This article discusses seventeen of the most common misleading food labels used by the marketing departments of food manufacturers.
These slogans are designed with the sole purpose of influencing your purchasing decisions by instilling a false sense of confidence that the product is either:
- a healthy choice
- an environmentally-conscious choice, or is
- properly inspected & regulated by a legitimate food safety organization
As you’ll read, there are real issues with many of these food labels.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Words with no meaning
Some food labels have no meaning because they’re simply words made up by food manufacturers, slogans with no legal guidelines.
This means the government hasn’t defined what that food label means, so they haven’t set a standard of quality for it either.
Thus there’s no enforcement or trustworthy inspection process in place.
False claims with no government response
This allows the food makers the freedom to market unhealthy food using terms that fool some consumers into believing that they’re eating something that’s good for them when they’re not.
Disguising unhealthy ingredients
This deceptive advertising can cause you to spend money on & consume food products that have things in them that are proven to be unhealthy or to pose known health risks.
Disguising production methods
And some of the food manufacturer’s labels use terms to imply that their product is being made in a socially responsible way – meaning, without degradation to the environment or cruelty to animals – when it is not.
Again, this is due to the manufacturers being able to use words they don’t have to prove mean what consumers are likely to assume they mean.
Either the government has no policy for those words, or they lack the resources or the willingness to enforce certain food labeling policies.
About these sneaky food labels
As I put this list of food labels together, I found that their intentional use on food products fell into one or more of these categories.
Food Marketing Label Tricks
1. Hiding sugar content
2. Saying something’s not there that was never there anyway
This is done to make the product seem like it’s now good for you, since it doesn’t have something you’ll likely assume was bad.
But it was never there in the first place.
Examples: ‘gluten-free’ bottled water, ‘no cholesterol’ bread. Since when did water have wheat in it, or wheat have animal fat in it?
3. Labeling things with artificial ingredients as “natural”
This happens a lot as you might imagine.
Again, food makers trying to make junk seem like it’s actually healthy for you, this time by tying your image of nature to something they created in a factory lab.
4. Using healthy-sounding food labels
The Washington Post calls this “health-washing junk foods” (3).
You could also think of it as putting lipstick on a pig.
They use the organic version of Doritos as an example.
It has Organic in big letters & the official USDA organic seal on the front of the package.
But it’s still high in fat, high in sodium, high in refined, empty, & likely genetically-modified corn flour, & highly processed.
5. Using serving size tricks
This involves reducing the listed serving size of a product just enough so that one or more of its unhealthier Nutrition Facts numbers doesn’t look as bad.
This is most often used to make the amounts of things like sugar, fat, & calories seem not as high.
As you read each of the following food label terms, consider the manufacturer’s intent and see if it doesn’t fit one (or more) of these misleading tactics.
I’ll show examples of all of these throughout the article.
Beware, the food marketing illusions…
1. Natural / All Natural
Bottom line: The label ‘Natural’ has no official meaning, so food makers can slap it onto unhealthy food no problem.
*Surveys show that when consumers see the word natural on a food product, they assume it is from nature and that is free of artificial ingredients.
And in the case of animal products like beef & chicken, that there are no hormones, antibiotics, or other chemicals used (4).
None of this is true.
No FDA enforcement
The FDA has no policy or formal definition for the Natural food label (5).
This means a food manufacturer can use it on just about anything without any legal problems.
*The non-profit organization Consumer Reports has petitioned the FDA to ban food companies from using the word natural on their products (6).
But they’ve been at it for years, and the FDA seems to drag their heels when it comes to Big Grocery.
Example: Here’s a fruit cup where Natural is the largest word on the package. But most of the ingredients consist of artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, & synthetic preservatives.
2. Natural Flavors
Bottom line: The term Natural Flavors can consist of over 100 kinds of chemical additives that are synthesized in factory labs.
*The food label Natural Flavors is not strictly defined by the FDA so that it only includes things that come from nature.
Thus food makers can use it to describe a wide variety of additives, many of which are synthetically-made.
*Per the FDA, to call an ingredient a Natural Flavor it is supposed to originate from a plant or animal (7).
But the FDA allows that it can also contain over a hundred additional natural & synthetic chemicals too (8).
*Once again, this uses the word natural to make something artificial appear healthy.
The ingredients & manufacturing process of Natural Flavors is hardly natural in the way most people define it as it pertains to their food.
*None of the Natural Flavor’s additional chemicals have to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel, only the term Natural Flavors.
