Misleading of Food Labels

Posted by Smarter Nutrition on

Food labels can be extremely confusing. Ever wonder what part of the health information is fact versus marketing hype? If you admit to being one of the confused, then don’t worry because this article will help you decipher which terms relate to the true nutritional health of your food, and which terms to ignore because they are just clever marketing lingo with no actual promise of food benefits.

Misleading of Food Labels

Confused by all the different certifications and other information on food labels lately? Think you know how to spot the difference between real health information and factual nutritional food facts versus marketing hype? According to Nielson’s global survey on food marketing, more than 59% of consumers are confused as to what food labels actually mean. If you admit to being one of the confused, then don’t worry because this article will help you decipher which terms relate to the true nutritional health of your food, and which terms to ignore because they are just clever marketing lingo with no actual promise of food benefits.

Here are 12 of the most common misleading phrases that manufacturers use on food labels to move their products off the shelves and into your shopping cart!

1. “All Natural”

This is the most common misleading term marketers and food manufacturers use to often dupe consumers into thinking they are buying the healthiest product. There is no formal oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on food items labeled as “all natural”, in fact, there is no definition by the FDA. This means foods labeled as “natural” may still contain preservatives or be injected with sodium (like raw chicken) to be plumper in the package. Furthermore, “natural” products can have high fructose corn syrup, so be dubious when it comes to “all natural” or “natural” descriptions on labels.

2. “No Sugar Added”

This term is extremely misleading and confusing because many foods, including fruit and fruit juices, milk, cereals, and vegetables naturally contain sugar. The problem is that although these products may not have added sugar, they still may contain high amounts of natural sugars. No sugar added 100% juice, for instance, is free of added sugar but is still full of sugar. And no sugar added products may contain added ingredients like maltodextrin, a simple carbohydrate. This poses a bigger problem for people with diabetes and trying to control blood sugar, because “carbohydrates” can be labeled as glucose, fructose, and galactose as well as more complex starches such as sweet potatoes, squash, and pumpkin. These all can raise blood sugar and still be labeled as “no sugar added”. In turn, “no sugar added” does not mean a product is calorie-or-carbohydrate-free.

3. “Fat-Free” 

This is one of the most misleading labels on food products from a health perspective. What manufacturers often do is replace the missing fats with sugars and additives, which drives insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is an underlying cause of obesity. Nutritionists and scientists agree that this trend applies to most all low-fat food options as well, from breakfast cereals to salad dressings, which many people 'wrongly' assume are healthier than the 'classic' versions. So, if you see “low fat” or “fat free” on the label read the fine print, you may want to avoid it.

4. “Light” or “Lite”

Some manufactures claim “light” or “lite” denotes that the food product has 50% less fat than its original product and/or the calories have been reduced by at least 33%. But nonetheless, be cautious and know that this claim may hold little to no validity across food marketing platforms. Some companies even use this term as a description to the color of the product and the flavor, not the calories or fat. Olive oil, and other salad dressings for example, can be described as “light” but you are not necessarily saving any calories. It’s important to read the ingredients on the food labels to understand what your “light” food is made of, instead of relying on the description of the product on the label.  

5. “Made with Real Fruit”

Just because it may say it has real fruit in the food product doesn’t actually mean it is made entirely of real fruit or is “made with real fruit juice” and food marketers know this! Sure, companies must list the amount of nutrients they contain, such as fat and cholesterol, but did you know they do not have to disclose the percentage of ingredients, such as the percentage of fruits or whole grains? In fact, the FDA doesn’t dictate how much real fruit must be used for companies to make these claims, so popular high-sugar products like fruit snacks, granola bars, cereals, and juice drinks may often contain very little, or a dash, if any at all.

6. “Gluten Free”

“Gluten Free” is still one of the hottest buzz words in food marketing. And you should be aware of exactly what a food product is made of, especially if you truly have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and wheat grains like rye, and it can wreak havoc on the health of those with celiac disease or other gluten intolerance.   

Recently, the FDA has finally defined “gluten free” as foods having less than 20 parts per million of gluten, but this small amount does not make it gluten free and that may be enough to make you react or make you sick.

Gluten-free products are becoming easier to find which is great for those with gluten intolerance, but they are not necessarily healthier and not everyone benefits from the types of gluten-free versions of grains out there. Did you know most gluten free products have less fiber, vitamins and minerals than the regular version? Furthermore, gluten free foods don’t equate to weight loss or even less calories. Your best bet is to read food labels carefully and know what type of ingredients make up your gluten-free products and check if you have any digestive issues with those ingredients.

7. “Superfood”

This is a very convincing but made up word and most nutritionists and scientists will argue that the term is almost meaningless. There is no FDA regulated definition of what is a superfood and what is not, so the description is pretty meaningless and does not dictate how good it is for you. A better practice in choosing “super-good-for-you” foods is to know where your food is grown and how far it must travel to make it to your plate at home. The less distance, the better.

8. “Multi-Grain

Many products claim to be “multigrain” but they often contain refined flour as the first ingredient, and the amount of actual whole grains might be minimal. So, don’t be fooled by the words “whole grain” or “100% whole wheat” on the front of the package of your bread or crackers, check the ingredient list to make sure whole wheat is the first ingredient, which means it’s the main ingredient. Often food companies like to in a blend of different refined grains that may be devoid of any real nutrients So avoid multi-grain products if the ingredient lists do not match the product descriptions.

9. “Pesticide Free"

"Pesticide free" is a general claim that leads consumers to believe that the food was grown without the use of pesticides. Unfortunately, there is no formal legal requirement for this label either. Instead, try buying certified organic produce to avoid pesticide. Or if you really want to exercise your green thumb, give gardening your favorite fruits and vegetables a try!

 10. "Free Range"

Free range is a general claim that the Center for Food Safety warns is often used inappropriately. Free range implies that a meat or poultry product comes from an animal that was raised in the open air, however, the USDA allows for any chicken raised with access to the outdoors to be labeled “free range.” Nowhere does it state that the chickens must go outdoors, access is the only legal requirement. And many times chicken farmers confess that the chickens never actually go outside. Furthermore, there are no legal standards in “free range” egg production. It is a label that is regulated by the USDA for poultry only and is meaningless for eggs.

11. "Cage Free"

Another misleading term for chicken products is “cage-free” and is often confused with free range. While hens laying eggs labeled as cage-free are uncaged inside barns, they may or may not have any access to the outdoors. There is no mandatory third-party auditing for this label though producers can voluntarily choose to get certified.

12. "Pasture-Raised"

There is currently no legal definition for “pasture-raised” or the related term “pastured.” There is no FDA regulation for this term, so if you see it on the packaging, it may just be a lure to get you to think it’s better than the other meat products. “Pasture-raised” has no formal definition or regulation, which means it has no enforcement behind it. Best bet is to research your local farmers and know exactly who is raising your meat and how your trusted source is brings it meats from farm to table.


Better understanding food labels will empower you to make the best health choices for you and your family. Many food marketers will do and say what they can to get you to feel good about the choices you make, and apparently without feeling guilty about using misleading health claims to sell more or get a higher price. Remember to read the food label ingredients before buying. Research your local farmers market and buy as much local and organic as you can. Opt for whole, fresh foods that are not in packages, and you’ll be able to better dodge misleading labels.


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