Hidden Meaning on the Grocery Shelf
Hidden Meaning on the Grocery Shelf
When buying orange juice recently, I had to pause and scratch my
head for a moment. I just wanted juice, yet I was confronted with
an array of choices. Did I want Tropicana Immunity-Defense Orange
Juice or Tropicana Healthy Heart? Then again, there was a
calcium-added variety and a low-carb version. If I chose one of
these, would my health suffer in the other areas? Which was more
important -- my immune system, my heart or my bones?
Having spent some time in my early career in the packaged-foods
industry, I am familiar with the food-labeling strategies used to
maximize consumer purchase -- great promotional copy sells.
Nonetheless, there I was, feeling the pressure to pick just the
right orange juice -- and the guilt if I chose wrong. If I,
somewhat of an industry insider, was confused, what about the rest
of the world?
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
"It's a huge marketing gimmick," says Marion Nestle, PhD, a
professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City. She
told me that plain, old orange juice is a fine food as it is, and
if people need supplements, they can take them.
The fact is that food manufacturers are in business to make a
profit, and they're going to put everything they legally can on
their labels to rope you into purchasing their products. If
promoting immunity or heart health or bone strengthening is going
to sell more orange juice, then that's what they're going to do.
DON'T GET FOOLED AGAIN
Fortunately, concerned consumer advocacy groups are leaning on food
manufacturers to 'fess up and tell the truth. Even the Federal
Trade Commission (FTC) has gotten into the act, administering a
recent slap on Tropicana's corporate hand over dubious claims for
its "Healthy Heart" juice.
To give you some perspective on the problem, here are a few recent
labeling issues in the news...
The problem: Just what does "low-carb" mean? No one knows for sure
because the FDA has yet to come up with a definition.
The solution: With the Atkins folks filing for bankruptcy
protection, the low-carb marketing hype will ease, though consumers
still will be looking for low-carb options. While waiting for the
FDA to figure out a definition of "low-carb," read the labels
Of course, low carb isn't the only label catch phrase to watch out
for. Also beware of...
- Cholesterol-free. This may be true, but what about the saturated
fat content? Saturated fat can be even worse for your heart than
- 90% fat-free. That's the label on the lower-fat ground beef at my
supermarket, but 10% still is a lot of fat.
- Fat-free. Remember those notorious fat-free cookies we used to
scarf down with abandon? How many inches did we add to our hips
with that "guiltless pleasure"? They might have been fat-free, but
oh, the calories!
The problem: Tropicana claimed that drinking two to three cups of
OJ a day for four weeks would lower systolic blood pressure by an
average of 10 points as well as improve cholesterol and
The solution: Noting that Tropicana's claims were unsubstantiated,
the FTC prohibited the firm from making them any longer. But since
we live in an imperfect world, they're still allowed to label their
juice "Healthy Heart."
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
What all this means is that you as a consumer must educate
yourself. Understand that it is marketing hype and that, for the
most part, one food or nutrient will not make that much difference
to health, advises Dr. Nestle.
And even though food manufacturers do not make labels easy for you
to read, make it a habit to read the "Nutrition Facts" on product
labels. Learn how to decode them and read between the lines. Here
are a few helpful tips to start out with...
- Check the ingredients. Ingredients are listed according to their
amount in food, with the first three or four making up most of a
given product. If sugar or fat are listed here, chances are it is
not a healthy choice.
- Watch out for jargon. Labels are rarely so straightforward as to
state simply fat or sugar. This is why you need to keep an eye on
other names for fat (such as hydrogenated vegetable oil, coconut or
palm or other oil, lard, shortening, lecithin and cream solids) and
sugar (also know as corn sweetener, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice
concentrate, high-fructose corn syrup, malt, maltose, molasses,
- Pay attention to serving sizes. This is one of food
manufacturers' biggest tricks. A small bag of chips or cookies
represents one serving, right? Wrong! There may be as many as four
servings in that bag. Check the label, and do the math.
Don't squander your hard-earned dollars on foods that promise to
make you thinner or healthier or happier. Packaged, processed foods
with alluring labels are not the answer. If the claim is low-fat,
they're often packed with sugar and calories. Low-carb? Check the
In the long run, you can't make up for an unhealthy lifestyle by
purchasing foods that make "healthy" or "low-fat" or "low-carb"
promises on the label. Packaged prepared foods have gone through
significant processing to be shelf stable and look as good as they
do. It is far healthier to stick with the real deal -- fresh, whole
foods. And even marinating chicken to bake is easy if you plan just
a little bit ahead. According to Dr. Nestle, there are just no
shortcuts to good health.