If only we lived and shopped in a pure world where labels told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But while consumers rely on labels to make wise nutritional choices, food processors
use labels to sell their product. Sometimes the two functions of a label - providing accurate
information and enticing someone to buy the product - are in conflict. Labels can be misleading,
especially if you don't learn to read between the lines and examine the fine print. Knowing what
the words on the label really mean is a big step in learning to make nutritious choices at the
Ignore the hype on the front of the package. This part of the label is designed by the food
processor's marketing and advertising departments. It will contain whatever trendy words will
help sell the product. While the meanings of many of these terms are regulated by law, it's still
easy to be deceived by them. The food may not be as good for you as these large and colorful
words want you to believe. Manufacturers cannot legally lie on a food label, but they can stretch
the truth a bit. Be wary of these tricky terms:
- Consider the word "pure." Everyone wants to eat food that's pure. You would not
want to put contaminated food into your body. But "pure" has no regulated, agreed-
upon meaning in food labeling. It tells you nothing about what's in the package that
perhaps should not be there.
- "Natural" is probably the least trustworthy of all the label terms. While the term
"natural" sounds appealing, it really says little about the nutritional quality of the
food, or even its safety. In reality, "natural" is empty of nutritional meaning.
Consumers believe that "natural" means the food is pretty much as Mother Nature
grew it, but this is seldom the case. And even then, "natural" is not the same as
nutritious, or good for you. The fat marbling in a New York strip steak is "natural,"
but it's not good for your arteries.
- "Made from" simply means the food started with this product. For example, the
claim "made from 100 percent corn oil" may be technically correct, yet it is
misleading. Consumers are led to believe they are eating 100 percent corn oil. They
think of fields of corn under a clear blue Iowa sky. But a lot can happen to corn oil
before it gets to the grocery store. The label really means the processor started with
100 percent corn oil, but along the way may have diluted or hydrogenated it,
changing it into a fat that will clog your arteries, not one that flows free and golden.
Another common label lie is "made from natural..." This simply means the
manufacturer started with a natural source, but by the time the food was processed it
may be anything but "natural."
- "Made with real fruit" is a good example of a misleading claim. The law does not
require the label to say how much real fruit is in the product. This boast is
particularly prevalent in snacks for children, which may contain a grape or two in a
snack that is otherwise mostly sugar. "Made with whole grains" is another little,
"white" label lie. The consumer is led to believe that this is a whole-grain cereal or
waffle, yet the package label is not legally required to say how much "whole grain"
is in the product. Its main ingredient could be refined flour with just a small amount
of whole wheat added. So, the food won't contain all the fiber and other nutrients
associated with whole grains. "Made with vegetables" is another misleading term,
which sounds healthy, but says nothing about how much nutrition is really in the
- Understand the real meaning of "fat free" on a label. For example, suppose a food
is labeled 95 percent "fat-free." This means that five percent of the total weight of
the food is fat, (which may not seem like much), yet a single gram of fat contains
nine calories compared to four calories in a gram of protein or carbohydrates. Five
grams of fat in 100 grams of ground or dark-meat turkey represents one-fourth of the
calories in that serving.
- "Enriched" is a tip-off that something bad was done to the food, requiring another
process to put some of the good stuff back in. Enriched flour or enriched white
bread are not as healthy as their whole wheat counterparts.
- "Smoked" legally describes the flavor of the food, not how it was smoked. The
consumer imagines the food is smoked in a backyard barbecue or an old-fashioned
smokehouse. Really, the food could be artificially or chemically smoked and/or just
contain smoked flavoring and still legally be labeled "smoked."
- Beware of fruit "drinks," which may contain little or no real fruit juice. Look at the
ingredients to find out what's really in there. "Drink" on the name of the product
tells you that it is not 100 percent juice. It may, in fact, be mostly sugar and water,
with added vitamin C. This enables the manufacturer to say the product is "high in
vitamin C," even if it's a long way from being real orange juice.
- The terms "organically grown," "organic," pesticide-free," "all natural," and "no
artificial ingredients" say very little about the nutritional value or safety of the
product. Trust only labels that say "certified organically grown." These are the
only words that mean the food was grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides,
in soil free of these substances.
Experienced label-readers look right past the banners and big hype on the front of the package
and look for the facts
in small print on the back.