Have you ever wandered into a grocery store and been bombarded not only by 50 types of cereal, but also by the bright, flashy health claims on the packages?
You’re not alone.
Our supermarket shelves have become over-run by an overwhelming amount of choices for similar products. What happened to the days of one type of cereal or milk? Oh how quick my trips to the store would be if this was still the case. It doesn’t help that the food companies are all fighting for our money and are doing so by spending millions of dollars on in your face packaging, location, advertising and labelling.
“Fat- Free”, “Organic”, “All Natural”, “Sugar- Free”, “Fat-Free”… WTF what does it all mean? I have no friggin idea!
We are all trying our best to eat healthy and do what’s right for our families, while the food manufacturers are making it ever more difficult for us to know exactly what that is. Let me give you a little help here as I translate (yup, because it’s another language as far as i’m concerned) some of the most common health claims plastered everywhere in your local supermarket.
What you think it means: Every delicious ingredient was hand picked from a farmer’s field and packaged nicely for me to buy.
What it actually means: Nothing. Sorry to burst your bubble but this is one of those free-for-all words that marketers are just in LOVE with. There is actually no regulation or definition around the use of this word or about the nutritional content and ingredients used in products labelled “All Natural”. Which means… it’s up to your interpretation. The technical definition of “Natural” is something “existing in or caused by nature, not made or caused by humankind”. But how this word is used in food marketing can be very misleading.
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) “A food or ingredient of a food that is represented as “natural” is expected:
- Not to contain an added vitamin, mineral, artificial flavouring agent, or food additive
- Not to have any constituent removed or significantly changed, except for the removal of water
- Not to have been submitted to processes that have significantly altered their original physical, chemical, or biological state”
What this means is that although the CFIA doesn’t define the word “Natural”, food manufacturers won’t get in trouble as long as the food doesn’t contain added flavourings and colours, and it hasn’t been drastically changed from its original form. Foods with this label can still contain preservatives, added sodium, or questionable “naturally” derived additives such as high-fructose corn syrup – which is anything but healthy.
Food manufacturers are loving this term and you better believe that they’re using it whenever they can to catch your attention and make you believe that a certain product is “healthy” for you.
Food for thought (pun intended): Arsenic and snake venom are 100% natural. Neither of which I’d want to ingest.
What you think it means: Fruits, vegetables, and boxes of crackers blowing softly in the summer breeze while a handsome farmer in yoga pants plucks his guitar under the hot summer sun.
What it actually means: You were pretty close, except for the handsome farmer and the fact that you can’t grow crackers in a field. It turns out that Organic foods are strictly regulated and grown with minimal chemical exposure. According to the CFIA, “only products with organic content greater than or equal to 95% may be labelled as “organic” or bear the organic logo.”
This term is EVERYWHERE these days, and rightfully so. Now this is one health claim that I can get on board with!
Pretty cool right? If it says “Organic” it must have 95% or more organic ingredients. But what is the real definition of the word organic? I did a bit of research and things are looking pretty good. The Canada Organic Regime lays out strict guidelines and lists of fertilizers and other manufacturing materials that may and may not be used in order to be called “organic”.
In essence, 95% of the ingredients must have been grown and processed WITHOUT synthetic (fake) fertilizers or pesticides.
Less toxins, more nutritious… count me in!
Any product in Canada that has 70% or more organic ingredients can label their product with the term “Organic”, but they must also include the % amount (ie. made with 80% organic ingredients).
So anything labelled “Organic” is healthy for me right?
We must be careful not to get caught up in the image that comes with the word “Organic”. Many foods labelled this way are in fact loaded with sugar, fat, and calories. Sure, those ingredients can be very natural and organic, but that doesn’t mean that we should be overloading on sugar and fat in our diet. Organic fruit snacks and juices are loaded with sugars that can lead to addictive behaviours and weight gain. Organic cracker snacks are full of wheat, milk products, sugar, and salt, all of which can cause issues with digestion, heart problems, and a build up of toxins in the body if eaten in large amounts.
I will end this topic with two questions that I encourage you to ask yourself next time you are about to buy a product labelled “organic”.
- Is this product made with ingredients that are good for my health, whether organic or not?
- Does this product look and taste like it would if I harvested it from nature today? Oh how beautiful the rolling fields of gummy bears must look!
“No Sugar Added”
What you think it means: Finally something delicious without sugar in it. I am living sugar-free!
What it really means: The food product hasn’t had any sugar added to it during processing. This doesn’t mean that the product did not have natural sugars in it before processing. Take a banana for example- high in sugar but non has been added while growing the fruit itself. Any natural foods high in sugar are not recommended for those with diabetes or those trying to kick the sugar addiction. Other foods that contain natural sugars include most fruits, dairy, cereals, and some vegetables.
Most of these natural foods are full of great minerals and vitamins, and I am not saying they’re all bad. I am simply saying that we must be cautious if we are trying to avoid sugar in our diet and not be tricked by the “no sugar added” advertisements on food products.
What you think it means: Wahoo, no sugar for our family. I’m so healthy!
What it really means: Sorry, it’s not that simple. Yes, products labelled “sugar-free” must have less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, but it isn’t necessarily healthy for you. The bad news is that the food manufacturers use numerous other additives to make up for the loss of taste. Sugar-free products usually contain huge amounts of calories, carbohydrates, sugar substitutes (ugh!), and more commonly, fats.
So, is “sugar-free” healthy for me?
Usually not. Sorry.
What you think it means: Oh yum, a healthy snack at last! I am going to be skinny before you know it.
What it really means: Oh yum, a snack without fat that is loaded with sugar, salt and other questionable additives. Again, sorry to burst your drool bubble, but most snacks labelled fat-free and containing less than 0.5g of fat per serving are in fact hiding other questionable ingredients. A lot of these “other” ingredients are not “real” foods and can cause serious problems if eaten in large amounts.
Should we necessarily claim that fat is the biggest health concern and then ignore all of the other factors and ingredients in our foods?
I don’t believe so. Everything in moderation. So, just because you are eating a no-fat food, doesn’t mean it is healthy for you if it is loaded with sugar or salt- two ingredients that we know are not the best for your health in high quantities.
I challenge you next time you are in the supermarket doing your weekly shop to use your new found knowledge and take a second look when you are reaching for that “Organic, fat-free” granola bar that looks so healthy and delicious.
- Is this really made with fresh ingredients from the Earth with minimal processing?
- What extra ingredients are added to make this food taste delicious? Are these ingredients good for my health, too?
By now you are wondering. Well, what CAN I eat?
Here are a few guidelines to help with that question:
- Only buy foods that are as close to their natural state as possible (Kiwi vs. kiwi fruit snacks)
- Minimize, or avoid altogether, any products that make health claims. Most products that find the need to advertise certain health claims, are in fact hiding a multitude of other ingredients that are worse for your health.
- Shop the perimeters of the grocery store only. This is normally where the real, whole foods live. The exception being the middle isles where you buy dry goods such as beans, rice etc…
Have a question about another health claim you see on your food?
Post a comment below and I’ll spill the dirt for you!