Contributor: Jamie Foti
Take a walk through the aisles of any grocery store and you will be inundated with health claims on nearly every single food package. Each box of food is its own walking advertisement of how it will help you support your health goals. This is the case for any aisle from the sugary cereal aisle to the ice cream aisle. The only area that goes primary untouched by the madness of marketing is the produce section. The reason for that is that fruit and vegetable farmers don’t have the margins that large food companies do to employ a marketing team and convince you of how much better you will feel if you eat their product. This has been going on for years but food marketers are really stepping up their game as they notice consumers are becoming more health conscious. This includes everything from avocado mayonnaise to keto cookies.
In 2014, I wrote an article with Kristin Kirkpatrick for US News & World Report on this very topic, Top Food Lies at the Grocery Store. In that article, we highlighted this truth: Unfortunately for health-conscious shoppers, the grass seems to be greener on the outside of the food box. The colorful claims in bold font do not influence the actual nutrient composition or quality of the food within the package. While your eyes might be drawn to names and claims that sound good, the body knows no different from a sugar-filled fiber bar and a plain old candy bar.
The good news of the increased demand for nutritious products is that it has led to more food innovation from smaller startups but on the other hand, it has also led to food manufacturers claiming specific health benefits about their products to persuade consumers to add to their cart. While some have meaning, many are present to trick consumers into thinking the product is more nutritious than it actually is. Read below for five of the most misleading “healthy” food claims.
1. Mayonnaise with Olive Oil or Avocado Oil
There is no doubt that olive oil and avocado oil are two of the healthiest oils out there. Both are monounsaturated fats, a type of fat that has been linked with increasing good cholesterol, known as HDL, decreasing triglyceride levels, and helping people with type 2 diabetes lower blood sugar levels. Furthermore, increasing intake of monounsaturated fats can lead to lower risk of cardiovascular events, cardiovascular mortality, and even all-cause mortality.
The food industry is recognizing that consumers are in search of these types of oils as replacements to highly refined vegetable oils such as canola oil. However, while many companies claim to make their mayonnaise with avocado or olive oil, many of them still include canola oil, sometimes as the first oil listed in the ingredient list. Take for example Kraft Olive Oil Mayo and Hellmann’s Avocado Oil Mayonnaise.
Left: Kraft Olive Oil Mayo
Ingredients: water, olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil, modified food starch, vinegar, sugar, maltodextrin, salt, eggs, natural flavor, mustard flour, lactic acid, potassium sorbate (to protect flavor), phosphoric acid, dried onions, dried garlic, calcium disodium EDTA (to protect flavor), beta carotene (color).
Right: Hellmann’s Avocado Oil Mayonnaise
Ingredients: blend of oils (avocado, canola, and soybean oils), water, whole eggs and egg yolks, modified corn starch, sugar, distilled vinegar, salt, lime juice concentrate, sorbic acid and calcium disodium EDTA (used to protect quality), vitamin E, natural flavor, paprika extract.
Both companies tout their healthy oils in huge font across the front of package, but looking at the ingredients lists tells another story. “Blend of oils” is the first ingredient in the Hellmann’s package, and canola and soybean oil quickly follow after olive oil in the Kraft product. Another product, Best Foods Mayonnaise, not pictured even lists soybean oil before olive oil! Not to mention, these mayonnaises are riddled with preservatives and natural flavorings, a far cry from the pure monounsaturated oils mentioned on the front of the packaging. Instead of these brands and others like them, try to look for a brand that lists olive oil or avocado oil as the only oil in the product, such as Primal Kitchen Avocado Oil Mayo, to reap the full benefits of these monounsaturated fats.
2. Food with Fruit on the Packaging
Stroll down the cereal or bar aisle and you will be inundated with processed foods that include fruit displayed boldly across the packaging and maybe even some vitamin and mineral claims.
Mott’s Medleys Fruit Flavored Snacks Link
Ingredients: corn syrup, modified corn starch, pear juice concentrate, apple juce cocentrate, strawberry puree, carrot juice concentrate, contains 2% or less of: citric acid, vitamin c (ascorbic acid), fruit pectin, sodium citrate, malic acid, dextrose, vegetable and fruit juice added for color, sunflower oil, natural flavor, carnauba wax.
Mott’s Medleys Fruit Flavored Snacks tout themselves as being made of real fruit and vegetable juice. The problem is, that juice is really fruit juice concentrate, giving these snacks 9 grams of sugar and 19 grams of carbohydrates in each small pouch, with little to no protein to help stabilize blood sugar. It is concerning that these products are marketed to children, given the epidemic of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, fruit juice concentrate isn’t as healthy as it sounds. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest states, “Fruit juice concentrate is just fruit sugars stripped of all the good nutrition of fruit. Fruit juice concentrate is to fruit as high fructose corn syrup is to a fresh ear of corn.” Without the nutrient benefits of fruit, this concentrate is simply another form of sugar and these fruit snacks (like all others) are hardly better than a packet of gummy bears.
