[Read: 10 Overhyped Health Products.]
5. Many supposedly healthy replacement foods are hardly healthier than the foods they replace. In 2006, for example, major beverage makers agreed to remove sugary sodas from school vending machines. But the industry mounted an intense lobbying effort that persuaded lawmakers to allow sports drinks and vitamin waters that—despite their slightly healthier reputations—still can be packed with sugar and calories.
6. A health claim on the label doesn't necessarily make a food healthy. Health claims such as "zero trans fats" or "contains whole wheat" may create the false impression that a product is healthy when it's not. While the claims may be true, a product is not going to benefit your kid's health if it's also loaded with salt and sugar or saturated fat, say, and lacks fiber or other nutrients. "These claims are calorie distracters," adds Nestle. "They make people forget about the calories." For example, tropical-fruit flavored Gerber Graduates Fruit Juice Treats show pictures of fresh oranges and pineapple to imply that they're made from real fruit, according to a 2010 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In reality, the main ingredients are corn syrup, sugar, and white grape juice concentrate. And Keebler's Townhouse Bistro Multigrain Crackers boast that they're made with "toasted whole wheat," although sugar content far outweighs the whole wheat. "'Made with whole grains' should send up a red flag," says registered dietitian Marisa Moore, a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "If you're eating packaged food, like cereal, bread, or pasta, check the ingredient list to verify that the first ingredient is in fact a whole grain." (Think of the first ingredient listed on a package as the main ingredient; those listed farther down are included in smaller amounts.) Although the government is working to develop guidelines for front-of-package labels, no consensus has been reached.
7. Food industry pressure has made nutritional guidelines confusing for consumers. As Nestle explained in her 2003 book Food Politics, the food industry has a history of preferring scientific jargon to straight talk. As far back as 1977, public health officials attempted to include the advice "reduce consumption of meat" in an important report called Dietary Goals for the United States. The report's authors capitulated to intense pushback from the cattle industry and used this less-direct and more ambiguous advice: "Choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake." Overall, says Nestle, the government has a hard time suggesting that people eat less of anything.
8. The food industry funds front groups that fight antiobesity public health initiatives. Unless you follow politics closely, you wouldn't necessarily realize that a group with a name like the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) has anything to do with the food industry. In fact, Ludwig and Nestle point out, this group has lobbied aggressively against obesity-related public health campaigns—such as the one directed at removing junk food from schools—and is funded, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, primarily through donations from big food companies such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Wendy's.