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Health Food … or Health Fraud?
November 16, 2009, 6:32 pm
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Health Food … or Health Fraud?

Use this guide to learn the science behind food-industry health claims.

By David Zinczenko, Men’s Health
Beware of packaging propaganda: Food-industry health claims can be misleading, say researchers at the University of California, Davis. Case in point: Recently, Dannon settled a false advertising lawsuit—that will pay out up to $35 million—for claims made on the labels of Activia and DanActive yogurts. The suit alleged, among other things, that the company charged a premium for products that haven’t been shown to provide additional health benefits for already healthy people, as claimed. Dannon denies any wrongdoing, but agreed to make several changes to their packaging.

You see, your supermarket’s shelves are packed with overhyped health claims. And while many of these claims may be factual, they may also be giving you the wrong impression about just how healthful a product really is. That’s because marketers highlight what they want you to notice. “Even if a food is fat free, it could be loaded with sugar,” says study author Clare Hasler, Ph.D. “Or a product that’s ‘made with whole grains’ may also contain a high amount of refined flour.” Your best strategy: Use this guide to learn the science behind the sales pitch. Call it the Eat This, Not That crib sheet for helping you to beat Big Food at its own game—and eat healthier for life.

 The product: Franken Berry

The claim: “With Whole Grain”

What you should know: If it’s really “100% whole grain,” it’ll say so on the package. Even in a “whole grain” product, some of the flour can come from refined grains—and probably does. Check the ingredient list: Any flour that doesn’t start with the word “whole” isn’t. And remember, ingredients are listed in descending order of the amount used by weight. Another example: Reese’s Puffs touts “with whole grain” on the label. Of course, the label doesn’t boast that a three-quarter cup serving of the cereal also contains 3 teaspoons of sugar.

Bonus tip: For even more examples of how you’re being tricked by the food industry, check out 30 “healthy” foods that aren’t.

The product: Kellogg’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Pop-Tarts

The claim: “Good source of 7 vitamins and minerals

What you should know: Federal regulations require that enriched flour—the first ingredient in this product and the same stuff white bread is made from—contain five of the seven vitamins and minerals the package so proudly touts. That’s right: Load a product with refined flour, and you can distract consumers from the fact that it’s not made with whole grains by simply bragging that it contains all kinds of vitamins and minerals.

The product: Cheetos Puffs

The claim: “0 Grams Trans Fat”

What you should know: To claim “0 grams of trans fat” a product must contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving—so it’s not necessarily trans fat free. The dead giveaway? The words “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient list. Granted, half a gram is a tiny amount, but don’t assume the product is healthy even it doesn’t contain any trans fat. After all, it could still be packed with an overload of sugar, fat, sodium or additives. Remember, marketers are masters of misdirection.

Bonus tip: If you dare, find out the truth about your food—it could be the most important health story you read this year.

The product: Welch’s 100% Grape Juice

The claims:

  • “No sugar added—ever!”
  • “Helps support a healthy heart, mind & immune system.”

What you should know: While an 8-ounce serving of this beverage is loaded with healthful antioxidants, it also contains more sugar than a 12-ounce soda. That’s something to keep in mind, since research shows that high-sugar drinks don’t seem to reduce your hunger compared to solid food. As a result, the calories they provide can become excess calories if you’re not careful.

The product: Twizzlers Strawberry Twists

The claim: “As always: a low-fat candy.”

What you should know: Of course Twizzlers are low in fat—more than 90 percent of their calories come from sugar and processed carbs. What’s more, you’ll find “fat free” claims on the labels of such sugar-packed products as Swedish Fish, Mike and Ike, and Good & Plenty. It seems that food manufacturers think you’re stupid. In fact, their marketing strategies rely on that belief. For instance, the makers of the aforementioned candies may be hoping you’ll equate “fat free” with “healthy” or “nonfattening,” so you’ll forget about all the sugar their products contain.

Bonus tip: Losing weight isn’t the only secret to looking younger; find more in this excerpt from Your Best Body at 40-Plus.

The product: Quaker Instant Oatmeal Maple & Brown Sugar

The claim: An American Heart Association logo displayed on the product’s box, with fine print below the logo that reads that the food meets the AHA’s “food criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.”

What you should know: It contains more sugar than a bowl of Froot Loops. Fact is, it could contain a pound of sugar and still meet the AHA’s qualifications. But guess what? Froot Loops meets the AHA’s criteria, too, only no logo is displayed. That’s because companies must pay to be an American Heart Association–certified food. That’s why the AHA checkmark might appear on one product but not on another, even when both meet the guidelines. 

The product: Nabisco Honey Teddy Grahams

The claim: “A good source of: calcium, iron, zinc”

What you should know: For a food to be considered a good source of a specific vitamin or mineral, a serving must contain 10 percent of the recommended daily value for that nutrient. In this case, you’d have to eat 10 servings of Teddy Grahams—more than the entire box—to hit the amount of calcium you need for the day. Now think about it: Is that really a good source?

The product: SnackWell’s Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes

The claim: “Sensible snacking: fat-free, no cholesterol, low sodium

What you should know: The first four ingredients are sugar, enriched flour, high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup. Is that really sensible snacking? Of course not. Follow these seven snack-smart strategies  instead.

The product: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes

The claim: There’s a “Diabetes Friendly” logo on the box’s side panel.

What you need to know: Australian researchers have shown that corn flakes raise blood glucose faster and to a greater extent than straight table sugar. (High blood glucose is the primary indicator of diabetes.) Below the logo, the cereal maker does provide a link to its Web site, where general nutrition recommendations are provided for people with diabetes. But these recommendations are authored by Kellogg’s nutritionists—and simply “based on” the guidelines of the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association.

The product: Kellogg’s Smart Start Strong Heart Toasted Oat

The claim: That its content of whole grain oats, antioxidants and potassium, along with the fact that it’s low in sodium, can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

What you need to know: Yes, this cereal has plenty of healthful ingredients. However, one serving contains more sugar—17 grams—than a serving of Froot Loops (12 grams). Hey, Froot Loops is an easy target! So before you think you’ve found the ultimate cereal—”It’s healthy and it tastes like candy!”—consider all the nutrition facts, not just the ones they tout on the front of the box.

Bonus tip: See the full list of the 24 Best and Worst Cereals here.