Glance around the snack aisle today and it’s easy to spot
products that make all sorts of “better for you” claims,
employing a smorgasbord of buzzwords in the name of helping you
feel better about your snack choice.
The problem is, many of these claims are bullshit.
People want to make healthier food choices these days, and that
means marketers are trying to put a healthy spin on their
products. Supermarkets and convenience stores add extra
incentive, by reserving more shelf space for supposedly
But the reality is “companies are trying to dress up sugar and
white flour and junk food,” said Bonnie Liebman, director of
nutrition at the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit advocacy
organization. Liebman holds a masters in nutritional sciences
from Cornell University; her group has advocated on a number of
issues, including pushing food companies to reduce the sodium
content of their products.
The gap between some healthy claims on packaging and the actual
food inside has led to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
which regulates labeling on foods, to reevaluate what foods can
claim to be
While lawsuits have been filed against food manufacturers for
making false claims, grocery shelves still feature plenty of
labels that make foods seem healthier than their nutrition data
would suggest. Here are a just few examples.
You might think yogurt is healthy, so “yogurt covered” snacks
must be healthy too. Not so, according to CSPI’s Liebman, who
has been sounding the alarm on “yogurt covered” snacks for
decades. “They should call it “sugar-and-palm-kernel-oil
covered,” she said.
“Think of this as a frosting, most likely, rather than a
yogurt,” said registered dietician Ashley Koff. “Keep in
mind, few yogurts today are even a health win” because of all
the added sugars, she added.
It’s likely that even if the product is made with yogurt
powder, it contains no calcium and only a negligible amount of
This can mean any number of things: made with fruit puree
(often a lower cost fruit such as apple, pear, or grape), or
sweetened with fruit juices. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it
contains the vitamins or fiber you’d find in actual fruits,
Liebman said. “Companies are selling fruit juice or puree, plus
a lot of sugar,” she said.
In 2015, a group of parents filed a
lawsuit against the maker of Welch’s Fruit Snacks, claiming
that while the labels claim the company’s fruit snacks are made
with real fruit, the company is really just selling candy.
The snack maker called the lawsuit “false and misleading”,
telling Forbes that “it is a fact that fruit, whether in
the form of juices or more recently purees, has always been the
first ingredient in Welch’s Fruit Snacks. Our labeling is
truthful and gives consumers the information they need to make
“Multigrain” indicates, literally, that multiple grains were
used in the product (there are other common labels that
indicate the same thing, like “seven grain”). But it does not
necessarily mean whole grains. In fact, the multiple grains in
the product may all be refined and stripped of their
natural nutrients and fiber. Multigrain “can be good,” Koff
said, “but not if they are hyper-processed and not if the rest
of the ingredients in there are poor quality.” Again, if the
multigrain snack is candy coated in sugar, beware.
While whole grains are a good place to start, a food “made with
whole grains” may actually contain mostly refined flour,
supplemented by a small amount of whole grain flour — one trick
is to check which appears first on the ingredients list. The
most honest labels, Liebman said, are the ones that disclose
the percentage of whole gains used.
“Antioxidants” may refer to nutrients that otherwise sound
pretty mundane: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and
beta-carotene. According to the U.S.
National Library of Medicine, “there is good evidence that
eating a diet with lots of vegetables and fruits is healthy and
lowers risks of certain diseases. But it isn’t clear whether
this is because of the antioxidants, something else in the
foods, or other factors.”
Koff added, “Many antioxidants are sensitive to food
processing, so while the original source may be a quality
source, the end product isn’t.”
Of course “artisan”
doesn’t really mean anything. We all know it at heart.
Perhaps it implies the people who “crafted” the thing you’re
eating are deeply passionate about their work, or have a
hyper-aversion to technology, but who knows? It could have been
squirted onto an assembly line like everything else you buy at
the supermarket. Despite aesthetics, artisanal certainly
doesn’t mean it’s “better.”
One New York bagel maker was so offended by the “artisan
bagels” launched by Dunkin’ Donuts in 2014 that he
filed motions with the Federal Trade Commission, New York
State Attorney General, and the Better Business Bureau.
Like artisanal, “wholesome” is a meaningless claim, Koff said.
When the word appears on a bag of gummy bears, you know it’s a
“This is a whopper,” said Koff. The biggest dietary source of
nitrates is vegetables, and our body converts them to nitrites,
she explained. As for cured meats, a common target for nitrate
reduction, some contain synthetic nitrites, while others simply
use celery powder to create the nitrite.
“The biggest issue is really the quality of the meat, how much
meat your are eating, and likely the sodium or added sugar or
any artificial coloring being added, not the nitrates, she
Many of these claims are not supported by research, Liebman
warned. In April, for instance, drink maker Neurobrands
agreed to pay $500,000 in penalties and restitution after
the city of Santa Monica filed a civil complaint alleging its
Neuro beverages made false health claims. While Neurobrands
didn’t admit any liability, it can no longer make the
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