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5 food-label claims that can fool you

Food manufacturers know that consumers want healthier foods, so they rarely miss an opportunity to slap health claims on the front of their product packaging. Trouble is, the big print rarely tells the whole story, and you might feel you need a nutrition degree to separate the helpful claims from the misleading ones. This guide will help you navigate five common health-claim minefields in the grocery aisle.

These foods have more than one type of grain, but those grains could be refined, meaning their nutritious bran and germ have been removed. Similarly, “made with whole grains” might be a mix of refined and whole grains. Look for “whole grain” or “100% whole grain” on food packaging instead.

Given the strong evidence that trans fat increases the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, you might think that a food manufacturer is doing you a favor by pointing out that its product is free of those fats. Don’t feel grateful just yet: Currently, food makers can use that claim if a serving has less than 0.5 grams. But if “partially hydrogenated oils” is in the ingredients list, the food has trans fat, period. According to the Ameri­can Heart Association, trans fat should supply less than 1 percent of your daily calories. That’s no more than 2 grams per day if you’re eating 2,000 calories. “No trans fat” claims are also found on products made with fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, but those are a source of saturated fat, which raises LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

Learn more about food labels in our guide to food safety and sustainability. And become a smarter supermarket shopper.

These chemicals (used as preservatives in cured meats, such as bacon, ham, and hot dogs) can form possible cancer-­causing nitrosamines. A product that is claimed not to have them sounds like a better choice, but the government allows that claim to be used when meat is cured with celery juice or powder—and those ingredients can naturally produce nitrates that carry the same risks. The best way to avoid nitrates and nitrites is to eat processed meat rarely, if at all.

To qualify for this term, a food needs to have at least 25 percent less sodium than its regular version. For example, Swanson’s regular chicken broth has 860 milligrams of sodium per cup. The reduced-sodium version has 570 milligrams (about a quarter of the maximum daily limit). Opt for “low sodium” foods, which can’t have more than 140 milligrams per serving.

This isn’t the same as “excellent source of fiber.” To carry that claim, a food has to supply at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. The fiber added to foods is usually just one type, such as cellulose (from wood pulp), inulin (chicory extract), olig­osaccharides, or fructans. Natural fiber is a mix of types, and all have different health benefits.  

This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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