By Joel Weber
Your weight isn’t entirely your fault – and that’s exactly what the folks engineering your food don’t want you to know. Find out how you can bite back.
Sugar. Fat. Salt.
Combine large doses of any of these with a seemingly innocent and healthy vehicle – be it chicken breast, potatoes, salad greens, or coffee – and you can create a savory offering similar to those on the vast majority of American restaurant menus and in the thousands of packages on your supermarket shelves. That’s because the folks engineering your food know that these hidden health hazards will make any meal, snack, or treat more delicious, flavorful, and satisfying. And, if they’re successful, you’re likely to buy more of their food. They’re also fond of adjusting proportions to create so-called “low-fat” or “reduced-sodium” products.
But compare the nutrition labels and you might discover some sleight of hand.
If a food manufacturer removes a productâ€™s sodium, for instance, it typically has to boost the sugar content to keep the taste desirable, according to Joanne L. Slavin, a nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota. So any way you look at it, the equation is simple and designed to make you fail:
MORE SUGAR + MORE FAT + MORE SALT = LESS NUTRITION
It’s time to pull back the curtain and expose the food industry’s tactics.Â Educate yourself and you can fight back – with your wallet.
Food labels lie when they make you think that . . .
1. ‘Fat-Free’ is good for you
People hawking packaged foods equate deception with good business. Consider the labels on products such as Mike and Ike and Good & Plenty candies, where youâ€™ll find a somewhat surprising claim: “fat-free.” They’re not lying – these empty-calorie junk foods are almost 100 percent sugar and processed carbs. But food manufacturers clearly hope that you’ll equate fat-free with healthy or nonfattening.
Problem is, fat-free snacks that are loaded with sugar are digested rapidly, sending your blood sugar soaring; as soon as it drops again, youâ€™ll crave more “fat-free” empty calories. Fat-free half-and-half is equally dubious.Â By definition, a half-and-half dairy product is 50 percent milk and 50 percent cream. Cream, of course, is pretty much all fat. Technically, fat free half-and-half can’t exist. So what is it exactly? Skim milk – to which a thickening agent and an artificial cream flavor have been added. You may be disappointed in the payoff: One tablespoon of Land O’Lakes traditional half-and-half contains just 20 calories; its fat-free version has 10.
2. Cherry-picked stats are meaningful
On the front of a box of crackers, marketers will often use a claim like “33% Less Fat Than the Original!” When you compare the nutritional labels, youâ€™ll see that the math is accurate. For example, the original version of the product might contain 3 grams of fat per serving (per four crackers), while the reduced-fat version has 2 grams (per five crackers).
So statistically, yes, it’s a 33 percent difference. But is it meaningful? Â After all, when was the last time you ate just five crackers? And, if you continue to study the nutrition content, youâ€™ll probably notice that the reduced fat crackers have 33 percent more carbs than the original. In other words, when they removed 1 gram of fat, they had to replace it with 3 grams of refined flour and sugar to keep the crackers palatable.Â And youâ€™d better believe that “33% More Carbs Than the Original” isn’t going to help any crackers fly off the shelves.
3. ‘Healthy’ beverages are actually healthy
Through ingenious marketing, beverage companies have managed to pass off everything from sweetened green tea to vitamin-enhanced waters as good for you. Skip these drinks nine times out of ten in favor of a cool, refreshing glass of zero-calorie water. The beverage aisle is almost like the Wild West of nutritional claims. On behalf of Menâ€™s Health, ChromaDex laboratories recently analyzed 14 different bottled green teas for their levels of disease-fighting antioxidants called catechins. While Honest Teaâ€™s Green Tea with Honey topped the charts with an impressive 215 milligrams of total catechins, some products werenâ€™t even in the game. For instance, Republic of Teaâ€™sÂ Pomegranate Green Tea had only 8 milligrams, and Ito En Teasâ€™ Tea Lemongrass Green had just 28 milligrams, despite implying on its label that the product is packed with antioxidants.
The rainbow-colored rows of â€œenhancedâ€ waters have a different dirty little secret. The crutch of every bottle of Vitaminwater, for instance, is a host of B vitamins. Everything that goes in after that – zinc, chromium, vitamins A, C, or E, etc. – hinges on whether said beverage is trying to provide “focus,” “sync,” “balance,” or any number of claims. The problem is that this scant collection of nutrients isnâ€™t worth the stiff sugar tariff that Vitaminwater charges: 32.5 grams – 8 teaspoonsâ€™ worth – stuffed into each bottle. Pop a daily multivitamin instead.
4. Your breakfast is low in sugar
Flavored yogurt seems like an ideal breakfast or snack for a man on the go – after all, itâ€™s a protein-packed dairy product paired with antioxidant-laden fruits in one convenient little cup.Â Unfortunately, the sugar content of these seemingly healthy products is sky-high, especially in the fruit-on-thebottom varieties. The fruit itself is swimming in so much thick syrup that high-fructose corn syrup and other such sweeteners often must be listed in the ingredients before the fruit itself.
