You vs. Your Grocery

by Jeongmin Lee


Hundreds of labels bombard consumers in the grocery store, vying for their wallets and claiming to offer health benefits. It would take only a quick glimpse to notice recurring slogans, many of which use terminology unfamiliar to the general public. The “Gluten-free!” sign may indicate that the food is healthy, but how exactly does a gluten-free product help you? Hopefully, these short explanations can help you defend yourself from the myriad of advertisement labels.


“100% organic” and “all natural” labels flood the grocery store to the point where buying anything inorganic feels guilty. “Organic” usually refers to the environmentally friendly methods of growing food such as reducing water, land usage, and pollution emissions. Smaller companies have slightly more liberty in using the “organic” banner, but for most products certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an organic product implies the use of no preservatives, no artificial flavoring, and no artificial coloring.1 Although “100% organic” is truthful to its name, the names “organic” and “made with organic ingredients” suggest that only 95% and 70% of the product is organic respectively.2 An “all natural” label is an even looser term as it only deals with how the food was processed. There are almost no formal requirements in using that term. Overall, buying organic means supporting eco-friendly practices, not procuring health benefits.


First of all, every cell in your body contains and uses cholesterol, a waxy substance produced by animals to make hormones. A possible reason for cholesterol’s negative reputation is that humans can manage and produce enough cholesterol without supplements. Thus, additional intake is considered a surplus, which is known to lead to clogged blood vessels. But not all cholesterol leads to high blood pressure and strokes; a more detailed classification of cholesterol involves the process of lipoproteins, globules in the bloodstream that carry fats that come in two variations, low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).3 These two types are respectively deemed “bad” and “good” cholesterol by the media because LDL cholesterol can get caught in arteries, leading to a buildup that restricts the blood flow while HDL cholesterol effectively delivers unused cholesterol to be properly disposed by the liver.4

So how are these products misleading? One example are carrot packages that have large “no cholesterol” signs. Although it is true that carrots do not have cholesterol, only animals produce cholesterol. Unless those carrots are made out of meat, any plant product should be assumed to have no cholesterol. Additionally, HDL cholesterol actually aids the body. In a diet, levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol are dependent on the type of fat that is consumed. Trans fat and saturated fat lead to more LDL cholesterol while unsaturated and polyunsaturated fat aids HDL cholesterol to be more functional.


Among the various labels “superfoods” flaunt, one of them usually includes the abundance of antioxidants. Our body naturally produces a harmful set of toxins called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS); however, the body detoxifies ROS through antioxidant enzymes. ROS damages proteins and cell membranes severely, and without enough antioxidants, the concentration of ROS would be significant enough to cause health problems such as heart disease.5 There are many types of antioxidants because once an antioxidant detoxifies an ROS, it forms another harmful byproduct, a free radical, where another kind of antioxidant molecule must alleviate.6 Thus, a singular type of antioxidant would not help as much as a variety of them working in tandem, and a variety can be achieved with a regular healthy diet.7

Antioxidants are certainly worthy to be commercially displayed, and buying food with antioxidants will be beneficial to your health. Just remember not to rely just on blueberries to give all the necessary antioxidants. Rather, a nutritious variety of fruits and vegetables will be best even if most are not considered “superfoods.”8 Even proclaimed “superfoods” require continuous consumption to maintain their benefits because no matter how high the percentage of nutrients they have, researchers believe that their effects are short-termed.


Multivitamins and dietary supplements- what can be easier than taking a pill with all the nutrients you need? The nutrition labels proudly state that the daily value of various vitamins and supplements are met or even exceeded with one serving. While vitamins all have different functions, most have to do with boosting your immune system.9 On a multivitamin label, you can usually see a nearly complete set of vitamins, but not all vitamins can be absorbed by the body in the same way. Specifically, vitamins A, D, E, and K are considered to be fat-soluble which means they need fat or oil to allow our body to absorb those vitamins. Therefore, without proper consumption, these vitamins can simply pass through the body without delivering a significant health benefit in contrast to how fat-soluble vitamins which have the ability to be stored in the body’s tissues. This brings up the fact that the other vitamins, which are considered to be water-soluble, can be utilized easily by the body, but any surplus of water-soluble vitamins will be excreted.10 This means that any of the 100% daily value of vitamins from the supplement that cannot be processed in one take will not be as beneficial as taking that amount slowly throughout the course of the day. Interestingly, vitamin supplements, especially those for vitamins A, C, and E, have no studies that prove their effectiveness in lowering cholesterol or reducing blood pressure.11

Taking multivitamins may not be as beneficial as they appear to be. Most of the vitamins could not be retained by your body by one tablet. While taking supplements can certainly help, especially when your usual diet does not reach recommended daily values, a healthy variety of food in your meals will ensure your health the most.


Trans, saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated: these categories of fats can be found on nutrition fact labels. Saturated fat refers to natural but harmful fat that can increase your risk of heart disease. Trans-fat is even more detrimental to your body as it is usually artificially made with partially hydrogenated oils. Unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats have slightly different molecular structures compared to saturated fat with small bends that make them effective at lowering heart disease risk.3

Popular media is becoming more aware of distinguishing between these types. Note that there are a few caveats. For example, having no saturated fat is very difficult especially in meat because most red meat contains naturally formed saturated fat. Be wary of your saturated fat intake, and when you see unsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, remember that they actually help you. Plus, always remember to be thorough when reading through the nutrition facts of products that advertise low saturated fats or high unsaturated fats just to make sure the labels are not concealing an unhealthier aspect of the product.