Nature’s Bakery Organic Honey & Oat Link
Ingredients: Organic Strawberry Filling (Organic Tapioca Syrup, Organic Dried Cane Sugar, Organic Dried Apples, Organic Corn Starch and/or Organic Tapioca Starch, Organic Apple Juice Concentrate, Organic Strawberry Juice Concentrate, Calcium Sulfate, Citric Acid, Turmeric and Vegetable Juice for Color, Cultured Organic Unbleached Whole Wheat Flour, Natural Flavors, Pectin, Salt, Sodium Citrate), Organic Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour, Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Rolled Oats, Organic Dried Cane Sugar, Organic Sunflower Oil and/or Organic Canola Oil, Organic Raisins, Organic Honey, Organic Oat Fiber, Organic Spices, Natural Flavor, Leavening (Baking Soda, Monocalcium Phosphate), Sea Salt.
Nature’s Bakery Organic Honey & Oat bars claim to be made with real fruit. The real fruit is not nearly as fresh as the strawberries on the front of package. The first two ingredients of the organic strawberry filling are added sugars: organic tapioca syrup and organic dried cane syrup. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th ingredients are the ‘real fruit’: organic dried apples, organic apple juice concentrate and organic strawberry juice concentrate.
Strawberry Krispies Link
Ingredients: Rice, sugar, contains 2% or less of vegetable juice for color, salt, malt flavor, natural flavor, beta-carotene for color. Vitamins and minerals: iron (ferric phosphate), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E acetate, niacinamide, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B1 (thiamin hydrochloride), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), folic acid, vitamin D3, vitamin B12.
Another example of this is seen in the Strawberry Krispies that were recently launched in stores. They are basically Rice Krispies with a few coloring additives to make them pink. There are no strawberries or strawberry concentrates in the ingredient list. But because they adding pink coloring, Kellogg’s adds a picture of a strawberry to the front the package and names them Strawberry Krispies.
In an age where people are always looking for convenient and healthy snacks for their kids, marketers rely on the idea that many parents will see the fruit on the label and equate it with health. They aren’t only targeting the parents, but are also targeting children, with the average child viewing ten advertisements a day! This bombardment of advertisements leads the children to ask for these products and becomes associated with a child’s perception of fruit. To see just how far reaching this advertising issue is, see the attached study on food advertising to children. The best replacement to this mess: purchase foods with minimal ingredients, avoid pictures of strawberries and buy real strawberries from the produce or frozen section.
3. Plain Non-Dairy Yogurt
For those with issues digesting dairy or those simply wishing to avoid dairy, non-dairy alternatives have become a life-saver! From “cheese” to yogurt to ice cream, there isn’t any product that those avoiding dairy can’t have. When making the switch to these alternatives, many swap out their daily habit of eating plain yogurt to eating plain dairy-free yogurt, assuming similar health benefits. However, while plain dairy yogurt is unsweetened, plain dairy-free yogurt does not have to be unsweetened, and many contain significant amounts of sugar. Take, for example, So Delicious Plain Coconut Yogurt.
So Delicious Plain Coconut Yogurt Link
Ingredients: Organic coconut milk (filtered water, organic coconut cream), organic cane sugar, rice starch, less than 2% of: calcium citrate, pectin, live and active cultures, vitamin D2, vitamin B12
A single serving contains 15 grams of sugar, the same amount as in a package of Entenmann’s Little Bites Muffins! Many are not picturing a packet of muffins as they pick up this seemingly healthy container of yogurt.
This issue is not specific to coconut milk based alternatives. While Silk Plain Soy Dairy-Free Yogurt Alternative does have some protein, it is not much better than the So Delicious brand. It still lists cane sugar as the second ingredient and has 7 grams of sugar per cup. Many other plain dairy-free yogurts follow suit, listing different sweeteners as the second ingredient after the dairy-free base. Since consumption of high amounts of sugar is associated with increased insulin production and thus increased inflammation, it is best to look for unsweetened versions of all dairy-free alternatives. Look for unsweetened dairy-free yogurts.
4. Products Advertised as Whole Grain
You might think that in reaching for a box marketed as whole grain you are getting the most bang for your buck, but this claim is very misleading. A product is allowed to be labeled as whole grain if it is greater than 51% whole grain. While that is better than completely refined grain products, it is misleading to many people who purchase these products in an attempt to get the benefits of consuming the whole grain—these benefits are fiber and nutrients that are in the bran and germ of the grain, yet not found in large amounts in the endosperm, the part used in refined grains.
Rudi’s Sprouted Multigrain Bread Link
Ingredients: organic sprouted wheat, organic unbleached whole wheat flour, filtered water, wheat gluten, multi mix (organic millet, organic cracked wheat, organic cornmeal, organic rolled oats, organic rye flakes, organic sunflower seeds, organic flax seeds), fresh yeast, organic cane sugar, molasses, organic vinegar, cultured wheat, organic rolled oats, sea salt, safflower oil.
