Welcome back to another post in our healthy grocery store shopping series! This series is designed to help you be a more efficient, healthier, happier shopper. Last time, we talked about shopping the perimeter first: buy the fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and fresh bread before you head into the aisles to pick up the processed stuff. Once you do make your way into the labyrinth, you’re ready for Tip #5:
Beware products bearing gifts (particularly nutritious ones).
There are many subtle (or not so subtle) nutrition messages on the front of food products that are designed to catch your eye and snag a sale. As a savvy grocery shopper, these nutrition claims are a signal for you to inspect that product a little further, and decide if what the company is claiming is actually of benefit to you.smncc.com
On the front of this box of Frosted Flakes, the left side has the usual players — the manufacturer, brand name, the dazzling smile of Tony the Tiger, but on the right, I noted the appeals to both parents (nutritious!) and children (toys!) to buy the product. The toys are a pretty obvious sell, and it’s probably a losing battle to get your kids to not be tempted by those free gifts. But I’d like to spend the rest of this post deciphering some of the nutrition claims found on products, so you can make an informed decisions about which products to buy and consume.
Common Nutrition Claims Deconstructed
What does this message actually mean? That the product is made from plants. Only animal-based foods (milk, meat, eggs) have cholesterol! On the one hand, this message is great: the manufacturers didn’t have to do any special processing or add weird ingredients to make your products cholesterol free! On the other hand, it’s a little misleading to think that the label denotes an extra level of healthfulness above that in other similar products.
Now with less fat! (or less sugar).
This message is a big warning sign that the ingredients have changed since you last bought the product. Fat and sugar are very important for the deliciousness and shelf stability of a product. So if a product has been reformulated to decrease the fat (for example), there may have been an increase in sugar, salt, or other ingredients to keep it tasty, keep the consistency of the product, and keep it shelf stable. When you see a “now with”, check the back of the box to see if what ingredients may have been substituted in, and make sure the new formulation still aligns with your health needs.
Similar to the cholesterol message, high fiber does not have to be a bad thing. If anything, we need more fiber in our diets! There are two possible reason why your product say high fiber: either the food is naturally high in fiber (because of flax seeds, dried fruit, or whole grains), or a bunch of ingredients were added to the product to increase it’s fiber content. Some of these fiber additives can increase abdominal discomfort (read: gas), so added fiber is something to watch out for if you haven’t been feeling so great after eating certain products. If you’re searching for added fiber on the ingredient list, watch out for “bran” ingredients.
Double check the price of products with nutrition claims on the front.
Some better-for-you products truly do cost more because it takes higher quality ingredients, a slower process, or a specialized workforce to make that good quality product. However, sometimes, the price are higher only because of the health claim, and not because they actually cost more to produce. When you see a claim attached to a higher price tag, take a step back to evaluate what their enhancement is, and if you actually feel that the benefit provided by the product is a worthy trade off for the price.
What are other common nutrition claims do you see on the front of products you buy? Do they influence your purchasing decisions?