Walk through a supermarket and you’ll see these health buzzwords plastered across food packaging -- organic, antioxidants, all natural, wholegrain, gluten free, sugar free. They are on chips, lollies, muesli bars, cereals and even soft drinks.
These buzzwords can be misleading, directly affecting the way we perceive products and the way we shop. You might see a muesli bar with the phrase, 'all natural', leading you to automatically think it’s healthy.
What we don’t realise, however, is that the muesli bar could be full of added sugars and preservatives. Even worse is the fact that we don't have clear definitions of many of these popular terms.
Simply put, these health food buzzwords are marketing tools. Contrary to the message they convey, most of these terms don't help you decide what products are healthy -- they encourage you to buy them regardless.
"It’s such a grey area and I think it’s really confusing for consumers,” accredited practising dietician Chloe McLeod told The Huffington Post Australia.
“There's either no clear definition or there's standardised definitions with loopholes to get around it.”
To help understand each term from a nutritional standpoint and help us to navigate around these confusing words, McLeod breaks down these health food buzzwords into what they really are.
“Antioxidants are types of micronutrients (including vitamin C and E) and are compounds which are found in food,” McLeod said. “What they do is remove oxidising agents from the body, which can cause damage in the body -- things like car fumes, eating poorly, not getting enough sleep and being stressed.”
“Oxidation is a natural process that occurs all the time in our bodies and antioxidants help with minimising the damage that occurs.”
While consuming antioxidants is important, food manufacturers habitually slap this label onto products misleadingly.
“For example, a lot of cooking oils contain vitamin E and so it will say ‘antioxidants’ on the label, but it might be a synthetic form of vitamin,” McLeod said.
This was also the case in the US, where soda drink 7-Up confused shoppers with the claim of containing antioxidants. However, it was in the form of vitamin E, rather than from the natural source of fruit as customers had thought.
Essentially, due to its association with good health, the term ‘antioxidants’ is used as a marketing tool to encourage people to buy products. So when you see something that is usually unhealthy with this label, chances are it’s not actually healthy.
“Aim to get your antioxidants from fresh foods as much as possible, rather than from things that are artificial,” McLeod said. “Blueberries are going to be much richer in antioxidants because they’re in their natural form and work much more effectively."
“This one can be particularly misleading and confusing -- there’s no real legal meaning at the moment,” McLeod said. “There are many products labelled ‘natural’ that contain ingredients that a lot of us don’t really consider natural, such as colours and additives.”
“You can almost argue that anything is natural because it’s come from something natural at some point,” McLeod said.
“Including the term ‘natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean the product is going to be healthy, low in fat, sugar or salt, or high in fibre.”
McLeod recommends checking the ingredients list and the nutritional information panel to see if the product is truly made from whole, natural ingredients.
“With organic, the definition is a product that has been produced without the use of artificial chemicals, pesticides and fertilisers,” McLeod said.
However, just because a product is labelled as such, doesn’t mean it’s certified.
“I would recommend choosing products which are labelled with ‘Australian Certified Organic’ or with an ACO logo, because some products claim they are organic but haven’t been certified organic.”
“It may be organic but you won’t really know.”
‘Organic’ is considered a credence claim -- a claim that is difficult for consumers to test for themselves.
“Given the difficulty consumers have in testing these claims, it is even more important that businesses are not only accurate but also avoid representations or implications that would mislead consumers,” a spokesperson for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission told HuffPost Australia.
“This is another one which I find quite frustrating,” McLeod said. “You will often see ‘wholegrain’ on muesli bars, breakfast cereals, oats and corn chips -- most carbohydrate foods that come in a packet will probably say it.”
The FSANZ definition is any food which uses every part of the grain, including the outer layer, bran and germ.
“But this definition applies even if these parts are separated during processing, regardless of whether the grain is in one piece or in smaller pieces.”
“When I personally think about something that is wholegrain, it’s something that would be minimally processed, contains lots of grains and hasn’t been processed into tiny little pieces -- but it’s not what the definition is asking for.”
A prime example of this is wraps in the supermarket.
“If you have a look a whole lot of them will say 'wholegrain' but they are white wraps,” McLeod said. “So I suggest getting one with less processing happening, where the grain is more intact.”
We can do this by looking at the product itself and what form it is in. Bread and wraps that look white, with no visible grains, are obviously not going to be as ‘whole grain’ as other wholemeal grain breads where you can see the grains and seeds.
“When choosing, look at the nutritional panel and look at the fibre, and aim for more than 7.5 grams per 100 grams,” McLeod said. “Check the ingredients list and look for ingredients that have low GI grains that we know are healthy for us -- oats, barley, rye or wheat in some cases, as well, depending on how much it’s been milled."
Gluten free is now a term people search for to categorise products into good and bad, which can result in choosing a potentially less healthy option.
“Just because it says gluten free doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthier,” McLeod said. “A lot of the gluten free products -- like biscuits, cereal and bars -- will often contain more fat, sugar or salt than the gluten containing counterpart as these additions help with the texture that gluten provides.”
To confuse consumers further, 'gluten free' is also now placed on products that are naturally free of gluten.
"Look at something like rice (which doesn’t have gluten in the first place) -- it’s just purely being used as a marketing tool," McLeod said.
“If someone needs to avoid gluten then of course it’s going to be a healthier option for them, regardless of the other factors, but it doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice for everybody.”
“Another example would be ‘cholesterol free’ that you see on some products, such as on some olive oils and other vegetable oil -- but they never had cholesterol in them in the first place,” McLeod said.
Cholesterol in the diet comes from eggs and animal products -- foods from plants do not contain cholesterol.
“Again, it’s just been used as a marketing tool to pray on what people know or don’t know,” McLeod said.
“This one is being thrown around quite a lot,” McLeod told HuffPost Australia. “Sugar free technically would be something that doesn’t contain any sugar of any kind.”
However, some companies refer to ‘sugar free’ as being fructose free, even though there is still sugar present.
“That’s where it has been quite confusing for consumers who don't have an understanding of the difference between sugar itself and fructose as a type of sugar," McLeod said.
“Or it might not have added sugar but be really high in natural sugar, like fruit juice. As an example, in a glass of orange juice there’s around six to eight oranges’ worth of sugar, so it's actually really high in sugar.”
Once again, McLeod suggests to check the nutritional label and see what the sugar content is.
“Also check the ingredients list to see if there’s anything that could be a source of sugar, like rice malt syrup -- it still contains sugar, it just doesn’t have fructose in it,” McLeod said.
“Labelling is such a complex thing and potentially difficult to police, as well. The important thing it comes back to is always check the ingredients list and nutritional information panel to help you work out if it is a healthy choice or not.”