8 Ways Your Nutrition Label Is Misleading You

What does "no sugar added" really mean? Is a product labeled "all natural" actually made with unaltered ingredients? We shed light on some truths that will surprise you.

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Nutrition label focused on Trans Fat content

When we want to prepare healthy meals for ourselves and our families, we look for food labels like “whole grain,” “low fat,” and “sugar free.” But could a seemingly healthy nutrition label be misleading you? We looked into some common food label terms, plus the regulations behind them, to find out what’s really going on inside the box.

1. No Sugar Added

If you’re looking to cut down on your sugar intake, you might reach for a fruit juice labeled “no sugar added.” The bad news is that although no sugar was added during processing, the juice still contains natural sugarsometimes a lot of it. An 8-ounce glass of Simple Truth Organic Apple Juice “with no sugar added” actually contains 30 grams of sugar. That’s more than a Snickers bar.

2. Natural

When you see “natural” on a label, you might assume the product is healthy. But don’t be deceived: “Natural” actually doesn’t mean much. No formal definition for the use of “natural” on food labels has been issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture. As long as the food doesn’t contain added colors or artificial flavors, it can have this label. That means there’s a lot of wiggle room within the definition. The food could still contain high-fructose corn syrup, be injected with sodium, or be produced with the use of pesticides. None of which sounds very natural.

3. Made with Real Fruit

Although a product labeled “made with real fruit” must contain fruit in some form, there’s no regulation on how much or what kind of fruit. So the food may not even contain a fruit advertised on the packaging. For example, Gerber Graduates Juice Treats feature a picture of oranges, grapes, peaches, cherries, pineapple and raspberries, yet most of them aren’t even in the product. Less than 2 percent of the snack is raspberry and apple juice concentrate. The main ingredients are corn syrup and sugar.

4. Fat-Free

If you’re looking to lose a few pounds, you might think it’s smart to buy foods labeled “fat-free.” But the fat-free version might actually contain more calories than its full-fat counterpart. Consistency changes when fat’s removed. To cover that up, these foods are often loaded with sugar and carbohydrates. Always compare the nutritional facts to make the best decision.

5. Whole Grain

Whole grains have numerous health benefits and are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. But be aware that the whole grain label can be misleading. Some products make a whole grain claim even though they contain refined flour as the first ingredient. As always, be sure to check the ingredients to be sure “whole grain” is actually listed (as in whole grain flour, whole grain oats or whole grain rye).

Hungry for whole grains? We have some real whole grain recipes here.

6. Lightly Sweetened

Although the FDA regulates terms like “low sugar” and “reduced sugar,” a phrase like “lightly sweetened” is a way for marketers to get around these standards. “Lightly sweetened” doesn’t officially mean a thing. The implication is that the product contains a small amount of sugar, but it could actually be loaded with it.

(Psst...if you want to know how to cut the sugar in your own recipes, try these hacks.)

7. Zero Trans Fat

Artificial trans fats are the worst of all fats, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other health problems. The FDA has finalized its decision to eliminate trans fats from food, but manufacturers have until 2018 to meet the new standards. So for now, be leery of “0 trans fat” claims. The label can say zero as long as there are 0.5 grams max of trans fat per serving. And that small amount can add up if you consume more than one serving.

8. High Fiber

Food claiming to be “high fiber” must contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. The problem is, these foods are often made with processed fiber, which is not as healthy as naturally occurring fibers in foods (read: They can even cause bloating and gas). The healthier option is to turn to fruit, vegetables and legumes for your fiber intake.

Before you hit the grocery store aisles, remember that you shouldn’t believe everything you read. If you check out the nutritional facts and list of ingredients before adding something to your cart, you’ll be the savviest shopper around.

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Erica Young
Erica is a freelance lifestyle writer with a bachelor's degree in Journalism. Her favorite recipes are quick, easy and something her kids will actually eat. When she's not writing you'll find her organizing a closet, roaming the aisles at Target or nursing her third Diet Coke of the day.