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A nutritionist explains why 'free-from' foods aren't always good for you

How to know whether gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free, fat-free or GMO-free foods are right for you.
/ Source: TODAY

Gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free, fat-free and GMO-free! We think a food is healthier because the label says it's "free" from something. Is it really?

Gluten-free foods aren't always healthyJon Elswick / ASSOCIATED PRESS

At least 84 percent of U.S. consumers buy free-from products because they are looking for more natural or less processed foods, according to Mintel, a market research firm. "Free" food products are everywhere, but not all are equally healthful — or necessary.

When was the last time you checked the ingredient list of a gluten-free doughnut or lactose-free cake?

Health may not have been what the manufacturers of those products had in mind, especially when the related ingredient lists often contain various forms of sugar, fat, sodium and other less desirable ingredients.

Certainly, foods free of dairy, gluten, nuts, seafood or other allergens save lives or relieve uncomfortable symptoms. Others — like free-from antibiotics, GMOs or preservatives — make us feel better about eating them, but don't address particular physical needs.

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Here's what you need to know about five of the most popular "free-from" foods:

1. Gluten-free

For those who have gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, these products are life changing.

There are, however, many people who choose gluten-free believing they are healthier or lower in calories. In fact, they may be lower in fiber and higher in sugar.

In comparison: One packet of sugar has 4 grams of sugar. One pat of butter has about 5 grams of fat.

So when label reading, if a gluten-free brownie has 15 grams of fat and 16 grams of sugar (which is not unusual) that's like eating 3 pats of butter and 4 packets of sugar.

RELATED: Is a gluten-free diet for you? The hidden downsides of the food craze

Scores of brownie mixes, pizzas and cupcakes are gluten-free. But keep in mind the lack of gluten, wheat or other offensive grains doesn’t mean these foods are more nutritious or lower in calories.

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2. Sugar-free

This term says nothing about fat or calories. Sugar-free cookies or ice cream can contain unhealthy trans or saturated fats, and weigh in at close to the same calories as their regular counterparts.

RELATED: What's an added sugar? How to read the labels

3. GMO-free or non-GMO

The science behind GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) finds no evidence of "large-scale health effects" on people from genetically modified foods. But many people still worry that GMO foods are unsafe to eat or not as nutritious.

Today 25 percent of all retail food and beverages are identified as non-GMO. It's up to you whether you choose to avoid GMO foods. A new bill expected to become law will make it easier to know: it would require, for the first time, foods with GMO ingredients to be labeled on the package or on the QR code on the package. Consumers could scan the QR code with a smartphone to determine which ingredients contain genetically modified ingredients.

RELATED: Genetically modified fears: Are GMOs OK to eat?

4. Dairy-free

Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Unless you have a milk allergy or are severely lactose intolerant, avoiding dairy foods may leave you with a deficit of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and other important nutrients.

RELATED: Time to cut dairy from your diet? Expert talks pros and cons of milk, cheese

5. Fat-free

This term says nothing about how much sugar or how many calories are in the product — and it's important to note that not all fats are bad. Fat is finally working it’s way back to a good reputation through foods like almonds and avocados, but many of us are still fat phobic and fear bringing it back to the table.

The new food labels may be ditching the “calories from fat” section on the nutrition facts panel, but the types of fat (like monounsaturated, saturated, trans-fat) will still be listed.

But buyer beware: a food labeled “zero grams of trans fat” may still contain trans-fat due to a labeling loophole that allows manufacturers to brand any product with less than half a gram of trans fat per serving with “zero grams trans fat.”

Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats are also trans fats.

6. Cage-free

Just because animals are out of their cages doesn’t mean that they are out partying in the fields. Look for a "certified human raised and handled" label.

Although we can only guess at which term will be trending next, something I can guarantee is that one label you won’t see in the store is "confusion-free."

Follow Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN at and on Twitter @eatsmartbd.