These days, it seems like almost every packaged good you pick up has a label touting the food's body benefits: heart-healthy! cholesterol-free! But some health claims are more hype than anything else, resulting in labels that are confusing, redundant and just plain silly. To help you spend your grocery money wisely, we had experts puzzle out the promises.
The sell: “Gluten-free” seeds
All seeds are naturally gluten-free, say self contributing experts Stephanie Clarke, R.D., and Willow Jarosh, R.D. Gluten is a portion of a protein found in certain grains like wheat. Some marketers may be trying to capitalize on the popularity of no-gluten diets for weight loss (which don't necessarily work, BTW). Bottom line Don't mistake gluten-free for diet-friendly: The term doesn't mean seeds—or any food—are less fattening.
The sell: “Cholesterol-free” corn oil
Duh alert! Any plant-based food has zero cholesterol. The only place you'll find cholesterol is in animal products, because it comes from the membranes of animal cells. Unless a living creature was involved (as with cheese), the food is cholesterol-free. Bottom line Yes, corn oil is cholesterol-free, but so are olive and peanut oils. And walnut and grapeseed oils. Choose based on your intended use (corn oil for cooking, olive for salad dressing).
The sell: “Real cheese”
Um, as opposed to what? Sadly, there are dairy-free soy imitations that look like true cheese, including the shredded stuff on some pizzas. Foods with the REAL seal must be made with actual dairy, but they can also have unsavory ingredients such as added preservatives and colors (e.g., taxicab yellow). Bottom line You can't count on front-of-the-box labels to avoid processed junk. Look for red flag words like cheese product.
The sell: “Promotes respiratory health”
This tea heralds wellness perks in big type, but the fine print reveals that the FDA hasn't evaluated the claim and the product doesn't treat illness. Companies can legally get away with making health-related pledges by using weaker words (support, promote) versus authoritative ones (prevent, protect). Bottom line No single food is a cure-all for sickness. If you're under the weather, visit your doctor—you may need a real Rx.
The sell: “All-natural” carrots
Natural foods are flying off shelves; it's little wonder the label is everywhere, even on foods that clearly came from the ground. The term, however, is toothless, Clarke and Jarosh say. The FDA hasn't defined natural and doesn't regulate its use, so companies can—and do—use it willy-nilly to up sales. Bottom line Don't let an “I'm natural” pickup line charm you into opening your wallet. Check ingredients to decide on a buy.