It’s a minefield, the grocery store. Each aisle is jammed with health claims, nutrition info and out-and-out sales pitches. And all of it is geared toward getting you to buy.
And although your supermarket is generally not lying to you — there are laws about what you can and can’t put on a food package — it’s definitely not always on the up-and-up. To help you make sense of packaging claims, I bring you the Label Translator, here to tell you what those confusing labels really mean.
Label: “Multigrain” (Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse multigrain bread)
Translation: “More than one grain that might or might not be a whole grain.”
The “multigrain” is in big letters on the front, but in little letters on the back, we have the first ingredient: enriched wheat flour. That’s garden-variety refined white flour, emphatically not whole grain. Next there’s water, sugar, yeast, sunflower seeds and wheat berries. When we get to the “2% or less” portion of the label, we find wheat gluten, corn meal, pearled barley, rye, triticale and malted barley flour. This is white bread with whole-grain window dressing.
Bottom line, there’s no way to tell what percent of the grains are whole unless you go all-in and get the “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain” bread.
Label: “Less Processed” (Domino Golden Sugar)
Translation: “We think you’re not very smart.”
To make sugar white, processors have to remove plant fibers and molasses, which give the sugar a brown color. Take out less of those, and you have “golden sugar.” It is indeed less processed, as it doesn’t undergo the final refining step that makes sugar pure white. No shade of sugar is any better or worse for you than any other, but Domino figures if you know it’s “less processed,” you’ll think it’s better.
Label: “Packed in France” (The Wild Mushroom Co. Dried Gourmet Mix Mushrooms)
Translation: These could be from absolutely anywhere except France.
The dried mushrooms in the bag are from Poland, Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Chile, Peru, Bosnia and/or Hungary. But once you ship them to France, they’re French, right?
Label: Bright colors and cartoon characters (Danimals smoothies for kids)
Translation: Regular smoothies, but with more sugar.
A Danimals “strawberry flavor” yogurt smoothie (there are no strawberries in it), has 7 grams of added sugar in a 50-calorie serving. That means more than half its calories come from added sugar — if you add in the 2 grams of naturally occurring sugar, 72 percent of the calories come from sugar. Seventy-two percent.
Right next door was a Siggi’s adult-style “drinkable yogurt” with actual strawberries. In its 190 calories, it has 9 grams of added sugar, 18 grams total. That’s still high, but 38 percent of calories from total sugar is about half what the kids’ version has.
Label: Garden Veggie Chips (Sensible Portions brand)
Translation: Greenish potato chips.
When I was a kid, my mother had a blind friend, Mrs. Fiorino, who laughed at people who got chocolate shakes at McDonald’s. “Stupid sighted people,” she used to say. “They think if it’s brown, it’s chocolate.”
Mrs. Fiorino would have had a field day with vegetable chips. If it’s green, it’s a vegetable! But compare the nutrition facts to the plain-old Pringles, and they’re virtually identical.
Label: “Crafted with only clean ingredients” [emphasis theirs] (on Sweet Loren’s Chocolate Chunk cookie dough)
Translation: We would like you to forget that this is cookie dough. [emphasis mine]
Sweet Loren’s really piles it on with “gluten free,” “dairy free,” “plant based” and “non-GMO.” It’s so easy to focus on what it’s not! But it is sugar, fat and gluten-free flour; it’s cookie dough.
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Label: “Uncured” (Applegate beef hot dogs)
If you come here often, you already know that “uncured” bacon and hot dogs are absolutely, positively cured. Look at the fine print (that’s the running theme here), and you’ll see that the last ingredient is “celery powder.” The reason it’s in your hot dogs is that celery is naturally high in nitrate. That nitrate gets converted to nitrite and — voila! — you get the same effect that regular, cured bacon and hot dogs get from regular old sodium nitrite.
But before you get really mad, you should know that, if you cure your hot dogs with celery powder, you are required by law to label it “uncured.” On second thought — go ahead, get mad! Just make sure to direct your anger at the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Label: “Fruit Snacks, made with Real Fruit!” (Welch’s brand)
Of the 90 calories in a serving, 52 of them come from sugar — almost all added sugar. Sure, you get 25 percent of your daily Vitamins A, C and E, too, but that comes from fortification, not from anything resembling fruit. Oh, and right there above the nutrition facts panel, in small letters, you find “Not intended to replace fresh fruit in the diet.”
Label: “Cheerios [fill in the blank — Oat Crunch, Apple Cinnamon, Pumpkin Spice, Honey Nut, Frosted, Very Berry . . . ]”
Translation: Cheerios, but sweeter.
Original Cheerios is a fine cereal option. It’s made with actual, genuine whole oats, and there are only 2 grams of sugar per serving. But every single brand extension is just an excuse to add sugar. Chocolate Cheerios has 11 grams, Honey Nut has 12, Oat Crunch has 15, and so on. Don’t let the health halo of the real thing rub off.
Label: Three ingredients: wheat flour, safflower oil and sea salt (Back to Nature crackers)
Translation: Turn the box over!
The third ingredient (after flour and oil) is sugar. As is the fourth (in the form of brown rice syrup). This isn’t a high-sugar food; it’s only 1 gram per serving, just like the Ritz crackers it competes with. But ingredient lists on the front of the box seldom match the ones on the back.
Label: “Filling made with REAL CHOCOLATE!” [emphasis theirs] (Krave cereal)
Translation: Take a deep breath. This is a BREAKFAST CEREAL! [emphasis mine]
Really, is REAL CHOCOLATE the thing you want for breakfast? If you’re a kid, the answer is: absolutely! Which is why there’s such a thing as chocolate breakfast cereal, and why it’s at your kids’ eye level.
Label: “Made in batches from scratch” (Sara Lee cheesecake)
Translation: Nothing. This means nothing.
But look at how Sara Lee is trying to play you with “batches” and “from scratch,” words we associate with homemade and wholesome.
If you want to make sense of labels without a handy-dandy translation tool, I’ve got one basic rule: Ignore everything on the front of the package, especially adjectives. If you find that hard to do, just think about a bunch of corporate types sitting in a conference room, deciding that “Made in batches from scratch” should be printed on the cheesecake box, and ask yourself whether you should be listening to those people.
Remember that the primary purpose of labels is to get you to buy the food. Manufacturers have a bazillion ways to make you feel good about the food you want to eat anyway. For the most part, the harder they’re selling it — whole grain! good source of vitamin C! probiotic! — the more skeptical you should be.
All the important stuff, the stuff that has to be there, the stuff where manufacturers have very little wiggle room, is on the back, in small print: the nutrition facts panel and the ingredients list.
My husband, Kevin, who has gone on all my label-hunting expeditions with me, sums it up this way: Don’t be a sucker.
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