The inner aisles of supermarkets are chock-full of foods that claim to make you healthier. Brightly colored food labels proclaim “sugar-free,” “low-calorie,” and “natural,” waiting in hopes you’ll snag the nearest food package and begin snacking. These foods may appear beneficial at best and harmless at worst, but are they? Let’s unravel some of the deceptive food labels that may be misleading you.
Food companies use cleverly crafted words and phrases to market their products in the hopes of swaying your buying decisions. Eye-catching package designs with wisely-worded descriptions envelop food products that may not live up to their food-wrapper hype.
Companies are required to meet minimum governmental standards for product packaging and quality, and many times, the minimum is what you get. Misleading food labels are prevalent in supermarkets, so it is your responsibility to sift through the bad to get to the good. We’ve comprised a list of more than a dozen deceptive food label terms that aren’t really what they seem, to help you do just that.
What are misleading food labels?
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Nutrition fact labels list carbohydrates as dietary fiber, total sugars, and sugar alcohols. These carbs provide energy in calorie form for the body. According to the FDA, the daily recommended value for carbohydrates is 275 grams, but many people choose to limit carbs for weight loss. “Low-carb” labels on foods entice dieters, but is the product really “low-carb?” Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by these labels. The FDA doesn’t have guidelines for “low-carb” or “keto” food labeling.
A “gluten-free” label is a voluntary addition by food companies, which could pose a problem for those with celiac disease. In 2013, the Food & Drug Administration finalized the definition of the term “gluten-free” for food labeling. They concluded that foods that contain 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten or more can not be considered gluten-free. However, this guideline means that products containing traces of gluten up to this amount can be labeled “gluten-free.” Individuals with celiac disease may find this concerning.
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“Light” food products are usually highly processed to lessen or eliminate calories and fat. Food additives are used to enhance flavor during processing, so read the ingredient list carefully. Additives may tack on excess sugar or calories to “light” foods.
Foods labeled as “natural” may be one of the trickiest yet. This term does not necessarily indicate that the food item is natural. According to the USDA, foods labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and may not contain any artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.
When it comes to meat, for example, the “natural” label doesn’t indicate whether the animal was raised with antibiotics or hormones. Other foods labeled “natural” are often misinterpreted as containing no artificial ingredients. Sadly, the opposite is often true.
“Organic” is another one of those feel-good food labels, but it does not indicate that the food you’re eating is more nutritious. The FDA has set up strict guidelines for organic food labeling, and products bearing this label must be “produced using agricultural production practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.” For example, there are only a few pesticides and fertilizers that are permitted for use in organic foods.
So while “organic” food has been less exposed to pesticides and antibiotics, it isn’t necessarily better quality.
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Low-calorie food items made by one company may contain just as many calories as their competitor’s regular version of the same item. “Low-calorie” products must have one-third fewer calories (40 calories or less) per serving than the brand’s original product—which tells you nothing about how they rank in the overall product category.
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