Probiotics by definition increase the production of certain microorganisms in order to kill others. These bacteria produce acids that will lower the pH of your digestive system, eliminating many harmful microorganisms and pathogens. With this method, probiotics can aid in decreasing the risk of diseases caused by pathogens or even the risk of cancer.5

When a product claims to have probiotic bacteria, the benefits stated are usually true. In fact, foods such as yogurt were known to have health benefits and were made since ancient times. Similar to the previous advice, even when you find a product with probiotics, check the nutrition facts. In some cases, there is a high amount of sugar or sodium that might cause other health issues.


Gluten is a protein that can be found is several types of grain, and gluten-free products are made for people who have gluten allergies. Those who severely react to it are known to have celiac disease where gluten blocks the body from absorbing nutrients properly, and some people without the allergy still exhibit minor symptoms from gluten. Unfortunately, gluten is present in a variety of products as it can be found in “frozen vegetables in sauces, soy sauce, some foods made with “natural flavorings,” vitamin and mineral supplements, some medications, and even toothpaste.”12 In recent years, even more people buy gluten-free food due to a diet plan.

A gluten-free diet exists, but it is usually meant for people with celiac disease as they are forced to follow that meal plan. For those who voluntarily follow a gluten-free diet, there are no studies that prove the existence of health benefits caused by the lack of gluten. As a matter of fact, most gluten-free products end up being more expensive. As with many popular diets, a voluntary gluten-free diet does not specifically aid you to have a healthier body. Rather, it may give you an emptier wallet.


Of course, sugar is an essential to your diet; however, too much sugar is not a good thing, and you can easily exceed the recommended amount. Even nutritious nourishments such as fruits contain a significant amount of sugar, specifically fructose which is the same sugar used in most processed foods under the name “high fructose corn syrup.” According to the Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of Southern California, there is a “growing body of evidence suggesting fructose is a riskier substance than glucose.”13 With these studies, apple juice can end up being unhealthy as coke, at least in respect to the fructose content. The problem with reading nutrition labels is that the grams of sugar does not discern between the types of sugar, so aim to lower your sugar intake.


Like sugar, sodium is part of a nutritious diet, but should be limited. High amounts of sodium can lead to “high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke [and] can also lead to heart failure.”14 When a product does claim to have low amounts of sodium, their claim usually has no tricks. In order to find food with low sodium content, always check the labels, and if you are buying produce or meat, choosing a fresh variety will most likely have a lower sodium concentration.15


A balanced meal is the safest way to maintain a healthy diet, and all grocery advertisers try to appear as a part of that nutritious routine. The consumer, on the other hand, must peruse through unfamiliar vocabulary, treading through the traps set up by corporate advertising teams. Even with the knowledge of these definitions, you must remember to be attentive. For example, “zero fat” may only refer to trans fat and “all natural” may not be “natural” at all. In fact, many healthy labels might be concealing a high concentration of sugar or saturated fat only seen by a thin line in the nutrition facts. Certain terms such as “all natural” or “vitamins” are popular and have an appealing connotation, but do not be deceived as some of these benefits might not be as beneficial as they claim to be. Food companies utilize as many marketing strategies as they can to attract the consumer with extraneous labels. As a consumer, you need to navigate through the aisles of advertisements. Keep your eyes open and be smart in your choices because the right steps can lead you to a healthy lifestyle.

Jeongmin Lee ‘19 is a freshman in Hollis Hall.

Works Cited

  1. The Cornucopia Institute. [Online] (accessed Sep. 28, 2015).
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Mayo Clinic. [Online] Jun. 09, 2014, organic-food/art-20043880 (accessed Sep. 28, 2015).
  3. Harvard T.H. Chan. [Online] (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. [Online] Sep. 19, 2012 (accessed Sep. 28, 2015).
  5. Hunter, Beatrice Trum. “Foods as Medicines. (Food for Thought). (Brief Article).” Consumers’ Research Magazine 2002, 8.
  6. Zampelas, Antonis, and Micha, Eirini. Antioxidants in Health and Disease. 2015; pp. 28-36.
  7. European Food Information Council. [Online] Nov. 2012, http://www.eufic. org/article/en/artid/The-science-behind-superfoods/ (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  8. The George Mateljan Foundation. [Online] (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  9. Harvard Health Publications. [Online] (accessed Sep. 28, 2015).
  10. Medline Plus. [Online] Feb. 18, 2013, medlineplus/ency/article/002399.htm (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  11. American Heart Association. [Online] Jun. 12, 2015, http://www.heart. org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Vitamin-Supplements-Healthy-or-Hoax_ UCM_432104_Article.jsp (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  12. Strawbridge, Holly. Harvard Health Publications. [Online] Feb. 20, 2015, edu/blog/going-gluten-free-justbecause-heres-what-you-need-toknow-201302205916 (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  13. Barclay, Eliza. NPR. [Online] Jun. 9, 2014, thesalt/2014/06/09/319230865/fruitjuice-vs-soda-both-beverages-packin-sugar-and-health-risk (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  14. Harvard T.H. Chan. [Online] (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).
  15. Healthfinder. [Online] (accessed Oct. 3, 2015).


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