choosing food as choosing a new car. At one time, simplicity
ruled. Most people would just find something familiar,
salivate at the color, and buy.
terms like "hybrid" and "flex-fuel" and
"continuously variable transmission" started buzzing
no clue what they meant, but they sounded important so you
bought the car anyway.
at one time a box of cereal was just cereal. It wasn’t
gluten-free, fat-free or cholesterol-free.
instance, Post Shredded Wheat boasts that it’s "100
percent natural whole-grain wheat" and "helps reduce
the risk of heart disease" and that "nine out of 10
doctors" recommend it. (The 10th perhaps is
does this mean, and how much does it matter? Experts in the
field of food say that varies.
think these things come in trends," says Abby Wood, a
registered dietitian with Baylor Health Care System. "Dr.
Oz puts out an article and — boom!"
underlying problem, says registered dietitian Eve Pearson of
Nutriworks, "is that people try to cut something out.
They look for the word ‘free.’ They look for something to
be sugar-free or soy-free or dairy-free or gluten-free. That
means a lot to people these days, and it makes me want to pull
my hair out."
for their help in sorting out which of the current buzzwords
might actually matter.
means: The Food and Drug Administration guidelines state that
a food must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten
in order to use "gluten-free" on its label.
matter? Depends. Says Pearson: "It’s just another thing
to keep out of the diet and to follow something."
trend, Wood says, "is huge."
that last year, sales of these products were expected to reach
$10.5 billion; by 2016, $15 billion. They target people who
have an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in grains, as
well as those suffering from celiac disease.
a very small segment of the population falls into this
category. Meanwhile, Wood says, "everyone is
self-diagnosing. It drives us dietitians crazy."
legitimate sufferers of disease eat gluten, they’ll damage
their intestines, she says. "But there’s absolutely no
benefit if you don’t have it to avoid products with
it can also come at a cost: missing out on important
carbohydrates and fiber.
isn’t surprised when clients tell her they feel better after
they’ve cleaned their diet," she says. "It’s
eliminated a whole lot of products like junk food and sweets
and treats and snack foods."
gluten itself has nothing to do with weight loss.
takeaway: If you think you might be gluten-intolerant or have
celiac disease, let your doctor make the diagnosis. If you’re
going to go gluten-free, Wood says, pick products that include
whole quinoa flour, whole amaranth flour and brown rice flour
— not potato starch or white-rice flour.
means: A product must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per
serving to bear this label, Wood says.
matter? As pure as it may sound, fat-free is not a health
lot of times, manufacturers add more carbohydrates, and the
fat-free products can be as caloric as regular" products,
says Maria Jilma Bonaudo, a registered dietitian at Parkland
Health & Hospital System.
Pearson: "People look for ‘free’ but forget to see
what’s added to it instead to increase shelf life or flavor
or a texture the consumer will keep buying. Fat-free salad
dressing will have either a whole lot more salt and
non-nutritive sweetener or a little more sugar. Low-fat peanut
butter will have more sugar."
takeaway: Opt for fat-free or low-fat in such products as
milk, cottage cheese, chips, pudding, ice cream and microwave
popcorn, Wood says.
means: This designation means the food contains the entire
grain seed and has not been refined.
matter? The FDA recommends eating at least three 1-ounce
equivalents of whole grain — oatmeal, brown rice and
whole-wheat products, for instance —a day.
notes that whole grains are important, but that the numbers
whole-grain serving is 16 grams," she says, "and a
day’s intake needs to be 48 grams."
suggests looking at products that have the Whole Grain Council
stamp. If it says "8g," that means the food contains
at least a half-serving of whole grains.
takeaway: Dietary guidelines say that half your grains should
be whole grains, Pearson says. Check the ingredients list: If
whole oat or whole wheat are one of the first listings, it’s
probably a good sign.
means: "This is a very unregulated term and can mean just
about anything," Wood says. "People think natural
peanut butter means it’s organic or healthier. But it can
contain as much sugar and fat."
Bonaudo: "‘Natural’ can be a little misleading. ‘One
hundred percent natural juice’ means it’s made from fruit.
But whenever things are processed, they may lose
takeaway: Read the label. "A company can use natural to
mean just about anything," Wood says. Some
"natural" peanut-butter brands, for instance, may
have added sugar and palm oil and pack more saturated fat then
the regular version. "Be a label-reader, or buyer
means: The FDA allows companies to use this designation for
foods with fewer than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving
and no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.
Saturated fats raise LDL (the so-called bad cholesterol) in
your blood, and thus contribute to heart disease.
matter? Manufacturers, Bonaudo says, "love putting ‘no
cholesterol’ on cereal. It’s a marketing staple to get you
to buy a product."
is naturally found in animal products like organ meats, dairy,
eggs and shellfish. Many products that say cholesterol-free
wouldn’t have had it anyway.
takeaway: Again, don’t let a product with the phrase
"-free" sucker you into buying it.
means: Protein is an essential nutritional element. And
Americans have decided they need more. So manufacturers are
happy to add protein to products that used to be just as
edible without it.
matter: Lack of protein, Pearson says, "is definitely not
an ongoing problem for Americans." But just because a
processed food has protein does not mean it is nutritious.
takeaway. Eat foods that naturally have protein, Pearson says.
"There’s no need to be buying foods that have added
protein." Additionally, she says, spread intake
throughout the day; don’t wait till dinner to load up,
because the body can only absorb and assimilate 30 grams of
protein at a time.