These Labels on Your Food Sound Healthy — but They’re Not

Think of the first term that comes to mind when someone mentions the word healthy. Labels like “organic,” “fat-free,” or “natural” probably come to mind. While food labels are important, it’s easy to be mislead by terms that sound promising. Take organic, for example. This buzzword can easily mislead consumers into thinking a product is 100% organic when it really isn’t. The next time you head to the grocery store, make sure you understand what these eight food labels really mean.

1. Cholesterol-free

Turkey meat on a table

Cholesterol-free labels don’t always mean what you think. |

When products are labeled cholesterol-free, it’s not entirely true. According to the FDA, companies are allowed to make that claim if there are less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. That means you can end up eating a good amount over the course of multiple servings. The American Heart Association also mentions cholesterol comes from food made with animal ingredients. If you’re opting for packaged foods touting a cholesterol-free status when they don’t even contain any meat or dairy, it’s just a marketing ploy to increase sales.

2. Fat-free

Healthy foods on a painter's palette

Be careful of foods that are advertised with a fat-free label. |

If you choose products labeled fat-free with the idea you’re making healthier choices, you’ll need to read the nutritional value to make sure. WebMD says foods can be labeled as containing no fat as long as they contain less than .5 grams per serving. The problem is these products tend to be filled with lots of sugar, salt, or thickeners to make up for the lack of fat. They can also leave you less satisfied, which can then result in overeating.

3. Sugar-free

Strawberry cake

Sugar-free foods aren’t always the healthiest option. |

Many people worry about eating too many sweets, so the sugar-free label makes our eyes light up. But Mayo Clinic says this label actually means something has less than .5 grams per serving. And keep in mind, just because something is sugar-free doesn’t mean it’s a good option. Look to carbohydrates as well, which includes complex carbohydrates, fiber, and sugar. Wholesome foods like fruit and milk are naturally high in sugar, but they also contain a lot of nutritional value.

4. Non-GMO

butternut squash being farmed from the land

Non-GMO foods are not always organic. | Fred Tanneau/AFP/Getty Images

Many people are mislead with the idea that non-GMO also means organic. That’s not the case. The Huffington Post says non-GMO products can still be made with pesticides and antibiotics. That means not all GMO-free products necessarily meet the organic standards. On the other hand, products that are certified organic are non-GMO. This particular is probably why there’s so much confusion.

5. Pesticide-free

Fruits and veggies at a farmers market

Pesticides can still be found in organic foods. |

This term is also associated with organic food, but similar to non-GMO labels, it doesn’t equate to organic. Scientific American says that while many people believe organic products are pesticide-free, over 20 chemicals are approved for use by organic farmers during growing and processing. Whole Foods Market also mentions pesticides are usually used when other forms of pest-regulation don’t work. Even though they’re approved for use with organic farming, they’re still pesticides.

6. Multigrain

whole-grain bread slices with blades of wheat

There’s no standardized regulation for the term “multigrain.” |

Many bread products contain this label, and it often fools buyers into thinking they’re getting whole grains. But Women’s Health says this label is misleading because there isn’t a standardized regulation for the term. Food products can have this label just as long as ingredients include more than one type of cereal grain. Other than that, multigrain products are free to be bleached, refined, and processed, which all remove some nutritional value.

7. Natural

Broccolini freshly cut on a cutting board

“Natural” can be a misleading food label. |

“Natural” is one of the most misleading food labels because it’s such a vague term. According to the U.S. News & World Report, it can mean almost anything. As long as products are free of artificial flavors, added colors, and synthetic substances, they’re free to use the label. With that, natural products can still contain GMOs, artificial ingredients, and added sugars. Once again, it also doesn’t indicate an organic status.

8. Cage-free

Chickens in cages at a farm

Cage-free doesn’t mean the chickens were treated with care. |

The sad truth about cage-free products is they don’t mean cruelty-free. The Huffington Post says a label like this can just mean animals weren’t in a cage, but still in an industrial chicken house without access to the outdoors. Rodale’s Organic Life adds cage-free doesn’t guarantee antibiotic-free diets for animals, either. If you’re paying more for cage-free products in hopes they’re better for you or that animals were raised responsibly, you’re likely mistaken.