Bottom line: The food label Organic is being used by food manufacturers on products that are of poor nutritional quality or just plain junk food.
This takes advantage of many consumers’ belief that anything that’s organic is automatically a healthy choice.
*The word organic describes a certain way to grow & produce food.
It has nothing to do with labeling a food as “better for you”, according the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. (9)
*Consumer Reports surveys show that people that buy organic food believe that there are health benefits in that product that aren’t there. (10)
*Processed food & junk food that uses refined grains, artificial ingredients, &/or sugar is full of empty calories that offer little to no nutritional value (11).
Yet if those grains & sugar came from organically-grown crops, the food manufacturer can put a large (usually green) Organic food label on the package.
Seeing that label, many consumers will then believe that that junk food is actually healthy for them.
4. Multi-grain / 10-grain / 12-grain
Bottom line: The food label Multi-grain is a marketing term with no official meaning, definition, or policy.
It does not mean that the product is healthy at all.
*Multi-grain sounds good but it doesn’t represent anything nutritious necessarily.
*Food manufacturers use the label multi-grain to imply that there are lots of healthy grains in their product (12).
The truth is, all it means is that they used two types of flour or more.
And both are likely to be refined to the point where all of the nutrition has been processed out.
*The USDA has no enforcement policy regarding the use of this food label (13).
Thus food companies have carte blanche to use it wherever they can, as long as their product has more than one kind of flour in it.
Sugar is this bread’s 3rd ranked ingredient by weight
5. Made with Whole Grains
Bottom line: Like the term Multi-grain, Made With Whole Grains is just another marketing slogan, one that means nothing as far as how healthy the food product is.
It sounds good, but it’s promise is likely just as empty as the calories it contains.
*This food label, like its sibling Multi-Grain, creates the illusion that the product is more nutritious than it actually is.
*Whole grains are definitely a nutritious food that provide all kinds of health benefits, and are a great choice to have in your diet on a consistent basis (14).
*But Made with Whole Grains just means that a whole grain was included somewhere in the ingredients, even if there’s only a teeny amount of it.
*The solution around this sneaky marketing tactic is to insist that the ingredients say 100% whole wheat or whole grain (15).
Or look for the Whole Grain Council’s official stamp you see below (16).
6. No added sugar / No sugar added
Bottom line: This label is used by food marketers to imply that the product has little to no sugar.
This is to take advantage of the fact that many consumers are unaware of how much sugar naturally occurs in certain foods & drinks.
*This food label is often found on products that already have plenty of sugar in them from natural sources.
The term No Added Sugar (or No Sugar Added) subtly influences unknowing consumers into believing that the sugar content of the food or beverage is low.
This is often not the case.
For example, compare the sugar content of apple juice & Coca-Cola and you’ll discover they have nearly the same amount of sugar:
12 oz. apple juice – 37 grams of sugar (17)
12 oz. Coca-Cola® – 39 grams of sugar (18)
33 grams of “un-added” sugar in a 10 oz. bottle
Bottom line: The food label Sugar-free is pretty clear-cut: there is no sugar used to make the product.
However there are two things to keep an eye out for, calories and sugar alcohols.
Compare the calories of the sugar-free & regular versions of the product – Some consumers see sugar-free and incorrectly assume this means that the sugar-free product will have less calories than the original.
This is not always the case, so comparing the calorie count between the two is a good idea.
Here’s an example.
Both of these Nutrition Facts labels are for the same cookie, but one of them is the sugar-free version.
Can you guess which one’s which?
(hint: The sugar-free cookie is the one on the right with more calories. I also noticed its Calories from Fat number is wrong. It should be 90, not zero.)
Take note of sugar alcohols – Many sugar-free products are sweetened with sugar alcohols, particularly in the fitness industry’s supplements:
The FDA has classified sugar alcohols as a carbohydrate, but not a sugar.
So food & supplement makers can call their products sugar-free even if they use sugar alcohols, most of which end in -ol:
- xylitol, etc.
*They’re increasingly used because they sweeten like sugar but have a lot less calories in them. (19)
*And most of them do not cause sharp rises in your blood sugar with the exception of maltitol, although its effect is less than that of regular sugar. (20)
*Note that sugar alcohols can cause digestive upset, gas, bloating, & diarrhea in certain people, depending on the amount taken. (21)
8. Lightly Sweetened
Bottom line: The food label Lightly Sweetened does not mean anything because it has no legal definition from the FDA (22).
