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Navigating common food label myths

Tuesday - 3/18/2014, 7:17am  ET

GlutenFree_AP.JPG
Just because something is labeled gluten-free does not mean it is healthy. Fitness and health expert Josef Brandenburg says real food doesn't need a label. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Josef Brandenburg
WTOP Fitness Contributor

WASHINGTON -- The intent of food labels is to inform consumers on the various ingredients in a food item.

Unfortunately, modern-day food labels are filled with misinformation, and often lead consumers astray from healthy intentions.

Many people go to the store in search of "good" foods, yet wind up bringing home foods that are anything but good for the body.

Don't be a victim to food labels. Here are some guidelines to prevent you from falling for common food-labeling myths.

Gluten-Free

Gluten-free is a hot buzz word in the food world right now. Those with gluten sensitivities and gluten intolerance keep their diets free of gluten, and others say they feel better keeping gluten to a minimum. I know my body feels best if I avoid gluten, but I do not buy gluten-free products.

Why?

Because slapping "gluten-free" on a box of cookies doesn't change the fact that the box contains cookies -- and refined carbohydrates. In fact, the gluten-free version might have even more refined carbohydrates than cookies containing gluten.

Chicken, eggs and broccoli are naturally gluten-free (as are most healthy foods). Don't be fooled: Junk food -- gluten-free or not -- is still junk food. It's just more expensive.

Trans Fat Free

Trans fats are probably the single worst thing in our food. People are becoming increasingly aware of trans fats, and food marketers are taking advantage of this.

In fact, the Food and Drug Administration recently announced it will require the food industry to phase trans fat out of all foods, including some of the most common products: pie crusts, biscuits and ready-to-eat frostings.

If you see "0 grams of trans fat" on a package, you should be suspicious and should definitely read the label. The legal definition of "0 grams of trans fat" means the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

One trick food manufacturers use to skirt around the trans fats labeling rule is to shrink the serving size way down. Even if the product is mostly trans fat, such as margarine, companies can label it as having 0 grams if the serving size contains less than 0.5 grams.

Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid. So when studying a food product, read the label and look for "hydrogenated vegetable oil." Avoid that as an ingredient in the food you eat, since this is how trans fats are listed on the ingredient list, and this is where you'll find the truth.

Sugar-Free

When it comes to your metabolism, sugar is sugar. Sweet and refined carbohydrates -- molasses, agave nectar, high-fructose corn syrup, etc. -- are sugar by a different name.

Sweet and refined carbohydrates are terrible for your health and your waistline. Plus, they are literally addictive. Legally, however, sugar is not sugar. If a product has less than 0.5 grams of sucrose (table sugar), then it, too, can be labeled as "sugar-free."

To keep your body safe, read the label and look for sugar by any of its various names -- sugar alcohol, honey, fruit juice concentrate, etc. If a kind of sugar is in the ingredients, then the product is not sugar-free.

All natural and No Artificial

Legally, these claims mean nothing. The FDA has no definition of natural, The Wall Street Journal reports. Companies can put "all natural" on the most refined "food" out there and it doesn't violate any laws.

If you read closely, you'll notice the ® -- registered trademark -- next to "no artificial anything®."

Trademarks are intellectual property that people own for branding, but this is not a nutrition claim.

As I mentioned in my previous article on food labels, real food doesn't need a label.

Food marketing is a big business, and companies have powerful lobbyists in Washington to influence food labeling standards.

The best advice? Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store.

Editor's Note: Josef Brandenburg is a D.C.-area fitness expert with 14 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book "Results Fitness." In 2004, he started The Body You Want personal training program, which specializes in helping you get the body you want in the available time you have. You can also check out his blog, follow him on Twitter, or check out his fitness videos on YouTube.

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