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This month’s nutrition topic is all about debunking the myths and popular beliefs about the packaging of our foods. Let’s face it: Sometimes we buy certain products just for the way the package looks or the claims written on them. How can we be sure that we’re picking the right foods and that we’re getting what we think we’re getting? The key is to become a smart consumer by understanding packaging claims.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that companies that produce foods, beverages, supplements, and other nutritional products are not necessarily dishonest or deceitful. However, we do need to recognize that their primary role is to sell a product. Companies need their product to be marketable in order to make profits. And what’s one of the best way to market your product? Give it an attractive look with eye-catching slogans and claims.

Here are a few of the most popular labeling schemes and what they really mean:

  1. “All Natural”: What does it mean to be all natural? If you find out, let ME know. It’s a claim that appeals to the masses, but its meaning is ambiguous and it doesn’t tell us anything about the product. All natural doesn’t mean it’s a health food and it does not represent what is actually in the food. It’s just one of those “feel good” phrases that entice consumers to buy a product.
  2. “Made with real fruit”: This may be true, but turn the package over and look at the list of ingredients to see where exactly the fruit is. If it’s toward the bottom of the list of ingredients, and the product does not have a significant source of vitamins or fiber, it’s not likely to offer any health benefits.
  3. “No Sugar Added”: This does NOT mean it is sugar free! I repeat, a food with this on its label is NOT sugar free. It simply means that no extra sugar was added to the product; not that the product didn’t contain sugar already.
  4. “100% Organic”: A food must be made with 100% organic ingredients to get the USDA organic seal. Some foods will say they contain organic ingredients, but this could be anywhere from 70-95% organic, with the rest being other ingredients. These products will not have the USDA seal.
  5. “Reduced sodium”: This means that the product has 25% less sodium than the original product. It does not mean that there is no sodium, or that is the lowest sodium food of its type. This is like taking an original soup and cutting out ¼ of the sodium and then reselling it. It may still be too high in sodium for some individuals.

When shopping, look at the foods you are putting in your cart. The best advice for being a smart consumer is to ignore the front of a package and immediately turn it over. Make sure that you read the Nutrition Facts Label and the ingredient list to find out what you are really buying.

Article written by: Kimberly Hyatt, RD, LDN.