by Dr. Craig A. Maxwell
Recently, well-known personality and celebrity surgeon, Dr. Mehmet Oz faced some controversy when the effectiveness of his recommended weight-loss supplements was called into question.
In his own defense of why he appears to over-promise on the health benefits of his products, Dr. Oz stated he uses the “cheerleader” method to give his customers hope that their chronic conditions can, indeed, be treated.
While I admire his intention, controversy like this can further complicate the issue of which natural health experts to follow and what’s really healthy to eat or take as a supplement. When something like this happens, viewers feel let down and don’t know who to trust. This is completely understandable.
If natural food marketing and supplement hype have you frustrated and confused, you’re not alone. Food label confusion is common because industry experts use a combination of trigger words and creative labeling to fit into the growing natural health movement.
Study Shows Natural Food “Buzzwords” Create an Illusion of Healthiness
Merriam-Webster defines the term ‘buzzword’ as: “An important-sounding, usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen.” This is a powerful definition. It means that certain words evoke an emotional response and desire to buy, even if the word has no ability to live up to its promise.
For example, Coca-Cola announced its plans to roll out a new product called Coca-Cola “Life”, which will be sweetened with a combination of sugar and Stevia. One advertising banner features a bottle with an attractive green label nestled amongst blades of grass. This particular slogan reads: “Sweetness from Natural Sources – Lower Calorie.”
The buzzwords in this instance are “natural sources” and “lower calorie.” The word ‘natural’ implying healthy and ‘lower-calorie’ claiming it’s good for weight-loss. Also, since green is associated with plants and nature, the color automatically evokes calm feelings of trust.
A recent study conducted and published by the University of Houston,[1. http://www.uh.edu/news-events/stories/2014/June/061314foodmarketingstudy], proved that consumers have a tendency to view food products labeled with health-related language as healthier than those that do not feature them. It was also discovered that consumers focus much more closely on prominent buzzwords than nutrition facts panels.
Here are the most common health-related buzzwords that move product:
If the label says “made with organic ingredients,” it means that at least one ingredient in the product is made and processed organically. However, the rest could easily be genetically-modified and/or synthetic.
A few years back, 7-Up rolled out a diet cherry soda with “antioxidants.” This resulted in a lawsuit for false claims because the antioxidants in question were not derived from the fruit, as the graphic art in the label implied. Rather, they came in the form of synthetic vitamin E. Soda is in no way a health food and should never be promoted as such.
The most common food label confusion is between the words ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. Natural is not the same as organic and, because of lax food labeling laws, many things in a product may be labeled as such. And I do mean many, like bug droppings for example.
Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance are serious conditions that demand a life-long adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. Unfortunately, those who do not have either condition simply believe anything with this label is healthier to eat. Not so. Plenty of gluten-free pre-packaged foods are filled with synthetic ingredients that offer no health benefits whatsoever.
It may surprise you to know that fiber can cause constipation. Fiber-rich is a another health buzzword that tricks consumers into believing sugary cereals, granola bars, and refined-grain bread are healthier because they help regulate digestion and improve heart health. Plenty of those foods contain synthetic additives and preservatives that could be potentially harmful to your health.
A grain is called “whole” if it contains all the crucial parts of the entire grain seed; that is the endosperm, germ, and bran. A grain is “refined” if both the germ and bran are removed during processing, leaving only the starchy, mouth-pleasing texture of the starch. While whole-grain foods made with real-food ingredients are certainly healthier, it doesn’t mean any food that bears the label is automatically good for you.
Oftentimes, food manufacturing companies use the ‘whole-grain’ label to distract consumers from the artificial ingredients lurking inside.
Since obesity was recently classified as a disease, the low-fat food label is more prominent than ever. The trouble with this is a low-fat diet keeps you fat. Your body needs the right types of fat for proper hormone regulation and feelings of satiety. However, low-fat diet foods are filled with synthetic chemicals that help you pack on the pounds, not take them off.
Low-calorie foods are just as misleading as those labeled ‘low-fat’. Diet soda doesn’t have any calories to speak of, yet it can cause you to gain weight. This is because it contains aspartame, which, according to a study published in the journal, Appetite[2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666312004138], could lead to weight gain by interfering with normal hormone production and regulation.
A food label that claims the food within is “made with non-GMO ingredients” is often misleading. This often means that one of the ingredients is non-GMO, not all of them.
Another favorite is, “Ingredients you can pronounce!” Well, I can easily pronounce “yeast extract” but I know it’s just another word for MSG, so I avoid it.
Avoid Food Marketing Hype by Choosing Minimally-Processed Fare
A good way to avoid the food label confusion and find what’s really healthy to eat is to eat as few convenience foods as possible.
Here is a short list of labels you can trust:
- USDA Organic
Foods labeled with the official seal of ‘USDA Organic’ are guaranteed organic.
- Non-GMO Project Verified
Non-GMO Project Verified foods with the official seal cannot legally contain any genetically modified ingredients.
- Grass-Fed Beef
Grass-fed beef is beef made from cattle raised on a forage diet and not fed any grain. This significantly cuts down on the likelihood of indirectly ingesting GMO corn or soy.
- Wild-Caught Fish
If the label says “wild-caught,” it can largely be trusted. However, I advise careful scrutiny. Cheaper fish sold at discount markets may be improperly labeled. It is best to stick to Alaskan wild-caught fish for guaranteed-fresh, optimum nutrition.
Whenever you see a buzzword on the front of a package, read the complete food label at the side or back. My rule is anything that contains more than 5 ingredients should be consumed sparingly.
With so much conflicting information, it’s easy to get confused. However, I will tell you who you can always trust: Yourself. Listen to the medical experts and read food labels with a critical eye, but remember to also pay attention to how certain foods make your body feel.
The more you trust that intuition, the more you’ll be drawn to foods that nourish and heal you. Eventually, you’ll get so good at it you won’t even notice food marketing hype anymore because you’ll be able to see right through it.