Thousands of new food products are introduced each year. To obtain market share, these foods have to promote something that will get us to buy them. The current trend is for the foods to be “free” of something, with a 31 percent increase in this category between 2008 and 2010. This marketing strategy appeals to health conscious consumers who perceive less as better. But, is it really?
Gluten-free: Foods without wheat, rye or barley can be considered gluten-free. Instead of traditional wheat flour, gluten-free products will substitute things like brown rice flour, oats, buckwheat, potato starches or corn. The problem with “gluten-free” is that only people who are gluten intolerant really need these products. They are often just as high, if not higher, in fat, sugar or sodium than their non-gluten-free counterparts.
Sugar-free: Contrary to popular belief, sugar-free does not mean calorie-free. Companies make the sugar-free claim by using artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. This may replace the calories from regular sugar, but most foods that contain artificial sweeteners are highly processed and offer little nutrition. These foods may still contain as many calories, and even more fat and sodium, than the regular counterparts. It is better to limit how much of any highly processed food you eat, rather than try to justify it as healthier by buying an artificially sweetened version.
Fat-free: Eliminated fat usually is replaced by a starch or carbohydrate. This may save a few calories, but often these foods contain as many or more carbohydrates and sodium as the regular product. There has been little evidence to show that people who buy fat-free processed products have a lower weight or are any healthier. In fact, one study shows that we eat 28 percent more calories when we eat low-fat foods. Many fats are actually good for you and shouldn’t be replaced at all, such as the fat in peanut butter.
Dairy-free or lactose-free: Dairy-free doesn’t have any cow’s milk, while lactose-free may be dairy with the lactose removed. Alternative milks, such as almond, hemp, coconut, soy and rice milks are popular but not necessarily healthier. People who are allergic to milk or who just can’t tolerate it may need to avoid dairy products. But, beware of added sugars in some of the alternative milks. It is best to choose unsweetened varieties and to make sure calcium and vitamin D has been added.
Cholesterol-free: Foods that contain less than 2 mg of cholesterol can claim to be cholesterol-free. The trick is that some foods claiming to be cholesterol-free shouldn’t have had cholesterol in the first place. Cholesterol only comes from animal products, so anything made with a vegetable fat would not naturally contain cholesterol. Sometimes, these labels are meant to confuse rather than to provide meaningful health information. For the most part, you can ignore this claim.
Trans Fat-free: No doubt we want to choose foods that are free of trans fats. Trans fats are those partially hydrogenated oils that raise bad cholesterol levels while decreasing our supply of good cholesterol. The problem is there can be some trans fat in a product and still be labeled as trans fat-free. This is because of a labeling loophole that allows up to .5 mg of trans fat per serving to count as zero. Although you may think this is insignificant, remember that heart healthy recommendations advise less than 2 grams of trans fat a day. Plus, if you consume multiple servings you are getting more trans fat than you think. The only way to know for sure if there are trans fats in a product is to check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated fats.
High Fructose Corn Syrup free: High fructose corn syrup has taken a lot of the blame for the obesity epidemic, especially in children. As a result, manufacturers are steering clear of this ingredient but are replacing it with refined sugar. Or, sometimes they use healthier sounding sweeteners, like brown rice sugar or evaporated cane juice. Study after study has shown there is very little difference between HFCS and any sugar and the effect it has on our health. Don’t be fooled into thinking a food is healthier just because it does not contain HFCS. You will still be getting the same calories and sugar as before.
The bottom line is that health claims on products must be taken with a grain of salt. Manufacturers know how to draw your attention to their products so you will buy them. Just be sure to check the ingredient list and the nutrition facts label to ensure you are getting what you think you are buying.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.
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