Don’t Be Fooled by These 7 Common Food Labeling Tricks

file000613843818It seems you need a degree, any more, to purchase healthy foods. Not only do the scientific and medical community keep releasing conflicting reports, food companies have become masters at misleading the public. Going to the grocery store has become a complicated and confusing proposition for anyone trying to make wholesome and healthy choices.

Yes I do advocate an organic whole foods diet – however –let’s be real, few people do all their cooking from scratch. While I do 98% of my grocery shopping from the departments around the edges, I’m not going to start grinding my own mustard or making my own mayo (or Vegannaise actually.) Regardless of which aisle you shop in you need to be aware of some common tricks and meaningless phrases food marketers use to push their agenda (making a profit) at the expense of yours (making healthy informed choices.)

Below are five common words they use to try to fool you along with what they really mean, if anything.


The phrase can mean almost anything, has no nutritional meaning whatsoever, and isn’t truly regulated by the FDA. A food manufacturer can take a substance from nature and refine it and increase the potency factor 1,000% or more and call it “all natural.”

It is the unnatural things people do to and with these natural substances that create problems. The coca leaf is a natural product. When processed the natural ingredients become cocaine and crack which everyone can agree are unnatural and unhealthy yet by food industry standards could be labeled natural if sold in a supermarket. Crack is not sold in your neighborhood market yet plenty of unwholesome ingredients are on the ingredients list of products marked natural.


Foods carrying this label do have to meet certain criteria that limit cholesterol, fat, saturated fat, and sodium. They have also have minimum standards for certain vitamins. All this is good; however, they can still contain large amounts of sugar, chemicals, and artificial ingredients. That doesn’t sound very healthy to me.


These products don’t have to contain much fruit and perhaps not even the same fruit as pictured on the label. While companies must disclose the nutrients in their food, they don’t have to give a percentage for the ingredients.


OK generally people assume this means fewer calories but manufacturers might be referring to the flavor not the ingredients. They intentionally use confusing words so it’s important to read ingredient and nutrition labels.


The FDA doesn’t  define what percentage of grains must be whole to qualify for this label. If it truly is a whole grain product you will see whole grain or whole grain flour listed as a primary ingredient.


Another hot button health phrase. High fiber diets are good for the heart and reduce the risk of cancer. Fiber content is measured, but, manufacturers have been known to increase fiber content by adding things like inulin, maltodextrin, polydestrose, and cellulose. These second-rate forms of fiber can be used toward the fiber count of the product but have not been shown to have the same beneficial health results as fruit and vegetable fiber. Cellulose is increasingly popular with manufacturers, because of its cost, and I think also because it sounds natural. While cellulose does occur in plant fibers more often than not manufacturers get it from wood pulp.


Unlike sugar-free, reduced sugar, or no sugar added the phrase lightly sweetened isn’t defined by the FDA. It is meaningless marketing lingo. Food with this label can contain any amount of sugar.


  1. Bypass the front of the package and read the ingredients list
  2. Pay attention to the first 3 ingredients. Ingredients are listed by weight. Whatever is the first on the list is what the product mostly is.
  3. Look out for unnatural looking words and long complicated words. They are usually chemicals. Ideally, I look for ingredients on the label I would use if I were ambitious enough to make my own – things I can find in other parts of the store. For example organic milk, organic cane sugar, organic strawberries. That’s a product I would happily buy.
  4. Scan the nutrition facts label This is especially helpful with “lite” claims.

The bottom line is to read the little labels on the side and back, not the big ones on the front of the package. It takes only a few seconds and can make all the difference in the world in what you’re eating.

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