Food labeling, while originally well-intentioned, is often more confusing than it is informative. Instead of increasing transparency, many food labels feature buzzwords and phrases that appeal to consumers, yet have little or no meaning and, in some cases, are designed to intentionally misrepresent what’s actually in our food.
People are drawn to terms like “All Natural” and “Made With Whole Grains.” In fact, labels like that are a distinct form of advertising contrived to make foods appear healthier than they really are — and research shows it’s working. A 2014 study from the University of Houston found that loading food labels with words implying healthiness — such as “whole grain,” “antioxidant,” or “organic” — can instill in consumers the belief that those foods are healthier than identical products lacking such descriptors, even if that isn’t the case. The research also found that Nutrition Facts labels do little to counteract the effects of such buzzword marketing.
“Food marketers are exploiting consumer desires to be healthy by marketing products as nutritious when, in fact, they’re not,” said Dr. Temple Northup, who led the 2014 study, “Truth, Lies, and Packaging: How Food Marketing Creates a False Sense of Health.” (Available for download here).
These descriptors place a “health halo” around the foods that is not justified, Northup told the LA Times. It builds on the psychological theory that “people assume all sorts of wonderful things about beautiful people,” he explained. In other words, when people see certain health-related claims on food labels, they tend to associate them with additional health benefits, sometimes subconsciously — so if a product is marketed as “organic,” many consumers automatically assign other healthy attributes to the product, even if it’s not warranted.
“Words like organic, antioxidant, natural and gluten-free imply some sort of healthy benefit,” Northup said. “[The] name is giving you this clue that there is some sort of health benefit to something that is not healthy at all.”
While the Food and Drug Administration is in charge of defining food labels, manufacturers are constantly coming up with new ones that aren’t regulated, don’t have any real definition, and are all about catching your eye. Meanwhile, the ones that the FDA has defined are rarely ever explained on food packaging—leaving you to interpret the information with no context.
As you navigate the aisles of the grocery store, keep an eye out for these five misleading health buzzwords:
1. All-Natural. With an estimated profit of $41 billion annually, the “natural” food industry now comprises a major segment of the market. According to Consumer Reports, 59 percent of consumers look for “natural” on a food label, and 75 percent attribute specific meaning to the word, such as containing no artificial ingredients, artificial colors, or artificial growth hormones. But “none of this is necessarily true,” Consumer Reports says. That’s because right now, the label is essentially meaningless. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no clear definition of “natural” or “all-natural” when applied to food products; the only rule the agency really uses is that it “does not object” to the use of the term “if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” This FDA definition is notoriously open to interpretation and is often outright disregarded. For example, the FDA defines “natural flavoring” broadly enough to cover pretty much any naturally occurring substance — even if the distinction between natural and artificial flavoring is a little moot, since both are made in a lab. Products labeled “all natural” or including “natural flavoring” thus often include stuff consumers would never consider “natural,” like high-fructose corn syrup (which is totally unregulated), and other “oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, and distillates.”
2. Organic. To most consumers, “organic” means that a product is better for the environment, safer, better tasting, more nutritious, and produced without pesticides; when surveyed, the majority of Americans say they believe that organic foods are healthier than food grown using conventional methods. These are all misconceptions that have been deliberately promoted by the organic food industry and its proponents, despite a lack of scientific evidence to support them. Like foods labeled “natural,” organic foods often do not live up to their healthy hype. Two systematic reviews, one from Stanford University and another by a team of researchers based out of the United Kingdom, turned up no evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or lead to better health-related outcomes for consumers. And claims that organic foods are more environmentally-friendly or “pure” are simply not true: organic farmers can and do use pesticides and in some cases, organic farming disrupts the local environment more than conventional farming.
3. No Added Sugar. Every bottle of Naked Juice proudly claims “No Sugar Added.” Though technically true, the phrase is marketing wordplay designed to mask the fact that their juice already contains copious amounts of sugar — as much as a similar-sized soft drink! The type of sugar in Naked Juice, called fructose, normally isn’t that bad when consumed in actual fruit, which contains fibers to counteract the negative metabolic effects of sugar. But in Naked Juice, those fibers are mostly absent, basically making Naked Juice a $4 can of soda. Naked Juice is easy to pick on, but many other companies are guilty of sneakily using the “No Added Sugar” slogan as well. Don’t be fooled: “No Added Sugar” does not mean the same thing as “Sugar Free.”
4. Non-GMO. Genetically modified foods have been around for years but have only recently taken on a negative connotation, thanks in large part to anti-GMO activists, who have been fairly successful at raising doubts about genetic engineering. Food companies have been quick to capitalize on this movement, with a growing number of products proudly displaying their lack of genetically modified organisms like a badge of honor, implying that GMOs are somehow evil. But this is just another marketing tactic; in reality, there’s nothing wrong with having GMOs in a product. Extensive research has shown that GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption. Moreover, GMOs have vastly increased crop yields and farmer profits, while reducing pesticide use — advances that have saved millions of people from starvation and may be the only way to feed our rapidly growing global population. We should not ignorantly demonize such a worthwhile scientific advancement.
5. Made with Whole Grains. Whole grains are good for us; eating more of them — and less refined grains — can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers, and may even boost weight-loss. But confusing product labels make it easy to mistake refined grains for whole grains. (Refined grains usually have the bran and the germ removed to create a finer texture — and even when they’re “enriched” with B vitamins, they still lack all of the original whole grain benefits.) Since food manufacturers know that slapping the words “whole grain” (or “wheat” or “multi-grain”) on their packages will make you more likely to buy it, you’ll see this labeling on a wide variety of food products including cereals, crackers, granola bars, breads, soups, pastas, cookies and even baking mixes. This is a meaningless claim, at best: According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “’Made with Whole Grain’ typically means ‘Mostly White Flour.’” So how can Ritz crackers get away with screaming ‘whole wheat’ on the front of the box when there’s really more white flour than anything else? The FDA is pretty lax when it comes to whole grain labeling, and don’t mandate that products labeled as whole wheat or whole grain really are. The FDA’s guidelines simply ‘recommend’ that a product be labeled as whole grain or whole wheat only when all of the flour ingredients are entirely from whole grain or whole wheat flours. But there’s minimal enforcement or penalty if it isn’t. Even something labeled as 100 percent whole grain doesn’t mean that it contains only whole grains. Original Wheat Thins don’t contain any refined flour, so they’re legitimately labeled as 100 percent whole grain. However, they also contain sugar, malt syrup, and invert sugar – not exactly what you’d call wholesome ingredients.
A good habit to start is to always check the nutrition facts and ingredients of a product to see if they back up its claims. Understanding food labels can help you make wise choices and avoid many of these marketing traps. Here are some helpful tips for making sense of the information: