Have you ever felt confused by the health claims made about some foods? If so, you are not alone. Nutrition is isn’t always easy to understand and, unfortunately, misleading information on food labels only makes it worse.
There are a great many foods that seem as though they would be healthy choices for weight loss or good health in general. Surprisingly, some of these low-fat and low-sugar alternatives aren’t as healthy as you might think.
This is because, in many cases, the claims on the label only tell part of the story. This isn’t to say that the information is false, but it does require some interpretation to understand whether these foods are really a healthy choice.
Here are two examples of label language that seems to indicate a healthier option, but may not necessarily be the case:
Cutting back on fat intake is a good way to reduce calories and is typically recommended for weight loss. It is also a major part of traditional recommendations to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, although recent research suggests this may not be so important.
In order to meet a demand for lower fat and lower calorie foods, manufacturers have long offered fat-free versions of popular items. Cookies, snack foods and salad dressings are among the most popular fat-free foods, especially for people who are trying to lose weight.
However, the number of calories in the fat-free foods may be the same as the full-fat versions because manufacturers often add sugar to make these lower fat foods taste as good. This is often the case for cookies, cakes and other fat-free baked goods.
In the end, these fat-free foods may not really be lower in calories. And common sense tells us that the best way to reduce calories is to eat fewer of these snack foods and dressings in the first place.
Reducing sugar intake is also a popular way to limit calories in many foods and beverages. Currently, sugar is viewed as a major contributor to obesity and poor health in general, so this also makes some foods appear to be healthier than they really are.
While it is true that sugar-free versions of desserts and snack foods do usually contain fewer calories, the alternative sweeteners used instead raise some concerns. While there is no good evidence that these sweeteners are harmful, they certainly don’t make these foods any healthier.
It is important to note that the concern is with foods that have added sugar, such as packaged or prepared desserts, baked goods and snacks. Foods with naturally-occurring sugars like fruits, fruit juices, milk and some vegetables are not worth worrying about.
Again, the most reasonable approach to creating a healthy diet is to eat fewer foods with added sugar, not looking for foods that replace added sugar with artificial sweeteners.
The problem for most people isn’t that they are eating cookies with too much sugar or salad dressing with too much fat, it’s that they are eating too many cookies and using too much dressing in the first place. Lowering fat or sugar in these foods does little to make people healthier.
The only way to do that would be to limit the intake of these processed foods in favor of more “real” food. Indeed, fruits, vegetables, nuts and natural oils (like olive oil) are widely thought to be healthful, certainly better than processed and modified alternatives.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.
He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is an ACSM certified clinical exercise specialist; his research focuses on physical activity in weight management and the impact of the environment on activity and diet.
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