Why 'sugar free' and 'low calorie' labels are misleading

Don't believe everything you read on a food label. Photo / Getty
Don't believe everything you read on a food label. Photo / Getty

We are constantly being inundated with products claiming health benefits.

Supermarket shelves are lined with foods and beverages labelled "low calorie", "low sugar", "low fat" and "low sodium".

A new study has revealed that not only are such claims not indicative of a product's actual nutritional quality, but they may even give consumers a false sense of confidence about the healthfulness of their food.

The researchers found that there is no uniformity to these low-nutrient statements, leaving consumers confused and ill-informed, reported The Daily Mail.

Here, we take you through what it actually means when a product claims to have a health benefit and what it means for your body.

The study, conducted between the University of North Carolina and Duke University, examined 80 million grocery store purchases in 40,000 US households between 2008 and 2012.

Participants were approached through the Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research (BECR) Center - which is funded by the US Department of Agriculture.

The researchers found that 13 per cent of food and 35 per cent of beverage purchases had a low-content claim, and that "low fat" was the most common claim, followed by "low calorie", "low sugar", and "low sodium".

While these products often had lower mean energy, total sugar, total fat, and sodium densities, they did not always have the best nutritional value.

Customers were left confused because the health claims were only being made to similar foods and they didn't understand the definition of "low".

Don't believe everything you read on a food label. Photo / Getty
Don't believe everything you read on a food label. Photo / Getty

The researchers used the example of a cookie marketed as "low-sugar". While that cookie might contain less sugar than the regular version, it doesn't mean it contains less sugar than other cookies.

"For overall packaged foods and beverages, purchases featuring a low- or no-nutrients claim do not necessarily offer better overall nutritional profiles," said lead author Dr Lindsey Smith Taillie from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"This is likely due in part to 'low' or 'reduced' claims being relative within brands or specific food categories."

Dr Taillie added that low- or no-nutrients claims mean different things for different foods.

"This could potentially lead to confusion if consumers focus on seeking out products with specific nutrient claims or use a claim to justify the purchase of less-healthy foods," she said.

For future research, Dr Taillie said she would like to see how these claims affect consumer choice.

Foods touted as being low in a specific nutrient are often not as healthy as they claim to be. We break down some of them for you and tell you what's hidden in these products.

Low sugar

Do you believe that "no sugar added" and "sugar free" mean the same thing? The former indicates the manufacturer has not added any sugar to the product.

Fruit juices, for example, might boast "no sugar added" - but if you look at the nutrition label, you'll see that it's pure sugar.

Many products labeled "no added sugar" contain artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols.

Coke Life claims to be all natural yet it still contains a lot of sugar. Photo / Getty
Coke Life claims to be all natural yet it still contains a lot of sugar. Photo / Getty

A 2004 study found that when we offer our bodies sweet diet drinks but give them no calories, they crave real sugar even more.

This is because substitutes don't always signal the same satiety hormones as sugar, making it easier to overeat.

In one case, Coca-Cola introduced Coke Life, the low-calorie, low-sugar option to the regular brand.

Stevia, the sugar substitute used to make Coke Life, was pushed as the "natural" ingredient, but the drink still contained four teaspoons of sugar per can.

Although this is half the number of teaspoons in a can of regular Coke, that's still 25 percent of the daily recommended sugar intake for children.

Additionally, foods that are low in sugar often have salt added to enhance flavor.

Low sodium

The majority of your salt intake probably doesn't come from a salt shaker. In fact, about 75 per cent of dietary sodium actually comes from eating packaged and restaurant food.

Food labels that advertise lower sodium are a good way to help people make more healthful choices. But after that, what we think those labels mean gets a bit fuzzy, according to a 2013 study.

Researchers at the University of Toronto asked 506 Canadians about a fake tomato soup can with various label claims. They found that any claim made about sodium, preventing disease or lowering blood pressure made the product more appealing.

Look out for low sodium labels yet make sure not to skimp on the salt because our body need its to function optimally. Photo / Getty
Look out for low sodium labels yet make sure not to skimp on the salt because our body need its to function optimally. Photo / Getty

When asked about a variety of health issues, including losing weight, constipation, and diabetes, participants in the survey said that lower-sodium products would prevent all of them. But reducing sodium only helps to reduce blood pressure.

Additionally, foods that are completely or mostly rid of salt often have sugar added to make the food taste better.

It's also important to be careful of not completely eliminating salt from your diet. Low blood sodium occurs when water and sodium are out of balance. In other words, there's either too much water or not enough sodium.

Sodium is an essential electrolyte that helps maintain the balance of water in and around your cells. It's also important for proper muscle and nerve function.

Low fat

Reports came out in the late 1980s identifying dietary fat as the single most important change that needed to be made in order to improve diet and health.

And so, in the late 1990s, low-fat diets became popular. What was left unrealised was that many of these foods contained the same amount of calories and other additives.
Low-fat foods are often full of sugars and preservatives, and sometimes contain even more sugar than a full-fat version.

Nutrition experts believe high levels of sugar contribute not just to rising levels of obesity, but also other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, dental cavities and cancer.

Don't avoid healthy fats such as these. Photo / Getty
Don't avoid healthy fats such as these. Photo / Getty

In recent years, more and more research has found that we actually need fat in our diets. Not only does it make our food more palatable and tasty, it has nutritional benefits.

Certain fats, like those in nuts, seeds and fish with omega-3 fatty acids, are essential in maintaining healthy blood vessels, making hormones and for the correct functioning of our nervous system.

Additionally, fat also helps absorb certain vitamins, particualy the fat-soluble ones, including vitamins A, D, E and K.

Following a very low-fat diet makes you more likely to be low in these vitamins and that can impact your immunity, limit the body's ability to heal itself and has an influence on bone health.

- Daily Mail

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