Be a Grocery Store Sleuth: How to Decode Claims on Food Labels

Written By: Beth Ehrensberger, RD

Title: Registered Dietitian

Alumni: University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Last Updated on:

Making Sense of Common Food Label Claims

Even the savviest grocery shopper can have a hard time making sense of the claims on food labels. With hundreds of competing products in a tight market, food manufacturers often resort to fancy claims to make their groceries stand out from the others – making it tricky for the consumer to know what to believe. What’s really healthy and what’s just bogus? While the claims splashed across package fronts aren’t false (laws prevent outright lying), they often lead you to believe products are healthier than they really are.

We’ve listed a few popular food label claims that promise to help you with your health goals, but that are more than likely just fancy advertising and grocery product trickery.

Appealing to Your Wholesome Desires

All-Natural: Just because something is made with natural ingredients doesn’t mean it’s better for you. After all, many “all-natural” products are brimming with sugar and artery-clogging saturated fat. Double decker chocolate cake, bacon, triple cheese and pepperoni pizza – all of these products can be made with “natural” ingredients, but are obviously diet disasters. How does this claim work? As long as a product does not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients, the FDA says it can be called “natural.” So while it can’t hurt to eat more foods that are free from extra preservatives and made from all-natural ingredients, keep in mind that this claim don’t necessarily indicate a healthy food. Read the food label on the back of the product to be sure of what you’re buying.

Keeping it Real

Made with Real Fruit! or Whole Grain!: The key word here is “with” – if you see it splashed across the front of a package, don’t count on the product to get you much closer to your goals of fruit or whole grain consumption. In fact, sugar and preservatives often trump the amount of actual fruit in foods like cereal bars, yogurt, and snacks. And in the case of products made with whole grains, the claim does indicate that whole grains are in there somewhere – but they’re probably just a small percentage of the grains used in the product. Since manufacturers don’t have to disclose how much of the good stuff is actually in the product, there is a lot of room for consumer inference. Chances are you wouldn’t buy a food that claimed to be “Made with 3% whole grain!” However, you might buy a product that claims to be “Made with whole grain.” Instead, ignore the claims on the front of the package and just read the nutrition label on the back, seeking products that list a 100% whole grain first or list fruit at the top of the list, way above preservatives and sugar.

Boasting about How Sweet it Isn’t

No High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): Another reason to scrutinize the food label: a product may not contain HFCS, but it may be loaded with other sweeteners that ratchet up the calories and provide few nutrients, making it a poor choice. To clarify: HFCS is not a healthy food ingredient, but according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog organization, it’s not any worse for you than sugar. And a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded there is no link between obesity and exclusive HFCS consumption. Your takeaway message? Limit ALL sweeteners, including the newly introduced natural sweeteners like stevia and agave, since they add empty calories to your diet.

Fully Loaded Claims

Contains Fiber for a Healthy Digestive System or Contains 25 Vitamins and Minerals for Better Health: It’s just too much to expect that eating a yogurt, drinking a juice, or eating a fortified cereal bar alone can improve your health. It’s always better to get your extra fiber from whole fruits, vegetables, and grains, as opposed to the fiber added to juices or other products. Fiber-added products can put a crunch on your wallet, but they still don’t deliver the phytonutrients and minerals that fruits, veggies, and grains contain. And if it’s extra vitamins you’re after, a simple daily multivitamin gives you enough of the extra coverage you need, rather than depending on additions from (often more expensive) vitamin-added grocery products. Besides, a product may claim to contain an impressive number of vitamins – but how much of each does the food contain? Probably not a lot. Check the food label for the eye-opening truth.

The Bottom Line

Our best advice? Read the food label and overlook the claims on the front of the package. Your best assurance of a healthy diet is to eat a variety of lean meats, low fat dairy, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables, while keeping calories, saturated and trans fat, as well as sodium and sugar, to a minimum.


food safety, nutritional labels


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