The Most Common Tricks Food Labels Use to Deceive You

Food labels can be misleading. You might think your food contains healthy ingredients, and then upon further investigation, you find out you’ve been eating junk. If you have trouble making sense of food labels, you’re not alone.

Roughly 59% of consumers across the globe said they have difficulty understanding nutrition labels, according to a Nielsen survey. Approximately 7% of respondents said they don’t understand nutrition labels at all. If you need assistance understanding what’s in your food, The Cheat Sheet is here to help. Here are some commonly misunderstood food labels.

Sugar free

Young girl eating a lot of food

We’re sure there’s sugar in that. | iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Just because a food is labeled “sugar free” doesn’t mean there is absolutely no sugar in it. The term sugar free actually means there is less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, according to Federal Department of Agriculture guidelines. If you see “no sugar added” on the other hand, this usually means that the product already contains a naturally occurring sweetener; nothing has been added to make it sweet. One example is lactose in an ice cream labeled “no sugar added.”

Fat free

 woman eating pizza

Is there fat hiding in that? | iStock.com/ m-imagephotography

Are you attempting to clean up your diet and kick all the bad fat to the curb? Another label that can cause a lot of confusion is the term “fat free.” You might be excited to find this label if you’re trying to follow a low-fat diet, but what does this really mean when it comes to labeling? Just like with sugar-free foods, fat free really means there is less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, according to the FDA.

Low fat

Young man in supermarket choosing milk

Low-fat labels can be deceiving. | iStock.com/XiXinXing

What about low-fat foods? This can be just as confusing as seeing the low-fat label on a particular food item. When it comes to foods that claim to be low in fat, what it means is that the product contains 3 grams of fat or less per serving. Reduced fat means the product contains at least 25% less fat than the full-fat version of the food.

Nutrition expert Bonnie Taub-Dix said it’s important to be careful about fat claims when analyzing a food label. If you don’t pay attention, you could end up consuming a food that is full of bad fats. Here’s what Taub-Dix had to say in her U.S. News and World Report column:

The FDA allows any food with .5 grams of trans fat or less to claim “0 grams trans fat” on the label. If you happen to eat several servings or a few different ‘trans fat-free’ foods during a day, you can wind up consuming a measurable amount, which leads to increased levels of artery-clogging, bad (LDL) cholesterol. Don’t be fooled! Check the ingredient list, and if you see “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated oil” listed, step away from the package.

 All natural

Woman with Shopping List

How natural? | iStock.com/Cathy Yeulet

When you see “all natural” it’s no surprise if you’re confused. This food label is quite vague. You may think it means the food you’re about to consume is healthy, but that’s not necessarily true. In fact, it’s not easy to even say what it means for a food to be described as “natural” because manufacturers often process a food to make it last longer. Consequently, it no longer resembles a product retrieved from the earth.

The FDA does not have an official definition for the use of the term “natural.” However, they do allow food companies to use the term if the food has no added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Gluten free

woman eating fruit cake

There’s probably traces of gluten in there. | iStock.com

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat and rye. If you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, you’ll want to avoid foods containing gluten. According to the FDA, a food labeled gluten-free cannot intentionally contain any amount of a gluten-containing grain, such as wheat, rye, barley, or hybrids such as triticale. However, there’s still a possibility that a gluten-free product could have traces of gluten in it. The FDA says that food companies who use the term gluten free should produce food that either has no gluten or that contains the lowest amount possible — less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

What exactly does 20 parts per million of gluten look like? Here’s what registered dietitian Tricia Thompson had to say:

The proportion 20 parts per million is the same as .002%. This is also the same as 20 milligrams of gluten per 1 kilogram of food or 20 milligrams of gluten per 35.27 ounces of food. To put this amount into context, a 1-ounce (28.35 grams) slice of gluten-free bread containing 20 parts per million of gluten would contain 0.57 milligrams of gluten.

 Immunity booster

Sick woman cough in bed under blanket

You’ll have to make long-term lifestyle changes if you want to stay healthy. | iStock.com/samotrebizan

You might be looking for ways to boost your immunity, especially during the late fall and early winter months when colds and other contagious diseases are floating around. The only problem is, you can’t always trust this claim when you see it.

Remember that there’s no quick way to boost your immune system. It will take a consistent lifestyle change before you’ll experience any lasting results. “You can’t just eat an orange or grapefruit and expect one quick burst of vitamin C to prevent a cold. A truly healthy immune system depends on a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals over time, plus normal sleep patterns and a hefty dose of exercise,” said the experts at Cleveland Clinic.

 Making sense of it all

picking up some food at the grocery store

Do your research and think about meeting with a dietitian to help clear up any confusion. | iStock.com/Antonio_Diaz

If you’re trying your best to eat healthy but you’re not sure what to eat or how to get started, your best option is to book an appointment with a certified nutritionist or registered dietitian. He or she can help you develop a nutrition plan and answer any questions about food labels. Until then, here are some resources that can serve as a quick guide.

Food label resources:

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