‘All Natural’? ‘Supports Immunity’? How to Decode Food Packaging

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Let’s be honest: Sometimes, we don’t feel like cooking. OK, OK, that’s not exactly a startling confession, but what’s more surprising is that we don’t even feel guilty when we eat prepackaged food.

We care about our well-being, so we try to choose “smart choice” options with high antioxidants, no cholesterol … you know the drill. Even if the “lite” or all-natural choices cost a little more, our health is priceless. Right?

Ahem.

We were shocked to learn how many packaged foods sound like (and claim) they’re healthy when they’re not. “100% natural”? “Stone-ground”? You’d be surprised how many words aren’t sufficiently regulated–or can be misleading. But the cure to smoke-and-mirrors marketing is to think of the front of the box as advertising, and read with a skeptical eye.

A study called Claiming Health looked at the front-of-package labeling on 58 children’s products labeled as nutritious through package marketing like “smart choice” or “sensible solution.” The results: 84% failed to meet basic nutrition standards for sugar, fat, saturated fat, sodium and fiber. 95% contained added sugar.

We want you to make the most of your food purchases, from choosing the best no-nonsense healthy choices to maximizing your dollar. So, we’ll break down some red flags to look for, so you’ll be a well-informed consumer.

Here are some classic ways marketers confuse the general public:

Empty Words

The word “natural” brings to mind images of healthful and wholesome foods. Sadly, it means nothing. We’ll walk you through other similar words that marketers try to use to make you think you’re buying something special, when often it’s special in all the wrong ways.

Unregulated Claims

As much as we think it’s wrong for manufacturers to mislead us with unproven claims, it’s perfectly legal for them to smack phrases on the front of the box that aren’t regulated by the FDA or any other similar association. These phrases could be true, but for all you know there may be no evidence that they are, so be wary of superlatives or qualitative descriptions, such as:

  • “Helps support immunity”
  • “Can help maintain a healthy heart”
  • “Heart healthy”
  • “Sensible solution”

As a rule of thumb, be wary of superlatives that sound scientific but can’t be quantified. For example, “smart choice”—whose definition are we using for “smart”? There’s no official FDA definition of “natural” or “heart healthy” and certainly not of “sensible.” This is one of the easiest ways to recognize empty marketing words.

Misleading Pictures

There’s also nothing illegal about a manufacturer printing an image of a lot of fresh fruit on the front of a package … when the ingredients actually contain only a handful of those fruits. Don’t assume too much from the images on a package: Always look at the ingredients and nutrition facts for yourself instead.

Stamps and Symbols

Some stamps and symbols like the American Heart Association logo are legit, and some aren’t–either way, no stamp can tell you the full story all by itself. Here are some common stamps and symbols you might see, and how to interpret their claims.

  1. Smart Choice: This symbol means nothing. Launched by food manufacturers as a campaign to help consumers make “healthier choices,” this label, slapped on hundreds of food products (including very sugary cereals) has since come under fire for making false claims.
  2. Organic: Organic means the food is produced using methods that don’t involve things like synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives. That said, this doesn’t mean the food is healthy … there’s plenty of organic junk food full of sugar, fat, calories, etc.
  3. 100% Whole Grain: If you see the whole grain stamp, feel good that you’re eating something high in fiber. Of course, there are no guarantees that the food is low in calories and fat.
  4. American Heart Association: The product meets the AHA’s “food criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol,” though it doesn’t speak to the sugar content of the food. Keep in mind, companies pay to be able to use the stamp, so it’s a bought honor.

If in doubt, always look at the ingredient panel. Note that if you see any oils that are “partially hydrogenated,” you’re probably looking at something that contains trans fats. One of the easiest rules of thumb is that if you don’t know what you’re reading, there’s a good chance you might not want to consume it.

The Truth Behind the Words

Some phrases have real meaning (for example, the FDA requires something very specific for anything that calls itself “low sodium”) and some are empty words. In this chart, we’ll break down some of the most common phrases you’ll see on the front of your food packages, what they truly mean and red flags to watch out for.

