Even the unhealthiest of foods in the grocery store today are stamped with all kinds of labels. Some are put there to let you know things about the foods nutritional value, while others are simply there to make the product seem more appealing because healthy food is trendy. It can be frustrating to determine which labels actually imply that the product is healthier, and which do not. The truth is that actually none of these labels directly imply health. It is up to you to use your best judgement to determine if the food you are buying is healthy or not. Here are 8 labels that don’t automatically make the food you are buying healthy.
1. Vegan or Vegetarian
Vegetarian means that the product contains no animal products (meat, bones, or other parts) while vegan means no animal products or by-products including milk and eggs. This label is helpful for people who are following a vegetarian or vegan diet. While vegetarians and vegans can be exceptionally healthy people, many unhealthy products can be labelled as vegetarian or vegan. This is because grains, soy, and vegetable oils can all be labelled vegan. Agave nectar is often used to sweeten vegan treats which is a very unhealthy sweetener due to its high fructose and low antioxidant content (read more here). Vegan brownies and cookies are generally not any healthier than their non-vegan counterparts. If you follow a strict vegan diet, eating vegan desserts once in a while can be a nice treat. If you are not vegan; don’t make the mistake of thinking you are making healthy choices by eating vegan junk food.
If you have Celiac disease, the gluten-free label is important to keep your eyes open for. If you don’t have Celiac disease, you might be wasting your time. Gluten-free products are often heavily refined and contain unhealthy vegetable oils such as soy and canola. Grains themselves are not really healthy to consume in large amounts for a variety of reasons, read more about why grains can be unhealthy here. However, there are also some reasons eating gluten-free can be healthy, read about these reasons here.
3. Low-fat or Fat-free
Some products are merely labelled this as a marketing ploy. For example, a bag of candy may be labelled fat-free. Seeing as candy is generally pure sugar, the fact there is no fat in it isn’t anything to brag about. However, they put it on the package anyway in the hopes someone will justify buying them because “at least they are fat-free”. On the other hand, some products have actually had their fat removed or reduced and are then labelled low-fat or fat-free. These products are not good for your health because naturally occurring fat is an important part of a healthy diet and it is often replaced with more sugar, or worse, artificial sweeteners and chemical fillers. When you see a product labelled low-fat or fat-free when it should contain naturally occurring fats (such as yogurt and other dairy products), run!!
Sugar-free is a bit of a sneaky label because when you see something labelled sugar-free you might expect it to taste less sweet due to its lack of sugar. In fact, sugar-free products are commonly sweetened with something other than sugar. Foods that are labelled sugar-free are sweetened with aspartame or other artificial sweeteners, which are harmful to your health. Sugar-free products are actually worse for your health than their sugar-filled counterparts. Some sugar free products are sweetened with sugar alcohols instead of artificial sweeteners which are an improvement but often produce unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms if consumed in excess. Sensitive individuals may experience GI symptoms such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea even after small amounts are consumed. If you have any digestive issues, avoid sugar alcohols such as xylitol, malitol, and sorbitol. Read more about good and bad sugar alternatives here.
In terms of food, organic means that the food was growth without the use of most pesticides and herbicides. This is great because organic food has a higher nutritional value and eating organic reduces the chemical load on your body. Buying organic produce and organic meat is definitely healthier than buying conventional produce and meat. However, some things are unhealthy regardless of whether they are organic or not. Take, for instance, organic candy. While its true there may be less chemicals in this candy, there is still little nutritional value and high amounts of sugar. The organic label definitely doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t the only thing to consider when determining if a product is good for your health or not.
This is the vaguest label of all. The FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives (source). In other words, almost anything can be labelled as natural; it doesn’t mean its healthy. People often mistake the term natural to mean ‘safe’ which is pretty unfortunate because some of the most ruthless poisons on the planet come from completely natural sources. For example, poisonous mushrooms, africanized bees, and deadly jellyfish are all natural.
7. Trans-fat free
Trans-fats are a byproduct of hydrogenating oils, and are very harmful to your health. This is another label that may be used as a marketing ploy and put on products that shouldn’t contain trans-fats in the first place. Aside from a small amount of naturally occurring trans-fat in butter (which are not harmful the way synthetic trans-fats are), there should never be trans-fats in your food. Hydrogenated oils are extremely unhealthy even when they are not accompanied with trans-fats, so if the package reads ‘trans-fat free’ checking the ingredients list for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils is a good idea. To make matters worse, the law allows for products labelled ‘trans-fat free’ to not be completely trans fat free; they can still contain up to a 0.5g of trans fat per serving (source). Trans-fats can be harmful in even small amounts so it is best to completely avoid products that contain hydrogenated oils even if the product states it is trans-fat free.
Some products carry this special GMO-free label which means that none of the ingredients in the product have come from genetically modified plants. Genetically modified plants by definition cannot be organic, and often contain high levels of pesticide residues. The plants are often modified for reasons that do not consider the nutritional value, making genetically modified produce nutritionally inferior to its organic counterparts. There is a long list of other reasons that genetically modified food is unhealthy including increased risk of allergic reaction, and increased chemical load on the body. Read more here about why GMO’s are unhealthy and generally not a good idea. So, the non-GMO label doesn’t hurt to have, but like the organic label, its not the only thing to consider. Eating GMO-free candy might not make a very big difference in your health.
So if none of these labels directly imply health, what exactly makes something healthy? There are many different ways in which a person can eat healthy but the major keys are variety, balance, and avoiding chemical exposure (additives, pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, etc.). Of course, everything contains chemicals, but I am specifically talking about the ones that weren’t there in the first place.
The healthiest of foods actually don’t come in a package that can be stamped with tons of different labels to try and convince you that it is healthy. They are found outside growing in the ground or being raised in pastures. You can find these foods at your local farmers market or health food store. Organic, local, fresh produce and meat is your best bet when trying to get healthy!