Gluten Free! No Artificial Colors! High Protein! No High Fructose Corn Syrup!

I don’t work for General Mills, my kids just like Chex cereals. We don’t buy them because they are gluten free nor ‘simply nutritious’ although they are pretty simple, and they offer some vitamins/minerals, a quick breakfast option, and they taste good.

These are just a few of the claims made on the front of food packages. They are true, but does it always matter?

Gluten Free. Someone recently asked me about the “Gluten Free” craze. Yes, there is a disease called Celiac Disease in which the body can’t metabolize gluten. I am not a Gluten free expert (so if you have Celiac or feel you may be sensitive to gluten, you should see a RD who does specialize in it), but there are many folks simply choosing the “Gluten free lifestyle” as a way to lose weight (or worse, perhaps to “fix” another gastrointestinal problem that has nothing to do with gluten. In any case, a gastroenterologist is the place to start getting a diagnosis).

The only science behind losing weight by eating a gluten free diet is the simple reduction in energy intake that occurs when you eliminate foods such as bread, pasta, some cereals, cookies, muffins, cakes, brownies and other baked goods. But do you have to eliminate all of these foods for weight loss? No. Is it easier to lose weight when you do? Maybe, especially if you happen to be someone who overeats these foods. A more logical approach would be to eliminate the sweets, and reduce portions of the other nutritious foods (grains like pasta, barley, or bread).

There are actually regulations about what can and can’t be placed on a food label. The FDA gets a lot of flack from some folks, but I happen to be glad there is a regulatory body to help oversee our food supply. However, as with most rules, there are unique interpretations.

High Protein. Just as some labels claim to be “free” of something that they never even contained (such as “cholesterol free” vegetable oil) some foods want to add nutrients that are in demand. Enter, “High Protein” foods. Foods that are naturally high in protein include meats, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, cheese, tofu, beans, legumes, and nuts. But today, there are many new foods packaged to deliver protein – such as “protein bars” (usually soy protein isolate). While these can be a convenient way to get calories and protein into your day when you are busy, in general, I recommend working the natural proteins into your daily meals. Are these labeled foods actually high in protein? Not when you compare them to eggs, beans, milk, or meats. A typical protein bar may offer 10-15 grams of protein, but keep in mind one egg will give you 7, a quarter-cup of beans gives you 10, an 8-ounce glass of milk gives you 8, and a 3 ounce piece of chicken gives you 21 grams of protein.

Fat-Free or Trans-Fat Free or No Saturated Fat. This is tricky because the definition of “no fat” actually permits 0.5 grams of fat. So if you happen to consume 5 of these foods a day, you’re actually racking up your fat intake by 2.5 grams. Doesn’t sound like much, but since the goal is to consume less than 7% of your fat intake (15 grams of saturated fat or less per 2000 calories) as saturated or trans fats, and less than 30% of calories as total fats (65 grams total fat or less per 2000 calories) this adds up quickly.

Sugar-free. Again, truthful, but keep in mind that a sugar free pie or a half gallon of sugar free ice cream does not mean “calorie free”. Don’t be fooled by the idea that manufacturers are replacing high fructose corn syrup with a “more healthy sugar” either. That’s simply an oxymoron. While caloric sweeteners such as honey or agave nectar, have different flavor profiles, the bottom line is: They are still processed sugars (yes, agave nectar has a lower glycemic index because it is over 75% fructose, unlike sucrose which is 50% fructose, and high fructose corn syrup which is 42-55% fructose).

All Natural. Technically, if this is on a food label, it is true, at least as far as what the FDA defines as all ‘natural’. Many potato chips are “all natural”. They may be potatoes, oil and salt. Pretty simply, and pretty natural. But of course when you think about the idea of “Natural food” potato chips probably is not what comes to mind, are you? If the food contains no added colors, no artificial ingredients, and no synthetic substances, it can be labeled “natural” or “all natural”, according to the USDA. Yet, this has been causing a stir, in part because labeling guidelines for ‘natural’ are not clear. Their have even been some ridiculous lawsuits regarding the natural label.

Bottom line: Get more unpackaged foods into your diet and don’t over-scrutinize every label. Our food supply is safe. Whatever you think is junk food, probably is junk food, and you should eat it less frequently. Use common sense, and don’t pay any attention to crazy lawsuits that are more about money than health. The lawyer for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says,

“I don’t care what scientists or indeed a lawyer thinks what ‘natural’ means…consumers are entitled to be incorrect”

….and consumers often honor that entitlement. It’s a shame that consumers, or lawyers, don’t care what scientists think. And it’s also a shame that food companies will jump on any bandwagon to add words to their front of package that may help them sell more goods. Here’s the rub: as a consumer, you should be able to use your own thinking power to out think the brand. When a soft drink company tries to sell you a product that has antioxidants in it, and you choose to buy it, case closed. Don’t blame them for making something up. You know darn well that you can eat an orange or some bell pepper strips to get your vitamin C, but if you are choosing to get it from a drink in a fancy bottle, let it go.

As for ingredients such as citric acid and HFCS being termed ‘natural’, well they are by current definition. If you think that table sugar is more natural than HFCS, think again (they are equally processed, in the same manner, from natural ingredients), or that ‘manufactured’ citric acid is any different than the citric acid naturally present in lemons, then you may want to start appreciating what scientists are trying to teach you. Chemically they are the same, and your body doesn’t know any different.

Bottom line: Get more unpackaged foods (fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, fresh meats, fresh fish, fresh poultry) and basic nutrient-rich foods (whole grains like barley, brown rice, quinoa, and plain pasta or rice, dairy) into your diet and don’t over-scrutinize every label. Our food supply is safe. Take ownership of your food choices at the grocery store. Whatever you think is junk food, probably is junk food, and you should buy it, and eat it, less frequently.