So any food or drink product that has this label could have as much sugar in it as it wants to.
*Consumers see Lightly Sweetened on the label and reasonably assume that it doesn’t have a lot of sugar in it, but this isn’t the case. (23)
Here are examples of two popular beverages that are labeled lightly sweetened.
Note that both contain a whole lot of sugar in them, despite their packaging implying otherwise.
This Starbucks Lightly Sweet Chai Latte has 31 grams of sugar in it.
And this Lightly Sweetened Snapple has 18 grams.
9. Cholesterol Free / No Cholesterol
Bottom line: Cholesterol only comes from animal fat, but food manufacturers use it on non-animal food products to make them seem healthier for you.
*The FDA has a legitimate definition & policy for the term cholesterol-free, as well as its related food labels, low-cholesterol and reduced cholesterol, so no problem there. (24)
*The issues crop up when food makers use the term No Cholesterol just to make a junk food product seem more healthy than it is.
This is to take advantage of the fact that many people associate cholesterol with fat & weight gain.
By using the food label No Cholesterol, it implies the food does not contribute to weight gain, and that it is a healthier alternative to similar products without that label.
Cholesterol in our diet only comes from animal fat & shellfish (25).
But the term No Cholesterol usually shows up on foods that have nothing to do with animals, like vegetables.
- There are corn, potato, & other vegetable chips that highlight that they’re No Cholesterol on their packaging.
- Most chips are deep-boiled in some kind of oil, and that’s why they have high fat & calorie contents.
- By using the food label No Cholesterol, food makers influence the unknowing consumer, whose initial thought is likely to be that these chips aren’t “as bad” as regular chips in terms of fat & calories.
This particular label is trying to shift the focus from the fact that the chips were boiled in palm oil, and thus contain a high amount of fat & saturated fat per serving in them. And the serving size is only 6 chips.
There’s an All Natural sighting too.
Bottom line: Low-carb has no official meaning.
*The FDA does not have a definition or policy for the term low-carb, or any of its related food labels that you see like net carbs, carb-aware, or carb-smart (26).
*Thus low-carb has become a food label that manufacturers can have open season with, since legal claims can’t be made against them. (27)
*The Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has been pressuring the FDA for over a decade to define & regulate the food label low-carb.
CSPI believes that without low-carb guidelines, consumers will continue to be mislead:
“People assume that they can’t gain weight on foods with claims like ‘carb aware’ and ‘carb smart,’ just as they assumed that ‘fat- free’ on the package meant ‘fat-free’ on your waist.
It’s a huge leap of faith to assume that the calories in a lower-carb food don’t count.” (28)
11. Made with Real Fruit
Bottom line: A product with the food label Made With Real Fruit on it doesn’t have to have more than the tiniest amount of fruit in it, in order for the manufacturer to be able to use the label on its packaging.
*The FDA has a very broad & weak definition of the term Made With Real Fruit, so it’s a meaningless food label as far as consumers go. (29)
*The food company could have put only 1% of fruit in it and still be able to use the term.
And unless it specifically says so on its package, there’s no way to know how much fruit there really is in that product.
*It’s so loose that the fruit used to make it doesn’t even have to be the same as the fruit the food manufacturers name the product after. (30)
*According to the Center For Food Safety, Made With Real Fruit is a “claim that is completely unregulated”. (31)
Bottom line: The phrase gluten-free is being exploited by food manufacturers to make their products seem healthier than they are.
They’re even using the term on products that have nothing at all to do with wheat, rye, or barley – the only sources of gluten. (32)
*The food label gluten-free is only helpful to those individuals suffering from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, and this is a very small segment of the American population.
*This is because unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease (less than 1% of the American population) or gluten sensitivity (less than 5% of the U.S. population) (33), gluten-free products provide you no additional health benefits. (34)
*The term gluten-free is in vogue these days, since gluten is currently perceived as a bad thing by the general public.
And food manufacturers are taking advantage of this by putting the gluten-free label on all kinds of products – even those completely unrelated to gluten’s main source, wheat (see below).
The Gluten-Free label on supplements, candy, applesauce…& water. 😏
13. Serving Size Tricks
Bottom line: This is when the food manufacturer lowers the serving size that’s used on the Nutrition Facts label, in order to reduce the amount of calories, fat, & sugar that are listed on the package.
I mentioned this tactic earlier in the article, and here’s an example.
At the store today I noticed it in the “healthy” section of the breakfast cereal aisle.
