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Warning: Read Your Food Labels
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Warning: Read Your Food Labels

More and more, grocery stores are beginning to resemble labyrinths more than straightforward shopping centers. Not in the way they're designed, of course. Most are set up in pretty much the exact same way. But the labeling on most items on the shelf is enough to get any shopper hopelessly muddled. Before most people learn how to diet, they need a crash course in how to go shopping.

In just the past few years, we have seen the proliferation of dozens of labels jockeying for place in our shopping carts. Among them:

  • Low-fat or fat-free
  • Sugar-free
  • Organic
  • Natural

Almost without exception, these are the kinds of things that most shoppers wondering how to diet would love to eat. Unfortunately, food manufacturers know that, and have developed dozens of ways to label foods as healthy, when they're actually anything but.

In 1994, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required all food manufacturers to standardize the nutrition information of all products. When consumers started demanding healthy alternatives to their favorite foods, manufacturers began offering low-fat and sugar-free fare. In 2009, the FDA revised its guidelines for food labeling, strictly laying out the fat and sugar content requirements for foods labeled low-fat or sugar-free.

While the FDA's regulations go a long way to ensuring you aren't being totally lied to, there are still things that you need to keep in mind, if you want to know how to diet effectively, when you feel the pull of foods labeled "healthy."

  1. Instead of "low-fat" or "fat-free," think "processed" and "high in sugar." Fat has gotten a bad rap. For years, dieters have been obsessed with limiting the fat content of their daily diets, not realizing that fat is essential to a healthy diet and lifestyle. In food, fat means something else: taste and texture. Foods that are processed to remove fat often taste and look significantly different from their natural counterparts. To make foods both fat-free and appetizing, manufacturers add sugar for taste and additives - gums and fat replacers - for texture and consistency. So while you're getting a reduced serving of fat, you're jacking up the simple carb content of the foods you eat.

  2. "Sugar-free" foods are only sugar-free in a narrow sense: FDA regulations say a food can be labeled "sugar-free" if "no sugar or sugar containing ingredient is added during processing." However, the regulation also says that sugar alcohols are not included in the regulation. Know what else isn't? Artificial sweeteners, which, while they aren't sugars, are probably worse for you.

  3. Organic: This is one area where food labeling is both explicit and helpful. The regulation of organic foods falls to the USDA, which sets strict guidelines determining what organic really is. Before you purchase anything organic, make sure that it is stamped with the USDA certified organic badge.

  4. "Natural" is relative. The FDA doesn't have a definition of what "natural" means when it comes to food, though they're okay with use of the term if the food is artificial color, flavor and synthetic substances free. That doesn't address how the food is harvested or processed, though. Keep in mind, whenever you're lured by a "natural" label, that that designation has been decided by the manufacturer, not an independent agency.

Health foods are big money. Food producers have an interest in labeling their products as "healthy" even if they aren't. The only way to avoid "health" food that sabotages you as you're learning how to diet is to stick to the real, unprocessed, natural (as in real natural) options available at the grocery store. Short of that, keep in mind that foods advertised as low in one thing may be very high in something even worse.