Publishing its findings in Nature an Oxford University Study found foods carrying health claims had, on average, lower levels, per 100 g, of energy (29.3 kcal), protein (1.2g), total sugar (3.1g), saturated fat (2.4g), and sodium (842mg) but higher levels of fibre (0.8g).
A comparable model was seen in foods with accompanying nutrition claims. When the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion (FSANZ NPSC), which was designed to regulate health claims, was used, 43% of foods passed.
Foods carrying health claims were more likely to pass than foods carrying nutrition claims or foods that did not carry either type of claim.
The findings shine light on the value of both claims as well as how effective these labels are in communicating the benefits of maintaining a healthy diet.
You may think buying an "all natural" chicken is better than buying its unlabeled counterpart, but the truth is that "natural" has no legal definition, meaning that companies can stick the phrase on anything they want.
According to Euromonitor International, sales of so-called health-and-wellness food products are projected to exceed $200 billion this year in North America.
Making even small health claims on food packaging can mean big business. 58 percent of people prefer to buy a healthier version of a product. And many of us rely on labels to help us make decisions about what to buy.
Check the ingredients list and label for what you're most concerned about. "USDA-certified organic" means the food has met certain guidelines but the label itself does not guarantee a healthful food. You can also check for genetically modified ingredients (if it doesn't specifically say it's non-GMO and it's corn or soy, then it likely is), artificial colorings and flavors, or preservatives. Most foods that fall into the category of carrying health claims have among the greatest density of genetically modified foods, artificial flavours, colors, preservatives, emulsifiers, and sweeteners we are all types of chemical terrorism in our food made legal by food manufacturers.
By and large, health-related claims do achieve their intended effect. Consumers are more able to identify healthier foods with the addition of useful information on the product's label but effects on health were found to be minimal.
However, studies have shown that health-related claims might offer very little assistance or even hamper consumers in their decision-making. This can include overlooking other, more valuable sources of information.
Diet has become the leading risk factor for non-communicable disease in Europe , with 90% of deaths in the European Union (EU) due to non-communicable diseases .
Researchers from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford and The Slovenian Nutrition Institute (NUTRIS), used a cross-sectional survey of pre-packaged foods available in Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and the United Kingdom in 2013.
In total, 2034 foods were randomly sampled from three food store types (a supermarket, a neighbourhood store and a discounter).
Nutritional information was taken from nutrient declarations present on food labels and assessed through a number of analysis methods coupled with the application of the FSANZ NPSC nutrient profile model.
"The results presented in this paper may suggest that concerns over the poor nutritional composition of foods carrying health-related claims in Europe may be unfounded given that foods carrying health-related claims have, on average, a better nutritional composition than foods that do not carry such claims," the study said.
"However, 30% of foods carrying health claims and 39% of foods carrying nutrition claims do not pass the FSANZ NPSC."
Within the EU, little research has been carried out that evaluates if foods with health-related claims have a superior nutritional make-up than foods without these claims.
Recent experiments involving health and nutrition claims in the United Kingdom discovered that foods with health claims were, on average, marginally healthier than foods without these claims.
"We hope that the results presented in this paper will help the EC assess the need for nutrient profile models in the regulation of health and nutrition claims," the authors said.
"Although the nutritional quality of foods carrying claims has been explored in this paper, it is still unclear what the public health impact of these relatively modest differences is."
Additional studies that look at prepacked food in EU countries estimate that 7-14% of products are labelled with health claims or symbols.
""Natural" products abound on store shelves, often accompanied by images of grains, produce or farms, all to imply that a food is less processed and better for you.
It's often an illusion, says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a doctor who specializes in weight loss and nutrition
"Natural doesn't actually mean anything," he says.
"It really has no bearing whatsoever, beyond trying to suggest to whoever's buying it that something is healthy."
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, "Labels and advertisements should not convey the impression that ‘Nature' has, by some miraculous process, made some foods nutritionally superior to others or has engineered some foods specially to take care of human needs. Some consumers may consider foods described as ‘natural' of greater worth than foods not so described."
No sugar added
No sugar added does not mean that a product is low in sugar. In fact, Freedhoff says, it often means the opposite.
"For consumers seeing the words no sugar added, they should actually immediately turn the package over and look at how much sugar is in the product."
No matter what the front of box says, it's better to rely on the nutrition facts panel on the back. And keep in mind that the suggested serving size might be a lot smaller than you think.
"Usually those words get put on products that have quite a lot of sugar coming from fruit sources and concentrates," says Freedhoff.
"And those are just sugar."
Researchers are now questioning many commonly held beliefs about whether fat is bad for you.
"We've been demonizing fat far too vigorously for too many years," says Freedhoff.
But the lure of low-fat is a hard one for many shoppers to shake. And there's another problem with the low-fat label: It often masks other problems with a product, says Freedhoff.
"In many cases when you remove fat from a product, unless you put something else in it, it doesn't taste very good," he says.
And the most common ingredient that gets a boost in low-fat foods?
"It often means it's chock-full of sugar."
Made with real fruit
"Real fruit is fruit," says Freedhoff.
But when "real fruit" is added to a product, the nutritional benefits are often completely lost.
"Once you take it and process it, you change the nutritional constitution of that fruit," he says.
What's left? Sugar.
"Those claims are often found on products with really high amounts of sugar in them."
Freedhoff says that parents are often the target of "real fruit" claims, as they try to get their kids to eat more fruit.
Focus on specific ingredients
If an ingredient is trendy, it's worth second-guessing any shout-out it gets on the label, says Freedhoff.
Omega 3, whole grains and antioxidants all may trigger shoppers to think they're buying something healthy.
And when a product has this sort of "health halo," we may allow ourselves to indulge in it more often.
But these claims are often found on processed foods and snacks like protein bars, cookies, cereal and yogurt, says Freedhoff, that aren't particularly good for you.
Freedhoff's advice: If there are words on the package that try to convince you that something's healthy, it should immediately cue you to turn over the package and look at the ingredients, calories and sugar.