Picture me, munching on M3 (probably a kale salad if I know myself) and tapping my way through Instagram stories, only to be stopped by the ever inspiring @KP_tiu_. Kelly, or KP as the Tone It Up community knows her, captivated me with her animated account of a very deceptive (though probably very delicious) gluten-free cookie that KP’s students had brought to celebrate the end of a nursing course. The cookie, due to it’s gluten-free gold star of approval, was quickly and definitively classified as healthy amongst KP’s peers on the nursing unit. Baked into it’s batter were 100% free-of-gluten ingredients including sugar, peanut butter, eggs, and sweet chocolate chips. I hate to burn your warm chewy center, girl, but would you still call that a totally healthy food?
I hate to break it to ya, but we are trained to judge a pre-packed snack by it’s box. Here’s the deal. Food marketing is a multimillion dollar industry, employing thousands people who have but one job – to get their product off the shelf and into the checkout line. Enter: the health halo effect, the act of overestimating or misinterpreting the healthfulness of an item based on a single claim (like the gluten-free cookie). Aisle after aisle, grocery stores are brimming with covert problem-products (nonetheless “Fat Free!”) disguised beneath big-eyed bushy-tailed mascots, picturesque mountainscapes, and shiny emblems boasting buzzword after buzzword. And this is where food marketing leaves us, reaching into pantries and freezers bursting with sky rocketing sodium and sugar levels in granola’s packaging.
KP & I think it’s time for an intervention, better yet, a revolution. As health-conscious consumers, we believe it’s our duty to see past the glowing front-of-the-box health halo. I’ve teamed up with the egg white proats recipe goddess herself for a diagnosis of packaged goods, including blinding buzzwords and translating nutrition labels.
Let’s take a look at some health-food claims blazing your supermarket shelves:
Gluten-Free: Where gluten refers to a mixture of proteins found in wheat and related grains, gluten-free products are a must for individuals living with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, and a bonus to those of us who skew our dietary habits towards limited-gluten. However, as demonstrated with our opening act – the not-so-healthy-cookie – gluten-free is often slapped on colorful packaging to conjure the perception of health. What to look for: Eyes on the ingredients and the sugar levels. Gluten-free products can come loaded with sugar and preservatives to take the place of wheat or gluten. In the case of ultra-high added sugar values, you might be better off enjoying a slice of sprouted (or whole) grain bread. – fitlicity
Pictured above: Two variants of gluten free crackers. One is comprised of mainly artificial ingredients, starch carb substances, and added sugar while the other features seeds and complex carb sources.
Low-Carb: Is butter a carb? Nah. I won’t lie to you Mean Girls-style. But sugar is a carbohydrate. Fun fact: carbs are good for you. Carbs are the body’s main source of energy. Sugar is not the enemy – but too much refined sugar without a good balance of the goods (whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins) puts you at risk for health problems, without getting too nursey on you. But your fruits and vegetables and oatmeal (and you all know how I love my proats) all have sugars in them. The difference is the fiber content. What to look for: In general, with some exceptions, you want to pair your carbs with fiber, protein, or fats. Carbohydrates + fiber/protein/fat = slower digestion = slower glucose release into the bloodstream = slower glucose spikes in the blood = less crash and burn and more sustainable energy to get you through the day. – KP
