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(NEW YORK) -- It’s all too easy for food labels to mislead consumers about a product’s true nutritional worth, a new study suggests.
“Certain buzzwords create a health halo that implies a food is better for you than it actually is,” said Temple Northup, assistant professor at the University of Houston's Jack J. Valenti School of Communication and lead author of the study published in Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. “If there’s a health statement on a label trying to make a case for how healthy it is, it’s generally not a healthy choice.”
Here are seven "health halo" terms to watch out for:
A report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consumers pay a premium for organic products because they think they're healthier, even though that isn't always the case. By law, the term organic means non-essential pesticides and fertilizers were not used in the harvesting process. It does not mean superior nutrition or fewer calories. That said, the Environmental Working Group notes that some organic produce may be less contaminated than conventional fruits and veggies.
Multigrain products go through an intensive refining process that strips out the bran and germ of the grain, taking most of the nutritional value along with it, Northup said, adding that many products use added dyes and flavors to appear more natural. Northup cautioned that the term whole grain can be misleading, too. Some canned pastas labeled as whole grain contain little nutrition and up to 30 percent of the recommended daily sodium intake per serving, he said.
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-free products contain no gluten, but many sometimes have added sugar and fat to recreate a pleasing taste and texture, Northup said. About 1 percent of the population has celiac disease, a condition where the body cannot process gluten. For the rest of the population, Northup said the benefits of going gluten-free are questionable.
Antioxidant, Supports Immunity
Marc Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said these terms create the impression that a product is healthful and might even prevent illness. But there's precious little evidence that antioxidants added into foods or supplements have any benefit, he said. And since virtually every nutrient supports immunity, Jacobson said the term is essentially meaningless. Northup said the term is particularly troublesome when used on soft drink labels because it wrongly implies that drinking soda has at least some health benefits.
Made with Real Fruit
The question is, how much real fruit? A full serving of a product might contain only a few drops of real fruit, Northup pointed out. Most people know that a fruit tart or fruit candy isn't healthier than an apple, Northup explained. But when a product makes this claim, consumers can be fooled into thinking a food has at least some of the same benefits as whole fruit.
Reduced Fat, Low Sugar
Northup said that original versions of many products boasting a fat or sugar reduction were high in these ingredients to start. The reduced levels may be better, but still unhealthy, he said. Though the Food and Drug Administration has defined the low-fat claim, Jacobson said that it's often used for foods like mayo, chips and baked goods that are largely devoid of nutritional value or high in sodium and white flour.
Jacobson said this claim is irrelevant to health, since there's no evidence that foods derived from genetically engineered plants pose any health risk. Also, most foods flagged as containing GMO use soybean oil, sugar or other ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants, but those ingredients do not contain any genetically engineered DNA or protein.
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