The majority of cereals listed ¾ cup as the serving size, but a couple of brands dropped theirs to ½ cup.
This adjustment drops both of their Nutrition Facts numbers by 33%, which helped the high-calorie cereal look more in line with its competitors.
The same goes for the cereal that was much higher in sugar vs. its competitors.
Many people could easily overlook this manufacturer switcharoo and not realize the product they’re buying is actually higher in fat, sugar, &/or calories.
Labels on Food from Animals
Shifting gears here, I want to briefly look at the common food labels we see that are used by the poultry, egg, & beef industries.
*The USDA has definitions and guidelines for some of the terms.
And then there are a few others, like the grocery food labels we just looked at, that have no meaning because they’re just a nice-sounding marketing slogan.
*The other issue you’ll notice is similar to the problem we saw with a few of the misleading food labels I went over earlier.
The USDA’s definition is broad (vague?) enough to allow poultry, egg, & beef producers a wide interpretation of certain labels.
And these interpretations are not in the animals’ favor, as you’d probably guess.
14. Humanely Raised
Sounds like: The animals are treated well.
Reality: Not necessarily, but who knows? Only the food producer. Or you, if you go visit the place and see for yourself.
Bottom line: The food label Humanely Raised is not strictly regulated by the USDA, and they provide no legal definition for the term. (35)
*No surprise then, that the Humanely Raised label has been used by poultry companies to deceive the public into believing that the animals they’re eating were treated humanely during their lifetime. (36)
*Evidence has shown that the USDA issued the OK for large chicken industry companies to use the Humanely Raised label, while the companies treated the animals cruelly. (37)
What To Do: If you want to know for sure the animals you’re eating were treated ethically, look specifically for the Certified Humane® seal issued by Humane Farm Animal Care, the leading non-profit certification organization dedicated to animal welfare. (38)
Sounds like: Animals free to roam & graze outdoors.
Reality: Not necessarily.
Bottom line: This term is not defined or regulated by the USDA.
*Providing written documentation is all that’s required by the food producer in order to use the food label Pasture-raised on their products.
*The USDA does not conduct regular inspections to verify the company’s Pasture-raised claim. (39)
What to do: The organization I mentioned earlier – Certified Humane.org – issued a minimal standard for Pasture-raised status that farms can apply for.
It guarantees 108 square feet per bird. Look for that seal on the product. (40)
Sounds like: The chickens live outside and are free to roam around as they please.
Bottom line: The USDA’s regulation only says that the “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”
Note that there are NO limits or requirements regarding:
- how crowded the chickens’ conditions are
- how much time they’re allowed outdoors
*Consumer Reports says the food label Free-Range “has no meaning”. (41)
*The Center for Food Safety says that the USDA will allow a free-range label to be used as long as there’s a door to the outside, even if the chickens never go through it. (42)
What to do: Look for the Certified Humane standard seal, but as far as “free” goes, understand it only requires the poultry farm to provide 2 square feet per bird, and outdoor time of 6 hours per day. (43)
Sounds like: Chickens aren’t in cages so they’re free to live like chickens.
Reality: Not happening. The reality for cage-free chickens is living indoors in overcrowded & unhealthy conditions for their entire lives.
Bottom line: Cage-free is a label that misleads some people to believe the chickens are treated decently.
The formal USDA definition for this label claim is simply that the chickens aren’t in cages. (44)
*The USDA writes about chickens being able to roam, but there are no requirements to allow the chickens outdoors, or to prevent overcrowded conditions. (45)
*Most cage-free chickens never see the outdoors. (46)
*Due to the overcrowded living situation, cage-free chickens experience more violence & poorer air quality than even caged chickens, due to the overcrowding. (47)
*99% of all cage-free chickens are raised in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), also known as “factory farms”. (48)
Here’s a graphic provided by Vital Farms (49), an egg-producing company that prides themselves on the ethical treatment of their animals.
It shows how little space “free-range” & “cage-free” birds actually have.
The startling truth of what cage-free & free range really mean
Common food labels with definitions
Lastly, here are several common food labels that aren’t as misleading as the ones we’ve been looking at.
These terms actually have clear (& regulated) definitions…woohoo. 😄
- Low Cholesterol, Reduced Cholesterol
- Fortified with
- A Good Source of Fiber
If you’d like to see a nicely organized comparison chart that provides the official definitions of these & other related food labels, here’s a link to the American Heart Association page that has that info.
I hope that my article on misleading food labels is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.