Misleading Food Labels


NaturalLabelA trip to the grocery store these days means being exposed to all sorts of health claims on food labels. Many of these claims are misunderstood by the public and can be a great way for food companies to get people to buy their products under false pretenses. It is also important to consider that nutritional marketing is used most often on foods marketed toward children.

Several companies have faced legal repercussions for false or exaggerated health claims. In 2009, Kellogg’s was forced to pull a health claim on its Frosted Mini-Wheats that stated they were “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.” Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics got into PR hot water after Kraft placed an Academy-sponsored “Kids Eat Right” logo on its American cheese product. These misleading labeling practices can have serious consequences for health-conscious shoppers who are swayed by claims when trying to buy the healthiest foods for their families.

The following examples are only a few of the health claims that you might find on food labels.

  1. “Natural” or “All natural.” This is probably one of the most common health claims of food products on the shelves today. The FDA actually has no specific definition for “natural” and “all natural” labels and states it does not object to the claim “natural” as long as there are no artificial or synthetic ingredients. Note: “Natural” does not automatically mean “healthy”. Foods labeled “natural” can still be loaded with sugar and calories.
  1. “Free.” The implication here is that the item contains none of the ingredient in question – be it fat-free, sugar-free, or salt-free. But turn the package over and you may find that the product isn’t really “free” of that ingredient. FDA guidelines state such products can contain up to 5 calories, 0.5 grams of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium, or 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.Burkett_LiteLabel
  1. “Low”, “light”, and “reduced.” These labels all mean that the product contains less of the ingredient than was in the previous variety. For example, food manufacturers can state their product is “reduced sodium” if it has 25 percent less than the original product. It does not necessarily mean that the food isn’t still high in sodium. Also important to note, when companies remove fat and salt from foods, they often replace it with sugar and additives.
  1. “Made with organic ingredients”, “Organic” and “100% Organic”. – Many consumers these days choose to buy organic foods, meaning foods free of OrganicLabelsynthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, dyes, GMOs, and certain methods of processing. But not all organic foods are created equal.

Made with organic ingredients: Food items with this label must contain 70-94% organic ingredients. These products are not allowed to bear the USDA Organic seal, but may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.

Organic: These products contain at least 95-99% organic ingredients by weight. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.

100% Organic: Foods with this label are made with only 100% organic ingredients and may, of course, bear the USDA Organic seal.

Other: Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging.


There is a common misperception that organic foods are better for your health than non-organic ones, an idea that has never been proven. A study from the University of Michigan found that college students believed that Oreo cookies made with organic flour and sugar would have fewer calories than regular, non-organic Oreo cookies. Organic food products, in fact, contain the same number of calories as their non-organic counterparts. While organic food labels don’t claim that their products are lower calorie, this is just an example of how food labels can be misunderstood.

Burkett_NaturallyLabelIn addition, the USDA has very low penalties for companies who misuse the USDA organic labeling. This and the current high volume of organic products has led to skepticism that organic labeling is being properly enforced and worries that “organic” has turned into simply another marketing term with little meaning.

Consumer tips:

While the FDA and USDA need to continue to address some of the challenges around regulating health-related claims and improving the nutrition facts panel, there are ways that consumers can avoid becoming victims of false advertising at the grocery store.

  • Keep in mind that a label is often nothing more than a marketing tool.
  • Read the nutrition facts and ingredient lists of packaged foods.
  • Typically, the shorter the ingredient list, the less processed and more natural the food really is.
  • The higher an ingredient is on the list, the more of the ingredient there is in the food.
  • Lots of ingredient names mean sugar. Sucrose, cane juice, corn syrup, corn sweetener are all just fancy ways companies can hide sugar in their products.
  • Make side by side comparisons of food product nutrition labels to help you make the smartest decision between two similar products.
  • Choosing more whole foods; whole grains, fruits and vegetables that don’t need to make crazy health claims, is a great way to provide healthy meals for yourself and your family.
Copyright: All content © 2010-2019 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.