that can wreak havoc on your gut. Don’t mistake this labeling as healthier or better for the environment than animal-based foods.
Bioengineered foods are a concern because we don’t know the long-term effects of consuming them. A Non-GMO label means the product was made without genetically engineered ingredients. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) typically are created to withstand the application of herbicides, or to develop desirable traits in plants, such as preventing browning of apples. The Non-GMO Project has a wealth of information about these types of food and why you might want to avoid them.
Closing thoughts on food quality standards
The gold standard of food quality know-how is to meet your farmer face-to-face and ask how the food is raised or grown. In our experience, an informed question usually gets an honest answer.
When you have to buy mass-produced foods, lean toward whole foods, rather than preprepared ones. And when convenience foods are the only option, be very selective. Ignore any claims on the front of the package and go straight to the nutrition panel on the back. Choose products with minimal ingredients and words that you recognize. Your body will thank you!
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