Peach with nutriton facts

Food Labels And Terms That Fool You

The American public is interested in eating better quality foods. The proliferation of “organic” foods and the success of specialty supermarkets dedicated to foods considered “healthy” have made success stories of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. The problem is that everyone is looking to cash in on terms that make food appear to be healthier than they are, in order to justify higher prices and to entice you into picking up that item instead of a competing brand.

Now that I’m working in the food industry, I get to hear a lot of the industry terms and jargon that essentially mean absolutely nothing, but they’re designed to help you make a healthy connection when reading the words on a food package. Here are a few of the most popular repeat offenders:

  • “Free Range”, “Cage Free”
    These terms usually apply to chickens, and that’s where the regulations focus.  It’s nice that your chickens might be allowed access to a grassy area, but the plot of grassy land can be teeny, tiny, and the chickens might never actually set foot on that area.  They may still live their lives in crowded, indoor lots, eating the same genetically modified feed that you’re afraid off.  When it comes to larger livestock, there is no regulation for that term.  So, your cage free pigs might still be rammed together in a pen and lead their entire lives without really stepping foot outside.
  • “Contains Whole Grains”, “Made With Whole Grains”
    This is true, they might have been made with whole grains, but the question is, how much?  What if the product is made from 99% refined grains and 1% whole grains?  Do you see where I’m getting at?  To make sure that you’re getting mostly whole grains, look for it as the first item on the ingredient list.  While we’re at it, “multigrain” doesn’t mean that it’s healthier for you either.  Those grains can be refined to within an inch of shelf-life as well.
  • “Real”
    As opposed to what? Fake? You can say that something has real “flavor” but it might not have a drop of the actual item in it.  So your bouillon cube made with real chicken flavor qualifies for this label as well.
  • “Made from Real Juice”, “Contains Real Juice”
    It’s not so much that this is misleading, it’s just how much juice is included in the product.  If you look closely, there is usually between 5% to 10% real juice.  The balance is usually made of sugars and syrups and/or dyes.  The most frequently used juice in many products are pear and apple juice.  They’re cheap to make and pretty sweet on their own.  So, when you reach for the gummy bears just because it says that it contains “real juice” it isn’t necessarily more healthful than they regular ones for $0.99.
  • “Natural”, “All Natural”, “100% Natural”
    Unless it’s meat, this essentially means nothing.  This one is designed to make you think “organic” when they products are not. The FDA only regulates this term when it comes to MEAT, and honestly, what meat do you know of that isn’t natural?  Test tube animals that have been “genetically modified” are still “natural”.  As long as your meat doesn’t contain artificial substances it’s good.  Your potato flakes? Those are also derived from natural ingredients too, so it can contain that “natural” label.  We are led to thinking that “natural” means minimally processed, but most foods that you purchase have been processed somehow.  They are just made from “natural” ingredients.

I have to say that you should not think of all food labels as misleading.  The Food and Drug Administration does do a reasonably decent job of defining most terms used on packages.  But, be aware that manufacturers are always trying to come up with a new term that will conjure ideas of looking like Heidi Klum and feeling as healthy as an Olympian, if only you’d buy it.

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16 Comments

  1. Thank you for positing this article. I was actually having this conversation a few weeks ago with my husband. How do you know that ingredients are true to form? Who’s checking? And then you sent me this article. I say… unless you are growing, harvesting your own food everything is processed.

  2. Great Post
    I’ve always read labels carefully but would question them in my head just like you have. I would say, well how much, and how do I know, and in the end I just read the numbers. Food labels in Canada are pretty strict but you still have to watch as some can be cheeky with their marketing tactics. You can read more here about Canadian labelling. http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/guide-to-food-labelling-and-advertising/eng/1300118951990/1300118996556
    Cheers Mr.CBB

  3. I made a few rain barrels out of food-grade 55-gallon drums I got from a juice factory near my house.

    On of the drums was labeled “Orange Odor”. That was fun. The label also mentioned it was caustic and flammable.

  4. Yes, I think food labeling is a bit of a joke. I don’t know so much about human food labeling, but I worked a few years in the pet treat world. In that area, if you said “Real Turkey,” for example, that meant a part of the turkey that could have ended up in the human food chain if not for some ‘issue.’ If the label just said “Turkey,” that could be literally any part of the turkey. And how many pet owners do you suppose grasped this subtlety? Hardly any, I’d guess.

    • The FDA is paid by these food corporations. We need an unbiased industry that will tell us the truth. We need a third party that is truly out for our interest to tell me what is in our food. I would much prefer to travel 2 hours round trip to by farmer market produce then go 10 minuets from my home to buy processed junk. The FDA says that untreated food hurts our immune system. Really????- We have been eating/ and still do eat untreated plants, fruits, meats, etc and we are fine. Third world countries don’t have half the virus, disease, sickness we have in America, UK, Germany, Canada. Why?- B/c they eat untreated meat. Its natural.

  5. Thanks for this post. I have read in the past about misleading labels, especially on eggs, but I still can’t keep them straight. I’d like to say I just try to buy food that doesn’t need labeling, but it seems even my vegetables and fruit come packaged now.

  6. I think about this concept a lot, especially as I try to keep my food costs low to feed my family. Just today I bought kashi cereal and granola bars and I wonder if these products are really any better than Kelloggs for example. I try not to eat high fructose corn syrup but it sneaks in sometimes, like kid cereal. My stepsons are very addicted to processed foods, although I try to feed them more whole foods.

  7. I don’t read food labels much. Maybe because I buy fresh fruits and veggies most of the time.

  8. I one time said to my dad I am buying this drink because it’s all natural. He said read the back and tell me what it says. I couldn’t even pronounce half of it.

  9. My big issue is with bread. I used to buy the expensive whole grain bread because I thought it was better for me. Turns out, it only contained a tiny amount of whole grain. Grrr.

  10. Good post, I know what you mean about labels being misleading. So many times, people look at something that’s being stated, and just assume it must mean exactly what they think it implies.

    I think it’s a case of people deep down knowing that they should be skeptical, but still wanting to rationalize their purchases of less than healthy food. Buying into the marketing messages and packaging labels seem to fit in well with this hidden agenda of the consumer!

  11. We have the same issue this side of the pond – the hint from my Mum was never eat something you can’t pronounce – and well as a dyslexic Mum that’s a whole lot of food knocked out.

    Hurts my brain to figure it out – so now I try to make as much from scratch as possible and “opt-out” of the whole scary label situation

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