Don’t let food labels fool you

If you regularly shop for grocery items that are labeled “sugar-free,” “gluten-free,” “all natural,” “fat-free” or similar, this post is for you.

Are you really guaranteed what the label says? And, are these products healthier than the alternative? We should hope so, but it’s not as straightforward as one might think.

In this post, we’ll break down the terminology and what you can expect from a product that claims what it says.

  • Sugar free – Just because something is labeled “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” does not mean it is void of sugar. Rule of thumb: always check the ingredient list. Is honey, brown rice syrup or even raisins listed? These all contain natural sugar. Orange juice is made from oranges, but fructose is a naturally occurring sugar in fruit.Sugar-free does not necessarily mean healthier than the alternative, either. Many sugar-free items contain artificial sweeteners that are chemically manufactured. Again, check the ingredient list. Examples of artificial sweeteners include: sucralose, acesulfame potassium, aspartame and sugar alcohols (maltitol and xylitol).
  • Gluten free – According to the FDA, for a product to have this label, it must contain less than 20 gluten parts per million – the lower level that can be reliably detected in food.1 Some common gluten-containing ingredients that may be added to dairy products include thickeners, malt and modified food starch.What about cross-contamination? Cross contamination refers to the unavoidable presence of gluten in foods due to contact with gluten-containing foods. It usually occurs in response to crop rotation, shared harvesting equipment, or the production of both gluten-free and gluten-containing food in the same facility.
  • All Natural – Does this mean no preservatives and nothing artificial? The FDA allows this terminology if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. A food product that’s made with ‘all-natural’ ingredients could still contain hormones, GMOs, gluten or other things some consumers worry about2
  • Fat free – The FDA allows a company to label a food as “fat-free” if it contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. So, is you eat half a box of “fat-free” cookies, you will be consuming several grams of fat, depending on the number of cookies you eat.Fat-free does not mean calorie-free, carbohydrate free, or preservative-free. What some of these product lack in fat, they make up for in sugars and other unhealthy ingredients.

I know it’s a lot to think about, and read, when you’re at the grocery store. But take the time to study the ingredients list and then make your choices. The item you’re looking at may not be as “free” of something or as “natural” as you might think.