By Stacey Colino
Don't fall for these pick-up lines on the front of the package.
Sugar-free: It means the food contains less than .5 grams of sugar per serving—but the serving size could be teeny, says Gayl Canfield, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa in Miami.
Gluten-free: If you or someone in your family is gluten intolerant or has celiac disease, you should definitely check for this term. Otherwise, don't assume such products are any healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts. In fact, they may be worse. "Often, these products have extra sugar or refined starches to compensate for not having gluten," says Judy Caplan, RDN, a Vienna, Virginia–based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Natural: "This term has a positive perception but no formal definition when applied to products that don't contain meat or eggs," says Canfield. After all, sugar is natural. Other meaningless buzzwords to beware of: "simple" and "wholesome." Unless qualified or followed with specific nutritional data, they're all marketing-speak.
A green label: This color basks in the positive glow of its association with nature. So it's no surprise that a recent Cornell University study found people assume foods are healthier when the label is green as opposed to red or white. "Remember, we're not eating the package," says Taub-Dix. "We're eating what's inside." Don't fall for images of wheat stalks swaying in the wind, either.
Low-fat: Sure, a product may have 3 grams of fat or less per serving, but it could also be high in sugar, sodium and calories. "Very often when one ingredient is missing, manufacturers add something else to make up for it," says Taub-Dix.