Thanks to modern food labeling laws, eating healthy has never been more confusing. With the help of slick advertising and legal loopholes, companies are marketing their unhealthy products with healthy-sounding buzzwords in order to trick customers into buying their stuff.
Falling for these underhanded tactics can quickly sabotage your plans for weight loss or fitness, so it’s important to be a smart consumer. Here are five of the most common and useless buzzwords you’ll encounter at the supermarket. They may sound nice, but they rarely have the substance to back up all their flashy claims.
This is the mother-of-all useless health food terms. Although it seems logical that products labeled as “all-natural” would be full of fresh, unprocessed ingredients, this is rarely the case. While labeling laws vary from country to country, there are currently no guidelines for regulating the term here in the United States. Because of this lack of regulation, companies can add any number of artificial dyes, additives, or other obviously unnatural ingredients to their products without fear of breaking the law.
If you’re really looking for all-natural food, your best bet is to skip misleading descriptions on the front of the package and head straight for the ingredient list to find out for yourself.
Labeling something as "reduced fat" or "reduced sodium" is not so much an outright lie as it is a deceptive massaging of the truth. The FDA requires that products labeled as such must contain at least 25% less of the ingredient in question than the product’s original version. While this provides some level of protection to unsuspecting customers, it’s not a surefire indicator that a food product is healthy.
For example, if a full-fat product contained 40g of fat, its reduced-fat counterpart could hypothetically contain as much as 30g of fat. While that’s definitely a reduction, 30g is still more than half of the recommended daily amount for a 2,000 calorie diet!
Supporting local food producers has become increasingly important in healthy eating circles. It’s often healthier than food grown on large commercial farms and it helps stimulate the local economy. However, as supermarkets begin to latch onto this trend, the designation of “locally grown” becomes less and less useful.
The phrase is not regulated by the FDA, and while you shouldn’t worry that the vendors at your local farmer’s market are lying about it, you should be much more suspicious of grocery stores that market their products as “local”. Often you’ll find that these products are shipped from out of state or even further—obviously, “local” is a relative term for some people.
- "Whole Grain"
Whole grains provide your body with a whole host of nutritional benefits. They help reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes and offer you essential nutrients like vitamin B, iron, protein, and fiber. Unfortunately, like most terms on this list, “whole grain” is completely unregulated. A product might be composed of 99% refined grains, but that 1% that’s actually whole grain allows them to legally use the term.
If you’re really concerned about your grain consumption, look for products marked as “100% whole grain”—that’s the only way to be completely sure your food is chock full of the good stuff.
This is a tricky one because the term “organic” is regulated to an extent. If you purchase a product labeled as 100% organic, you can rest assured that what you’re eating is indeed completely organic. However, the USDA makes things more complicated by recognizing varying degrees of organic-ness. If a product’s ingredients are at least 95% organic, they can still use the term and the USDA seal of approval, and products containing at least 70% organic ingredients can be marketed as “made with organic ingredients.”
Most people are unaware of these nuances, and companies use this to their advantage. Don’t be duped—go with 100% organic products just to be safe.