When searching for healthy foods at the supermarket, what do you usually look for? Do you stick with raw and natural foods (veggies, meats, fruits, grains) or do you search for foods that have no sugar, no added sugar, or no fat on the label? For decades, low-fat foods were perceived as the best diet foods around. You could buy low-fat cheese, milk, and yogurt products and enjoy them without guilt. After all, they had very little fat (which was seen as bad at the time). Now, with the understanding that sugar is bad, more of us are buying the “no sugar” or “no added sugar” products and believing they are the healthy choice.
You may think that foods with these labels are healthy or diet-friendly, but according to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the label can be incredibly misleading. After studying data from more than 80 million food and drink purchases between 2008 and 2014, the researchers found that 35% of beverages made the low-content claim: no, free, low, or reduced fat or sugar. Thirteen percent of food made the same claims. However, the actual fat, sodium, calorie, or sugar content of these foods wasn’t significantly better than the regular version. In fact, in many cases, the foods were nearly identical, simply substituting chemicals in place of the sugar, fat, or sodium.
Here’s another odd finding: foods with the low-fat or low sugar claim may only be making it because of the portion size, and not the actual fat or sugar content. For example, a low-fat brownie may have the same amount of sugar as a regular brownie, but because of the smaller portion size, the brownie falls under the three grams per reference amount customarily consumed. The 40g brownie contains three grams of fat, so it’s labeled as low-fat. But compare it to a normal brownie with a serving size of 120g, and the fat content is the same.
The truth is that food labels are deliberately manipulated by food and beverage companies in order to encourage you to buy the products. They know that slapping a low, no, free, or reduced label onto their products will convey the perception that the food is healthy, thus increasing the chance you’ll buy it.
Don’t be fooled. If you’re looking to cut back on fat, sugar, calories, or sodium in your diet, buy the raw, natural foods that contain less fat, sugar, calories, and sodium. Always buy as natural as possible. If a food needs to have a low or no food label on it, it means it’s probably not healthy, to begin with.
- Lindsey Smith Taillie, Shu Wen Ng, Ya Xue, Emily Busey, Matthew Harding. “No Fat, No Sugar, No Salt . . . No Problem? Prevalence of “Low-Content” Nutrient Claims and Their Associations with the Nutritional Profile of Food and Beverage Purchases in the United States.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2017.01.011