A similar dilemma presents itself with flavored instant oatmeal. Some brands even proudly display the American Heart Association (AHA) check mark on their productsâ€™ boxes. However, the fine print next to the logo will simply read that the cereal meets AHA’s “food criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.”
In other words, it could have as much sugar as Fruit Loops and still get this particular AHA logo! And sugar, a low-quality refined carbohydrate, is the last thing you want for breakfast.Â Not only can spikes in blood sugar wreck your short-term memory, according to a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, but Australian researchers have found that people whose diets were high in carbohydrates had a lower metabolism than those who ate proportionally more protein. Opt for non-flavored products whenever possible and simply add healthy toppings yourself.
5. ‘Heart-healthy’ foods are always good for our hearts
Why is the AHA logo on some products but absent from others, even when both meet the guidelines? Companies pay big money for the right to use most logos, because they know that consumers equate them with credibility.Â The NASCAR-ification of our foods means that even cornflakes can sport a â€œdiabetes-friendlyâ€ logo on the boxâ€™s side panel – never mind that Australian researchers have shown that cornflakes raise blood glucose faster and to a greater extent than straight table sugar.
6. Food containers are safe
An estimated 93 percent of Americans have bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical found in plastic and used in the lining of aluminum cans, circulating in their bodies. To date, studies have linked the chemical to diabetes; obesity; mood disorders; lower sperm counts; heart disease; an increase risk of breast, prostate, and testicular cancers; and more. BPA enters our bodies by leaching into food.
A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that one in 10 cans of food, and one in three cans of infant formula, contained BPA levels more than 200 times the governmentâ€™s recommended level of exposure to industrial chemicals.Â Canned chicken soup, infant formula, and ravioli had BPA levels of the highest concern, with beans and tuna close behind.
Unfortunately, jarred foods arenâ€™t much better, thanks to the plastic lining in their lids. A recent study by Health Canada tested glass-jarred baby food and found BPA in 84 percent of the samples. Acidic foods are among the worst (tomatoes, citrus, sodas, and beer), because they increase the rate of leaching. What to do? Opt for products that have minimal contact with plastic and BPA whenever possible by buying fresh or frozen produce, beer and soda in glass bottles, and foods in BPA-free cans by companies such as Eden Organic.
7. Calorie counts are accurate
Thatâ€™s because in order to make sure youâ€™re getting at least as much as you pay for, the FDA is more likely to penalize a food manufacturer for overstating the net weight of a product than understating it. As a result, manufacturers often either â€œgenerouslyâ€ package more food than the stated net weight or make servings heavier than the stated serving-size weight.
Do some investigative work yourself the next time you come home from the grocery store. Get out an ordinary food scale and check a few productsâ€™ actual net weights and serving-size weights. If anything is heavier than the package says, that means you could be eating more calories than you thought you were.
8. Fruit juices full of fruit
The claim â€œ100 percent juiceâ€ deserves a big asterisk. Some juices, such as apple, grape, and pear, are cheap, abundant, and loaded with sugar.Â Othersâ€”blueberry, aÃ§ai, and pomegranate, for instanceâ€”are more expensive, higher-quality nectars. So what do beverage companies do? Like drug dealers, they cut the good stuff with the cheap stuff. Itâ€™s still 100 percent juice, but in reality itâ€™s nothing more than a blend of inexpensive sucrose-loaded fillers tinged with a mere splash of what you really want. Moreover, many juice â€œcocktailsâ€ contain as little as 20 percent real juice; sugar pads the rest.
Take Ocean Sprayâ€™s stable of hybrid â€œjuices,â€ most of which have sugar loads close to 85 percent. Theyâ€™ll use cane or beet sugar on the ingredients list to make it sound more appetizing, but as far as your bodyâ€™s concerned, sugar is sugar.Â Youâ€™re better off thinking of these juices as non-carbonated soft drinks or sugar-laden aperitifs.
9. All milk is equal
If youâ€™re a scrupulous consumer, youâ€™ve no doubt noticed the two competing messages on some milk containers. One says â€œfrom cows not treated with rbSTâ€ while the other reads â€œno significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and nonrbST- treated cows.â€ Youâ€™re not the only one who finds the pairing contradictory and udderly – ahem – confusing. The first claim comes from legitimate fears about the carcinogenic effects of the hormone rbST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin (also known as rBGH, recombinant bovine growth hormone), which dairy farmers give cows to increase their milk output by 10 to 25 percent.
The main concern with rbST is that the cows produce milk with higher-than normal levels of the insulin-like growth factor IGF-1. A series of studies at the Channing Laboratory in Boston show that high levels of IGF-1 increase the risk of several cancers, including breast, prostate, and colorectal. In the study, those with the highest levels of the hormone were four times as likely to develop cancer. Other studies contradict the findings, however, and the biotech that developed the hormone (Monsanto, which has since sold it) successfully lobbied for the confusing qualification.