Reading labels can be tricky.
Consumers are more health-conscious than ever, so some food manufacturers use misleading tricks to convince people to buy highly processed and unhealthy products.
Food labeling regulations are complex, making it harder for consumers to understand them.
This article explains how to read food labels to differentiate between mislabeled junk and healthy foods.
Don’t let the claims on the front fool you
One of the best tips may be to ignore claims on the front of the packaging completely.
Front labels try to lure you into purchasing products by making health claims.
Research shows that adding health claims to front labels makes people believe a product is healthier than the same product that doesn’t list health claims — thus affecting consumer choices.
Manufacturers are often dishonest in the way they use these labels. They tend to use health claims that are misleading and sometimes downright false.
Examples include many high-sugar breakfast kinds of cereal like whole-grain Cocoa Puffs. Despite what the label may imply, these products are not healthy.
This makes it hard for consumers to choose healthy options without thoroughly inspecting the ingredients list.
Summary: Front labels are often used to lure people into buying products. However, some of these labels are highly misleading.
Study the ingredients list
Product ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest amount.
This means that the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most.
A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, which comprise the largest part of what you’re eating.
You can assume the product is unhealthy if the first ingredients include refined grains, sugar, or hydrogenated oils.
Instead, try choosing items with whole foods listed as the first three ingredients.
In addition, an ingredient list that is longer than two to three lines suggests that the product is highly processed.
Summary: Ingredients are listed by quantity — from highest to lowest. Try looking for products that list whole foods as the first three ingredients, and be skeptical of foods with long lists of ingredients.
Watch out for serving sizes
Nutrition labels state how many calories and nutrients are in a standard amount of the product — often a suggested single serving.
However, these serving sizes are frequently much smaller than people consume in one sitting.
For example, one serving may be half a can of soda, a quarter of a cookie, half a chocolate bar, or a single biscuit.
In doing so, manufacturers try to deceive consumers into thinking that the food has fewer calories and less sugar.
Many people are unaware of this serving size scheme, assuming that the entire container is a single serving when in truth, it may consist of two, three, or more servings.
If you want to know the nutritional value of what you’re eating, you need to multiply the serving given on the back by the number of servings you consumed.
Summary: Serving sizes listed on packaging may be misleading and unrealistic. Manufacturers often list much smaller amounts than most people consume in one setting.
The most misleading claims
Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch your attention and convince you that the product is healthy.
Here are some of the most common claims — and what they mean:
- Light. Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead — like sugar.
- Multigrain. This sounds very healthy but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. Unless the product is marked as whole grain, these are most likely refined grains.
- Natural. This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that, at one point, the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice.
- Organic. This label says very little about whether a product is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar.
- No added sugar. Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added.
- Low-calorie. Low-calorie products must have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. Yet, one brand’s low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original.
- Low-fat. This label usually means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Be very careful and read the ingredients list.
- Low-carb. Recently, low-carb diets have been linked to improved health. Still, processed foods labeled low-carb are usually still processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat foods.
- Made with whole grains. The product may contain very few whole grains. Check the ingredients list — the amount is negligible if whole grains aren’t in the first three ingredients.
- Fortified or enriched. This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy.
- Gluten-free. Gluten-free doesn’t mean healthy. The product simply doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar.
- Fruit-flavored. Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavor, such as strawberry yogurt. However, the product may not contain any fruit — only chemicals designed to taste like fruit.
- Zero trans fat. This phrase means “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.” Thus, if serving sizes are misleadingly small, the product may still contain trans fat.
Despite these cautionary words, many truly healthy foods are organic, whole grain, or natural. Still, just because a label makes certain claims doesn’t guarantee it’s healthy.
Suggested read: Healthy food vs. highly processed food
Summary: Many marketing terms are associated with improved health. These often mislead consumers into thinking unhealthy, processed food is good for them.
Different names for sugar
Sugar goes by countless names — many of which you may not recognize.
Food manufacturers use this to their advantage by purposely adding many different types of sugar to their products to hide the actual amount.
In doing so, they can list a healthier ingredient at the top, mentioning sugar further down. So even though a product may be loaded with sugar, it doesn’t necessarily appear as one of the first three ingredients.
To avoid accidentally consuming a lot of sugar, watch out for the following names of sugar in ingredient lists:
- Types of sugar: beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, inverted sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, raspadura sugar, evaporated cane juice, confectioner’s sugar.
- Types of syrup: carob syrup, golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, and rice syrup.
- Other added sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, maltose.
Many more names for sugar exist, but these are the most common.
If you see any of these in the top spots on the ingredients lists — or several kinds throughout the list — then the product is high in added sugar.
Summary: Sugar goes by various names — many of which you may not recognize. These include cane sugar, inverted sugar, corn sweetener, dextran, molasses, malt syrup, maltose, and evaporated cane juice.
Avoiding processed foods altogether is the best way to avoid being misled by product labels. After all, whole food doesn’t need an ingredient list.
Suggested read: Are tortilla chips gluten-free?
Still, if you decide to buy packaged foods, sort out the junk from the higher-quality products with the helpful tips in this article.