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Thursday
Apr092015

4 Misleading Food Industry Claims 

They say real, whole foods don’t need to be labeled healthy.

On the other side of the spectrum, of course, are the splashy health claims of processed food products.

We’ve all seen them in grocery stores and media advertisements. As positive and conspicuous as these messages appear on package labels, the fact is they promise health benefits that clearly defy the ingredients listed in small print.

The claims themselves run a wide gamut, but let me highlight a few of the most common and offer the proverbial “more to the story” behind each. 

1. Breakfast cereal will lower cholesterol.

There are really two issues with this claim. First, it suggests that cholesterol levels should be lowered in all people. This is a hotly contested topic. Might some people benefit from lower cholesterol levels? Sure. However, one’s total cholesterol level is just a tiny part of the health risk story. There’s evidence to suggest too little cholesterol is unhealthy as well. The bottom line is, many people don’t need to lower their cholesterol or be afraid of eating food with cholesterol.

The second issue is the idea that the cereal itself lowers cholesterol. The truth is, the cereal merely contains a small amount of soluble fiber, which at a certain intake, can slightly lower cholesterol in some people. The fine print on this claim is as follows (from their website): “…cereal ha[s] soluble fiber from whole grain oats. This type of soluble fiber acts like a kind of ‘sponge,’ soaking up some of the cholesterol in the body so that the body can get rid of it naturally.”

In reality, it isn’t the cereal itself, but the small amount of soluble fiber found in it. How much does it contain? A whopping 1 gram per serving. You’d need at least a few servings of cereal each day to have any effect on cholesterol levels, but the massive amount of carbohydrates from all that cereal could easily offset the health benefit of the fiber, even contributing to smaller, denser, more atherogenic cholesterol.

For perspective, our protein powder FastFuel Complete contains 5 grams of soluble fiber, but you won’t see such a health claim made on the product. It might help sell more of it, but the claim is just too misleading.

2. Rich in Omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids have gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and with good cause. Omega-3s have been shown to play an important role in health. Some of their benefits include improvements in brain health, cardiovascular health, increased metabolism, reduced inflammation and others. These benefits mostly come from two omega-3 fats called docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are found mainly in fatty fish. 

Another omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plants like flax. To gain most of the benefits associated with omega-3 consumption, ALA has to be converted to DHA and EPA. Humans aren't very good at that. In fact, some experts suggest we're really bad at this conversion. This means that those who only get their omega-3 fatty acids from plant-based ALA are unlikely to get enough DHA and EPA each day. Not only that, but most people already get too much of another fat called omega-6, which counteracts the benefits of omega-3s in many ways. 

If you're buying processed foods labeled as rich in omega-3s, you're probably getting mainly ALA. If you're buying a lot of processed foods, you're also likely eating a lot of omega-6s, which means you're really missing out on full omega-3 benefits.

The food industry initially caught on to the value of adding/highlighting omega-3s as a marketing strategy, so there are quite a few foods labeled "containing omega-3s." However, most use ALA. More recently, they've begun adding EPA and DHA to some foods such as milk or even orange juice (not that you'd drink orange juice as part of a healthy diet anyway). The amounts, unfortunately, are too low to offer much health benefit.

If you don't eat fatty fish each day, you'll probably need to supplement with omega-3 fish oil (quality varies considerably).

 3. Naturally Fat-Free

I've even seen this claim on a bag of sugar.

This claim is a double-whammy like the cholesterol-lowering claim. It suggests that eating fat-free is healthy, which it isn’t. It also suggests that their product is natural. I wouldn’t put processed table sugar on the same level with a papaya, and the sugar’s label in fact showed that sugar isn’t as simple or straightforward a food as the “natural” label would suggest.

You can find it on other products as well. Don’t assume that “natural” means “healthy.” And consciously choosing to add sugar to your food is not a wise choice whether it’s natural or not. The amount of sugar in Americans’ diets today is likely one of the biggest causes of our rising health, obesity and diabetes problems.

4. High in Protein

Have you seen a cut of steak or package of chicken thighs with a label claiming “high protein?” Probably not.

If you see this claim, it’s likely on the box of some processed food. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and most dairy foods are rich sources of protein, but most people know that already.

Many processed foods try to add a little protein to their foods so they can flash a “high in protein” claim. One box of cereal even declares “as much protein as an egg.” Protein plays a very important role in maintaining a healthy body composition, but I can’t recommend getting protein from processed foods. The influx of extra carbohydrates isn’t worth the minimal amount of questionable protein you would get from a processed food product.

Get your protein from real protein sources. It’s the high-quality protein found in meats, eggs, fish, most dairy products, or reputable protein powder supplements that help to improve satiety, support blood sugar management, build muscle and bone density and play many other crucial roles in the body.

Are you interested in learning more about how to analyze nutritional claims or make the best food choices for you and your family? Talk with one of our dietitians today. Thanks for reading.

Written by Tom Nikkola - Former Sr. Director of Nutrition & Weight Management 

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

 

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