You Won’t Believe What 10 of the Most Misleading Food Labels Really Say

When most of us go grocery shopping, we try to make the best choices for our families. But sometimes, misleading food labels can make that difficult. Nearly 59% of consumers have a hard time understanding nutrition labels, according to a Nielsen survey. If you fall into that category, we can help.

Several experts weighed in on what some of the most confusing food labels really mean. (Many people can completely ignore the label on page 10.)

1. ‘No growth hormones’ or ‘hormone-free’

a free-range chicken exits the coop

Chicken | Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

“‘No growth hormones’ is the No. 1 concern consumers have across the board on all of these products,” researcher Brenna Ellison told Men’s Journal. She explained that poultry products, certified organic, and humanely raised products already don’t contain those additives.

That means you can also rest easy when purchasing these types of products. “Ultimately, it means consumers are spending unnecessary time looking for labels that reflect this particular attribute,” Ellison noted.

Next: This term also doesn’t mean what you think.

2. ‘Made with’ or ‘made from’

Fresh bread

Bread on a wooden board | Magone/iStock/Getty Images

The “made with” or “made from” label doesn’t actually explain how much of that ingredient goes into the product. Because no organization regulates what it really means, you can also basically ignore it, explained nutritionist Kristin Kirkpatrick in USA Today.

Take “whole grains,” for example. Technically, a product “made with” whole grains could have just a tiny percentage. Instead, look for a “100% whole grain” label.

Next: The following term has no oversight, either.

3. ‘All-natural’ or ‘natural’

Buyer of chicken meat in shop

Raw chicken in a shop | sergeyryzhov/iStock/Getty Images

 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not define how the term “natural” or “all natural” gets used. In fact, the FDA only requires it to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”

Besides, natural doesn’t always mean healthy. A food labeled natural may contain preservatives — or even get injected with sodium in the case of raw chicken. “Some natural products will have high fructose corn syrup and companies will argue that since it comes from corn, it’s healthy,” Stephan Gardner of the Center of Science in the Public Interest told Health. “Well, that isn’t true.”

Next: This label does get regulated but also doesn’t always carry much weight.

4. ‘Organic’ or ‘certified organic’

Fresh organic farmers market fruit and vegetable

Organic market fruits and vegetables | Elenathewise/iStock/Getty Images

A lot of people read “organic” and think it automatically means “better,” but it just refers to how its ingredients got raised. A 2011 study from Cornell University compared two identical chocolate chip cookies. Researchers labeled one “organic,” and study participants subsequently said that one tasted better and had fewer calories and less fat. They also said they would pay more for it.

If a product bears a USDA label that says organic, 95% or more of the ingredients must get grown or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. However, farmers may have still used organic fertilizers and pest repellent. Organic doesn’t necessarily make a food healthy, either. “Companies like to add magnetic words on products to make you think it’s healthy,” nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix told Health. But that’s just not the case.

Next: You do want to avoid the following ingredient, but watch out for substitutions.

5. No high fructose corn syrup

sweetcorn syrup with corn

High fructose corn syrup | PRImageFactory/iStock.com/Getty Images 

Manufacturers often assure consumers their product contains no high fructose corn syrup, but that doesn’t mean it has no sugar at all. High fructose corn syrup processes in your body differently than other sugars. But that doesn’t make other sugars like sucrose fair game. The Huffington Post explains that eating whole, unprocessed food represents the only way to truly avoid added sugar.

Next: Speaking of sugar, watch out for the following label, too.

6. ‘No sugar added’ or ‘no added sugars’

Granulated sugar in spoon and sugar pile on wooden

Sugar | chokja/iStock.com/Getty Images

Health explains that many foods — including fruit, milk, and vegetables — naturally contain sugar. Even though manufacturers must now list added sugars on the nutrition facts label, that doesn’t account for natural sugars. You do want to avoid added sugar if you can, but a little natural sugar won’t hurt you, unless you have health concerns that require you to monitor your blood sugar, such as diabetes.

Next: In the following instance, zero doesn’t really mean zero.

7. ‘Zero trans fat’ or ‘trans fat free’

A steak of Argentine beef is put on the grill

Steak on a grill | Miguel Mendez/AFP/Getty Images

A lot of us mistakenly consider all fats unhealthy, but you really just want to avoid trans fats. Doctors consider trans fat bad for your heart, and you really want to consume zero. But products that say “zero trans fat” can actually contain up to 0.5 grams per serving.

“If a product says 0 trans fat on it, it isn’t actually at zero,” Gardner told Health. “If the consumer were to have two servings, then you would get a good amount added to your diet.” By cutting down on processed foods, you will also avoid trans fats.

Next: Animal lovers might want to skip this next one.

8. ‘Free range’ or ‘pasture-raised’

Pig

Pig in a pen | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Although a food label may say “free range chicken,” that doesn’t mean the animal spent an idyllic life roaming free. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture does define the words “free range,” it does not require any specific amount of time or quality of outdoor access.

“What it’s supposed to mean is that they are out running in a field,” Taub-Dix told Health. “But what it really means is they just have exposure to the outdoors.”

Next: The following label also misleads customers.

9. ‘Fat-free’ or ‘low-fat’

Portion of Butter

Butter on a wooden background | iStock.com/HandmadePictures

Just because a package says it has low or no fat doesn’t make it automatically healthier. A lot of manufacturers also substitute extra sugar to maintain the taste when they take out fat, or vice versa. “Just because it says it’s fat-free, doesn’t mean you get a free ride,” Taub-Dix told Health. When in doubt, read the entire label.

Next: Except for a segment of the population, these labels also don’t matter.

10. ‘Gluten-free’

Gluten Free loaf of bread

Gluten-free bread | chameleonseye/iStock/Getty Images

For those with Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, “gluten-free” labels mean those products come safe to eat. But for the rest of us, it doesn’t really matter. Gluten poses no danger to those without medical aversions to it. A lot of manufacturers also put it on packages that would never have included gluten to begin with, just to attract sales.

If you see “gluten-free” on labels for food that naturally contain no gluten, take that as a sure sign someone wants to separate you from your money.

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