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Ounce of Prevention: Food labels can mislead

Published:Monday | June 8, 2015 | 12:00 AMDr Anthony Vendryes

WITH THE emphasis on taste and convenience, the modern food industry is constantly urging us to eat more processed or packaged food. In today's world, most of your food may come out of a can, bottle, box, bag, or package. Ideally, you should be able to tell what it is that you are eating by looking at the ingredients listed and by reading the nutrition facts label; however, this is often not so, and what you see on the label may not be exactly what you are eating.


Inaccurate food labels


In developed and developing countries, most packaged foods sold are required to have nutritional labels. But one US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) survey revealed that the nutritional labels on one out of every 10 products examined had inaccuracies. Amazingly, the FDA considered this situation acceptable.

Legally, a food label has to be more than 20 per cent false in order for it to violate the law. This means that an item labelled as having 200 calories can have up to 240 calories and be accepted. In addition, the Government food laboratories allow an additional 10 per cent margin of error in their analysis.

Dr Joe Mercola, a well-known nutrition expert, points out that some foods, particularly those claiming to be low fat, low salt, or no sugar, contain very different nutrients than are listed on the label. For instance, according to an ABC News report, food vendors advertising doughnuts had severely understated the calorie content of their doughnuts. In one case, a doughnut labelled as having 135 calories actually contained 530 calories. Another product, chocolate chips labelled zero carbs, actually had over 14 grams of carbohydrates.


Fat and cholesterol deceptions


One of the most deceptive statements on food labels is 'no cholesterol'. This statement is found on many foods from vegetables oils to popcorn. When consumers read 'no cholesterol' on a food label, most believe this brand is superior to another that does not make the claim. This is not necessarily true. People mistakenly assume that low cholesterol means low fat. Cholesterol and fat are not the same and a no-cholesterol food may be full of fats. Few people realise that cholesterol in your food plays a small role in affecting your blood cholesterol levels.

Even fewer people understand that only animal products contain cholesterol. All vegetable oils and margarines are cholesterol free, yet all are still 100 per cent fat. French fries may claim to be cholesterol free and if the French fries were fried in a vegetable oil rather than lard, this claim may be true. However, one French fry is still about 15 calories, 40 per cent of which is fat.

Another deceptive statement is the '100 per cent vegetable oil' found on packages of crackers, cookies, margarines, and shortening. Yes, vegetable oils are mainly unsaturated fats and are healthier for the heart than saturated fat, but if a vegetable oil is hydrogenated, the structure of this manufactured fat changes and is more dangerous than saturated fat. If the label reads 'hydrogenated' or 'trans fat', be very wary of that food.

But the ultimate food label fat lie may be on your box of cow's milk. Milk labelled as 'two per cent fat' (low fat) really contains 34 per cent of its calories from fat. It is only two per cent by volume because most of the milk is water. The reason the dairy people call it 'two per cent fat' is that they sell more milk if people believe it is a low-fat product rather than a high-fat product. In my opinion, this is blatant deception. The 'low' in low-fat milk is actually quite high.


Hidden salt


'No salt added' is not the same as 'low sodium'. No salt added refers to no table salt added. These products, therefore, may still contain monosodium glutamate (the taste enhancer MSG) or sodium metabisulphite (a preservative), or one of the many other sodium, containing additives. If you are on a low-sodium diet, read the ingredient list carefully to make sure it does not contain sodium in another form.


Sugar by another name


'Sugar free' or 'sugarless' does not mean the same thing as 'no sugar added' or 'sweetened without sugar'. Sugars have many names. Fructose or high fructose corn syrup are common examples. This is now the dominant form of sugar in packaged foods and beverages. When consumed frequently, it creates and worsens many common health problems.

Sweeteners made from sugar (e.g. sugar alcohols) are also used in sugar-free foods because technically, they are not classified as sugar; however, they do contain calories and do cause an unwanted rise in a diabetic's blood sugar level. Without a full understanding of these technical issues, the consumer can be easily misled.

My favourite natural sweetener is Stevia, derived from the Stevia plant, which has been used by South American natives for centuries. It is safe, 100 times sweeter than sugar, widely available, and found to have a number of health benefits.

Bottom line: Read food labels carefully and be informed about what you eat and drink.

- You may email Dr Vendryes at or listen to An Ounce of Prevention on POWER106FM on Fridays at 8:20 p.m. Details on his books and articles are available on his website