Reading food labels should be a routine part of your trips to the grocery store, but it can be confusing. Food manufacturers use all kinds of misleading wording to convince consumers that certain highly processed and packaged foods are healthy when the opposite is often true. Label regulations for packaged foods are complex and can be hard for the general consumer to understand.
Many packaged foods use similar terminology to grab your attention and lead you to believe the product is healthy. Multiple claims like “Low-fat, low-carb, no added sugar” can even be included for just one product, leading the consumer to believe that what they’re buying is a healthy choice. Most of the time, these claims are just marketing tricks that don’t truly represent what’s really in that particular food.
To help you differentiate between mislabeled junk foods and actual healthy foods, these are some of the most common claims and what they actually mean:
Light: Products that are labeled as “light” are processed either to reduce calories and/or fat. Often, these foods are just watered down, but some may also contain added sugar, so check labels carefully.
Low-calorie: For a product to be labeled as low-calorie, it has to have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. But one brand’s low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original product, so always check the actual calorie content per serving on anything touting this claim.
Low-fat: Most foods labeled as low-fat have just replaced the fat with more sugar.
Low-carb: Low-carb diets have been all the rage in the past decade or so, and food manufacturers have jumped on this bandwagon. Processed foods that claim to be low-carb are almost always still processed junk foods and are no healthier than foods labeled as low-fat.
Multigrain: While this may sound like a very healthy choice for bread, crackers, or cereal, it usually means that the product only contains more than one type of grain. And unless the product is marked as whole grain (this should be the first or one of the first terms in the ingredients list), these additional grains are refined, which is not a healthy choice.
Made with whole grains: Again, if a product is truly made from whole grains, this will be in the first three ingredients listed.
Natural: This is a popular one that many food manufacturers are including on all types of products. Packaged foods that are labeled “natural” do not necessarily resemble anything natural at all. It just means that at one point during processing, the manufacturer worked with a natural food such as rice or apples.
Organic: This label is mainly used for marketing purposes, as consumers have been led to believe that organic=healthier. This is not necessarily true, as organic sugar is still sugar. There’s also no proof that organic foods have any additional health benefits compared to non-organic foods. Foods that are labeled organic also usually cost more than their counterparts.
No added sugar: Some foods are naturally high in sugar, but just because a food is labeled “no added sugar” does not mean that it doesn’t contain unhealthy sugar substitutes such as sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners.
Fortified or enriched: Some products contain added nutrients, such as Vitamin D in milk or vitamins added to cereals. Just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy.
Gluten-free: This is another recent diet trend that food manufacturers have jumped on. Some people actually do have a gluten allergy or intolerance, but some people mistakenly believe gluten-free foods are healthier. They are not. They just don’t contain wheat, rye, barley, or spelt but are usually highly processed and full of fat and sugar.
Fruit-flavored: Products named after a fruit or labeled fruit-flavored may not contain any real fruit at all. Usually, it just contains chemical ingredients that taste like fruit. Stick with whole fruits.
Zero trans fats: This one is very misleading. “Zero trans fats” means the food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. But even if a serving size is very small, the food may still actually contain trans fat.
When grocery shopping, stick to buying foods from the outer aisles of the grocery store. Many people do need or want to purchase packaged foods as well, so always read labels carefully to understand exactly what you’re getting.