Don’t Judge a Food By Its Seal of Approval
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If a food has to be “marketed” to be sold, it’s probably not that good for you.
Think about it… Do you ever see a commercial for kale? How about salmon or squash or coconut oil? These products don’t have brightly colored packaging and full page magazine ads, either. But you do see tons of commercials for cereal, candy, ice cream, snack foods, and soda… and they also have exciting mascots and cool catch-phrases. That’s because companies have to assign these products value where there is none.
And we fall for it.
But what about the marketing that looks like it’s legitimately trying to help you make healthier choices?
This is where it gets tricky. We’d like to think that nutritional “seals of approval” are good indicators of a product’s health… but sadly, it isn’t so.
SEALS OF APPROVAL—JUST ANOTHER GIMMICK?
You’ve surely seen those colorful graphics in the top corners of cereal boxes and crackers, or stamped brightly onto containers of yogurt, juices, and sugar-free desserts. Let’s take a look at a few of them to see what goes into a nutritional seal of approval—aside from a pocketful of money.
Keep in mind, as in anything else, there are a handful of good amidst the bad and the ugly. It’s your job as a responsible consumer to sort them out… but I’m here to help.
“Kids Eat Right” Seal: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
This “Kids Eat Right” seal is getting a lot of attention lately—because the first food to sport it is the Kraft American processed cheese product single. Now, according to an article in the New York Times, the academy doesn’t actually endorse this Kraft product… rather, Kraft endorses the Kids Eat Right Program.
Oh, can’t you see that in the really light blue letters behind the really bright seal? This stamp is misleading at best. There is very little nutritional value (if any, I’d argue) in a pasteurized processed cheese slice—but when an uninformed parent sees an endorsement logo, they reach for the package, feeling like they made a good choice for their growing children.
So, apparently this logo can be used when a company gives money to or otherwise supports the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ program… Hmmm, looks like a sneaky marketing trick to me.
“Heart-Check” Seal: American Heart Association
Everyone wants a healthy heart, right? So, when the American Heart Association endorses a product, we listen. But maybe we shouldn’t rely on it, and I’ll tell you a few reasons why.
First, if you go to the endorsed product list and scroll down to the vegetables section, you’ll find 25 vegetables… and 14 of them are various varieties of white potatoes. Technically, white potatoes are vegetables… but when we look at (even the government endorsed) food pyramid, they’re a starch. Your heart will not be healthy if you fill your plate with these kinds of “vegetables”—especially when the standard preparation also includes lots of oils and fats. That combo is how we arrived at an obesity epidemic.
Another 7 of those vegetables are yams or sweet potatoes, which are definitely a better form of starch than the white potatoes, but shouldn’t necessarily be a staple of your diet. Two of the 25 American Heart Association Heart-Check veggies are tomatoes, which are actually a fruit, and one is salted pistachios—yes, pistachios are listed as one of the few endorsed “vegetables.”
So, what are the 2 vegetables in the veggie section that are actually vegetables? Lettuce. Two varieties of lettuce. Okay, that’s a start I guess.
In a perfect world, every single green leafy vegetable would have this stamp. Plus the asparagus, cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers, rhubarb, carrots, kohlrabi, cabbage, and on and on.
Oh, wait… maybe the “kale growers association” couldn’t afford the administrative fee in order to receive the AHA seal.
Okay, that was a long “first.” Second, this seal is sported by a lot of processed products that may be low sodium, low fat, and low calorie, but contain harmful additives including MSG, GMO ingredients, processed grain oils, soy, and gluten that cause a great deal of damage to your health. Some of them cause chronic inflammation, leaky gut, and quickly lead to obesity.
Finally, this label focuses on what a food product “isn’t” (i.e. is not high in fat or is not high in sodium) rather than focusing on what it must be to optimize health—like high in vitamins, antioxidants, and other vital nutrients.
You can’t isolate your heart from the health of the rest of your body. It doesn’t work that way. Sure, the potassium in a potato might be good for your heart—but all those high-glycemic starches will make you obese and eventually cycle back to heart problems. And I can’t even begin to tell you what happens when you fill the “vegetable section” of your plate with potatoes instead of the real heart-healthiest vegetables.
“Whole Grains” Stamp: Whole Grains Council
The first and most obvious problem with the “whole grains” stamp issued by the Whole Grains Council is that it’s hard for the brain to distinguish between the basic and the 100% stamp at a glance—and the difference in products could be vast.
A cereal containing a full serving of 100% whole grain (16 grams) qualifies for the 100% stamp. However, the basic stamp only requires 8 grams of whole grain (a half serving) and can also contain refined flour, extra germ, and extra bran. If the point here is to help the busy shopper—these labels aren’t doing the job.
But here’s the bigger problem—this labeling is given to any product that meets the specific guidelines… which, once again, are easy to meet even when the products include a lot of other harmful ingredients. For example, you’ll find this stamp on the popular CHEETOS® brand Reduced Fat FLAMIN’ HOT® brand Cheese Flavored Snacks. Really? Cheetos are tagged as a healthier option? Yes, and so are chocolate chip muffins, Hot Fries, cinnamon rolls, and a whole host of other manufactured products that are wreaking havoc on our bodies.
This kind of misleading marketing is causing huge health problems, especially for the next generation (of consumers)! What ever happened to snacking on, say, an apple or a carrot?
STAMPS THAT MEAN SOMETHING
So, the best shopping tip for busy people is this: Stick to the outside of the grocery store—this is where you’ll find the produce, meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products and eggs.
If you do venture to the inside aisles, you can look for these package seals that actually do mean something. The USDA Organic seal, the American Grassfed seal (okay, this one is in the outside aisles), and the Non GMO Project Verified seals are good places to start!
Beth @ Hooked on Health says
Another fabulous post. The information presented today is so valuable and incredibly timely. Of course the people trusting those labelsprobably aren’t reading this blog so…..but I got so much out of it and I love your writing style.
Love your article! Our group eats fare from farms and markets for the most part, or cruises the grocery store perimeter. But upon occasion, the need to identify health-building packaged food arises (long flights, etc). I appreciate your sharing this good info. We’ll add it to our repertoire, use it to make it more quickly and safely through the gauntlet of modern day American food options. Thanks!
Margaret Arthur says
Your book came in the mail just now! So excited! Thank you!