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5 Misleading claims on food labels

Rachel Dreskin is a Brooklyn gal with a passion for seasonal eating, local wine and vintage fashions. She makes regular visits to her local green markets and is constantly in the kitchen experimenting. You can find her favorite tips and ...

What's really behind the claims

Food products that would have otherwise been considered junk food are now boasting labels such as all-natural, zero grams trans fat and made with whole grains. Which of these claims really hold merit -- and which are little more than clever marketing?
Skeptical woman reading label on can

Few things are more confusing than walking down the grocery aisles and trying to make sense of all the claims that prominently adorn most of the packaged food labels. Food companies have tapped into what consumers are looking for when they are food shopping and are changing their packaging because of it. Whether we want to whittle our waist, boost our heart health, choose food products that are ethically and environmentally responsible, or some combination thereof, they have created a label for it. Some food labels have strict guidelines and regulations behind them, while others virtually mean nothing at all. Here are five of the most popular food claims that may be misleading -- and in most cases, meaningless.

All-natural

This claim means absolutely nothing, as the FDA does not have any formal guidelines or rules about the term. As a result, we are seeing food products that contain genetically modified organisms or chemically altered ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, being labeled as all-natural. In essence, food manufacturers are not necessarily actually making food that is more natural and healthy; they are trying to compete with foods with certified organic labels.

A good source of fiber

Eating foods that are naturally high in fiber, such as beans, leafy greens and whole grains do a lot of wonderful things for our health. Unfortunately, however, a food product labeled as "a good source of fiber" doesn't necessarily have the same benefits. Manufacturers usually are adding in something called "isolated fibers," which get counted in the amount of fiber per serving on the nutrition label. Unlike their natural counterparts, these fibers do not lower cholesterol levels or reduce the risk of diabetes and should certainly not be included when reaching your daily fiber intake goal.

Made with whole grains

There is no requirement as to how much whole grain a food product needs to contain to boast this food label. A product that is made almost entirely of refined white flour and minimal amounts of whole grains can deceptively make this claim. Take a look at the ingredient list and if whole grains or whole wheat isn't listed at the top of the list, skip it.

Free-range

According to the USDA, in order for poultry and eggs to be labeled as free-range, they must be "allowed access to outside." What the law doesn't specify or regulate is how much space or how accessible the space must be. A chicken coop that is jam-packed with hundreds of chickens eating pesticide-laden feed can be labeled as free-range as long there is a door leading to outside. The sad reality is that in many cases, the outdoor space is extremely small and a vast majority of the chickens will never venture into it. Look for eggs that are USDA certified organic, or better yet, buy your poultry and eggs from a local farmer that pasture raises their chickens and uses organic feed.

Zero grams trans fats

Countless studies have been published that unanimously agree that trans fats are bad for our health, leading many food companies to prominently tout that their products contain "zero grams of trans fat." What they are not volunteering is that federal regulations allow food labels to make this claim so long as there is less than half a gram of trans fat per serving. These small amounts can add up quickly, as many foods contain more than what is considered one serving. For example, if you eat four servings of various foods that contain .4 grams of trans fats over the course of a day, you are consuming over a gram and a half of artery-clogging trans fats. Check the ingredients list. If partially hydrogenated oil -- the primary source of trans fat -- is listed, your food is not really trans fat-free.

More tips for making savvy shopping choices

10 Ways to go green at the grocery store
Is buying local produce really healthier or just hip?
Shopping tips for heart healthy foods

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