Marketing tactics used to sell food products can create confusing language on food labels. Some of the catchwords and health claims make not-so-healthy foods sound healthy — and like something you should buy. Here’s how to sort out what to look for and what to ignore.

“Gluten-free”

Gluten-free is significant to patients with gluten sensitivities, like celiac disease, but many Americans on a mission to lose weight turned to the “gluten-free diet” for weight loss.  There is no evidence that supports this diet for weight loss, and it wasn’t intended to help you lose weight. The word “gluten-free” is not a badge of being good for your health NOR is it the key to losing weight.

Gluten-free products are a lot lower in fiber than whole wheat foods. That’s because they’re mostly made with rice flour. Also, individuals that follow a gluten-free diet have lower levels of good gut bacteria, which lowers immunity and elevates risk of chronic diseases. Those on gluten-free diets also tend to have higher levels of arsenic in their blood due to the high intake of rice products.

NOTE: Gluten is a general name for the proteins found naturally in wheat (e.g., wheatberries, durum wheat, semolina, spelt, farro, graham); rye, barley, and triticale. Gluten gives dough structure and elasticity (tossing pizza dough is a good example).

“Nonfat”, “Fat-free”, “Calorie-free”

Back during the “Fat-Free Food Boom” (mid-‘80s, fat was the enemy and Americans became ‘fat phobic’. To compensate, Americans ate more refined carbohydrates and sugar because when food manufacturers took out the fat, they added lots of sugar. Fat-free frozen yogurt and fat-free muffins and cookies were popular.

“Fat-free” on the label is a warning sign. It’s important to look at the ingredients and nutrition facts. Fat provides flavor and texture, so lower fat versions of foods often have more fillers added (e.g., gums, emulsifiers, sugar, sodium) to make up for the fat that was removed.

Healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, can be your friend. They include avocados, nuts, and seeds. Healthy fats are linked to improved heart and brain function, reduced inflammation, and a strong immune system.

Fats are dense in calories, so it’s important to incorporate fats modestly. Fats help absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and help slow the breakdown of carbohydrates and thus, slow the rise in blood sugar.

NOTE: “Low fat” must have less than 3 grams of fat per serving. “Reduced fat” or “Less fat” must have 25% less fat than the original.

“Detox” or “Cleanse”

These words make you think a particular food, drink or diet has biological significance. That is, the “detox drink” is going to cause your body to cleanse itself of unwelcome, accumulated toxins. However, your liver, kidneys, and intestines are ‘cleansing’ and ‘detoxing’ naturally every minute of the day. 

High-fiber foods feed your good gut bacteria, which improve the proportion of good bacteria to bad bacteria. They help to swiftly move cholesterol and foodstuffs out of your body, which include environmental toxins like pesticides and heavy metals. Many fruits and vegetables are good for cleansing, such as dark green leafy vegetables, artichokes, bananas, garlic, and onions.

“Natural”

Natural” is another misleading marketing word. The FDA does NOT regulate the use of the word “natural” on food labels, so there’s no clear definition. A food manufacturer can use “natural” on its products without FDA oversight.

When a food is labeled “natural”, it is often meant to imply it is healthy. Unassuming consumers are led to believe it is better for them, more nutritious, or hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. 

The FDA considers the term “natural” to mean that it doesn’t contain anything artificial or synthetic, such as colorants, flavorings, etc. BUT… the FDA has not established a formal definition for the term “natural”.

“Organic”

Along with the word “natural”, the FDA does not regulate the use of the term “organic” on food labels. However, the USDA and NOP (National Organic Program) have strict requirements for products that are labeled “organic”. Like gluten-free, “organic” is NOT a badge of being good for your health.

Organic Produce — What to think about: Is your intake of fruits and vegetables adequate? Assess your intake first before assessing the growing methods. Conventional produce is better than NO produce.

Karen’s Fit Tip: Read food labels carefully, but it is best to eat foods that don’t have a label like fresh fruits and vegetables.

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