While originally intended to provide clear nutritional facts, food labels have devolved into a confusing and dangerously deceptive source of information. Big Food companies add cancer-causing chemicals without disclosure and manipulate regulatory loopholes to trick you into buying their products.
Because they must fit a set format, food labels can mislead you into thinking you’re getting the same nutrients from what are very different foods (1).
Or, they use marketing buzzwords to make a product seem healthy on the surface, and then hide a long list of unhealthy additives in the small print.
Here are three ways food labels trick you, and how you can fight back.
Big Food marketers are well aware that people are increasingly concerned with their health. But instead of making their food actually healthy, they highlight an element to trick buyers into believing they are making healthy choices, like “fat-free” or “sugar-free.”
The Fat-Free Buzzword
First of all, fat-free does NOT mean a food is healthy. Our bodies actually need essential fatty acids for healthy brain function, cardiovascular health, and more. However, the ‘eating-fat-makes-you-fat’ myth persists.
But when manufacturers remove the fat from food, it tastes exceptionally bland. To make up for the lack of flavor, they add refined sugar, high amounts of salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and several other ingredients that are much worse than the naturally occurring fat.
The Sugar-Free Buzzword
Just because a product contains calorie-free artificial sweeteners instead of sugar does not mean it’s healthy. In fact, researchers have found that consuming artificial sweeteners can make you gain weight, disrupt your healthy gut bacteria, cause migraines, and even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (2).
The Heart-Healthy Buzzword
Another misleading claim you will see on many products is that it is heart-healthy. More often than not, you will see this on low-sodium foods.
But just because something is low in sodium, does not mean it’s good for the heart. Some brands of chicken soup, for example, claim to be heart healthy yet they contain canola or soy oil. Evidence suggests that consuming refined vegetable oil can trigger inflammation and significantly increase the risk of heart disease (3, 4).
The nutrition facts panel doesn’t tell you want goes into making a food. The ingredients section is where the contents are found, listed in order from largest to smallest amounts.
In many cases, these wordy ingredients just sound like chemical jargon to the average person. Sodium nitrite, for example, sounds relatively innocent. Yet there are several studies that suggest sodium nitrite can cause cancer, heart damage, and lung inflammation (5).
Another trick is to list “yeast extract” which can be a term used to describe MSG. This addictive food additive can trigger skin rashes, headaches, irritability, heart palpitations, and even depression (6). Instead of taking MSG out, companies started listing it as yeast extract. Hydrolyzed protein and maltodextrin are other ways that MSG can hide (7).
This is also where non-nutritive additives are hidden, some of which can disrupt or trigger gut inflammation. Other contaminants may leach into food, such as BPA from plastic packaging or canned goods (8).
And then there are the ways that chemicals are not even required to be listed on the food label, leaving consumers to unknowingly ingest countless toxins. Take the delicious and nutritious strawberry as an example.
When you look at a package of conventionally-grown strawberries and organic strawberries, they look the same. Apart from a small USDA organic seal on the ones grown organically, their labels are the same too.
But are they the same? The short answer is a resounding no.
You’d never know it from the food labels, but strawberries grown conventionally are repeatedly sprayed with pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
Testing shows that 99 percent of conventional strawberries have pesticide residue, with almost a third having residues of 10 or more toxic pesticides. And these chemicals don’t come off with washing (9).
Because conventional foods aren’t required to list their chemical residues, the effect is to make organic and non-organic seem the same to the consumer. But they are not. Organic foods don’t have these toxins, which is one of the reasons why eating organic can cut your risk of cancer by up to 25 percent.
And it’s not just your fruits and veggies. Food companies marketing cereal, bread and any number of processed foods don’t have to disclose the residues of the weed killer glyphosate that is typically in these foods.
With all these things to take into consideration, how are you supposed to get your shopping done without spending hours reading food labels?
First and foremost, seek out whole foods. Processed foods may have dozens or hundreds of additives, which you can bypass by eating real food.
You can avoid most of the unlisted toxins by buying organic foods and supplements whenever possible. The guidelines for organic automatically exclude the vast majority of the bad stuff.
Always check the ingredients section more carefully than the nutrition facts panel. You should see real foods listed. This applies to your supplements too.
And thanks to technology, there’s an easy way to learn if your food contains any potentially harmful ingredients. Simply download the EWG Healthy Living app on your phone, and check any foods while you’re in the grocery store.
Never assume something is healthy just because the label has statements like “low-fat,” or “sugar-free.” The food industry uses these tactics to trick you into thinking food is healthy when in reality it still could contain toxic ingredients.
Food labels and nutrition facts as a whole have failed the consumer. Instead of direct and informative, they are vague and misleading. But you don’t need an advanced degree in nutrition to get to the truth behind this marketing trickery. Use real, whole foods as a guide, and buy organic where possible to get the most nutritious and healthy food.