Grocery store shelves are lined with products that bill themselves as — low-sugar, low-salt, low-fat, low-calorie or some combination of these. Food manufacturers have increasingly added these types of “low-content” claims to their food packaging, making it hard for consumers trying to choose healthy foods to know whether the claims are real, or just marketing.
Low-fat, low-sugar, low-calorie claims are not a dependable gauge for determining the nutritional quality of a food, according to a new study. In fact, they often make consumers believe they are buying a healthy food when they’re not.
A study of over 80 million food and beverage purchases found that 13 percent of food purchases and just over a third of beverage purchases had some type of low-content claim. The most common claim was “low-fat,” followed by “low-calorie,” “low-sugar” and “low-sodium”.
The Food and Drug Administration does not have a standard definition of what “low” means and only requires food labels to make “low-content” claims as they relate to other similar foods.
For example, there is no consensus as to what a low-sugar cookie is. A cookie package with a “low-sugar” claim on the label may have less sugar than the regular version of that cookie but still have more sugar than other cookies. In that case, the term “low-sugar” is meaningless, and it does not mean the cookie is a healthy cookie.
Researchers were also interested in which population groups were more likely to buy foods with low-content claims. Non-Hispanic white households were more likely to buy low-calorie foods, and Asians bought low-fat or low-sodium foods more often. Non-Hispanic black households were least likely to buy foods with any low-content claim. Households with middle to high socioeconomic status were more likely to buy items with low-content claims.
Ultimately, the issue is not so much how low-content claims affect what we buy, but how they affect what we eat, says researcher, Lindsey Smith Taillie, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When “low-fat” really results in helping us improve our diets, it will be fulfilling its promise.
The study is published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.