Don't Let Tricky Food Label Claims Fool You

Learn more about tricky food label claims.
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Food manufacturers like to entice you to buy their products. They use bright colors on the packages along with inviting photos of the products, and they often make some nutritional or health claim on the label. If a product is reduced in fat or made with natural ingredients, for example, it's got to be a healthful food right?

Maybe, or maybe not. Although claims made on food labels are regulated, they can be a little deceiving. You need to do a little detective work before you buy any food product with a health claim on the label.

Think About This When You Read the Claims

Trans Fat-Free: Trans fats are bad for your health, so you want to avoid them. But the words 'trans fat-free' can be stated on any product that has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. If you're eating multiple servings of the food, you might be getting more trans fats than you realize.

To be sure your product is truly trans fat-free, check out the ingredients list to look for partially hydrogenated oils. If they're on the ingredient list, there probably is some trans fat in your product.

Keep in mind that a 'trans fat-free' food product isn't necessarily good for you, and it doesn't mean it's completely fat-free.

It may still contain loads of saturated fats and the calories that come along with them. Look at the Nutrient Facts label on the back or the side of the product to see how much fat and calories are in each serving.

Reduced or Lowered Fat, Sugar, or Sodium: When the label states the food is reduced in fat, sugar, or sodium, it means the product has at least 25% less of that ingredient than that company's regular version of that same product.

But the reduction may not always be that significant. For example, one brand of soy sauce may contain 920 milligrams sodium per one-half ounce serving (which is more than half the sodium you can have per day on a reduced sodium diet). The reduced-sodium version contains 575 milligrams sodium. That's still a lot.

If the label says the product is 'low-fat' or 'low-sodium' instead of reduced fat or sodium, the claim is a bit more specific. Low-fat foods must have less than 3 grams total fat per serving, and low-sodium foods must contain less than 140 grams sodium per serving.

Light or Lite: A food can be considered 'light' if it meets one of several criteria. The first option is to have a 50% reduction in fat or sodium compared to the regular version of that same product. If most of the product's calories do not come from fat, then reducing calories by one third can also qualify the product as "light". Look at the Nutrient Facts labels to find out exactly how many calories, fat, or sodium you're really saving.

Compare one brand of chocolate ice cream with the light version. There's less than half the fat in the light version, but it only has 30 fewer calories per 1/2 cup serving. A big bowl of the light ice cream will still rack up the extra calories quickly.

Natural: Foods that carry this claim usually don't have any synthetic ingredients or additives in the food product, but the term "natural" isn't strictly regulated by the FDA.

The term "natural" doesn't mean the food product is healthy because it may still be high in fats, sodium, sugars, and calories.

And don't let words like 'made with natural sugar' fool you into thinking the product is better for you because it's made with regular refined sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. They're both bad if consumed in large amounts.

Made With Organic: This claim makes it appear the food has more of the specific organic ingredient than it really does. For example, if something is labeled as "made with organic ingredients," only 70% of the ingredients need to be organic; the remaining 30% don't have to be organic at all. Fully organic foods will state they're "100% Organic."

Some food labels might carry the claim 'made with whole grains,' but that doesn't mean they're 100% whole grain.

These products may contain only a small amount of whole grain and a substantial amount of refined flours. Look at the ingredients list, if you don't see '100% whole grain' (or 100% whole wheat), find a different product.

Health Claims: Some foods can make specific claims about their product's ability to reduce your risk for a certain disease, but these claims need to be cleared by the FDA first. While the packaging might boast the presence of heart-healthy olive oil or omega-3 fatty acids, it might also be hiding sugar, sodium, and excess calories.

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  1. American Heart Association. Understanding Food Nutrition Labels. Updated March 6, 2018.

  2. Wartella EA, Lichtenstein AH, Boon CS, eds. Appendix B: Regulatory requirements for nutrient content claims. Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2010.

  3. American Heart Association. How much sodium should I eat per day? Updated May 23, 2018.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling. Updated October 22, 2018.

  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. 2019

  6. Food Safety and Inspection Service. Food Safety and Inspection Service Guideline on Whole Grain Statements on the Labeling of Meat and Poultry Products. 2017.

  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Authorized Health Claims that Meet the Significant Scientific Agreement (SSA) Standard. Updated January 12, 2018.