Food Nutritional Claims: Fact or Fiction

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couple shopping at supermarket together looking at food labels and laughing
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It isn't easy to stay healthy. Not only is it often pricier and more time-consuming to eat nutritious meals, it can also be exceedingly difficult to determine just what foods are nutritious in the first place. These brands and products don't make the process any easier by subtly trying to shape consumers' perceptions with bogus nutritional claims.

Chickens in a cage
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Most consumers want their meat products to come from animals that were treated humanely, and the common label of "free range" gives the impression that the animals were allowed to roam free in open fields their whole lives. In reality, the phrase only means the animal was allowed access to the outdoors -- not that they ever actually went outside. To tell which meat products are truly free range, one must research the company making the claim.

Rice Krispies Cereal
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In 2011, the Kellogg Co. paid $5 million back to consumers for making the common claim that its Rice and Cocoa Krispies can help a child's immune system, shortly after a similar settlement concerning its Frosted Mini-Wheats. Kellogg's was dinged in part for aiming its claims at children, but many products can still make similarly dubious claims as long as they don't say they'll prevent or cure diseases.

Quaker Instant Oatmeal Maple & Brown Sugar
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Claims of foods promoting heart health can also be a little dubious under FDA regulations, particularly for flavored instant oatmeals like Quaker's, which undermine the fiber content naturally present in oatmeal (though only 3 grams per serving here) with added sugar and sodium.

Box of organic Kraft macaroni and cheese
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The term "organic" is more reliable than most labels since any food labeled as such must contain at least 95% organic sources free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But organic doesn't make an unhealthy food suddenly nutritious, which means the organic version of popular foods like Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese can still contain plenty of fat, calories, and sugars.

A box of Ritz Whole Wheat snack crackers
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Another dubious claim about many snacks and breads is that they're "made with whole grain," so buyers may think they're eating healthier by consuming fiber-rich whole flour rather than enriched flour. As with Cheez-Itz and other products, even the whole wheat Ritz Crackers are made with primarily refined flour and contain only a measly 1 gram of fiber per serving.

Trix Cereal
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Recently, General Mills made good on a commitment to cut artificial dyes and preservatives from sugary cereals like Trix, whose new box shows the more muted colors and touts the new lack of artificial ingredients. That might make parents feel better about letting their children eat Trix, but it doesn't alter the cereal's high levels of sugar.

Bush's Baked Beans
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Like many other foods, cans of baked beans may be touted as a "good source of fiber," which means they must contain at least 10% of the recommended daily value, but that doesn't mean that food is necessarily healthy. Ten percent isn't really all that much, and it doesn't counteract the added sugar and sodium present in baked beans.

Minute Maid Lemonade
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Minute Maid is one of many companies that take advantage of the Food and Drug Administration's "lack of restrictions on the term natural" to make consumers think its products are healthy. It often boasts that its lemonades are made with "100% natural flavors," but they still include high-fructose corn syrup, which is made by extracting starch from corn and treating it with multiple enzymes.

Fruit Gushers Variety Pack
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When this Betty Crocker product and other "natural" fruit snacks advertise being "made with real fruit," it doesn't mean the product doesn't contain added artificial sugars that compromise whatever health benefits come with the fruits, which, in the case of Gushers, are all from concentrate.

box of Sugar-Free Oreos
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Sugar Free Oreos aren't really sugar free, but Nabisco can label them as such because they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving, with a small amount of regular sugars complementing the added substitutes like maltitol and polydextrose. That small amount of sugar can add up over several servings, as can the calories and fats still included in most "sugar-free" foods.

Jif's Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter
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Peanut butter contains a lot of fat per serving, but the reduced-fat versions remove a small amount of healthy monounsaturated fat, which promotes weight loss and healthy cholesterol, only to replace it with added sugar and sodium. The reduced-fat version of Jif's creamy peanut butter takes away 4 grams of fat but adds an extra 1 gram of sugar and 115 milligrams of sodium.

Display of assorted gluten-free cupcakes sitting on display table
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The FDA allows any product to make claims of being "gluten-free" as long as one serving contains less 20 parts per million of gluten. And while gluten-free foods are useful for those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, this buzzword doesn't guarantee nutrition, since many gluten-free foods have less fiber than the standard versions.

Diet Coke
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Diet sodas tout zero calories and zero sugar, but that should send up red flags. The main source of sweetness is aspartame, an artificial sweetener linked to weight gain in studies, along with other bad side effects. The sweetness runs the risk of confusing the body into thinking it is eating sugar, which prompts a surge of insulin. Unused, that can cause problems and even lead to or worsen long-term blood sugar issues such as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Assorted Cliff Bars
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Protein bars are marketed as a dieter's best friend, but most are glorified candy bars full of sugar, carbs, and fat. What's worse, added protein makes their taste and texture funky, so it's basically like eating a candy bar that doesn't even taste good.

Stonyfield Organic After Dark Chocolate Nonfat Frozen Yogurt
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Most people think frozen yogurt is healthier than ice cream because it is lower in fat. But when one ingredient lacks it is generally replaced with an overabundance of something else -- in this case with Stonyfield Fat Free Frozen Yogurt, extra sugar and sodium, leading to a higher carbohydrate load for each serving. Once again, those concerned with losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are better off with a full-fat dairy version for a more balanced nutritional profile.

Acai Berries
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The acai berry from South America has a lot of things going for it. It has loads of fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats. But helping with weight loss isn’t among its attributes, and several companies together have paid millions of dollars in settlements with the FTC for making such claims, including a record-setting case in February 2018.

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