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How To Know If You're Being Gaslighted By Food Labels

Written by

Peta Shulman

Posted on

7.10.22

If you feel like you need a science degree to decipher the ingredients in your favourite “healthy” snack, you’re not alone. Thanks to buzzwords and marketing jargon, it’s harder than ever to know if a food product is actually good for you – or just healthy-sounding junk.

In response to the rising consumer interest for natural ingredients and minimal processing, many companies have begun “health-washing” their products in order to cash in on growing demands for healthy food products.

Emphasising the health attributes of a product, highlighting the addition of trending functional ingredients, and using “free-from” claims are some examples of how companies use sneaky marketing tactics to gaslight us into believing a food is healthier than it really is.

After sifting through thousands of products over almost a decade of running an online health-food store, I’ve learnt what to look out for when it comes to dubious product claims. Here’s what to keep your eye on.

1. Hidden sugars

Companies try to camouflage added sugar in products by using alternative forms such as glucose syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate and molasses.

Consumption of too much added sugar causes your blood sugar to spike and drop rapidly, leading you to become cranky, tired and in need of another sugar hit.

Healthier alternatives include products that contain small amounts of natural sugars, such as maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey or foods with no added sugar.

2. Functional ingredients

Some manufacturers will enrich their products with trending functional ingredients to garner our attention, which may look like vitamin B in a spread, fibre in cereal and even vitamin C in lollies.

These fortified products are often highly processed and contain other synthetic ingredients, such as added sugar, sodium and unnecessary additives.

With more health cons than pros, it’s important to always read the ingredients list to make sure that these functional ingredients sit alongside ingredients from wholefood sources.

3. Vegetable oils

Vegetable oils are a common ingredient added to food products such as salad dressings, nut milk and chips. Although the name “vegetable oils” sounds healthy, these oils undergo so much processing that they lose their nutrients and are vulnerable to oxidation.

Some healthier oil alternatives, which retain their natural nutrients and quality, include unrefined and cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil and hemp seed oil.

4. Low calorie claims

Food products marketed as “low calorie” or “less than 100 calories per serve” appeal to an audience who want to indulge their cravings without the risk of weight gain. But under closer inspection, you’ll notice on the food label that these products come in deceptively small serving sizes. In fact, the serving sizes are often so minuscule that you’d need to consume three to four servings to feel satisfied.

That’s not all – to make it more palatable, many food companies will also include additives such as sugar alcohols, which are difficult to digest, and may contribute to gut dysbiosis (bacteria imbalance).

5. Healthy buzzwords

Products labelled with terms such as “organic”, “natural” and “vegan” are often perceived as healthy, but these buzzword labels don’t necessarily make them nutritionally better for you.

For example, organic cookies may have certified organic ingredients yet still contain questionable additives; natural fruit snacks marketed to children may have no artificial flavours, preservatives or colours but have 65 per cent sugar; and vegan energy bars free from all animal products may have eight different types of sugars in their ingredients list.

Bonus Tip: The truth about that protein bar in your bag

Quality protein

To avoid a protein bar that has gone through large amounts of processing, try to look for one that contains a wholefood natural protein powder made from real food.

Natural sweeteners

Choose protein bars that have a low-sugar content. It’s even better when the sweetness is coming from a wholefood source like dates, as opposed to added sugars, as they are bound to add fibre and other beneficial nutrients or compounds.

Nuts and seeds

Look for real foods in your protein bar like nuts and/or seeds, which are good sources of protein and contain healthy fats and fibre. You also want a bar that does not contain artificial flavours– look for cacao powder rather than “chocolate flavour”.

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