Udi’s Multigrain Sandwich Bread Link
Ingredients: water, pea starch, modified tapioca starch, rice starch, canola oil, brown rice flour (rice flour, rice bran), sorghum flour, cane sugar, tapioca starch, sugar cane syrup, egg whites, cane sugar, flax seed meal, amaranth flour, modified cellulose, teff flour, cultured brown rice, brown rice, salt, yeast, guar gum, xanthan gum, enzymes.
Multigrain is another trap into which many consumers may fall. Though it sounds healthy, the name only implies that the product is made from a variety of grains. It does not specify that the grains are whole, so many of the products use refined grains since they have a longer shelf life. Rudi’s Sprouted Multigrain Bread is an example of this issue. While it is multigrain and says whole grain goodness, it is not 100% whole grain.
In fact, the first ingredient, sprouted wheat, is not whole grain. It actually contains more insulin raising simple starch and less fiber and vitamins than 100% whole grain products. Seeing buzzwords such as multigrain, whole grain, and sprouted (which just means that the wheat kernel is allowed to sprout before it is baked, potentially leading to increased nutrient availability and digestibility) can give the food the appearance of health, leading many to quickly assume that it is healthier than it really is.
Gluten-free products are not free from these misleading health claims either. While Udi’s Multigrain Sandwich Bread does not claim to be whole grain, it specifies multigrain on the front of the packaging. Most gluten-free breads actually tend to be multigrain since a blend of flours such as corn, rice, potato, and tapioca tend to best mimic the texture of gluten. However, these flours tend to be pretty high in starch and low in fiber as is shown by the ingredients list and nutrition facts of this bread. The bread has pea starch, tapioca starch, and rice starch as the first three ingredients after water, and the bread has 23 grams of carbohydrates with only one gram of fiber. Though many may be fooled by the multigrain claim, this bread is pretty much the nutritional equivalent to white sandwich bread.
5. Products Advertised as Keto
With the keto diet gaining in popularity, many brands have popped up touting keto cookies, bars, chips, you name it! While many of these products can fit into a keto diet, the labeling of them as keto is slightly misleading. The ketogenic diet is one that is high in fat and limits the amount of net carbohydrates (total grams of carbohydrates minus grams of fiber) consumed, allowing your body to go into a process known as ketosis, where fat is used for fuel instead of the glucose that you get from consuming carbohydrates.
Many of the products on the market that are labeled as keto are labeled as such because they contain low amounts of net carbohydrates and are high in fat. The problem in labeling a food as keto is that there aren’t exactly “keto foods.” A person attempting to stay in ketosis can eat a variety of foods, so long as they are consuming a small amount of net carbohydrates (around 25 grams or lower, depending on the person) and higher amounts of fat. Thus, almost any food could fit into this diet in a small amount, and too much of any food with carbohydrates and protein could knock someone out of ketosis.
Bhu Fit Protein Cookie Link
Ingredients: organic cashews, organic chocolate chips (organic cocoa beans, organic soluble fiber (from tapioca, organic cocoa butter, monk fruit, natural flavors), organic prebiotic fiber (from tapioca), organic red palm oil (certified sustainable), organic pea protein, organic brown rice protein, pure water, organic baobab, organic monk fruit, orange pulp, organic sunflower lecithin, sea salt, organic vanilla extract, xantham gum, baking soda, organic stevia.
Take, for example, the Bhu Fit Protein Cookie, a product marketed as keto. Each cookie contains eight grams of net carbohydrates, a seemingly low number. However, if eight of your 25 grams of net carbohydrate are going to a cookie, there isn’t a lot of room for healthy carbohydrates like vegetables, low glycemic fruits, and nuts. Furthermore, functional fibers, like the tapioca fiber are made in a lab and may differ in quality from the intact fibers in whole foods. This is becoming a popular marketing trick, adding fibers to products to make them seem healthier. The FDA has yet to decide on whether adding functional fibers actually provides a similar health benefit to intact fiber found in whole foods.
Finally, while this product is low in sugar, it contains stevia and monk fruit which are actually much sweeter than regular sugar. Though eating these may help you cut carbohydrates, they will not help you get rid of that terrible sweet tooth, and can even lead you to crave more sweets as your taste buds are exposed to these highly sweet products that don’t provide the energy your body expects. Overall, this product—and many other “keto” products—clearly deviate from the heart of the keto diet which is, consuming nutrient rich foods to stay in the state of ketosis.
Hopefully the above tips can help you to become a smarter shopper. Walking down the aisles of any grocery store can be incredibly confusing, so remember not to fall for the images and words on the front of the package. These “health halos” were created by smart marketing executives and are there to tempt you into purchasing the product. Always rely on the ingredients list and nutrition information on the back of the package to give you the health information that you are seeking and to validate or dispel any claims made on the front.