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You're in the grocery store staring down two packages of cookies. One is the regular variety you have been buying for years. The second package is nearly identical to the first, except it's labelled with the word "light" in large letters, and "25-per-cent fewer calories" printed in smaller type. The healthy choice seems obvious.

But do these types of labels, which seem like a handy way to guide consumers to healthier choices, really give us more nutritional bang for our buck? Or do they simply offer the illusion of healthier eating?

What 'light' really means

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Nutrition claims such as "light" and "low fat" are common on everything from salad dressing to soup to cheese and other dairy products. The federal government has established definitions that dictate when these labels can be used.

But these claims, which seem to offer the assurance of a significant nutritional benefit, actually might result in the opposite.

Under federal rules, products labelled "light" – or described as "reduced in calories" or "lower in fat" – must have 25-per-cent fewer calories or fat than the products they're being compared against. But "light" can also be used to describe products that are light in colour or taste, as long as those distinctions are clearly indicated on the package.

The catch

Although it may seem like a substantial amount, a 25-per-cent reduction in calories actually doesn't add up to much, according to Haley Barton, a clinical nutritionist based in Vancouver. "It's not a low-calorie food choice," she said. "I don't tend to necessarily recommend light products."

Study after study has also shown that consumers who eat "light" food items will actually consume more than if they had stuck with the regular version of the product.

In one well-known study, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, participants were given the choice of two bowls of M&Ms: one which was the "regular" version of the product and one that was labelled "low fat." Researchers found that participants, on average, ate nearly 30 per cent more of the "low fat" M&Ms.

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"Certainly the research would suggest that if you're not actually keeping track of calories and portions, then more likely or not, the labels will lead you to overconsume rather than underconsume," said Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute, who writes Weighty Matters, a popular blog on nutrition issues. "They're all nonsense words."

Then there's the issue of what is being put in when calories or fat are taken out. After all, fat equals flavour. If fat is being removed from a packaged product, chances are another ingredient, such as sugar or salt, may be added.

"Light" products may also contain additional thickeners, artificial flavours or other potentially unwanted ingredients in order to compensate for the loss of flavour. "That would be more damaging to health" than simply sticking with the regular full-fat or full-calorie version of the product, according to Jessica Sherman, a nutritionist based in Kingston.

And, as Barton points out, many products carrying labels about being lower in fat or calories aren't all that nutritious to begin with. As a result, "a small reduction in calories or fat doesn't tend to lead to a large difference," she said.

The bottom line

Most nutritionists and obesity experts advise that consumers steer clear of nutrition or health claims on the front of packaged foods. If the food is truly healthy, according to their argument, it wouldn't need a label. It's why you'll never see a sign on a bag of apples telling you they're "light."

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Freedhoff says he doesn't blame food companies, who have every right to market their products. But he questions government policy that enables food manufacturers to utilize potentially misleading health claims.

The secret to ensure the foods you're buying are nutritious and healthy? Look beyond the front of the package and scrutinize the black-and-white nutrition facts panel. How much fat, calories, sugar or sodium do products actually contain? And is the serving size printed on the label unrealistically low?

Even better, skip packaged and processed foods altogether.

"I think it sounds trite and it's unfortunately not what people want to hear, but it's a 'less is more' phenomenon," Freedhoff said. "We need to rely less on packages that tell us their contents are healthy," he says, and instead cook with "fresh, whole ingredients."

What the terms mean

A quick guide to nutrition claims on food labels:

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Calorie-free: Product contains less than 5 calories per serving.

Low in calories: Product has 40 calories or less per serving (120 calories or less per 100 grams if the food is a pre-packaged meal).

Fat-free: Product has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

Low in fat: Product contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving.

Reduced in calories: Product has 25-per-cent less calories than product it's being compared against.

Reduced in fat: Product has 25-per-cent less fat than the product it's being compared against.

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Light/lite: Product has 25-per-cent less calories or fat than the product it's being compared against.

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