How do you know which food products are healthy? Looks and labels may be deceiving when it comes to information presented on food packages. Between all the new trends and fads constantly promoted, which words of wisdom are worth following?
UK Health & Wellness dietitians Karen Bryla McNees, EdD, RD, CHES, and Vanessa Oliver, MS, RDN, LDN, now offer private grocery store tours to help UK employees, retirees and their spouses navigate these questions in a practical, hands-on way. The dietitians offer the grocery store tours in addition to their core support programs: one-on-one nutrition consults and the EatWell weight loss program.
“We offer grocery store tours because marketers, agencies that regulate food labels and grocery stores do not make it easy for people to choose healthy options, even when they want to,” McNees says.
“You have to know what to look for and be your own advocate,” Oliver adds. “And we’re here to help you do that.”
Rest assured, the dietitians take a simple approach to self-advocacy. Their tips involve knowing what to ignore and where to focus your attention.
Tip 1: Don’t trust front-of-the-box health claims.
do trust the order of the ingredients on the back.
“When we see these phrases such as ‘whole grain,’ ‘trans fat-free’ or ‘low sugar,’ we’re lured into a false sense of something being healthy, when in fact it’s not,” McNees says. “It’s a trap known as the ‘health halo,’ and many of us fall prey to it.”
“We think, ‘How bad could it be?’ if it has a healthy-sounding phrase or two on the package,” Oliver says. “Unfortunately, many of those labels are meaningless.”
According to the dietitians, attempting to decode food label lingo is a stressful and unnecessary task.
Their recommendation? Simply ignore all of the marketed labeling on the front of food packaging. There are many loopholes, but language such as “reduced fat” could be interpreted many different ways, making it a meaningless marketing phrase.
“If you see a ‘lower sugar’ cereal, we always tell people to ask themselves ‘What is lower being compared to?’” McNees says. “Is it really a big deal that your favorite sugary cereal has less sugar now? It probably still has much more than you need.”
Checking the ingredient list, which is in descending order by weight, is a trusted way to determine what a product contains – or does not contain – and roughly how much.
“For example, if you’re looking for whole grain products, you want to see whole grain such as whole oat, whole wheat or whole rye as the very first ingredient,” McNees says. “That’s the only way to ensure it is a true whole grain product.”
The same principle can be applied for ensuring a product contains none or only a small amount of an unnecessary ingredient such as sugar.
“On what to avoid, we keep our advice simple. Make sure the product does not have sugar, or a synonym for sugar, in the top three ingredients, because that means the product is mostly empty calories,” says Oliver, who notes that sugar can be fine in moderation. “Also, make sure it doesn’t have partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat) listed anywhere in the ingredients. If you can avoid those two things, you’ll be off to a very good start!”
Tip 2: Don’t trust the TROPe “you must be able to pronounce everything in the ingredients list.”
do trust in your common sense of which foods look like they’re close to natural form.
“Stating that one must be able to pronounce all of your ingredients is a slippery slope,” Oliver says. “It could have added tocopherol, which is just vitamin E used as an antioxidant. That being said, we do recommend looking for ingredient lists that are as short as they need to be.”
As a replacement strategy to the pronunciation rule, McNees offers these guiding questions: “Is it close to its natural form, and does it resemble what it is supposed to be? If so, it’s probably a beneficial food.”
Oliver describes a telltale sign the food is not close to its natural form. “If it has a shiny coating, you can assume it’s not close to natural form,” she says. “That shiny coating found on granola bars covered in chocolate or peanut butter means it’s filled with highly processed ingredients.”
“If you really follow this, you’ll be able to bypass about 95 percent of the products at the grocery store,” McNees says.
For this reason, Oliver suggests looking beyond supermarkets. “Shopping at the Lexington Farmers Market – which even runs through the winter – or participating in one of the many local CSAs is a great way to vote with your dollars, showing you support your local economy and you prefer foods close to their natural form.”
The dietitians recommend shopping the perimeter of the grocery store for fresh produce and meat in addition to the few center aisles containing whole grains, beans and rice, plus canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables.
McNees offers the following conclusion: “Use your common sense to tell whether a food is close to it’s natural form. Trust your instincts.”
Tip 3: Don’t trust sponsored logos or seals of approval on food packaging.
do trust recommendations from your dietitian.
From the American Heart Association to the licensing agency for registered dietitians called the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), many organizations have placed their logos or seals on food packaging, which often creates a false perception the product is healthy. Oliver and McNees point out that even the AND has taken such actions, contributing to the health halo effect.
“Earlier this year, the marketing arm of AND put their ‘Kids Eat Right’ seal on American Kraft Singles, which is problematic because many people will make the association that it is a health food, and it’s not,” Oliver says.
McNees adds, “AND’s response was something along the lines of ‘Kraft chose to put our label on their product.’ This is irresponsible because the public expects the AND seal to be an endorsement of health, not a corporate sponsorship.”
“Instances like this show you’re the only one looking out for you. The bottom line is that you have to assume you can’t trust any food marketing to guide your decisions,” Oliver says.
“Come see us for a nutrition consult where we can give you what we call a meal pattern, or personalized guidelines of what foods are right for you and your health goals.”
Schedule a grocery store tour and learn how to put these takeaways into practice!
- Ignore all claims on the front of the box, as they are not indicators of health. These marketing strategies include:
- Phrases like “trans fat-free,” “reduced-fat,” “whole grain”
- Sponsored health claims and logos (even from reputable organizations such as the AND)
- Check the back of packaging for the true ingredients listed in order of weight. Avoid the food if it contains:
- Sugar as one of the first three to five ingredients
- Partially hydrogenated oils (trans-fat)
- Choose whole foods or foods close to their natural form. Ask yourself:
- Does this food resemble what it is supposed to be?
- Is the ingredients list short?