Sketchy Labels – How to Fact-Check the Claims of a Food-Based Product

Sketchy Labels – How to Fact-Check the Claims of a Food-Based Product

We’re continuing our journey to help you understand how to read and select a nutrition or food product, based on its label!

In the previous part of this article, we covered the components and format of a consumable product’s label (if you haven’t read it yet, here’s the link to our blog on How to Read a Nutrition/Food Product’s Label).

After getting familiar with the structure of a label and its components, it’s a good idea to then use the label to fact-check any health claims.

Labels, as you know, can be misleading if a producer so chooses - but there still are fool-proof ways to identify the products that are truly healthy for us.

Here are a few steps to get you well-equipped to picking the best health product for yourself!

Fact-checking a Label’s Claims

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to double-check any claims (like “no added sugar”) by looking at the product’s ingredients list and nutrition table, in case the manufacturer has used this claim by disregarding regulatory guidelines.

In some cases, though, manufacturers can even use the regulatory guidelines themselves to make claims that may be misleading. Here are a few examples:

Claim #1: “Whole grain”

How to Fact-Check Claims of a Food-Based Product - Nutrova

 

What to look out for:

It’s not uncommon to find products that do contain whole grain, as the label says, but only in small amounts. In these cases, the bulk of the product can even be made up of refined grains (written as ‘refined flour’, ‘all-purpose flour’, or even ‘wheat flour’, as examples).

How to fact-check:

Look at the ingredients section - if it’s actually whole grain, that will generally be the first ingredient or form of grain mentioned (as ‘whole wheat’, or ‘100% whole grain’, as examples) [1].

Claim #2: “0 trans fats” or “0 sugar” or “0 sodium”

No added sugar example - Nutrova

 

What to look out for:

These claims can technically be used on a label even if the product does contain them within the amounts approved as per the regulatory guidelines [2]. While this is fine in small quantities, consuming more of the product would simultaneously increase one’s consumption of these ingredients as well - which is just something to be aware of, and kept in mind.

The ingredient

Its amount permitted for a “Free” claim (in a 100 gram-serving)

Its amount permitted for a “Low” claim (in every 100 grams)

Trans Fat Up to 0.2 grams NA
Sugar 0.5 grams 5 grams for solids
2.5 grams for liquids
Sodium 0.005 grams 0.12 g

How to fact-check:

Read the list of ingredients to see whether a product has any of these ingredients, even if the label says it’s free of them. Here are some common words to indicate their presence:

Trans fat: ‘hydrogenated oil’, ‘partially hydrogenated oil’, ‘shortening’.

Speaking of trans fats, here’s a small note on “low-fat” products: a study had found that the amount of sugar is higher in “low-fat” (also found as “reduced calorie” and “light”) and “non-fat” products than in regular versions of the items it tested. This shows that food items that are lower in fat may contain more sugar, to make them taste better. This could also translate to the product’s overall calorie count being the same as the regular versions, if not more [3].

When it comes to fats, it’s generally ‘trans fat’ that needs to be avoided. When consumed in moderation, regular kinds of fats are completely fine and even encouraged!

Sugar: any type of sugar, like ‘sucrose’, ‘glucose’, ‘honey’, ‘molasses’, ‘corn syrup’, ‘dextrose’, ‘high-fructose corn syrup’, ‘cane syrup’, ‘fruit juice concentrate’, etc. [4].

Sodium: apart from salt (and its various forms), sodium can be present in other ingredients like ‘baking powder’, ‘baking soda’, ‘monosodium glutamate’, ‘glutamate’, preservatives and flavor enhancers. It’s even found in ingredients like stock, sauces, pickles, pepperoni, soya sauce, salted fish, fish sauce, etc [5, 6].

Claim #3: “Multigrain”

What to look out for:

This refers to a product containing multiple grains or seeds - and could even include refined varieties of grains/flour, which aren’t necessarily high in dietary fibre [7].

How to fact-check:

If you’re looking for a wide variety of fibre in a product, it’s equally important for all of them to be healthy, whole-grain sources. This will reflect in its ingredients section as well.

Claim #4: “Made with real fruit/ingredients”

How to Fact-Check Claims of a Food-Based Product - Nutrova

 

What to look out for:

This claim has immense potential to be misleading, since regulations don’t require it to meet any predefined standards [2]. For example, even a completely synthetic product that has, say, one piece of fruit in it (or a small amount of its puree/concentrate) can say that it’s ‘made with real fruit' on the label [8].

How to fact-check:

Double-check this through the ingredients list to see the actual form it’s present in.

It’s also to see how far down the ingredients section it’s written in, to make sure that the ingredient you’re looking for hasn’t been “fairy dusted” into the product.

What you should know about “fairy dusting”

How to Fact-Check Claims of a Food-Based Product - Nutrova

 

Adding only a minuscule, practically insignificant amount of an ingredient, and then advertising its presence as an important part of the product, is what’s generally referred to as “fairy dusting”. This is especially misleading when a manufacturer claims that the product delivers the health benefit of that ingredient [9].

For instance, a loaf of bread that has only a tiny addition of turmeric and claims to “boost immunity” is a great example of fairy dusting. Even a supplement that contains very small traces of lycopene and claims to have heart-protective effects is a prime example. In both these cases, the quantity of the nutrient is simply not enough to provide any measurable benefit/effects.

This makes it especially helpful to double-check the ingredients section and see where this nutrient features. If it’s towards the end of a long list, it’s most probably not in the amount that’s required.

Verifying a product’s health claims

It takes a bit of scrutiny and, sometimes, research, to understand whether a product will actually deliver the benefits that it claims.

How to Fact-Check Claims of a Food-Based Product - Nutrova

 

Here are some ways to verify its effectiveness [10, 11, 12].

  1. Are the effects “clinically proven” or “clinically shown”?

A product that has these terms or refers to a clinical study is more reliable, since it needs to provide proof of these to regulatory authorities in order to be able to use these terms.

  1. Have the ingredients been clinically studied?

Check if there are at least 2 clinical studies (on human subjects) that demonstrate the ingredient’s benefits and if these studies have been published in a scientific journal.

  1. Are the nutrients from the same source and in the same dose that delivered the clinically-proven results?

If the ingredients have been clinically found to deliver certain benefits, the next best step is to compare the source and dose of what’s in the product against what was used in the study.

For example, if a product claims to improve your skin’s health because of the collagen peptides it contains, check if it actually has collagen peptides (from an animal source that’s marine, bovine or poultry, since there are no plant-based sources of collagen) and if it is in the same dose that’s been proven to deliver its skin-improving effects.

We hope this article helped demystify what the label of a food-based product means, and will make it easier for you to stay away from misleading claims!

If you have any queries or come across a label that looks dubious, feel free to drop a comment - we’d love to help you decode them :)


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