Watching what you eat? You may want to take a closer look at some of the labels on the food on store shelves.

Healthy eating is a priority for many Canadians trying to lower their risk of many chronic diseases, and for those concerned about their weight.

But you can’t always trust what’s on the label of "healthy" foods.

"I think it's really unfortunate that we have this situation where every aisle of the supermarket is preying on us," Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a doctor who specializes in weight loss and nutrition, told CBC's Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.

"We shouldn't be forced as consumers to study nutrition labels to see if the claims on the front are accurate," he says.

Making even small health claims on food packaging can mean big business. According to Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, 58 per cent of Canadians prefer to buy a healthier version of a product. And many of us rely on labels to help us make decisions about what to buy.

Yoni Freedhoff

“We shouldn't be forced as consumers to study nutrition labels to see if the claims on the front are accurate,” Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a doctor who specializes in weight loss and nutrition, told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson. (CBC)

According to Euromonitor International, sales of so-called health-and-wellness food products are projected to exceed $200 billion this year in North America.

Marketplace investigated five foods that make health-related claims in their marketing, and found that many products on store shelves have misleading messages.

In one case, the "healthy" marketing of a soup on Canadian shelves appeared to violate Canadian Food Inspection rules. In other cases, claims on packaging or in advertising implied that the food is a healthful choice.

Here are five terms to examine with a healthy skepticism:

Natural

"Natural" products abound on store shelves, often accompanied by images of grains, produce or farms, all to imply that a food is less processed and better for you.

It’s often an illusion, says Freedhoff.

"Natural doesn’t actually mean anything," he says.

"It really has no bearing whatsoever, beyond trying to suggest to whoever’s buying it that something is healthy."

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, "Labels and advertisements should not convey the impression that ‘Nature’ has, by some miraculous process, made some foods nutritionally superior to others or has engineered some foods specially to take care of human needs. Some consumers may consider foods described as ‘natural’ of greater worth than foods not so described."

No sugar added

No sugar added does not mean that a product is low in sugar. In fact, Freedhoff says, it often means the opposite.

"For consumers seeing the words no sugar added, they should actually immediately turn the package over and look at how much sugar is in the product."

No matter what the front of box says, it’s better to rely on the nutrition facts panel on the back. And keep in mind that the suggested serving size might be a lot smaller than you think.

"Usually those words get put on products that have quite a lot of sugar coming from fruit sources and concentrates," says Freedhoff.

"And those are just sugar."

Low fat

Researchers are now questioning many commonly held beliefs about whether fat is bad for you.

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Before you buy any product that markets itself as a healthier choice, check the nutrition facts label on the back. But take note: A suggested serving size may be smaller than you think. (iStock)

"We’ve been demonizing fat far too vigorously for too many years," says Freedhoff.

But the lure of low-fat is a hard one for many shoppers to shake. And there’s another problem with the low-fat label: It often masks other problems with a product, says Freedhoff.

"In many cases when you remove fat from a product, unless you put something else in it, it doesn’t taste very good," he says.

And the most common ingredient that gets a boost in low-fat foods?

"It often means it’s chock-full of sugar."

Made with real fruit

"Real fruit is fruit," says Freedhoff. 

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According to Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, 58 per cent of Canadians prefer to buy a healthier version of a product. And many of us rely on labels to help us make decisions about what to buy. (iStock)

But when "real fruit" is added to a product, the nutritional benefits are often completely lost.

"Once you take it and process it, you change the nutritional constitution of that fruit," he says.

What’s left? Sugar.

"Those claims are often found on products with really high amounts of sugar in them."

Freedhoff says that parents are often the target of "real fruit" claims, as they try to get their kids to eat more fruit.

Focus on specific ingredients

If an ingredient is trendy, it’s worth second-guessing any shout-out it gets on the label, says Freedhoff.

Omega 3, whole grains and antioxidants all may trigger shoppers to think they’re buying something healthy.

And when a product has this sort of "health halo," we may allow ourselves to indulge in it more often.

But these claims are often found on processed foods and snacks like protein bars, cookies, cereal and yogurt, says Freedhoff, that aren’t particularly good for you.

Freedhoff’s advice: If there are words on the package that try to convince you that something’s healthy, it should immediately cue you to turn over the package and look at the ingredients, calories and sugar.


This story is based on a Marketplace investigation by Nelisha Vellani, Tyana Grundig, Lindsay Sample and Jeremy McDonald.