Take a walk down the center aisles of almost any grocery store and you’ll see them — packaged food and beverage products with “low-fat,” “no sugar” and “low salt/sodium” labels designed to draw health-conscious consumers’ attention to them. But are they really healthier than their regular full fat/sugar/salt counterparts?
A new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests that consumers should be cautious of these “healthy” labels. According to the study findings, these types of labels don’t guarantee higher nutritional quality.
Using transactional data, researchers analyzed the nutrient claims of over 80 million packaged food and beverage products that were purchased by 40,000 US households between 2008 and 2012. They also looked at whether the number of purchases of products with a low/no-nutrient label changed over time or in relation to sociodemographic factors such as race/ethnicity or household status.
Out of all 80 million product purchases, around 35 percent of them had low/no-nutrient content claims, and this did not change much over time in proportion to regular product purchases. Low-fat was the most popular type of low/no-nutrient content claim at 10 percent for foods and 19 percent for beverages followed by low-calorie (3 percent for food and 9 percent for beverages), low-sugar (2 percent for food, 8 percent beverages), and low-sodium (2 percent for both food and beverages).
When the nutritional profiles of food and beverage products with low/no-nutrient content claims were compared to regular and similar products, the researchers found that those with low/no-nutrient content claims weren’t necessarily more nutritious than the regular/similar products. In fact, products that were low in sugar, fat or salt had noticeably worse nutritional profiles than regular/similar products without these claims.
In a statement from the university, some of the details of the food comparisons were shared. Oreo, for example, has a reduced-fat variety of cookies with 4.5 grams of fat per serving. Regular Oreos, on the other hand, have 7 grams of fat per serving. Both, however, still contain the same amount of sugar (14 grams).
The findings suggest that while low/no-nutrient content claims make the original product itself seem healthier, if all you’re focusing on is the specific nutrient that has been reduced or taken out, this represents just a tiny portion of a much bigger picture. When the nutritional profile as a whole is compared to that of the original product or other comparable products, the low/no-nutrient content product tends to offer less nutritional value overall relative to the original or comparable products.
The lesson? Don’t automatically interpret “low-fat” or “no sugar” as healthier if you care about other nutrients too. Remember that when something is taken out of food, other stuff often has to be added to make up for it. For example, low-fat products often contain more sugar.
If you don’t want to stand around in the grocery store aisles analyzing food labels all day, consider taking advantage of Two Foods — a handy tool that allows you to enter the names of two different food products to see a side-by-side comparison of their nutritional information. When you enter in a food product, the tool will give you a list of more specific products to choose from, which you can click to see their serving size, calories and nutrient breakdown for carbohydrates, fat and protein.
According to WebMD, women should limit their daily sugar intake from all foods to 6 teaspoons (about 100 calories) while men should limit theirs to 9 teaspoons (about 150 calories). Less than 10 percent of both men and women’s daily calorie intake should come from saturated fats and daily salt intake should be limited to 2,300 milligrams (about one teaspoon).
When it comes to nutrition, the overall breakdown is what really matters. Don’t be fooled by just one nutrient that has been reduced or taken out, because it rarely guarantees that it’s healthier than what’s already out there.