February 20, 2024

Food labels and packaging: What they’re really telling you

While I don’t believe food companies are trying to create an unhealthy population, they are trying to generate more sales, meaning their primary focus is profit, not health.

The sole purpose of labels and packaging is to provide you, the consumer with information to help you make an educated decision on whether to buy or not, right? That’s what you thought. That’s what we’d all like to think. The truth is, like any other product out there on the market, companies that sell food products are first and foremost a business.

For any company to stay in business, grow, and become successful, it needs to be profitable. Because of that, the bottom line becomes the driver and dictates how products are packaged, how labels are written and how the product is marketed. When it comes to food products, marketing by the company often means ambiguous, unclear and even misleading messages in nutrition labels and in the overall design or branding of the product.

What that means for those who are reading labels and paying attention to advertisements on packaging is that often there is misleading and/or mixed messaging and it that can leave you wondering if what you’re purchasing is really what you thought it was.

Make no mistake, if you are unsure about an item being really healthy, but you words such as “sugar free,” “gluten free,” and “only 100 calories” but can’t identify anything to red-flag your choice, you’re more than likely putting it in your cart and taking it home.

While a product that does have those claims plastered on the box or packaging may very well be made with quality ingredients, most often those claims are there to distract and keep you away from turning it over, reading the nutrition label and ingredient list and getting a look at what you’ll really be consuming.

I made a point of testing that one day in a local health food store a few years back. I decided I would look at sugar in protein powders. Naturally, I gravitated to the ones with, “sugar free!” or “sweetened with stevia”, plastered on the front thinking they should be cleaner, healthier products.

I turned them over and read the ingredient list of several brands using those claims and found they were true statements. Also true—and more important to know—was that the sugar was replaced with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, NutraSweet, etc., (known to disrupt endocrine system, cause bloating, gut issues, affect moods, etc.) and where stevia was added, it came at the end of the ingredient list, preceeded by any number of the aforementioned artificial sweeteners. For those who don’t know, ingredients are listed in descending order of how much of that item makes up the product. The farther down the list it is, the less of it there is in that product.

Last week I did a Back to School one-minute segment with local radio personality, Toby Tannas, cautioning that packaging on the outside, doesn’t always match what’s on the inside. One example was a box of snack squares you might consider putting in a child’s lunchbox.

The front of the box proudly displayed in bright colours, “lower in sugar” and “peanut-free! School approved,” along with more subtle, but right there on the front as well, “tree-nut free, peanut-free, gluten-free”. All of these are positioned near to the company name emblem, which has trademarked the term “Healthy Crunch.” The box also had small icons again noting “peanut-free”, “tree-nut free”, along with “dairy free”, the non-GMO verified label, an icon for “fruits and vegetables”, “certified vegan” and “GF”.

Flipping that box on its side however, and reading the ingredient list, showed, although the front of the box advertised “lower in sugar,” the first three ingredients contained sugar. Remember the descending order? It can be very misleading if you’re a parent who’s just trying to find something good to put in your kid’s lunch.

By the way, there are many other names that don’t include the word “sugar” but mean sugar is hiding in the item. Do a little online search for “other names for sugar” and you’ll be shocked.

I remember attending a seminar and listening to Paul Zane Pilzer, an economist in two U.S. presidential administrations, speak about this. He shared how he was able to observe product satiety testing for fries made by one of the largest fast food restaurants. Satiety is measured by how much you eat before you stop eating.

Pilzer said as the subjects would say they’d had enough and didn’t feel like eating any more, the chemist was directed to, “fix that!”

Yes, food can, and is, being made to make people want more, even when they’d otherwise stop eating. It was a very interesting and eye-opening seminar.

The bottom line is, as you are shopping for back to school snacks or otherwise, remember the front of the package does not tell the whole story. Ever.

Sugar is more than likely hidden in the ingredient list. Whole foods are always better than anything in a package. For those times you do buy for convenience, aim for five items or less, and eat them with some protein to keep your blood sugar stable. That goes for kids too. Your body will burn fat, you won’t get that energy crash later and your kids will be able to concentrate and focus better in class.

It’s a win for you both.

For more information on stabilizing blood sugar, watch Tania’s free 15 mins video.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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