You see them on food packages all the time, nutritional buzzwords that make a product sound healthy. Food manufacturers love to “sugar coat” the language they use to describe packaged food offerings. No wonder! You’re more likely to toss it into your grocery cart if you think it’s good for your health. But, some of the terms and “marketing speak” food makers place on their labels to entice you to buy have very little meaning and are sometimes downright deceiving. You might think they mean one thing, but, in reality, they have little meaning in the eyes of regulatory agencies, like the FDA. Let’s look at some examples.
Nutritional Buzzwords: All Natural
When you see something is all-natural or flavored naturally, you probably get a good feeling about that product. It must be better for you if it’s natural, right? For one, the term natural says nothing about safety or health. Lots of naturally occurring chemicals and compounds are either poisonous or bad for our health. For example, cyanide and arsenic are natural, but one is deadly, and the other is a toxin that damages your body over a short or long period of time, depending upon the quantity and route of exposure.
The reality is the word “natural” is not clearly defined by the Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers can use that word as long as an item is free of synthetic chemicals produced in a lab. With regard to natural flavorings, scientists use chemicals found in nature to make natural flavorings, but, often, the chemical structure of the flavoring is very similar to the ones made synthetically.
Plus, many products labeled as “all natural” still contain copious amounts of sugar or natural sweeteners. We now know that even natural sweeteners cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and contribute to the growing epidemic of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. A survey found that 60% of shoppers look for the word natural on product packaging and feel good about buying such products. How many are looking at the nutritional information on the back to find out how many grams of sugar are there?
Consumers also have a flawed idea of what a natural product can contain. Surveys show they think products that are natural are free of pesticides and aren’t genetically modified. That’s not the case. Natural doesn’t mean organic and it doesn’t mean a product doesn’t contain genetically modified ingredients.
The bottom line? The term “natural” is poorly defined and regulated and is more of a marketing term and says little about the health of a product.
Nutritional Buzzwords: Superfood
Do certain foods have superpowers? That’s what you might think when you pick up a food product labeled as a superfood. But, like the term natural, superfood isn’t a regulated term either. In fact, the European Union doesn’t allow the term to be placed on packages unless the manufacturer backs up the claim with a study published in a reputable journal.
If you look up the definition of a superfood, you would discover something like this:
“A nutrient-rich food believed to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.”
Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? But, there really is no standard a food must meet to be classified as a superfood. That’s why manufacturers so freely use it on foods such as hemp seed, chia seeds, acai berries, goji berries, and more. But, are these foods any more “super” than every day non-starchy vegetables, like broccoli and spinach or protein-rich foods such as salmon? Again, super food is a marketing term and one used to justify a higher price.
Nutritional Buzzwords: Made with Real Fruit
Have you ever picked up a box of cereal and seen the words, “made with real fruit?” You might think those “blueberries” in the cereal bowl on the package are actually in the box, but they may not be. The FDA doesn’t stipulate how MUCH fruit must be in a cereal product to use this phrase. In fact, if the product contains even a single berry, they can claim it’s made with real fruit. What some manufacturers do is add a tiny amount of real fruit, but most of the berries are made of sugar and filler dyed to be the color or a berry.
Nutritional Buzzwords: Gluten-Free
Somewhere along the way, gluten-free has become synonymous with health. People who have celiac disease (around 1% of the population) must avoid all traces of gluten. For these folks, going gluten-free is a necessity for maintaining their health. Another 10% of the population may also be sensitive to gluten, without having celiac disease and can also benefit from a gluten-free diet. But, for the average person, a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily healthier.
According to a report by Bloomberg, almost 30% of people say they buy gluten-free products because they’re healthier. But, gluten-free packaged foods are often lower in fiber. In addition, they also commonly use rice flour and rice syrup. Why does this matter? Studies show that brown rice is high in inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen. If you follow a gluten-free diet, it’s best to eat whole, gluten-free foods and skip the processed stuff.
Manufacturers can call a product “healthy” if it contains 3 grams or less of total fat and 1 gram or less of saturated fat. Yet, we know that a certain amount of fat is important for health. You need fat to aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and to supply your body with two essential fatty acids it needs but can’t make. Also, when manufacturers take the fat out of food, they typically add more sugar and fillers to enhance the texture and flavor. So, the standard definition of healthy isn’t really healthy at all!
The Bottom Line
You can avoid all of this misleading nutritional speak by sticking to whole, unpackaged foods. The best foods don’t require a label and foods in their unaltered state are free of the additives, sugar, and unhealthy oils that manufacturers add to their offerings. Stick to whole foods whenever possible. If you do buy something packaged, don’t be seduced by what’s on the front of the label. Get the nutritional facts and read the ingredients. It’ll help you make healthier choices.
CBS News. “What does “natural” really mean on food labels?”
American Council on Science and Health. “Soaring Sales Continue, But Gluten-Free Doesn’t Mean Healthy”
EXCLI J. 2017; 16: 1132–1143.
Sci Total Environ. 2017 May 15; 586: 1237–1244.