The center aisles of any grocery store are full of products that clamor about being “sugar-free,” “light,” “low-calorie,” “natural,” “organic,” and any number of other attractive and seemingly beneficial qualities. But what do these claims really mean? Do they mean anything at all? Are there particular labels to which a discerning shopper should pay special attention?
In the United States, many of these claims do involve standards set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, others have very little or no guidance surrounding their use.
Definition of Misleading Labeling
The aim of food labeling is twofold: companies want to meet the minimum standards that govern their packaging and its contents and, perhaps more importantly to them, they want consumers to pick up their products and purchase them. The second goal is further supported by the almost $14 billion that food, beverage, and restaurant companies spend on marketing every year. The goal of selling more products is at the root of misleading labels, as companies attempt to use trigger words that describe flavors, ingredients, and their sources to attract consumers.
Can Food Labels Be Misleading?
Unfortunately, food labels frequently use carefully crafted language that attracts and misleads consumers as a sales tactic. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, consumers’ interest in healthful eating has increased. In addition to growing interest in gut health and eating for mental health, consumers are choosing more plant-based foods, helping plant-based eating become more mainstream. Food marketing companies and food producers take these trends and preferences into account when designing food labels, to help ensure that their products attract more consumers than the competition.
Why Food Labels Are Misleading
Overstating the benefits of a food product on the label in a way that leads people to pick up the item means more sales. Just getting a consumer to touch a product can be enough to create a sense of ownership of the item and increase the likelihood that they end up buying it. Food marketers recognize the importance of attractive packaging and follow consumer purchasing trends to ensure that their techniques align with the most up-to-date research on consumer demand. Food labels are created in response to these trends.
The 13 Most Misleading Food Label Claims
Reading a food label can be challenging because different trigger words used on packaging are subject to different regulations. Some label claims that are frequently used are subject to stringent rules around the contents of the product, while others have no regulatory guidance at all.
1. Label Says “Sugar-Free”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides guidelines for a variety of common food labels, including sugar-free. While the term suggests that products labeled this way would be completely free of sugar, they can actually contain up to 0.5 grams of sugar in a single serving size. Products labeled sugar-free may also have higher levels of fat in order to make up for the taste and texture that is lost when sugar is removed.
2. Label Says “Fruit-Flavored”
Reading on a label that a product is fruit-flavored suggests that the product is flavored with real fruit. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Instead, these foods are typically flavored with chemicals that impart a fruity taste. You should also remember that the FDA lacks any requirements for how much fruit must be present in a product with the label “made with real fruit,” meaning that this label doesn’t necessarily indicate that a product contains any actual fruits.
3. Label Says “Gluten-Free”
In 2013, the FDA issued a final rule defining “gluten-free” and providing outlines for its use. In order to use the label gluten-free, a product must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten. The label is voluntary, so manufacturers producing gluten-free foods are not required to use it.
4. Label Says “Light”
Foods labeled as light do not have to meet any standards on their own but merely in comparison to the average of that type of food. For example, a light bread does not have to meet particular standards of calorie, fat, or cholesterol content on its own—it simply has to be better than the average bread.
5. Label Says “Low-Calorie”
To use the label low-calorie in the United States, the FDA mandates that foods contain 40 calories or less per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC). Meals and main dishes should include 120 calories or less per 100 grams of food.
6. Label Says “Low-Carb”
The FDA does not have any guidelines for the labeling of foods as low-carb. For this reason, the label can be used on virtually any product.
7. Label Says “Low-Fat”
The use of the term low-fat is governed by the FDA, which dictates that products must not contain more than 3 grams of fat per 50 grams. For meals and main dishes, foods are expected to contain no more than 3 grams of fat per 100 grams, and more than 30 percent of the calories cannot come from fat.
8. Label Says Made With Whole Grains
Food producers and packagers are able to claim that foods are made with whole grains even if the item is made primarily with refined grains—those that have been ground into flour.
