Walk into any grocery store and you’ll find products boasting a wide range of health claims. Some foods are labeled “enriched” while others are labeled “fortified,” “all-natural,” or “gluten-free” in an effort to be appealing to health-conscious consumers. But what do these terms really mean? While some food label claims are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), others are just gimmicks to get you to buy the products.
Claims at the Grocery Store
Before purchasing a product, be sure to read all the ingredients, regardless of what the label says. The healthiest South Beach Diet–friendly products should use the fewest processed ingredients and ideally never include refined white flours, saturated or trans fats, or added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup. Take whole-wheat crackers, for example. The first ingredient listed on the box should be 100% whole-wheat flour — not to be confused with wheat flour, which is a form of white flour. To help you make the best food choices, here are the facts on some of the most common food claims:
The facts: “Enriched” means the nutrients that were originally in the food were lost during the refining process and have been replaced to make it more nutritious. Enriched foods don’t compensate for the natural nutrients and fiber that were lost during processing.
The facts: Foods that are “fortified” have nutrients added (such as vitamins and minerals) that were never present in the original product. For example, milk is fortified with vitamin D, which was never present when it came out of the cow.
The Facts: Beware of foods labeled “all-natural” or “100% natural.” The FDA and USDA don’t regulate products with these claims. The labels “all-natural” and “100% natural” actually have no nutritional meaning. A manufacturer can take anything that grows in nature, process and strip it of its nutrients, and still claim that it’s “all-natural.” You can verify whether a product is truly made with “all-natural” ingredients by reading the ingredients list and using your best judgment.
The Facts: Gluten is a protein found primarily in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, and in products made from these grains. Those with celiac disease cannot tolerate any gluten in their diet, and people with a gluten sensitivity must determine just how much gluten, if any, they can tolerate. To date, the FDA has not established a standard for putting the words gluten-free on packaging, although legislation is pending. As a result, you can currently find the words “gluten free” on everything from milk to apples, as producers try to capitalize on the popular diet trend. If you choose packaged products labeled gluten free, such as breads, pastas, and crackers made with gluten-free grains, look carefully at the ingredient list and make sure that the product doesn’t contain gluten in less obvious forms. Look out for words like binder, thickener, emulsifier, edible starch, gumbase, filler, modified starch, triticale, rusk, wheat alternative, or wheat maltodextrin, since they all mean gluten. Finally, be aware that many gluten-free products are made from white rice flour or potato starch with little or no fiber, and many have added sugars, which can all cause the swings in blood sugar that can lead to hunger, cravings, and weight gain.