FOOD

Food Labels Are Super Sneaky. Here's What They Really Mean

“Creamy” just means “high in fat”.

15/05/2017 6:27 AM AEST | Updated 15/05/2017 6:33 AM AEST

Walk down the supermarket aisle and take a look at the front of all the food packages. No doubt you'll see a plethora of buzzwords and enticing 'nature' imagery plastered on the front -- 'superfood', 'gives you energy', 'made naturally', 'real ingredients', 'lite'...

Bad news -- most of these food labels are completely misleading and devoid of nutritional meaning. Yep, those 'no added sugar' energy bars are probably still packed full of sugar. Sneaky.

And it certainly makes us think: this nutrition confusion doesn't help Australia's obesity problem.

"We know that most Australian adults are overweight or obese, and that puts them at risk of cancer and other chronic diseases," LiveLighter dietitian Alison McAleese told HuffPost Australia.

"A lot of these labels don't have any specific guidelines from our food governing body, FSANZ, on how they can be used. Often they're quite trendy words, so it would be difficult to put many measures in place to limit their use."

KucherAV via Getty Images
Food for thought: fruit and veggies don't even have labels to mislead.

Other food labels and claims, such as 'gluten free', are governed by our food code, but manufactures are using these labels as a 'health' word -- for which they're not intended.

"That creates problems because consumers might read them as something that sounds healthier, when that's not actually the case. It's all marketing spiel," McAleese said.

So, what's the best way to not get tricked by food labels and claims? First and foremost, ignore the front of the food package and take a close look at the back.

"There's a couple of things to remember," McAleese said. "One tip I always give people is to shop around the outside of the supermarket, where you get a lot more food that doesn't have labels. They tend to be the healthier foods we should be having every day. It's here that you get fruit and vegetables, nuts, milk and things which you don't have to decipher.

"When you are in the aisles where all the food labels are, just use the back of the packet. Really, the front is fairly freely available for the manufacturer to use all their marketing, so there are all these words that aren't helpful to shoppers.

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Here's what 13 misleading food labels really mean.

1. 'Toasted', 'crunch', 'clusters' -- contains added fat or oil

"These are three words that basically mean the same thing, but the label is used on various foods," McAleese told HuffPost Australia.

"It's really another way of saying there is added fat or oil in the product. It sounds better to say 'toasted', 'crunch' or 'clusters'."

2. 'Gives you energy', 'high in energy' -- high in kilojoules

"With this one, it basically means the food is high in kilojoules, and usually that's because it's got a lot of sugar in it," McAleese said.

"The problem here is that in the English language, we use the word 'energy' to mean 'full of beans' or 'life', but we also use that word to describe kilojoules or calories in food. So there's a bit of confusion about how that word is used on food labels."

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3. 'Made naturally', 'natural' -- completely open to interpretation

"These ones are not really intended to be a health claim, but a product can sound like it's healthy, particularly when it's a company that uses green imagery and of things growing," McAleese said.

"Really, what it means is that there's no synthetics or lab-made ingredients in it -- but that doesn't mean it's a healthy food."

Also, be particularly wary of companies who use keywords like 'nature' in their brand name. The nutrition information panel will speak much louder than words.

"There's even chips that say 'natural chips'. It's right because they're made out of potatoes, but they're not a healthy food."

4. 'Superfoods' -- trendy ingredients

If you see 'superfoods' where you otherwise might not (say, in a chocolate bar), tread with caution. Although it may contain 'superfoods', it doesn't negate the other potentially unhealthy ingredients.

"These are just trendy ingredients and they're often more expensive than other foods," McAleese said. "Fruit and vegetables will always be the real superfoods, and it doesn't matter which fruit and vegetables. It doesn't need to be written on the packet."

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5. 'Real ingredients' -- means absolutely nothing

"This one is interesting, it seems to be a recent buzzword. It doesn't really mean anything," McAleese said.

"It's probably some sort of reflection of the marketing wanting to say the product is a premium or higher quality. But it's not a reflection of the healthiness."

6. 'Creamy' -- full of fat

"You'll see this on pasta and soup products, and we did some research on yoghurts recently and noticed that many yoghurt have this 'creamy' label, as well," McAleese said.

"It basically means that they've added some sort of fat, usually cream or a creamy ingredient."

7. 'Fresh' -- not frozen or canned

Although we typically associate 'fresh' with 'healthy', 'vegetables' and 'wholesome', this may not be the case when the 'fresh' label is plastered onto food products.

"Again, it sounds like it could be healthy but it's not a health claim. It is often used to describe that the food hasn't been frozen or canned, but not always," McAleese said. "It doesn't necessarily reflect that it's full of vegetables or healthy ingredients."

Getty Images/iStockphoto
When shopping for pasta sauce, opt for tomato-based tomato sauces instead.

8. 'No artificial colours' -- not synthetic, may still be added colours derived from other foods or ingredients

"If you walk down the confectionery aisle, every second product says 'no artificial colours', but there's lots of places you can get colours from that aren't synthetic," McAleese said.

"It doesn't mean the food isn't full of colour, sugar and fat. Really, it doesn't mean anything in terms of health."

9. 'Lite', 'light' -- can refer to a lighter colour, taste or may be lighter in kilojoules or fat

"If it's in reference to fat, there are some regulations around it. Light milk, for example, needs to be 25 percent less fat than the full fat version," McAleese said. "But there are other areas where 'light' can refer to a lighter taste or colour.

"If you're choosing a product that says 'light' you just need to be careful about how it's being used and make sure you check the nutrition panel, as they don't specify on the front what the 'light' is referring to.

"A classic example is olive oil. Light olive oil is still 100 percent oil, it's just got less of a strong taste. It doesn't reflect the healthiness of it at all."

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Sneaky olive oil.

10. 'No added sugar' -- no cane sugar, honey or syrup, but may still be high in sugar (e.g. fruit juice)

The next time you see 'no added sugar' in sweet packaged food, remember this.

"No added sugar is regulated by FSANZ -- it means there's no added sugar, honey or syrups. But there's still food which say 'no added sugar' and they're really high in sugar," McAleese said.

"That's because the product could be chock-full of dried fruit or fruit sugar. Fruit juices may have no added sugar but are still very high in total amount of sugar. Also, those new date and nut bars are often high in sugar but say 'no added sugar'.

11. 'Now with protein', 'high in protein' -- may be added to a previous version of a food, doesn't mean it's healthier

With protein a major buzzword these days, it's easy to think that chips or chocolate added with protein are healthier.

"If it says 'high protein' it needs to have 25 percent higher than the original version, but sometimes it's just got a claim about 'added protein' -- I saw a chocolate bar recently with 'added protein'," McAleese said.

"We already eat too much protein. There's no benefit of having it added and it doesn't automatically make the product healthy."

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Even no-added-sugar juice is high in sugar.

12. Organic -- no pesticides used in the production, doesn't relate to the nutrition properties

"Organic refers to how the food was grown and it doesn't reflect the healthiness of the product at all," McAleese said.

"You can get organic chips, which might important for people who want to eat food grown without pesticides, but it doesn't make them more nutritious foods."

13. Gluten free -- safe for coeliacs, doesn't mean it's healthy

"This label is tightly regulated by FSANZ, but unless you have a medical reason to avoid gluten (for example, coeliac disease) it doesn't make the product a healthy option."

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