Why sugar-free and low-fat don't always mean healthy

Food labels catch our health-conscious attention with claims of being low-fat and sugar-free, but is it too good to be true?

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  • In an effort to provide healthy foods for our families, food labels can be a helpful resource. It is important to keep in mind however, that food manufacturers often work around the legal precedence set by the Food and Drug Administration to use food labels as a form of advertising rather than education. With concerns rising about the effects of fat and sugar in our diets, consumers will find products galore touting the words sugar-free and low-fat. These promises are exciting when we find them on guilty-pleasure foods, but think twice. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

  • Packaging and Labeling

  • Many popular food brands found lining the shelves at your grocery stores spend millions each year to create the perfect package for you, their consumer. To meet their industry requirements, products should look attractive, meet mainstream health fad criteria, taste delicious and have good mouth feel. Manufacturers sometimes employ less than forthcoming methods to attract buyers, including using misleading food labels and potentially hazardous food additives. Taking labels at face value can lead the average consumer to the conclusion that the product they are buying is good for them, when in fact, it is anything but.

  • Nutrition experts who are unaffiliated with major marketing firms agree that the best way to eat healthy is to eat natural foods. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” is the simple nutrition advice by renowned author Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food. By food, he means unprocessed food. When food is processed for convenience or shelf-life, it loses its inherent nutrition. If the food has a label, and is packaged, we can already assume a certain level of processing. It is important to read between the lines of the labels, and know exactly what these claims mean.

  • Let me give you an example. Food labels, by US FDA standards, are legally allowed to tout low-fat if each serving has less than three grams of fat. But the label may be found on a box of cookies where one or two cookies counts as a serving. At the checkout counter, we pat ourselves on the back for our low-fat choice, but when our kids sit on the sofa and eat 12 cookies out of the box, our manufacturer’s promise goes out the window. Beware of these little tricks, they are easy to catch if you take the time to understand the label. Unfortunately, the smoke and mirrors get more complex.

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  • What low-fat means

  • If you see a low-fat sticker on a pear, that’s goodness. Or naturally low in fat is good too. But when you see a low-fat or fat-free label on a processed food, it likely has a trade-off that you may not want to add to your diet.

  • When fat content decreases, something has to be added to preserve the taste quality of the food, usually sugar, salt, high fructose corn syrup or other food additives. Some potato chips use an additive that gained popularity in the 1990s called Olestra, a chemical compound that imitates the mouth feel and composition of regular fats.

  • Also, low-fat does not mean low calorie. Sugars and other additives add calories to low-fat foods, which can quickly increase your processed sugar intake to unhealthy levels. Check your food’s nutrition information to be sure of what the trade-off is.

  • Dangers of low-fat

  • Foods that replace healthy fats with sugars don’t have as much staying power. Sugars burn much faster than fats, so we find our appetite is not satiated, and we eat more. If we are replacing fat with sugar, and eating more because the calories are empty, then we’re working against our own efforts at weight control by minimizing our fat intake.

  • Being overzealous about fat intake can be dangerous. Not getting enough healthy fats will prevent your body from properly absorbing necessary vitamins from your diet. Getting a balance of the right types of fat in your diet is crucial to proper nutrition.

  • Alternatives

  • Satisfy your body’s cravings for fatty foods with natural, healthy fats. Avocados, canola and olive oil, almonds, tuna, salmon and flax seed are all excellent sources of healthy fats. Buy regular milk, peanut butter and yogurt, all commonly sold as a low-fat option, but are loaded with healthy fats and vitamins that chemical alterations completely ruin. Eliminating fat is a problem, but eating the right amount of the right kinds of fat can revolutionize your diet.

  • What sugar-free means

  • Think it’s too good to be true to find your favorite chocolate sandwich cookies in a sugar-free option? It is. While those of us who have to avoid sugar altogether for health purposes may be tempted by a sugar substitute, know that to keep that same sweet taste, chemists have been swapping test tubes of paint thinner and other chemicals to happen upon accidental sweetness. While there are accusations of misinformation about the safety of these products, the bottom line is that any chemical replacement for natural food is a less healthy option.

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  • Dangers of sugar-free

  • Sugar substitutes, although the five most common have been approved for use by the FDA, have proven health risks as well. Some cancers, high blood pressure, and digestive problems have been linked to artificial sweeteners in both animal and human testing. In terms of weight concerns, weight gain has actually been noted as more common with sweeteners than with processed sugar. Some are poorly absorbed by the body and thus create digestive issues. Many countries ban artificial sweeteners altogether to protect their citizens from the many health risks.

  • Alternatives

  • Science shows that unprocessed, natural sugar, in moderation, is far better than the chemical alternatives. Overall, if you’re craving a sweet treat, fruits are by far your best option. Honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar are also widely used as a healthy, natural way to sweeten foods. Your body will thank you for breaking free from a processed sugar habit with natural, balanced alternatives.

  • Nutritionists, like Michael Pollan, affirm that good nutrition is more about the good foods we aren’t eating than it is about the bad foods we are eating. In other words, making sure our bodies get a balance of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and proteins forgives the occasional splurge on something extra-fatty or extra-sweet.

  • The biggest danger low-fat and sugar-free foods give the illusion that they count toward a healthy diet. Be aware of what the trade-offs are for your personal diet in your favorite processed foods, and make an educated decision about what is best for you and your family.

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Margaret Crowe is a poet and mother of two from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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