Are Food Labels Undermining Your Health?

I have a few questions for you: Which is better, “natural” or “organic”? Are eggs from “cage-free” chickens superior to “pastured” or “vegetarian-fed” chickens? What’s the difference between “grass-fed” and “grass-finished” beef? Do these terms confuse you? Or, do they mean anything at all?

There’s a lot of confusion out there about what food product labels mean. Terms like “gluten-free, fat-free, all natural” and “GMO-free” imply health benefits, yet they can promote processed foods full of ingredients that are undesirable and in some cases, dangerous.

There’s good reason to be skeptical about claims on food labels, according to Yoni Freedhoff, MD, a physician, professor and weight loss specialist in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. “If the front of a package needs to convince you of the healthfulness of its contents, there’s a darn good chance its contents aren’t healthful,” says Freedhoff, author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.

At The End of The Day – Branding Works

The fact is that the food industry is among the top advertisers in the US media market, and other western countries can certainly boast similar. So, why do food manufacturers spend so much money on marketing, food packaging and labels? Because branding works. Product names and product descriptions have been shown to influence buying decisions and the degree to which consumers expect the product to be tasty, filling or fattening – even though these expectations are out of sync with reality.

Research indicates that people think foods with front-of-package health claims (such as “rich in Omega 3”; “low fats”; “supports immunity” and other bonus promises), have fewer calories and are better for their health. This phenomenon is known as the Health Halo effect. According to Brian Wansink, PhD of Cornell University, front package claims “cause us to believe the food product is much more healthy than it actually is, causing people to think that the more they eat of this product, the better. The problem is that people end up eating 44% more when there is a health claim on the front label.”

What Can You Do To Take Control In Your Own Life?

The reality is that food manufacturers can use all sorts of words, symbols and claims in order to make their product, which may be of questionable nutritional value, seem nourishing. So, here are a few things you can implement in order to navigate the label jungle:

Beware the hype. Anything you read on the front label promoting “healthful” food puts you more at risk of mistaking a possibly unhealthy food for healthy and you end up overeating.

Pay attention to the Health Halo. A healthy sounding label – or one that touts weight-loss claims – can frustrate our dietary efforts because we believe we are exchanging taste for something else. The result is that we overeat. It’s better to just get what you really want and eat a little of it.

Read the back. Flip the package over, ignore the front and find out what’s really in the product by reading the nutritional information on the back.

Expect embellishment. Many of the health claims made on the front of the package have little or no medical substantiated backing and promise much more than they could ever deliver.

Use the Web. Today, almost everyone has a smartphone and there are endless numbers of apps available to help the informed shopper check out the contents of the package and make better choices.

Eat real, whole foods. Nothing can replace natural, whole foods. Your health is more likely to improve when you eat more produce and fewer products – no matter what the package says.

Find a Food Philosophy. Check in on your relationship with food. Connect with the truth that food is nourishment and a way to connect with life.

Buy and eat local products. There is no lack of farmers’ markets burgeoning with fresh, amazing fruits and vegetables, cheeses, breads and other wonderful foods. Try shopping from the growers instead of from the grocers.

There are exceptions. Sometimes a small farm that follows organic practices cannot afford to pay the government for the use of the word “organic” and is forced to use a non-regulated product description like “natural” instead.

Pick your focus. The food label jungle is massive. Find a couple of labels that are of great importance to you and look for those. For many, the Organic seal issued by the government is very important, as is “Non-GMO”. It may not be a perfect method, but it is about as good as it gets today.

So, what’s the bottom line? Live beyond the labels. For those who care about their health, eat real food, purchased fresh rather than the products that come in plastic wrap or cans. Food can, and should, be a source of nourishment and healing – a space in which to create a life of strength and vigor.