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Joanna Dolgoff, M.D.

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Stumped At The Supermarket? Your Food Label Glossary

Posted: 09/11/2011 6:50 am

While cartoon characters on a cereal box can be a blinding spell that leads kids to believe a particular food actually tastes better, parents are not impervious to the food industry's marketing tactics when it comes to particular health claims -- some of which are on children's cereal boxes.

A recent study by Yale researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that parents often misinterpret health claims on children's cereals, assuming they are more nutritious than they actually are.

Researchers surveyed parents with children between ages 2 and 11, asking them to view pictures of common children's cereals and say whether the health-related buzzwords on the boxes might influence them to buy the products. While the cereals were of below-average nutritional quality, the boxes featured various nutrition-related health claims including "whole grain," "fiber" and "calcium and Vitamin D."

Approximately one-quarter of parents believed that the "whole grain" claim on Lucky Charms® and "calcium and Vitamin D" claim on Cinnamon Toast Crunch® meant these cereals were healthier than other children's cereals.

Being blinded by health claims is very common. The concept is so widespread, that it is has been dubbed the "health halo" effect. The concept of a health halo has been around for several years now and new studies continue to document the potential windfall.

Remember to always turn the product around and check the nutrition facts panel. Never assume that food product with a "calcium and Vitamin D" health claim is necessarily healthier or lower in calories than a product without a "calcium and Vitamin D" label.

I believe that increased regulation is needed from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reduce confusion about the nutrition claims, but in the meantime, I have provided a list of common terms often used to describe the level of a nutrient in a food and how they can be used:

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This term means that a product contains no amount of, or only trivial or "physiologically inconsequential" amounts of, one or more of these components: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars and calories. For example, "calorie-free" means fewer than 5 calories per serving, and "sugar-free" and "fat-free" both mean less than 0.5 g per serving.

Take away message: If you eat more than one serving it can all add up!
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