6 Misleading Terms to Watch Out for on Food Labels

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More and more consumers are becoming health conscious, which means more and more manufacturers are adapting their labels accordingly.

Unfortunately though, manufacturers tend to use their marketing to trick and sell, not to inform and protect.

Consumers have learned that whole, natural, nutrient rich foods are the best. What many consumers don’t know is how to tell if a product really meets their nutritional expectations. Manufacturers are taking advantage of that confusion to slip in phrases that seem healthy but mean nothing.

Here are six of the most common, most misleading terms to watch out for (and what you should look for instead):

1. “Multi-Grain”

Carbohydrates get a bad rap, but cutting carbs shouldn’t mean cutting grains altogether. Grains are an important dietary source of fiber, B-vitamins, along with other vitamins and minerals. They aid digestion and have positive impacts on blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure.

So if one grain is good, multiple grains should be better, right?

Yes, but only when there are actually multiple whole grains used in the product.

Many breads, cereals and other products carry large stamps that proclaim they are multi-grain, but they don’t use the whole versions of those grains. That’s the key distinction. Over-processed, over-refined versions of grains rarely (if ever) have the same health benefits of their whole counterparts.

What to look for instead: The FDA doesn’t regulate the use of the multi-grain claim. Instead, look for foods that have the “100% whole grain” proclamation, which is regulated. When in doubt, look at the ingredient list and make sure you see the word “whole” before each grain.

2. “Made with Whole Grains”

Sometimes the issue isn’t that the labels are inaccurate. Sometimes the problem is that they don’t tell the whole story.

Breads, pastas, cereals, baked goods and other treats that feature a large “made with whole grains” label may be telling the truth. They could have 100% whole oats, bran or other grains. However, that doesn’t mean those whole grains are the main ingredient.

Many processed foods brag about their one good ingredient to keep customers from looking any further. Why? Because a quick look at the ingredient list for those products tells a completely different story.

Ingredient lists arrange components by percentages. The first ingredients listed are the biggest components, and it all descends from there. Many items touting “whole grains” actually list sugar or refined flours as the main ingredients.

What to look for instead: Keep looking for the “100% whole grains” claim, but always, always, always look at the ingredient list as well. Don’t just look to see if an item is on the list. Look for its placement, and don’t let one good component blind you to the other ingredients.

3. “Made with Real Fruit”

Juices, fruit snacks, baked goods and other supermarket goodies love to claim that they are made with real fruit. Although that claim is often true, more often than not, it’s true on a technicality.

Blueberries are a fruit favorite for their high levels of fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C and other nutrients. Prepackaged goods from cereals to muffins love to claim they are made with real blueberries. That would be great, if the company’s definition of blueberry didn’t mean blueberry bits made of sugar and food dye.

Those sugar bits may have once been blueberries, or have a miniscule percentage of blueberry, so it’s not really lying, is it?

Another “made with real fruit” trick is to promise one fruit but deliver another. Those blueberry bits may actually be dyed chunks of pear. That cranberry juice may be 80% apple.

What to look for instead: Always look at the ingredient list and pay attention to the order. If an item claims to be made with real fruit, make sure fruit is at the top of the ingredient list. Check and see if it contains the fruits it claims and make sure the fruit appears higher than any additional fruit varieties.

4. “Lightly Sugared” or “Low Sugar”

This is, perhaps, the easiest marketing ploy to explain and avoid.

Most processed foods are guilty of adding too much sugar. To reassure customers that their products are healthier, manufacturers began adding guarantees that their product was “lightly sugared” or “low in sugar.”

The issue is that these claims are based on comparisons, and they are, therefore, highly subjective. A product that is low in sugar or has 20% less sugar may still contain high quantities of sugar well outside any person’s recommended daily intake. It just might be slightly less than the previous version of that product.

The FDA does not regulate these types of claims. As a result, lightly, low and less mean whatever that food’s marketing team decide they mean.

What to look for instead: The FDA does have rules about the terms “no sugar” or “sugar free,” so look for those labels instead. When considering a “lightly sugared” snack, cereal or drink, don’t just take the label’s word for it. Look at the nutrition facts to find the true percentage.

5. “Good Source of Fiber” (And Other Nutrient Claims)

Manufacturers love to trick consumers with claims of vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and other beneficial nutrients.

What they don’t love is including the natural sources of these nutrients.

For example, breads, cereals, snack bars, cookies and even ice cream have begun claiming to be high in fiber. While natural fibers from produce, beans and whole grains deliver a variety of health benefits, these processed foods often contain maltodextrin, polydextrose or inulin instead. These synthetic sources of fiber are not proven to provide the same health benefits as natural fiber.

Similar tricks include “benefits of” or “supports,” phrases that allow an unhealthy food to piggyback off of the health benefits of other items. Those not-really-made-with-real-blueberries products can reference the high levels of antioxidants in blueberries without mentioning that their product doesn’t actually contain any.

What to look for instead: Touting fiber and vitamins is also a handy trick to keep consumers buying the product without checking the ingredients. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, don’t trust the front of packaging labels. Instead, always, always, always look at the ingredient list.

6. “All Natural”


What label is more misleading and meaningless than “all natural?”

This label preys on consumers’ trust and capitalizes on the blurred distinction between “natural” and “organic.” After all, how can they call a product natural unless it is?

Like “low sugar” and “multigrain,” the term “all natural” is not closely regulated by the FDA.

The FDA has a loose definition of natural that means a product doesn’t have “added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances” However, there is little to no regulation or oversight to this definition. As a result, marketers capitalize on the grey areas of the definition. Synthetic versions of natural products (like sugars, acids, fibers, etc) aren’t really synthetic substances, right?

What to look for instead: Look for certified organic foods. Unlike “natural” foods, certified organic products have to follow the National Organic Program’s definition of organic, as well as pre- and post-harvesting production.

It may seem daunting to switch to whole, organic foods. These same misleading manufacturers have been telling us for years that real food doesn’t taste as good as their over-processed, synthetic products. Just like their packaging labels, however, that is a lie. Real, healthy foods are delicious alternatives to empty calories and chemical snacks.

When in doubt, buy whole, buy local and buy organic. These three measures ensure you get truly natural ingredients — grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, meats — that have been grown and prepared with safety, health and nutrition in mind.

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