Food manufacturers have always been guilty of preying on our fears relating to food, but it seems to be ramping up even more in the past couple of years. It started many years ago with an abundance claims such as “light” and “no cholesterol”, followed by “no trans fat” and “low carb”, and now everything on earth is “gluten free” or “lactose free”, even HAM!! Wait a minute. Ham? Well, thank goodness for gluten free pigs I suppose. I threw my hands up in despair when I saw a display of pears, and the sign accompanying it said “100% Organic Grass Fed”. I think it would be quite a bit of fun watching a pear trying to eat grass.
Food manufacturers are permitted to get away with an awful lot in terms of what they put on their labels. Much of the phrasing they use are left up to our interpretation, which is why it is important to truly evaluate each label for yourself. Think it through. Here are a few hints about some of the tricks we seem to be falling for:
Gluten free: Maybe so, but many gluten free products are full of so many other “garbage” ingredients to help hold the product together, that we would have been better off with the gluten. We have all seen a version of the “gluten free’ cauliflower pizza circulating on Pinterest, Instagram and various foodie sites. It relies on huge amounts of artery-clogging cheese to bind the “crust” together, so of course it tastes delicious!
Multigrain: Not necessarily better. Check to see how much fibre is actually in most “multigrain” breads, etc. Often not very much, because these grains are as processed and denatured as most white products. And “brown” bread? It is basically just white bread, with a couple of drops of caramel colouring to make it look a bit darker.
No sugar added: This does not mean the product isn’t high in sugar already. It usually means that the product is already so sweet, that more sugar is not necessary to make it taste sweet. It is already there!
No trans fat: One of those phrases used on products that never did contain trans fats, but it is used to make us think it is something that has been removed. Remember though, many products that contain “good” fats can become trans fats, if the product requires that you bring it home and cook it at a sizzling high heat.
Free range: This means the animal has some access to the outdoors, but does not necessarily mean it pecks seed and lives a happy little life. The animal could be kept in a cage the majority of the time, but if it has access to wander around for a millisecond or two, food suppliers can use this on their labels.
Fat free/Low Fat: This doesn’t mean the product isn’t high in calories. In fact the opposite is usually true. Fat makes food taste good. Without it, manufacturers have to use other ways of making food taste nice. Sugar is the usual “go to.” Most fat free and low fat products rely on large quantities of sugar and other garbage to make things taste good. And the easiest way to get the “percentage” of fat a bit lower on a tub of yogurt? Add a bit more sugar; the percentage of fat goes down. And so on. “Fat free” is also used as a distraction for products that are almost completely sugar. Check out most packages of sugary candies. A package of “gummy worms” for instance will almost always say “fat free.”
All natural: Another terribly misleading phrase. Many products contain corn syrup, corn starch, etc, but because corn itself is natural, manufacturers have the green light to use “natural” on their labels. Take a look at a tub of ice cream. Ice cream is known to contain dozens of poisonous chemicals, but throw in a vanilla bean to flavor it, and voila! It is also given a pass to use “natural ” on its label.
Cholesterol free: Another example of telling us something isn’t in the product, even though it never was in the product. “Cholesterol free” potatoes? No kidding!
Light: This is a very common trick. The problem here is that the word “light” could be referring to just about anything. It could be referring to the taste being light, or perhaps the colour of the product is lighter than another.
The bottom line is that we need to use our heads. Manufacturers of food products have only one objective and that is to sell us their products. The laws around wording on food labels are ill-defined, so don’t assume “they” are on your side. They aren’t!