‘No Sugar’ Labels May Not Reflect Actual Nutritional Value: Study


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Are food labels deceiving? While some products may boast “no sugar” or “no fat,” on the label, they are still not likely to be nutritious. According to a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, label claims do not actually reflect the nutritional value of the food.

While walking through the supermarket aisles, it is apparent that certain keywords stand out as nutritional claims. There are bright, bold letters shouting claims of “low sodium,” “no added sugars” and “low fat.” However, when a product claims to be low in one thing, it may be high in another.

Although chocolate milk often has a lower fat content than regular milk, it has more sugar. Credit: Justin S. Campbell/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

The study cites the example of chocolate milk. The low-fat version of chocolate milk does have less fat, but it also has a higher number of sugars than its full-fat counterpart. When the fat is stripped away, there is less volume taken up by fat, which leads to higher amounts of sugar. When more sugars are added through flavoring of chocolate syrup, the carbohydrate count increases even more.

These label claims on food products are misleading to the public, because they simply do not tell the whole truth. When making the claim that a product is “low fat,” all that is required of that product is that its fat content is less than three grams per ‘reference amount customarily consumed’ or RACC.

Related: The Bittersweet Truth About Sugar Substitutes

However, this amount varies with each product. While one food may have an RACC of 30 grams, another may have an RACC of 150 grams. Both must have less than three grams of fat in each of these amounts. The result is a confusing and often deceiving label, which tricks the consumer into thinking that they are making a healthier choice.

Ironically, it is far more likely for a product to be less nutritious on the whole if it carries a “low” or “reduced” content claim.

Products boasting low-fat nutritional value may actually contain a high amount of sugar. Credit: Health Gauge/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” said Lindsey Smith Taillie, lead investigator of this study and research assistant professor in the department of Nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims.”

It is important to note that the items in question that sported a reduced or low content claim were packaged, processed foods. Fresh foods do not generally have these types of labels, because they usually don’t have any labels at all. For anyone who is looking to eat a healthy diet, it is often encouraged to steer clear of all packaged or processed foods in general to avoid any of these situations.

Related: The Deadly Foods We Enjoy vs. The Ones We Should Actually Be Eating

Marketing in the food industry has also come under fire as a result. The consumer is often misled by extravagant health claims, when the product does not really contain any nutritional value.

Taillie states that, “essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient.”

It is important for consumers to read the entire package and nutritional facts prior to purchasing an item.