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Food Labels Often Fail to Tell the Whole Truth

August 02, 1990|CAROLE SUGARMAN | THE WASHINGTON POST

"It's marketing hype," said Susan Braverman, director-at-large for the American Dietetic Assn., regarding the maze of food labels containing health-related claims.

Truthful statements they may be, but they don't always tell the whole story. Here's how to weed the facts from the hype:

--"No cholesterol" or "cholesterol-free." This is probably the most rampant nutrition claim, Braverman said. "Even the most intelligent people seem to get caught in this trap."

Utz's potato chips, Keebler's Suncheros Tortilla Chips, Peter Pan Peanut Butter, NuMade Vegetable Shortening and practically all liquid vegetable oils are only some of the products that claim to have no cholesterol. But they never did. No vegetable product contains cholesterol.

What bothers people like Braverman is that many of these products are also high in fat and saturated fat, which can raise blood cholesterol levels even more than dietary cholesterol.

So for people concerned about health, the fact that a high-fat product contains no cholesterol is irrelevant--"worthless," in the case of products like potato chips, says Braverman.

--"Low in saturated fat." Some of these claims may approach the irrelevant too, such as that for Mrs. Wright's bread (most breads, with the exception of croissants and cheese breads, are low in saturated fat). And packages of Keebler cookies trumpet the sweets as being "low in saturated fat and cholesterol."

That they may be, but chocolate chip cookies with melted chocolate middles are not high on the list of foods eaten for health reasons. Keebler's Magic Middles still contain 5 grams of total fat per cookie, deriving 56% of their calories from fat. And who eats just one? Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, calls the label the "eat-without-guilt" approach.

--"All-Vegetable Shortening." Busy Baker cookies may not contain lard or butter, but they may contain either coconut, palm kernel or palm oils-saturated fats that can raise blood cholesterol levels.

--"High in fiber." Just about anything can claim to be high in fiber since the Food and Drug Administration has not defined the term. Thus, Kellogg's Bran Flakes are the "natural high fiber cereal," Kellogg's All-Bran is the "original high-fiber cereal" and Kellogg's All-Bran with extra fiber is the "highest-fiber cereal." The amount of fiber in each cereal ranges from 5 to 10 to 14 grams per serving.

A "high-fiber" cereal can even have as little as 3 grams of fiber per serving, as is the case with Nabisco's Shredded Wheat ("fiber-rich") and General Mills' Raisin Nut Bran (a "good source of fiber").

--Lite. This notorious claim can mean just about anything, since the FDA hasn't defined it either. Lucky Leaf Lite Cherry Pie Filling has one third fewer calories than the regular version; Philadelphia Light Cream Cheese has half the fat of regular cream cheese and Bertolli's Extra Light Olive Oil is simply "milder tasting." If you followed the serving sizes on Van de Kamps Light Fillets, you'd be getting more fat and calories than if you ate Van de Kamps regular breaded fish sticks.

--Fat-free meats. The meat industry has gone fat-happy with "fat-free" claims on its processed-meat products. Louis Rich's turkey bologna is "82 percent fat-free," and Butterball's turkey bologna is "80 percent fat-free." But these percentages refer to weight: the meats are 18% and 20 % fat by weight. It doesn't mean that the percentage of calories from fat in the products are 18% and 20%, a terminology with which consumers are more familiar, nor does it mean that these are low-fat foods.

The Louis Rich turkey bologna derives 75% of its calories from fat; the Butterball product derives 77% of its calories from fat. And compared to regular bologna, there's not much difference. Oscar Mayer's regular bologna, though 50 % higher in calories per slice than either of the turkey bolognas, derives 80% of its calories from fat.

--This one has it all. Cholesterol-Free Schmidt's Blue Ribbon Lite Oat Bran Diet Bread.

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