When you’re grocery shopping, here’s a good rule of thumb: Be wary of the healthy-sounding words on food packages. Many people surveyed by the Consumer Reports National Research Center said they use the front-of-package information when deciding whether to buy processed foods for the first time — but it’s probably not helping them make better choices.
“From the perspective of the average consumer, front-of-package claims are sometimes misleading and may lead people to make unhealthy food purchases,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. Many terms and phrases aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture (and some that are can be misinterpreted). Sometimes, a product’s name implies a health attribute. Here, five phrases that may not mean what you think they do:
Buzzword: ‘Light in sodium’
This phrase can easily be confused with “low sodium,” a term the FDA defines as containing 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving. But “light in sodium” means that a product has 50 percent or less of the sodium in the manufacturer’s regular version — so it can still be fairly salty.
“If your standard food is super-high in sodium, that label isn’t helpful,” Kirkpatrick says.
Take Pacific Organic Creamy Tomato Soup. The regular version has 750 milligrams of sodium per cup. The light-in-sodium version has 380 milligrams. Have that with a few saltines and you’ve consumed about 20 percent of the maximum amount of sodium you should have in a day.
Buzzword: ‘Lightly sweetened’
The FDA has a definition for this term for canned fruit but not for other foods. For example, Fiber One Honey Clusters cereal has “lightly sweetened” written on the front of its box, but a single cup has nine grams of sugars, about two teaspoons. The American Heart Association suggests getting just six to nine teaspoons of added sugars per day.
You may also see “touch of” honey or brown sugar on a package. Products with that wording can still be pretty sugary. Kellogg’s Origins Ancient Grains Blend cereal with “touch of honey” on the box, for example, has nine grams of sugars per serving (three-quarters of a cup) — the same amount as in Kellogg’s Special K Chocolatey Delight.
Buzzword: ‘Whole grain’
As with Cheez-It Whole Grain crackers, whole-grain foods can have refined flour. These crackers also contain whole-wheat flour but have just one gram of fiber per serving (27 crackers), eight grams of fat and 250 milligrams of sodium. If you want whole grain, look for the words “100 percent whole grain” on the package, and check ingredients lists. A whole-grain flour should be the first ingredient, and the product should have no enriched flours at all.
Buzzword: ‘No growth-promoting antibiotics’
Antibiotics have been fed to farm animals to make them grow faster and prevent disease. That low-dose chronic use creates ideal conditions for breeding superbugs — bacteria that have evolved to become resistant to antibiotics and that can make people sick. Eliminating the use of growth-promoting antibiotics while continuing to use antibiotics for disease prevention can still result in the development of superbugs. There’s no nutritional advantage to buying “no antibiotic” meat, but it supports a healthier food system. Look for meat and poultry labeled “raised without antibiotics,” a USDA-defined term that means antibiotics were not used for any purpose.
Biodynamic farming is similar to organic farming but has additional requirements. Biodynamic farms are mostly self-sufficient; fertilizer and animal feed, for example, are grown there instead of being brought in. It is an ecologically sound, sustainable and healthy food production system, which makes biodynamic foods a good choice.
As is the case with organic farming, though, the benefits don’t automatically translate to a more nutritious food product. The regular version of Lundberg short-grain brown rice has zero grams of sugars and 4 percent daily value of iron per serving. The biodynamic version has one gram of sugars and 2 percent of iron. And packaged foods made with biodynamic ingredients can still contain added sugars and/or sodium.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.