Healthy or hype? What does the food label actually tell you? How do food companies try to trick us? These are the questions consumers should be asking when it comes to procuring food products.
In this blog post, we will share with you our top tips to decoding food labels and how to avoid being fooled. Just because something is labeled as “all natural” or “made with real fruit” doesn’t necessarily make it healthy and this type of labeling can cause consumers to overestimate just how ‘healthy’ a food is.
These tricky claims are also made to discourage consumers from actually reading the food label on the back. Companies use this branding to their advantage to suggest that a food product is healthy, when in reality, it isn’t.
1.) Look at the ingredient list
Read the ingredient list. Product ingredients are listed in order from highest quantity to lowest quantity. This means that the first ingredient is used in the largest amount in the product. Look at the first five ingredients. These make up the majority of the product and constitute what you will be consuming the most of. Decide if these top ingredients are healthy or not. Try to source products that have whole foods listed as the first few ingredients rather than unhealthy options like refined grains, sugar, or hydrogenated oils. It should be noted that a very long ingredient list (i.e. longer than 2-3 lines) indicates a food product that has been highly processed. A processed food is defined as a food item that has had a series of mechanical or chemical processes performed on it to preserve or change it in some way. Processed foods should be avoided as they are not part of the natural Paleo diet.
2.) Read the nutrition facts panel
After performing an ingredient list check, look at the nutrition facts panel (label on the back of the product) next. This is a tool to tell you the nutritional composition of the product. The USDA requires a nutrition facts panel on most food and beverage products. At the top of the label is the serving size and the number of servings per container. For most products, the information on the label is for one standard serving. You can find the amounts of calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein and specific micronutrients for one serving. Previous nutrition facts panels included amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. The current regulations set forth in July 2018 required nutrition facts panels to switch to labeling amounts of vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron. The FDA had decided that Americans are not deficient in vitamin A and C yet individuals need more vitamin D and potassium. The nutrition facts panel gives you a general idea of the macronutrient and micronutrient makeup of the food or beverage you’re about to consume.
3.) Look at serving size
Serving size is also found on the nutrition facts panel. Again, this nutrition facts panel states how many calories and nutrients are in one standard serving. Not the whole product. Therefore, it is important to decipher what the standard serving size is and how many servings there are per container. For example, if you consume two servings of food you are getting double the calories and % Daily Value of nutrients. Compare your portion size with the serving size recommended on the container. It should be noted that these single serving sizes typically tend to be much smaller than what most people would consume in one sitting. This is one way in which manufacturers try to trick consumers into thinking their product has fewer calories, sugar, etc. Many people assume the entire product is one serving.
4.) Decipher which company is producing the product
Whether you know it or not, food companies work to influence consumer food choices with everything they do. In fact, we cannot make informed decisions about food unless we are aware that food companies work diligently to manipulate our food choices. Food marketing has a powerful effect on many of the choices that consumers make. Often, companies will make claims and use marketing tactics geared at promoting sales of nutrient-poor products. Look at the claims made on products and then see what company is producing that product. If they are an “unhealthy” company then their food products will be “unhealthy” as well. Much of what appears on food packaging labels is loosely regulated. That means companies will say just about anything they want to in order to sell their product and profit off of the consumer. Think about sweetened breakfast cereals you see on store shelves touting claims about their high vitamin, mineral and antioxidant status. Sweetened, GMO breakfast cereals are not healthy.
5.) Skip high-sugar products
The goal for health is to eat less sugar. Fortunately, new labeling requirements in 2018 required food labels to reveal not only total sugar amounts but also added sugar amounts. So, now on the label you’ll see total sugar (in grams) and underneath that it will tell you how many of those total sugars are added sugars (in grams). Added sugars are defined as sugars that are added to the product during processing. This term does not include “naturally occurring” sugars, which are sugars that are naturally present in foods like fruits or milk. Look for foods and beverages low in added sugars and total sugar. Read the ingredient list to ensure added sugars are not one of the first ingredients on the list.
Always remember that claims don’t equal nutrition. Food marketing claims are constantly misleading consumers with notions of health. Often, when it comes to a food product, these claims are far from true.
An example of this occurred in 2002 when Tropicana made the cardiovascular claim that drinking 2-3 glasses of its orange juice per day would result in significant effects on blood pressure, cholesterol and homocysteine levels and thereby would lower risk of heart attack and stroke. They called it their “Healthy Heart” campaign. Shortly, thereafter, the Federal Trade Commission settled the misleading claims made by Tropicana and the company halted its campaign. They had no scientific evidence to substantiate their claims. It was all marketing and no evidence.
Watch out for these other popular misleading claims used by food manufacturers:
Natural evokes a feeling of unprocessed, pure food. Yet, often this is not the case. The FDA currently does not even have a true definition for “natural”. Let us repeat what we just said: there are no set guidelines for food companies to follow that classify their products as “natural”. For example, Cheetos has a product labeled as “natural”. Interesting thought, as this product was not made in nature. Technically, products can be loaded with sugar, but if they’re made from one natural source like sugar cane or beets, companies can claim them as “natural”. Real foods like spinach or walnuts should be obvious that they’re natural.
What you need to do: Read the ingredient list. Decide if the product is truly natural or not. Again, it should be easy to decode what is natural versus what is processed.
There is also no definition and there are no regulations for the labeling of a product as a “superfood”. It is used as a marketing word for many big food companies these days. Often, upon evaluation of the ingredients, it is far from superfood status. In order to be a true superfood, it should be nutrient-rich without harmful ingredients and it should promote health.
What you need to do: Look for foods that you know to be true superfoods like avocados, kale and berries, for example. Typically, superfoods are “super” foods because they are highly nutrient dense and contain an array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that protect against chronic disease.
Companies will use fruit juice concentrate these days as a sweetener so that they don’t have to list any “added sugars” in the ingredient list and then the product can appear as a “low sugar” item. Just because it says “low-sugar” on the label doesn’t mean it is low in sugar content. Think about fruit juices in the store that contain as much sugar as soft drinks but are labeled with the claim “no sugar added”. The other thing to watch out for in these types of products is the use of artificial sweeteners, which are often used to replace many typical sweeteners.
What you need to do: Make sure there are no artificial sweeteners in the product. Become familiar with the common types of artificial sweeteners used. Also, if a product says “no added sugar” or “low sugar”, look at the ingredients list for fruit juice concentrate (which of course is high in sugar) or other sweetener replacements.
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