What It Says Official Definition Watch Out For
33% Less Fat Than the Original One third less fat than the previous version of that same product This may be negligible: If the original version has 3g of fat per serving, the reduced version might have 2g … big deal!
“Light”  If 50%+ calories are from fat, fat must be reduced by at least half as compared to the non-fat alternative. If not, manufacturer can either reduce fat by 50% or reduce calories by 33%+ per serving To make up for the “low fat taste,” there may be lots of sugar, corn syrup and stabilizers.
Reduced Calories/Fat/
Cholesterol/Sodium
25% fewer calories/fat/cholesterol/sodium than the average for similar foods There may be lots of sugar, corn syrup and stabilizers. In some fat free dairy products, look out for thickening agents, which include gums, starches and gelatin.
Low Calorie 40 calories or fewer for 50g of food, or 120 calories or fewer for 100g
Low Fat For a main dish, 3g or less per 100g of food, and not more than 30% of calories from fat To make up for the “low fat taste,” there may be lots of sugar, corn syrup and stabilizers.
Low Cholesterol 20 mg or fewer per serving This often isn’t very impressive, as food without animal fats naturally has no–or negligible–cholesterol anyway
Low Sodium 140 mg or fewer per serving
Low Sugar No official definition by the FDA Sugar alcohols like malitol, xylitol and sorbitol, with side effects like bloating, weight gain and diarrhea; sweet carb mixtures like molasses, cane juice or high fructose corn syrup. If it says ‘low sugar,’ that doesn’t mean it’s safe for diabetics.
No Trans Fats Less than .5 g The daily suggested amount from the FDA is <2g. “No trans fats” could still include up to .4 g, so eating a series of these products could put you over the limit without realizing.
“Lightly Salted” 50% less sodium than normally added to similar foods
High/Rich in … 20% or more of the average daily value
Excellent Source of … 20% or more of the average daily value
Good Source of … 10-19% or more of the average daily value
No MSG No MSG, or negligible amounts Other products with free glutamate, “MSG in disguise,” like yeast extract, hydroydrolyzed vegetable protein and calcium caseinate. For more ingredients with glutamate, read this.
Made With Whole Grain There is some whole wheat or whole grain If whole grain is listed in the ingredients before other grains, more than 50% of total grain is whole grain; if not, there may not be much
100% Juice Juices from fruits and concentrates The juice advertised is likely cut with cheap juice. Concentrate still begins with juice, so you could still see “100% OJ” from concentrate.
Fruit Juice Cocktail Euphemism for “not pure juice” Juice is probably laced with sugar.
Vitamins Added Empty words Empty words–no definition of amounts needed in order to claim that vitamins have been added.
Natural Fruit Flavors Empty words There’s no official definition of “natural” so this claim is unregulated
All Natural Empty words There’s no official definition of “natural” so this claim is unregulated
No Artificial Ingredients Empty words There’s no official definition of “artificial” so this claim is unregulated
Stone-ground Empty words This is just a method of grinding grain … it’s not any healthier for you.
Multigrain Empty words Multigrain just means there are many different grains–the important thing is whole grain
High in Antioxidants Contains some sort of antioxidants That could just mean the product has some vitamin C …

Plus, for more information on side labels on packages, read this!

More From LearnVest

Not sure if you’re eating smart enough? Here’s when to see a dietitian.
DIY food tip: Make your own yogurt!
Taking into account how much time they save you–and that your time is valuable–which kitchen appliances are worth it?

  • Arealitycheck

    This article is so true, also check out this new book called The Happiness Diet that gives much more info on how we are being tricked, with great cheap recipes to truly eat right for your body and brain.

  • Anonymous

     According to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, stone-ground IS healthier… the method ensures that the whole grain is used, whereas other milling/grinding techniques remove the wheat germ or other parts with more nutrients. The downside is that stone-ground stuff then theoretically has a shorter shelf life than other bread products (though modern preservatives probably takes care of that).

    • DG

      Thanks for the shout out, ranavain!

      When researching for this article, I found “Stone Ground Wheat Flour describes how the wheat grain was milled. Again since the word “whole” is not included and this flour does not contain the bran or germ of the wheat grain. Similar to wheat flour other than how the grain was milled.” (http://www.dietitian.com/foodlab.html.)

      HOWEVER, I’m a huge Michael Pollan fan, so I will look forward to digging deeper.

  • Kathere`

    The information that’s provided was simply outstanding.  I appreciate it.  I’m thought I learned a thing or two about reading and interrupting labels, and I was wrong.  I know enough to still be in trouble.  Thank you for updating my database. 

  • Kelly

    Also according to Pollan, stay away from anything with Health Claims, because if it has them it is probably a food product and not a true food. True foods (think, fruits, veggies, grains, fresh fish) don’t have to have health claims because 1) they rarely have packaging 2) why state the obvious?

    I try to stick to these real foods and it lowers the stress of decoding labels.
    Good luck ladies!

  • Mjames

    Great article. It is very helpful to have a breakdown of the terms used to market “healthy foods”. I will definitely reference this during my next trip to the grocery store.

  • Jeancbrown

    New meaning to the term “healthy skepticism!” I’m so over “food” marketing! I generally stick to the outer rim of the grocery store (where the fresh, lesser-processed foods are) and I’m a big label scrutinizer when I venture into the mostly-fake food zones… I also hate the made-up terms like “bifidus regularis” and l. casei defensis… just marketing terms for things that are pretty much already in the food, even if it doesn’t come with a glossy marketing campaign. But people, apparently and quite literally, eat it up. 
    Great article!

    • DG

       ”people, apparently and quite literally, eat it up”– yes Jeancbrown, they buy the marketing -hook, line, and sinker. AND they let their kids choose food from the shelves, which proves even more disturbing. Food marketed to kids seems to be the least healthy. Look for my next post about ‘prepared foods’ for more on that!

  • CinTheSooner

    As a Registered Dietitian, I am a huge fan of author Marion Nestle.  Her book “What to Eat” explains this complex topic in an easy-to-read, well-organized manner.  She covers food marketing, pricing, labeling and an especially good section on the tips and tricks of grocery stores in a non-judgmental or preachy way.

    • DG

      LOVE her, too! You’re so right CinTheSooner, Nestle makes this very confusing subject digestable.

  • Julie

    Thanks for the article! I am a big believer in reading the nutrition facts and ingredients list instead on relying solely on label claims.