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Don't Believe Everything You Read on Food Labels

Some seemingly healthy claims can mislead shoppers. Here's how to spot the telltale signs of 'leanwashing.'

By Maureen Callahan | May 8, 2013
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Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series.

By now, most of us are savvy enough to know that what we choose to eat really can make a difference in our health. So we're naturally enticed by packaged foods that call out supposedly health-conscious features like "whole wheat," "0 trans fat" or "no high-fructose corn syrup." Trouble is, a lot of these boasts are misleading, incomplete or downright bogus.
 
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Are You a Victim of 'Leanwashing'?
 
Most of the labels and slogans shouting from the front of food packages today are there to distract you from reading the real nutritional information on the back. Manufacturers have one goal: to sell a product. If they can do it by putting a halo around the presence (or absence) of an ingredient and whitewashing the negatives – like excess sugar, salt or "bad" fats – so be it.

The use of labels, images or health claims that are vague, exaggerated, or downright false has become so commonplace that it's been given a name: leanwashing. A new website can help you figure out if you've been duped by efforts to leanwash a cereal, snack or frozen dinner. Two of the most common misleading efforts, the website reveals, focus not on ingredients, but on portion size.
 
Anyone who has navigated a supermarket snack aisle in the past year or two has seen the explosion of "100-calorie" packages positioned as a healthy portion-control choice for dieters. The appeal of that low-cal label, though, makes many consumers forget that a 100-calorie snack of chips or cookies is never a "healthy choice" when nutrient-dense options like a large apple (also about 100 calories) or a single-serve pack of baby carrots are also widely available.

But by focusing on the relatively low number of calories, companies convince shoppers they're getting something better when it's really the same unhealthy food, just less of it. Similarly, the tiny, unrealistic "serving sizes" on many snack labels can make a beverage or a cookie appear to have an acceptable amount of fat (or salt or sugar) only because the portion size is so small. Do you eat more than six potato chips at a sitting? Then maybe you need to double the snack's measures of salt and fat "per serving" before considering a purchase.

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More Tricks to Avoid
 
Here are a few more "leanwashing" buzzwords and tricks that can trip you up if you let down your guard at the supermarket:
  • Multigrain, "12-grain" and other grainy terminology. Phrases like "12 grain" or "multigrain" are meaningless, in terms of health value, since any or all grains can be highly refined, robbing them of much of their nutritional value. Regulators require companies to list each product's ingredients according to their abundance, from most to least, so unless a product states that it is made from, say, 100 percent whole wheat or oats, it's probably not made with a lot of whole grain — and even if it is, that doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you. That's why it's important to read the entire nutrition information label. A recent Harvard School of Public Health survey found that many foods carrying the industry-standard Whole Grain Stamp were, on average, actually higher in sugar and calories than products without the stamp.
  • Featured nutrients. Adding a dose of fiber, vitamin D or vitamin C to a toaster pastry doesn't have much effect on a less-than-healthy ingredient list that includes high levels of high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil. Or as Consumer Reports has pointed out, "Junk food is still junk."
  • "Zero trans fat." A cookie or margarine with 0.49 grams of trans fat in a ridiculously small serving can still be labeled "trans fat free" even though most people can be expected to eat two or three such "servings" at a sitting, consuming well over a gram of unhealthy fat. Better to ignore the trans fat banner on the front of the package and avoid foods whose back-panel ingredient list includes partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Eye-level marketing. In his new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter, exposes secrets about how big food companies use those three ingredients to hijack our taste buds. They also use their influence to put their products at eye level in supermarket aisles. When you reach low or reach high, he says, you'll typically find healthier products and avoid this trap. (Find more advice from Moss in his recent interview with Next Avenue.)
 
Be a Smarter Label Reader
 
In the end, it's best to think of the front of the package as a billboard with advertising that exaggerates, distracts or clouds up the true picture of whether a given food is a healthy choice. Instead, turn the package around and head directly to the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list. Unlike the front billboard, this is where manufacturers are required by law to spell out the truth, abnormally small serving sizes notwithstanding. (Here's a good refresher on how regulators define terms like "high in fiber," "lean," "reduced fat" and many others.)

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If you're too rushed or flummoxed to scrutinize a food label properly, you can turn to Fooducate, a free mobile smartphone app that can read a product's bar code and return a nutrition grade ranging from A to D, with a summary of its key nutrients and not-so-good additives. It's just one more way to strike back at the leanwashers.

RELATED VIDEO: "Sugar Substitutes: Tasty and Healthy Options" from WHYY