Health claims: fact or fiction?
By Edith Ouellet, Dt.P. - Nutritionnist and speaker
Grocery shopping can get complicated. When it’s time to choose a food item on the shelf, we’re bombarded with a real parade of selling points. No wonder it’s so tough to make a choice when claims are made a dime a dozen. On one hand, we have nutritional claims regulated by Health Canada and on the other hand, more general health claims from the liberal professions. Since they are not formulated by the government, the only criteria to make these types of claims are that they are “truthful” and “not misleading”.
Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of freedom for brands to make certain claims that actually pass the Health Canada radar but are still vague and confusing. That’s why we’ve selected three claims to spell out for you.
1. “100 % natural ingredients”
It’s true that when we see the word “natural” featured prominently on the front of a package, we are quick to believe that the company has gone to great lengths to obtain supplies from a small responsible producer who is isolated from all industrial activity. We might even deduce that “natural” foods are more nutritious or better for the health than its competitors.
In reality, it’s not quite that simple. Here is what you can expect when you buy a so-called “natural” food item:
- No vitamin or minerals added, no artificial flavors or food additives;
- Its composition or that of its ingredients have not been modified or altered by processes such as the decaffeination of coffee, or the whitening of flour, or by the adding of chemical components or hydrogenated oils.
And as shown in this video by Only Organic, the “natural” trend is far from being over.
The solution? Do not rely solely on this term and read the list of ingredients. And don’t forget: a seemingly fine ingredient list does not mean that the product is not full of pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. Only an organic certification can guarantee this.
2. “No artificial colouring or flavours”
Sometimes, we can find the “no artificial colours or flavours” mention on food products that cannot be self-proclaimed “natural” because of the food additives (although natural) that have been added. Curiously enough, you can find the “no artificial colours or flavours” mention on rainbow-coloured kids’ cereal with a nutritional value as poor as a bag of chips.
Whether they are natural or artificial, flavouring and colouring are often accompanied by a slew of food additives that are meant to give back taste to products that have been so heavily transformed that they have lost their original taste along the way.
So what is a natural flavour?
The truth is, the only difference between a natural and an artificial flavour is in its molecular composition. In a natural flavour, the composition is based on natural molecules like a banana's, for instance. Meanwhile, all the molecules found in an artificial banana flavour are made synthetically in a lab.
Unfortunately, even for a natural flavouring, the flavour extraction process is far from being as simple as preparing a banana smoothie. And even if the use of flavouring is highly regulated, we’re far from a natural and healthy food product when we talk about flavouring molecules that come with their fair share of additives like salt, sugar or even enhancers like monosodium glutamate.
So which one would you choose, a “natural” strawberry flavour in your cereal or actual fresh and juicy strawberries that are naturally delicious?
3. “100% pure”
Between “100% pure maple syrup” and “made with 100% pure maple syrup”, it’s a thin line but these claims are utterly different. In the first case, you can be sure your pancakes will taste like maple syrup. In the latter, you might be confronted with a corn-syrup aftertaste, since the use of one pure ingredient doesn’t mean that it’s the only ingredient being used.
It goes without say that “pure” should not be used to define a mixture or compound foodstuff, yet so many labels pass the test to the consumers’ dismay. Once again, reading the list of ingredients remains the best way to know what we’re actually putting in our plates.
If you are keen on eating healthy and consuming foods that do not contain ingredients produced in a laboratory, then the simplest way is to choose foods that undergo little or no transformation with the least amount of ingredients possible, and to cook more often. The ultimate marketing campaign for “natural” foods would have to be one that would convince you to grow your own food or buy local, organic produce and make your own homemade muffins!
And don't forget to share this text with your friends to increase awareness! Still not over how misleading food labels can be? Want to know what the real issues are? Get reading, get involved and start speaking up - it's time for you to become a snacktivist! Check out the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), a great resource for knowledge and advocacy!
- Gouvernement of Canada (2012). Nutrition claims.
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2018). Method of Production Claims: Nature, Natural.
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2014). Pictures, Vignettes, Logos and Trade-marks: Pictures, Vignettes and Logos.
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2017). Composition and Quality Claims: Composition Claims.