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Hidden Truths: 7 Food Labels to Watch Out For

Food marketing is a crafty business – way craftier than poor old Average Joe. It takes a generous helping of natural skepticism and a side plate of assorted avenues of research in order to navigate the proverbial bear trap that is your neighbourhood supermarket.

Labels are designed to sell, not to educate. This is important to remember. Labels are not the place to look for guidance on the right foods to eat. One might even say that fancy food labels should be treated as a big (BIG) red flag.

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Think about this a minute. Green vegetables don’t need endorsements from the American Heart Association. Neither does your local country fruit stand. Our bodies have an intuitive knowledge of what’s good for us, which foods are nourishing and which are designed to bulldoze our health and well-being.

We should be able to trust our bodies. For a long time we were, until Big Marketing came in and mussed it all up. We got confused. We lost track of which way is up and which way is down. It’s not your fault. You got duped. Fortunately, it’s not too late to get your facts straight, starting with – well – the facts.


1. “Nutritional Facts”

Nutrition facts are notoriously inaccurate. Several small studies have shown this to be true, including a recent exposé on Good Morning America, where Wonderbread was shown to contain a whopping 70 percent more fat than was listed on the label.

Perhaps more importantly, serving sizes in no way reflect portion sizes of the average consumer. Who on Earth has ever eaten just a third of a cup of ice cream, just five Ritz crackers or a half can of soda?

2. Calorie Count

Calorie counts are equally misleading, since not all calories are created equal. For example, the more processed a food, the less energy your body uses to digest it. The more intact a food (that means visibly intact, not labeled with a term like “whole grain”), the more energy your body uses breaking it down and digesting all those lovely nutrients.

The number of calories individuals need is a number arbitrarily determined by the government. It has very little bearing on our friend, Average Joe. Age, gender, genetic factors, physical condition, activity level and lifestyle all play an important role in the number of calories a person should consume daily.

Consider this: some athletes consume as many as 8,000 calories in a day. We aren’t talking about sumo wrestlers either; we’re talking swimmers, runners and the like. In contrast, a woman over 50 leading a relatively inactive lifestyle could easily live on 1,500 calories per day.

3. “Made With Whole Grains”

Translation: “Contains Gluten.”

This health claim is the product of some very crafty lobbyists like the American Heart Association and the Whole Grains Council – both organizations that benefit from keeping consumers overweight and addicted to wheat.

The AHA loves to slap their “certified heart healthy” or “health check” logo on any product made with whole grains, even if the second and third ingredients are vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup. Practice extreme caution.

4. “Natural Flavours”

Natural flavours are so under-regulated that this claim is mostly meaningless. Consider that the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies aspartame, bugs, animal by-products and MSG under the umbrella of “natural flavours.”

Almost any substance that can be extracted from plant or animal can carry this label, no matter how processed. This means that even vegetarian or vegan products may contain pork, poultry, beef or lamb under the guise of natural flavours – yet another reason to stay away from processed foods.

5. “All Natural”

In many parts of the world, including the United States, “all natural” is not a regulated claim. It doesn’t mean anything. In Canada, the term “natural” is regulated for meats and poultry, meaning the product can’t contain any artificial flavours, colours or chemical preservatives.

In most cases, “all natural” is nothing more than marketing.

6. “Gluten-Free”

Gluten-free is the latest darling of the food marketing world. Manufacturers are rushing to slap the “gluten-free” stamp on foods that never contained gluten in the first place. Since most of the world has a least a mild gluten intolerance, this label can be very helpful, but like any other health claim it should be treated with caution. Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t make it healthy. A gluten free doughnut is still a doughnut. Gluten-free bagels are still bagels.

7. “Certified Biodynamic”

Biodynamic is the new organic – a spiritual, environmental and sustainable approach to agriculture. These are the farms that appear in your head when you imagine an organic farm (in reality, most organic farms are nothing like it): cows grazing in green pastures, regularly rotated crops, school kids running around in the rye fields. Essentially, biodynamic is a return to more traditional farming but with all the benefits of modern technology.

Currently only one organisation, Demeter, provides this certification. Products carrying the biodynamic label are few and far between. Expect to see more of it in the future. Buy and enjoy. You’ve done you’re good deed to the earth for the day.

Any kind of official certification is bound to be expensive. Country fruit stands don’t necessarily need it anyway. Before we put our faith in regulatory boards and food conglomerates like Kraft or the FDA, it’s important to ask questions about the nature of these giants. Who are they really looking out for? In most cases, it’s not the consumer.

Stick to the basics. Shop the perimeter. Buy foods that are recognizable as food, not hiding behind a fancy package or an official sounding health claim. Your body will thank you.

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