Do low-sugar, low-fat and reduced-salt claims mean anything?

What you eat will affect your health. You must have heard this first from your mother, who learned it from her ancestors; ancient physicians knew it (“let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”), and modern medicine continues to support this finding with scientific research.

What exactly makes for a healthy food is still something we debate, but we’ve targeted sugar, fat and salt as things our food clearly has too much of. Health conscious consumers seek foods that have less of these ingredients and fewer calories, and highly processed foods with a reduced-sodium, reduced-sugar and reduced-fat claim on their from label seem healthier, or at least less unhealthy.

But is that really so? Are these low-content claims on packages helping our food choices and waistlines, or are they just pushing our buttons, persuading us to buy products that are not really any healthier?

A new study from the University on North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, looks to see if these nutrition claims actually lead to healthier purchases.

What’s inside?

A staggering 35 percent of beverages and 13 percent of foods bought by 40,000 US households in this study had low-content claims.

In what seems like good news these products tended to have lower caloric density, less sugar, salt and fat compared to the full-calorie, full-sugar, full-salt and full-fat version.

So, a low-fat Oreo cookie has lower fat that a regular Oreo. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthier that another brand’s cookie – which might have less fat in its original, claim-less product to begin with. Nor does it mean that it’s healthy – it actually has just as much sugar. In other cases, such as low fat chocolate milks, the low-fat versions had higher sugar. Some of the ready-to-eat cereals claiming low-calorie were more calorically dense than other cereal brands with no such claim.

Unhealthy products can easily reframe themselves as better by comparing themselves to something even less healthy. If a potential basketball recruit is faster and taller, or a profile states would-be date is smarter and kinder it means nothing unless we know what the reference point is.

“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” the lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, said in a press release.

What the claim promises is that it’s less than something. Fewer, less of, and healthier don’t mean much when compared to a very low standard. If the label said “healthier than a donut”, would you consider it healthy?

Another worry is that when consumers see low-anything-bad it gives them conscious or subconscious permission to eat more of this product – and by increasing the serving size of this food they outdo any potential healthier-for-you benefit that food could offer.

The bottom line is, to know the nature of what’s in that package there’s no avoiding reading the nutrition label and going through the ingredient list. The claims on the front label are for marketing. It’s the back label that has the facts.

Dr. Ayala

FREE download: 12 tips for setting you free from the sugar, fat and salt trap 

To know the nature of what’s in a package there’s no avoiding reading the nutrition label and going through the ingredient list.