From “uncured” meat to “lightly sweetened” cereals, food companies use all kinds of fancy-sounding words to trick us into eating junk, says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of food studies at NYU and author of “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat” (Basic Books).
“Food manufacturers have one primary goal: to sell products,” Nestle tells The Post. “They are not social service or public health agencies.”
Here, she and other experts call out the sneaky packaging lingo to watch out for.
“Light” is not an industry-regulated term, so any amount of sugar can be deemed “light,” says Nestle. One place you can spot this term is on cereal boxes, which makes sense, she says, as cereal’s one of the most egregiously sugar-packed foods on grocery store shelves.
Take one major brand’s “lightly sweetened” wheat cereal with blueberries: It’s got 13 grams of added sugar per serving. That may be “light by comparison” to some other cereal offenders, says Nestle, but it’s still half the daily amount of added sugar any adolescent should have in a full day.
Cured meats, like bacon and sausage, have long had a bad rep for containing nitrates, a food preservative that’s been linked to cancer. So logic follows that meats labeled “uncured” wouldn’t carry that risk, but that’s wrong, according to a 2015 Iowa State University study. Such labeling, the study concluded, is “unusual, confusing and technically incorrect.”
“Uncured” meats are actually cured (i.e., preserved) and still usually contain nitrates — just a different kind. Instead of the preservatives being made in a lab, they’re derived naturally from vegetables, such as celery powder. So even though uncured meats have a healthier-sounding origin, they can still include dangerous carcinogenic compounds.
Made with real fruit
This label “makes me laugh,” says Nestle. “It’s a sure sign that there is little or no fruit in it, or that whatever fruit there was is processed beyond recognition.” To avoid being duped, look at the food’s ingredients, says Nestle: They’re listed in order by greatest amount to least. “Where does real fruit appear in the list? If it isn’t near the top of the list, there isn’t enough there.”
For example, a box of popular strawberry-flavored breakfast bars claims it’s “made with real fruit” on the box, but the only ingredient resembling fruit — “strawberry puree concentrate” — appears at the bottom of a list of more than 40 ingredients.
Just like “lightly sweetened,” the word “natural” is an unregulated term, which is why so many companies have “overused” it, says Toronto-based dietitian Abby Langer. By one company’s definition, chocolate-hazelnut spread earned the “natural” label because it was made with real nuts and chocolate — even though it’s essentially a jarful of sugar. Consumers, at least, have started to pay attention to this one: Many have tried suing companies over misleading labels, which is why Langer hopes the term will die soon.
“I’m amused by ‘gluten-free’ on products that never had any wheat in them to begin with,” such as hummus or butter, says Nestle. In this instance, she says, food producers are using the “free” label to confer a sense of healthiness on a product, which, sure, may be gluten-free, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
She says that some buyers also may not realize that “gluten-free” is not synonymous with “low carb.” Wheat-based flour is frequently replaced with another grain, such as refined white rice flour — and that can spike your blood sugar, the same as any other carb.