Sugar-Free: From fresh, juicy strawberries, to maple syrup, to frosting straight from the jar (we’ve all been there), sugar takes on many forms and its intake is inevitable. As KP mentions, sugar is not the enemy, but the source can either be friend or foe. Fact: one serving of Entenmann’s chocolate covered donuts holds only 3 more grams of sugar than Trader Joe’s cold pressed green juice. Fiction: chocolate donuts and green juice overlap on the health spectrum. Sugar marketing gets pretty sticky n’ not so sweet if you ask me. The most common sugary claims – Sugar-Free, No Sugar Added, and Unsweetened – are not synonymous. According to the FDA, Sugar-Free products can not contain any natural sugar derivatives, but they can contain artificial sweeteners like sucralose that sacrifice whole ingredients for lower calorie counts. The same goes for No Sugar Added. This tricky label implies that the product packs only naturally occurring ingredients, which isn’t the case. According to the FDA, products labeled “No Sugar Added” can’t be sweetened with any sugar containing ingredients; they can, however, use artificial sweeteners as an ingredient. Products labeled “unsweetened” can contain natural occurring sugars, but not artificial sweeteners. Got all that? What to look for: Before you go swapping greens for deep fried dough, look no further than the source of the sweetness – naturally occurring sugars versus artificial or refined sugars, respectively. Prevent bloating and energy crashes with naturally occurring sweet sources like whole fruit, veggies, and grains. – fitlicity
Pictured above: Mrs. Butterworth’s Sugar Free maple syrup has considerably less sugar than Shady Maple Farm’s pure maple syrup, but at what cost? Look closely, there is no trace of maple syrup in Mrs. Butterworths artificial ingredient list. Say what?! Although it contains a higher sugar content Shady Maple Farms’ ingredient label doesn’t leave us asking any questions. Give me real food any day.
Fat-Free: The issue here is not the fat. It’s the kind of fat you’re looking for (Hello, is it me you’re looking for?). Healthy fats are a staple in anyone’s diet. However, you need to roll with the good fats. The healthy fats. And enjoy them in moderation because too much of anything is just that – too much. A registered dietician is your best bet to determine how much fat you need in your diet if you want to be super specific; however, your satiety level will help you intuitively decide how much fat you need to take in as well. What to look for: Unsaturated fat – specifically your poly’s and mono’s. These are the good guys. Trans fats should be an absolute no. Saturated fat is also something to watch for, as too much long term can contribute to heart disease. Your nutrition labels will break this down for you. Easy enough – if the saturated fat content is higher than your poly- and monounsaturated fat, leave it on the shelf. – KP
Pictured above: Jif’s label is really saying, “25% less fat and 100% more sugar and corn syrup! Buy me!” No thank you, I’ll choose 100% nutty fat over additives any day.
Veggie: All over the grocery store, I see products branded, “Veggie”-whatever. Even touting to have less fat than a potato chip! The healthy option, right? But what are these “veggie straws” really? They’re a potato chip. Plain and simple. Check out the ingredients, you’re getting potato flour and some vegetable puree for color. You’re better off sticking to the perimeter of the grocery store and getting some actual vegetables – these don’t cut it. What to look for: Is it an actual plant? With leaves and stems and you need to wash it before you eat it? Or is it made in a plant? There’s your difference. Stick to Mother Nature’s Factory and eat an actual vegetable, not a potato chip in a vegetable costume. – KP
Pictured above: Case in point. The only thing separating this bag of “Veggie Straws” from a bag of Lays? Tomato paste, spinach puree, and a whole lot of food marketing gimmicks. See below for veggie chip vs. actual vegetables 😉
Organic: The term organic refers to how a product is grown and processed, and may just have one of the most blinding health halo effects of all food marketing claims. Organic dietary preferences are becoming wildly popular (undeniably for good reason – pesticides and GMOs, yuck!) but an organic product is not always synonymous with a healthy product. What to Look For: Read ingredient labels carefully. Just because a product is free of preservatives and antibiotics, doesn’t mean it contains any less sugar or sodium than conventional products or that its ingredients suddenly gain nutritional value. Butter is butter and sugar is sugar, organic or not. – fitlicity
Pictured above: Organic? You bet! Delicious? I bet. Healthy? Don’t bet on it.
What we’re trying to say is that when it comes to packaged goods – excuse the cliché – it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The nutrition label doesn’t lie, sister. Before topping off your cart with that pack of gluten-free cookies, take a close look at the ingredients and nutritional values to make sure they align with your needs, goals, and preferences.