The grocery store aisles are filled with colorful boxes and bags, all to attract the eye. Food companies will go out of their way to make a product look tasty and appealing from the outside of the package to make their way into your kitchen. As a result of the market shift towards healthier eating, the easily recognized as "junk food" brands are now reformulating and repackaging products to appeal to the health conscious shoppers.
This can be tricky if you pick up a bag that has health-related words on it because that triggers the response the food is now somewhat better for you than other varieties that are not labeled likewise. Unfortunately, some of terms and phrases found on food labels are nothing more than a way to entice buying and really does not add much to the overall nutritional value of the product.
Here are just a few examples:
Enriched - The definition of the word is to supply with riches or to add greater value. This term is usually applied to refined grains where they are stripped of nutrients during processing. The FDA began requiring the enriching of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and iron to help meet nutritional needs in low income populations in the 1940's. Common refined grains are white flour products and white rice.
Fortified - Similar to enriched, this term is often put on food labels to identify added nutrients at a higher level than originally found. An example would be whole milk fortified with vitamin D. Naturally, vitamin D is not found in many foods and milk is not one of them. The absorption of calcium is dependent on vitamin D, which makes it a beneficial addition.
Calorie-free, low-calorie, or reduced calorie - If I'm being honest here, unless you are eating lettuce or drinking water, food with this kind of labeling is not something that should be lurking in your cabinets at home. I can identify a couple huge concerns with this: first, this is an indication that something (who knows what really) has been done to remove or reduce the calories from the original product. Second, a calorie is a measurement of energy. Humans need energy to live. By taking calories out of a food is turning it into a franken-food, or something that resembles food but is laden in artificial ingredients. Real low-calorie food choices do not have food labels and include water, arugula, broccoli, cabbage, apples, asparagus, and so on. See the pattern?
Natural - As much as I would like to say this word is our friend, food companies twist it for manipulation. The good thing is that natural foods should not contain artificial flavors or preservatives. Bad news? The regulations for using the term are so loose that make many people question what is the point. Processing, although labeled minimal, can occur with natural foods. Antibiotics and growth hormones can still be used with natural foods as well. Natural does not mean organic, by any means. My favorite example of food labeling gone fishy: gold fish crackers are labeled as natural.
As much as we would like to believe that food companies have our best interests at heart (and they really do try to appeal to the customer preferences), there is still a lot of progress to be made turning our grocery stores into safe havens instead of zones of warfare. I am even overwhelmed by the choices and varieties, colors, shapes, sizes and labeling when I shop. Not only is reading a food label important to choosing good options, but interpreting the food label is obviously just as essential. Or you can just avoid them all together by shopping the outside parameter of the store!