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Label Fables

By Sarah Moran

April 19, 2009


Packaged food items that try to butter you up with sugar-coated health claims are often covering up the fact that they're full of just that: fat and sugar.

A rash of new products aim to lure buyers by shouting vague or incomplete health claims such as "energy-boosting," "immune-enhancing" or "fat-free!" But beyond the splashy labels, there's often an ironic, unhealthy truth embedded in the oft-overlooked nutrition facts or ingredient list.

"Vitamin Water is a good example of how manufacturers are just going wild with claims," said David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocate organization. Earlier this year, the center sued Coca-Cola for its line of Vitamin Water drinks, saying the product makes deceptive and unsubstantiated claims.

Health claims are mostly found on processed foods, Schardt points out, which are usually not nearly as healthful as whole foods. As a general rule, those modest, label-less foods -- the colorful fruits, vegetables and fresh fish that brighten up the perimeter of the grocery store -- are the most healthful. Sharon Lehrman, a registered dietitian with a private practice in St. Louis Park, analyzed six products that make health claims she said range from "hilarious" to " irresponsible."


The ploy: "Cherry pick your antioxidant."

What's good: It's a stretch to find anything beneficial in this drink, but it's better than drinking no fluid at all.

Why it's laughable: They added a dash of the antioxidant vitamin E, but it also has potentially damaging ingredients aspartame and acesulfame potassium, which the Center for Science in the Public Interest says people should avoid. Although the Food and Drug Administration says aspartame is safe, a number of studies have indicated it may increase the risk of cancer. This product has no nutritional value.

Instead: Get a healthy dose of natural antioxidants -- and other benefits -- by eating a handful of nuts or fruits and vegetables, or by taking a multivitamin. For more healthful hydration, drink antioxidant-packed herbal tea, or squeeze some lemons and limes into your water.


The claim: "As always, a low-fat candy."

We'll give 'em this: It doesn't have saturated fat or trans fat, which raise cholesterol and contribute to heart disease.

Not so impressive: Most hard or chewy candy is low in fat, but high in sugar. A serving size of four pieces has 130 calories -- excess calories of any sort become fat -- and 18 grams of sugar, an inflammation-causing ingredient. Plus, this has artificial flavors and colors, including Red 40, an additive that the Center for Science in the Public Interest says may pose a risk and needs to be better tested. (Historically, other artificial colors have been banned for causing everything from cancer to organ damage.)

Takeaway: Don't let "low fat" be a permission slip to go wild. Take four pieces out of the pack and put the rest away.


Package says: "Lean ham."

One good thing: This has 19 grams of protein, which helps people stay awake and alert. It's important to have some protein with every meal.

Simply irresponsible: This product marketed to kids is stuffed with nearly a third of the daily fat recommendation for adults, including almost half the recommended amount of saturated fat, plus 1 gram of trans fat. Remember, no amount of trans fat is considered safe. The sky-high sodium content is half of what an adult should have in one day, and this has only 1 gram of fiber. It also has sodium nitrite, an additive that should be avoided, as it may lead to the formation of cancer-causing chemicals.

Much better: Make up a week's worth of peanut butter sandwiches on the weekend and stick them in the freezer until your kid leaves for school each morning. Buy deli meat without nitrites.


Package boasts: "Whole grain guaranteed."

True: It's made with whole-grain corn, which is a step in the right direction, and corn is the first ingredient listed, so that's good. When buying products with whole-grain claims, make sure the first grains listed are whole grains. Some companies add a small amount of whole grains, but the ingredients list reveals most of the product is made from something like white flour, which isn't a whole grain.

What's deceiving: Whole grains are a great source of fiber, but one serving of Cocoa Puffs has a measly 1 gram of fiber. That's only 4 percent of the amount you should get in a day. Plus, this cereal also has artificial flavor, which may be especially unhealthful for kids, and BHT, a preservative the Center for Science in the Public Interest says needs to be better tested.

Cereal choosing tip: Buy cereals with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. Or, buy oatmeal.


The claim: Various flavors make claims about giving you energy, focus or strength. Essential orange-orange says, "For those of us who don't live in an orange juice commercial, there's still a way to get your morning nutrition. This product has calcium and lots of vitamin C so you can get your day started right, minus the whole Stepford mom thing. Vitamins + water = all you need."

What's good: It's hydrating. Better than not drinking any fluid.

The reality: At about a dollar a pop, this is essentially expensive sugar water with added vitamins. One bottle has 125 calories and 32 grams of sugar.

Better choice: Put those dollars toward fruits and vegetables, where vitamins occur naturally. If you're concerned that you might still be lacking nutrients, take a multivitamin.


Sounds sweet: "Bake two at a time. Anytime."

What's OK: They don' t have a lot of sugar.

Not perfect at all: You might as well eat fatty doughnuts. A serving size is only one biscuit, but if you baked that "perfect portion" of "two at a time," you'd be eating 340 calories and 22 percent of your daily fat, including 5 grams of saturated fat and 5 grams of trans fats, both of which contribute to heart disease. And remember, no amount of trans fat is considered safe. Two biscuits also have 40 percent of your daily sodium.

Reminder: Watch portion sizes. Read the nutrition facts to see what a serving size is so you won't be swayed by flowery-sounding claims. Avoid eating anything with trans fat.

Sarah Moran is a freelance health writer in Minneapolis.

Copyright Sharon Lehrman, All Rights Reserved.
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