As much as we think it’s wrong for manufacturers to mislead us with unproven claims, it’s perfectly legal for them to smack phrases on the front of the box that aren’t regulated by the FDA or any other similar association. These phrases could be true, but for all you know there may be no evidence that they are, so be wary of superlatives or qualitative descriptions, such as:
- “Helps support immunity”
- “Can help maintain a healthy heart”
- “Heart healthy”
- “Sensible solution”
As a rule of thumb, be wary of superlatives that sound scientific but can’t be quantified. For example, “smart choice”—whose definition are we using for “smart”? There’s no official FDA definition of “natural” or “heart healthy” and certainly not of “sensible.” This is one of the easiest ways to recognize empty marketing words.
There’s also nothing illegal about a manufacturer printing an image of a lot of fresh fruit on the front of a package … when the ingredients actually contain only a handful of those fruits. Don’t assume too much from the images on a package: Always look at the ingredients and nutrition facts for yourself instead.
Stamps and Symbols
Some stamps and symbols like the American Heart Association logo are legit, and some aren’t–either way, no stamp can tell you the full story all by itself. Here are some common stamps and symbols you might see, and how to interpret their claims.
1. Smart Choice: This symbol means nothing. Launched by food manufacturers as a campaign to help consumers make “healthier choices,” this label, slapped on hundreds of food products (including very sugary cereals) has since come under fire for making false claims.
2. Organic: Organic means the food is produced using methods that don’t involve things like synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives. That said, this doesn’t mean the food is healthy … there’s plenty of organic junk food full of sugar, fat, calories, etc.
3. 100% Whole Grain: If you see the whole grain stamp, feel good that you’re eating something high in fiber. Of course, there are no guarantees that the food is low in calories and fat.
4. American Heart Association: The product meets the AHA’s “food criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol,” though it doesn’t speak to the sugar content of the food. Keep in mind, companies pay to be able to use the stamp, so it’s a bought honor.
If in doubt, always look at the ingredient panel. Note that if you see any oils that are “partially hydrogenated,” you’re probably looking at something that contains trans fats. One of the easiest rules of thumb is that if you don’t know what you’re reading, there’s a good chance you might not want to consume it.