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How To Decipher Fake "Healthy" Labels (& 10 Simple Swaps!)

I have lost count of how many times I have sent my husband to the supermarket with an item on the shopping list that I specifically requested to be “organic”, and he brought home something that says “all natural” on the label instead. This does not mean that my husband is below-average intelligent. Rather, it illustrates how misleading those descriptions can be to the average consumer for the purpose of marketing a product.

Do you picture happy cows on rolling green hills when you read “grass fed “? Families of fluffy chickens laying “cage-free” eggs on vast lawns? You are not the only one! And the deceiving label claims are not just limited to animal products, either. Especially foods designed for children take advantage of healthy sounding phrases that make them seem like great options for parents.

One of my favorite examples is a popular breakfast cereal that claimed to improve children’s attentiveness in school by 20% -- but failed to mention that this was compared to children who had been given no breakfast at all.

Another one was a children’s yogurt snack I basically grew up on, whose slogan in the 80s TV-commercials was: “as nutritious as a small steak." In fact the comparison was related to the amount of calories in either, yet they never disclosed exactly how small that steak would be, and that the calories in the yogurt were largely due to the high amount of added sugar, while the steak’s calories would be providing a valuable amount of lean protein.

These are just a couple of examples to illustrate marketing “traps” that – even though they are not lies – falsely lead us to think a product is healthier than it actually is. So what can we as parents do to prevent ourselves from falling into those traps?

Top Terms To Watch Out For

If you are new to this, be prepared to spend some extra time on your next grocery shopping trip, and bring your reading glasses. Whenever you see a package that declares “healthy” benefits on the front label, turn it around and double-check the ingredient list, where the ingredients are listed by weight from highest to lowest amount.

-“Made with whole grains”? Whole wheat or whole grain should be at the top of the list. The term “Multigrain” does not indicate that a product is made with whole grains either, it only means that more than one type of grain is used.

-“No added sugar”? Check to see if artificial sweeteners are used instead! Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, Acesulfame potassium or Maltitol are sweeteners commonly used to replace sugar. While all sweeteners have to undergo extensive testing to be approved safe for commercial use by the FDA, they are made with chemicals and should be consumed in very limited amounts or avoided for children altogether. Other “hidden” sugars can include corn syrup, rice syrup, cane juice, molasses, malt syrup and any kind of fruit juice concentrate, to name just a few.

-“All natural” – this means a product does not contain any artificial sweeteners, colorings or preservatives. While this sounds good, it does not give you any information about nutritional value or wholesomeness. You may find this claim on sugary cereal as well as greasy potato chips and processed foods.

- “Gluten free” – Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat and many other grains. Gluten free products are not automatically healthy. They are often highly processed, more expensive and lower in fiber, so unless you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there is no need to choose gluten free products over regular ones.

- “Light”, “low fat” or “low carb”- these claims indicate a reduced amount of calories, fat or sugar in a product, but do not give you information about any other added ingredients or indicate that this product is especially healthy.

The best way to avoid falling for misleading marketing claims is to buy whole foods and stay away from heavily processed ones. The shorter the ingredient list of a product, the less processed it usually is.

A Few Simple Swap Ideas to “Clean Up” Your Family’s Diet

Without compromising any of the yummy-ness:

1) Choose whole-wheat products instead of those made with refined flour

2 ) Use thinly sliced lean turkey breast, chicken or roast beef instead of hot-dogs, breakfast sausages or processed deli meats

3) Make oven baked potato or root vegetable wedges instead of French fries

4) Use brown rice, quinoa or riced cauliflower instead of white rice

5) Make your own salad dressings with high quality vinegar, mustard, yogurt, olive oil, herbs and spices

6) Bake, steam, boil or grill your foods instead of pan-frying, and use your own seasoning instead of buying pre-seasoned ones

7) Avoid sodas and sweetened beverages in favor or water, tea, water infused with fruits or flavored with a splash of juice

8) Create healthy desserts with yogurt and fruits instead of puddings or ice cream

9) Choose finger foods like veggie sticks and hummus, cheese and fruits instead of pre packaged lunch snacks

10) Mix it up! I don’t believe any food should be “forbidden”, so if your children are craving their favorite junk food, try offering just a small amount along with another, healthier option that they can eat as much as they want of. Some combinations I like are:

    • Sugary cereal/granola: serve with whole grain oats Chocolate/cookies: serve with fresh fruit

    • Potato chips: serve with pretzel sticks/crisp bread /snack veggies Ice cream: serve with yogurt/fruit. 

 These are just a few ideas to get you started! Remember, nobody is perfect and even small steps towards a wholesome diet can have a significant impact on your health and well-being!

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