9. Label Says “Multigrain”
Though the term “multigrain” may elicit a vision of multiple healthy whole grains all being put in one product, this is likely not the case. The term simply means that a variety of grains were used in the food; most, if not all, of these grains are likely refined.
10. Label Says “Natural”
The term natural does not have any specific meaning when it comes to marketing foods. Instead, the word is used to elicit assumptions from well-meaning consumers seeking products free of artificial ingredients.
11. Label Says “No Cholesterol”
Per the FDA, food items labeled as being cholesterol-free cannot contain more than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving size, whether a snack item or meal. Consumers might expect that the ingredients in food labeled as being cholesterol-free would not have any cholesterol in them. This is not necessarily the case, however, as ingredients containing cholesterol can be used in cholesterol-free foods, as long as on the label they are denoted as containing cholesterol.
12. Label Says “Organic”
In order to be considered organic, foods should adhere to fairly strict requirements such as only using a select few approved pesticides and fertilizers to encourage growth. However, when the term appears on packaging consumers tend to assume that the food item is of higher quality or healthier than non-organic alternatives.
13. Label Says “Zero Trans Fat”
Foods that claim to contain zero trans fat can actually contain up to 0.5 grams per serving. Eating more than one serving can quickly increase the amount of trans fat being consumed.
How to Read Food Labels Without Being Tricked
Despite all the effort that is made to trick consumers into purchasing products using deceptive labeling, there are some simple steps shoppers can take to make informed decisions while at the grocery store.
Ignore Claims on the Front of Food Packaging
One thing that consumers can do to avoid being tricked is to largely ignore the claims being made in bright letters and large fonts on the packaging. These claims are often based on technicalities and legal standards that can be impractical and misleading.
Study the Ingredients List
When deciding whether to purchase an item or not, flip the product over and take a look at the ingredients list and nutrient information. Are there excessive amounts of added sugar, cholesterol, or sodium? Taking a look at the ingredients list, what are the first few ingredients? These are what make up the bulk of the food item, as ingredients are listed in descending order. Products that have whole foods listed as the first few ingredients are likely healthier than those that list refined grains or sugars first.
Watch Out for Serving Sizes
Some foods may seem low in calories, sodium, added sugar, and other key items on the nutrient list due to the small serving size listed, but actually aren’t. Many cookies have a serving size of only one to three cookies on which the nutrition label is based but contain much larger numbers of cookies making eating extra much easier. For this reason, when judging a food’s nutritional value make sure to take serving size into account.
How to Read Sugar Content on Food Labels
Perhaps one of the most confusing parts of a food label is the sugar content. Many different ingredients are considered to be sugar, including high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, and many more. When interpreting a label for sugar content it is important to know the many forms that sugar can take in food.
Types of Sugar
There are at least 56 different names for sugar seen on food labels. Each type of sugar is made up of glucose and/or fructose. The two are metabolized differently by the body—the metabolization of glucose is performed by almost every cell in the human body, whereas fructose is metabolized almost entirely by the liver.
Types of Syrup
Perhaps the most prominent type of sugar syrup found in processed foods is high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup is usually about 50 percent fructose and is derived from corn starch that has been broken down. The FDA does not recognize any difference between the safety of consuming other sweeteners versus high-fructose corn syrup.
Other Added Sugars
Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and a number of other health problems. Added sugar is the most unhealthy way to consume sugar, as the sugar that occurs naturally in fruits and plants contains fiber that slows its absorption into the body. Sugar is added to virtually every type of processed food and can be recognized in the ingredients list of foods by paying special attention to those ingredients ending in “-ose.”
An Easy Solution?
Choosing healthy foods at the grocery store can be challenging, especially when the average consumer is up against a multi-billion dollar marketing industry with expertise in selling products and misleading shoppers. One of the best ways to ensure that you’re eating a healthy diet is to avoid processed foods altogether, and instead seek out primarily whole foods and plant-based foods such as products made with 100 percent whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Grace is an animal advocate with a passion for social justice within the animal protection movement.