When grocery shopping, most of us probably pay at least some attention to the packaging of the products we buy – reading the front of the package (health claims, front of package labeling, etc.), glancing at the nutrition label on the back or side of the package, and/or reading the ingredients list. Maybe we’re only buying those products because of the fancy packaging or because of the intriguing health claims on the package. Maybe we are planning to buy the product but we choose one brand over the other because the packaging or health claims are more attractive on that brand. Are we really getting the best buy or best product when we base our decision on packaging and health claims? Are the health claims actually true? What do the health claims actually mean? There are a lot of ways in which food companies get us to buy their food, and believe it or not, these companies aren’t always truthful.
Coloring of packaging and “health” claims are just two ways companies convince you to buy their products. Consumers perceive items in green packaging to be healthier, and brightly colored packaging attracts more attention. Products making claims of providing antioxidants, being gluten free, organic, natural, and/or whole grain also tend to make consumers believe these items are healthier than their counterparts – whether or not they really are. The labels of “natural” and “organic” don’t mean much, as these terms are controlled for some foods but not for others, and foods with these healthy-sounding labels aren’t necessarily healthy foods. Most of the foods labeled with these claims are minimally to highly processed foods that contain added sugar or preservatives. Think about it – when was the last time you saw an apple or a bunch of spinach with labels claiming to be “natural” or “gluten free?”
What may be even more misleading (and infuriating to me) than package colors and health claims are endorsements from the American Heart Association, the American Diabetic Association, and others. Off the top of my head, I can think of two foods that carry the American Heart Association logo, claiming to be “heart healthy foods” – Campbell’s soup and Minute Maid orange juice – both of which are highly processed foods that contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, respectively.
While I have an entire blog post dedicated to it, hidden sugar, or disguised sugar, is another way in which food companies trick consumers. If no “table sugar” is added to a food, it can be labeled as “low-sugar,” but that doesn’t mean the product contains no added sugar. When reading through the ingredients list on a product’s label, you may find corn syrup, anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, raw sugar, molasses, fructose, lactose, maltose, and/or syrup – these are all alternate names for added sugar.
Unfortunately it is unlikely to see an increase in truthfulness of food packaging anytime soon, so the more you know, the better off you’ll be. It is important to be aware of what is truly in the products you are buying, so ALWAYS read the ingredients list on packaged foods, or better yet, buy fresh, whole foods that have no need for an ingredients list. Choosing mostly unprocessed or minimally processed (nothing or little to nothing added to food found in nature) foods, as well as becoming an informed consumer, will help you avoid marketing ploys and misleading labels. Just remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Think positive, stay active, and smile. -A