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Health Quiz: Are Food Labels Misleading

By Michele Lubin, MS RD CDN


If you make decisions about which food items to purchase based on food labels, you’re not alone. In fact food companies are counting on it. But, if you’re not careful, you could be duped. That’s because food manufacturers intentionally make it difficult to read and understand food labels. Common terms like “low-calorie” or “low-fat” or “all-natural” can be used to describe foods that are not healthy at all. And as long as there’s room for interpretation in understanding food labels, these common dietary terms really don’t mean much.


For instance, when you’re shopping for whole grain products like bread or crackers, it’s important to pay close attention to what the label says. Terms like “multi-grain” or “made with whole wheat” can be misleading. Look for the words “Whole Grain” or “100% whole wheat” instead to ensure that you get a food that is healthy for you.


If you’re diabetic or you just want to stay away from sugar, you have to avoid eating certain foods. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to watch what you eat. Thinking that “I can eat as much of that candy as I want…it’s sugar-free or no sugar added” may be a fast recipe for disaster. Here’s why: many foods contain sucrose, which is a natural sugar that can raise your blood sugar.


Take a moment to think about it: if a food label looks too good to be true, then it probably is! Eating too much of anything, especially at one time can potentially cause a number of problems, such as a stomach ache, dumping syndrome, bloating, diarrhea and weight gain. So, don’t be fooled into thinking a packaged food is good for you just because the label makes specific “health” claims. Be wary of any hype you find on the food label. These foods may not be healthy, especially when consumed in amounts larger than a serving size.


You may ignore the portion size guidelines listed on food labels. But we encourage you to accept that this is your new, comfortable serving size! Chew on this: as you lose weight, your body requires fewer calories to maintain that lower weight. So, if you continue to eat high calorie foods and/or “graze” on a regular basis, those calories can really add up, hindering weight loss.


A packaged food can legally make the following claims:

  • Calorie-free, no calories, zero calories: less than 5 calories/serving
  • Low-calorie: 40 or less calories/serving
  • Reduced or fewer calories: 25% or less calories/serving than regular product
  • Light: 1/3 fewer calories


Beware of these common food-labeling tricks:

  • Cooking sprays and butter sprays: these sprays can legally claim zero calories and fat if you use 1 spray (1/3 of a second) at a time. Sounds great, right? But, 1 ounce of one of the well-known cooking sprays has 222 calories and over 20 grams of fat! These sprays are mostly made from butter and oils – how can they NOT have calories?
  • Sugar-free candy: Although these candies may be sugar-free, they are definitely not fat or calorie-free. In fact, the sugar-free versions have almost as many calories as the regular ones. For example, four fun-size Nestle Sugar Free Crunch bars contain 170 calories, while 3 regular fun size ones have 180 calories. Sugar-free York Peppermint Patties contain 120 calories, while the regular version contains 140 calories. The calories are not just from sugar. Many chocolate candies contain ingredients, such as peanuts and fats that add to the calorie count.


Did you ever notice that when you eat foods like sugar-free candy or certain protein bars, it can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea? This isn’t dumping syndrome. It could be the result of eating sugar alcohols. These added sweeteners contain fewer calories than sugar, add texture to foods and retain moisture. Look for ingredients that end in – ol (mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol) and you can identify sugar alcohols. The potential resulting laxative effect of sugar alcohols, not to mention the excessive calories in most of these foods, makes it a bad idea to include chocolate in your diet.


Use caution! Some foods may seem low in calories, fat or sugar, but the calories can really add up whether eaten in several servings either at one time or during the day. Including the occasional treat can be part of a healthy eating plan, but don’t think that it gives you the license to eat as much as you want. Remember, it’s not just the large meals that add to your daily calorie count, it’s all of those seemingly innocent bites, licks and tastes too!