In the past couple of years, the word “artisan” has been popping up on everything from Domino’s Artisan Pizza to Starbucks Artisan Breakfast Sandwiches — but what does "artisan" mean anyway? It’s basically the 2011-2012 version of “gourmet,” an old favorite among manufacturers that makes their product sound expensive and maybe healthier or high-quality. This trend peaked our interest in misleading food claims and labels and sent us on a quest to find the most deceptive.
The second most common claim made on new food products in 2008, “all-natural” is oftentimes all-nonsense. There is absolutely no regulatory definition for “all-natural," and you're better off getting the facts on your own from reliable sources — like the ingredients listed on the back. If you’re having trouble understanding — or pronouncing — them, the product is probably not as natural as it claims.
Our stroll through the local bodega produced this example: Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix of the Fruit & Nut variety. As you can see, the “100% Natural” label is prominently displayed underneath the logo. Yet when you check out the ingredients on the side of the box, the second ingredient listed is “high-maltose corn syrup.” Sounds a hell of a lot like high-fructose corn syrup, huh? Glamour's Health & Fitness blog describes it as "high-fructose corn syrup's sneaky cousin." Experts say it's a lab-altered sweetener very similar to HFCS, and it appears to be the substitute many manufacturers are using for the controversial HFCS.
Unfortunately there is currently zero scientific research on high-maltose corn syrup, which means it hasn't been studied for any potential risks. While there are currently no studies, many experts believe it to have the same health risks as HFCS, according to Glamour. Now I’m sure plenty of you could argue all day about whether or not high-fructose corn syrup or high-maltose corn syrup is natural — it’s debatable because it requires a very specific definition of “natural” since both are molecularly altered in the lab — but the point is that I would bet most of you wouldn’t expect high-fructose corn syrup, or it's "sneaky cousin," to be second on an ingredient list for an “all-natural” product.
Once again, the re are absolutely no regulations concerning the marketing of a product as “lightly sweetened.” It obviously suggests less sugar, but this isn’t necessarily the case with each product. The Food and Drug Administration regulates the use of “sugar-free,” which means the food contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, and “no added sugars” or “Without Added Sugars,” which mean that no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient was added during processing. But there's nothing in the FDA or USDA's labeling guidelines about "lightly sweetened."
For example, on our shopping trip, we found Kellogg’s Smart Start Original Antioxidants cereal, which is described on the front of the box as “lightly sweetened, toasted multigrain flakes and crunchy oat clusters.” For you, “lightly sweetened” might be a sprinkle of sugar. For Kellogg’s, it’s 14 g of sugars. That’s a lot compared with, say, Cheerios’ 1 g per serving. Kellogg’s isn’t the only manufacturer that likes to “lightly sweeten” its packaging claims, so always check the label.
"Made with Whole Grains"
This label is often abused in the same way “Made with Real Fruit” is applied to Pop-Tarts that contain less than 2% of actual fruit. Sure, the manufacturer might have thrown some whole grains in there, but that doesn’t mean it was a significant amount. Take Cinnamon Toast Crunch for example. The box contains the words, “with Whole Grain Guaranteed,” printed in large text with a giant checkmark at the very top, and “whole grain wheat” does appear first in the list of ingredients. However, the reason whole grains are recommended by experts, explained Livestrong.com, is because they provide you with fiber and nutrients. Yet Cinnamon Toast Crunch only claims a measly 2 g of fiber, so it’s unclear how much whole grains the cereal actually contains. Livestrong.com quoted Dr. William Sears, of AskDrSears.com, as saying it’s best to find a cereal with 5 g of fiber or more per serving.
The second issue with this label surrounds the actual definition of whole grains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that half of our grains are whole, but what actually qualifies as “whole grains?” Many manufacturers assume you don’t know the answer to this and find a sneaky loophole by incorporating ordinary refined wheat flour or enriched flour as their main ingredient, since they’re not required to break down the total “whole grains” into whole grains and refined grains on the label.
Cooking Light supplied an excellent example with Nabisco’s Whole Wheat Ritz Crackers, which tout the claim “with 5 g whole grain” on the front of the box. The crackers are made from enriched flour, and whole-grain wheat flour doesn’t appear on the ingredient list until you’ve read halfway down. According to Cooking Light, you would need to eat more than 200 calories and 360 mg of sodium (and likely a few grams of trans fats) to reach a full serving of whole grains.
You could technically slap the “low-carb” label on anything — the FDA currently does not regulate such terms as “low-carb,” “reduced carb” or “carbohydrate-free.” There’s also not enough research to scientifically support the belief that low-carb diets are more effective long term than other, more balanced diets. Plus, as Real Simple pointed out, manufacturers often replace those carbohydrates with high-fat ingredients, like nuts, which raises the food's calorie count.
“0 grams of trans fat”
This one isn’t so much a lie as misleading simply because most of us don’t know what else to look for on the label. While plenty of foods boast “0 grams of trans fat” on the front of their packaging, they’re often high in saturated fat instead. (FYI: “High in saturated fat” is defined by the FDA as 4 g or more of saturated fat in a serving.)
For example, we came across this box of Hot Pockets Ham & Cheese sandwiches on our shopping excursion. Notice the nice box highlights that this product contains “0 g Trans Fat” on the front of the box. Oh goody! … But wait! We took a look at the nutrition label and found that the saturated fat content is 5 g, which means this product is regarded by the FDA as high in saturated fat — not so good for you after all.
Lesson of the day: Manufacturers think you’re stupid and won’t notice when they use marketing chicanery to trick you into eating less healthy, cheaper-to-produce ingredients. Don’t be stupid. Educate yourself and make wise shopping choices.