Just because a food is better than an alternative doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you.
PepsiCo’s green and white “Smart Spot” logo appears on more than 100 “healthy” products, including Tropicana orange juice, which actually does contain juice from oranges. But the symbol, which means the product is a “smart choice,” also can be found on the packaging of Diet Mountain Dew Code Red, Baked! Doritos Nacho Cheesier Flavored Tortilla Chips, Cap’n Crunch’s Swirled Berries and other foods of dubious nutritional value.
When it comes to providing helpful health information, food labeling can be misleading. Glancing at packaging isn’t enough; you still have to scrutinize ingredient lists.
Here are several food traps to avoid:
• Whole grains. Thanks to new federal rules, schools are required to serve healthier food and drinks in vending machines starting this month, and many are switching to whole-grain products. This, theoretically, is good because whole grains are processed less and retain more nutrients and vitamins.
But when it comes to products such as whole-grain Double Chocolate Cookie Crisp cereal, don’t be fooled. The claim means 51 percent of the flour is made from a whole-grain source, but the rest of the flour can come from refined grains. And it often does.
All grains have three parts: bran (the outer shell), germ (the seed for a new plant) and endosperm. All three have important nutrients. Enriched, or “white,” flour contains only the endosperm.
To protect yourself, look for “100 percent whole grain.” Also seek out the black and gold “Whole Grains Stamp,” which is the seal of approval from the Whole Grains Council, an industry trade group.
• Zero grams trans fats. Wilmette, Ill.’s Cindy Fey, a nutrition-conscious mother of two toddlers, was stumped. How could foodlike substances such as Cheetos claim to have “zero grams of trans fats” when the ingredients included partially hydrogenated oils?
It’s a common trick. Products that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can round down to zero. When you eat several servings, the trans fats add up. Fey quickly learned that to avoid trans fats, she had to make sure there were no partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list.
Many food manufacturers have replaced partially hydrogenated oils with palm oil, but there is a cost. Palm oil is 50 percent saturated fat. (Olive oil, by comparison, is 17 percent saturated fat, according to Blatner.) Another problem: Environmental advocacy groups say palm oil production is killing endangered wildlife.
The best oils are non-hydrogenated soy, canola, corn and peanut oils as well as more stable oils such as high-oleic sunflower or canola oil or low-linolenic soybean oil, Blatner said.
• 100-calorie snack packs. Under the guise of portion-distortion control, manufacturers are pushing snack packs with 100-calorie servings. This is a great idea if you were going to eat 600 calories and are able to reduce it to 100. But nutrition and exercise professionals such as Michelle Bishop of Good Samaritan Health and Wellness Center in Downers Grove, Ill., say that adding just 100 calories a day can lead to an extra 10 to 12 pounds per year.
Moreover, eating 100 fewer calories per day can result in losing 10 to 12 pounds a year.