Most of us try to make healthy food choices, but a trip to the grocery store can leave you feeling like you need a degree in nutrition to figure out which foods to choose. The problem is that food labeling can be confusing and deceptive. Claims like “made with real fruit”, “whole grain first ingredient”, and “natural”, can leave you feeling confused. Here is some information to give you a better understanding of food labels on your next trip to the store.

food label

Understand Food Marketing

The Food and Drug Administration has strict guidelines on how food label terms can be used. But don’t let this inspire too much confidence, food manufactures can still pick and choose which facts to highlight when marketing and packaging their product. When shopping, it’s best to disregard the claims on the front of the package, which often only tell you a small part of the story. The truth can be found on the back of the package in the Ingredient List, and the Nutrition Facts Panel.

Beware of “Made with Real Fruit” or “Contains Real Fruit Juice” Claims
“Made with real fruit” and “contains real fruit juice” are often found on the front of boxes of fruit snacks, fruity cookies, cereals, and fruit drinks making these items seem like healthy choices. The problem is that the FDA does not require a specific amount of real fruit to be included in a food that uses this claim. The item could contain just one grape or one drop of apple juice to use this label. Here’s where the ingredient list comes in handy. The ingredients are listed in order of volume. The ingredient listed first is the largest ingredient; the ingredient listed second is the second largest ingredient, and so on. Unless fruit is listed in the first two or three ingredients, you know that the “real fruit” content of the product isn’t significant. Of course, the best way to get your fruit is to actually eat the whole fruit.

“Whole Grains”
Nowadays, just about everything in the bread, cereal and cracker isle claims to contain “whole grains” leading us to believe that these products are healthy choices. But once again, the term “whole grain” used in packaging is deceiving. Like the “real fruit” claim, food manufacturers can use the term “whole grain” no matter how much whole wheat the product contains. Some things to know about the “whole grain” claim:

  • “Made with Whole Grains”: All it needs is the tiniest bit of whole grains to use this claim.
  • “Wheat flour” or “100 percent wheat”: This does not mean that the product uses whole wheat flour. Products using “wheat flour” can consist mainly of unhealthy, processed, bleached white flour with just a smidge of wheat flour. Look for products with “whole wheat flour” or “100 percent whole wheat” for the healthiest choices.
  • “Multigrain”: Using this description only means that these products contain more than one grain. It doesn’t explain whether the grains are refined or whole. Most products with this claim use refined grains.
  • “Whole grain”: Unfortunately, “whole grains” can contain various blends of grains that are refined. Avoid foods with enriched and bleached on the ingredients label. Again, only foods with “100 percent whole grain” provide a healthy choice.

“Natural” vs. Organic
The word “natural” may be the most overused food marketing term today, and it is very misleading. The USDA allows the use of the term “natural” to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. The term does not mean the product is organic. In order for a food item to be certified organic, the USDA requires it to come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods must be produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. A government-approved certifier must inspect the farm to ensure these standards are met. In addition to organic farming, there are USDA standards for organic handling and processing.