8 New Types of Misleading Food Labels

It’s 2019. By now we are (mostly) in the know about certain food labels to watch out for like multigrain breads that are not 100% whole grain, fat free yogurt that can be loaded with sugar or artificial sweetener, and that 0g trans fat does not necessarily mean no trans fat (although as of Jan 2021 partially hydrogenated oils will no longer be allowed in foods, an enforcement action set by the FDA.)

As consumers become more health conscious and look to food labeling to help them make more informed choices, food manufacturers will find new ways to appeal to those who are taking careful consideration about the foods they choose to feed themselves and their families.

I’ve put together a list of 8 NEW ways that you might end up being misled by food labels.

1. All Natural

What you might think it means:

The product contains no artificial or synthetically derived ingredients and is nontoxic or will not cause harm.  

What it actually means:

The term “Natural” has no legal definition from the FDA. This means there are no required industry standards that need to be followed in order to use this term on a product. The FDA has previously commented on their website that “The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected in that food.”

This also goes for “natural flavors”, and I talk about this in my post about the LaCroix false labeling claims lawsuit.

This is not to say that all products out there that bare this term use it in an ill-natured way, but it may not mean exactly what you think and there are no standards set forth for its use on food packaging.

What should you do?

Read the labels carefully (this counts for cosmetics too). Be an informed consumer and if non-artificial and nontoxic ingredients are important to you then do your research on the products you purchase that use the claim “Natural”.

2. Words that Imply “Healthy”

What you might think it means:

It is full of healthful and wholesome ingredients and you will be healthy if you consume this product.

What it actually means:

When it comes to words implying health claims that food manufacturers can use on food packaging, “healthy” is a word that is actually regulated by the FDA. (This includes associated words like healthful, health, etc.)

Currently, to use the word “healthy” on food packaging, the following criteria must be met:

  • Total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium must be limited to specified amounts
  • a serving of the food has at least 10% of the Daily Value of one or more desirable nutrients ( these include vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, dietary fiber, and protein)

These are some pretty sparse guidelines for what should be considered “healthy”, including the fact that there is no limit on the amount of sugar. FDA recognizes this, and announced in 2016 that they are working to redefine the definition of the term “healthy” when used on a food label.

Words like “wholesome”, “nourish”, and “nutritious” are NOT regulated by the FDA.

Here is an example of a cereal bar that uses the term “nourish”. The second and third ingredients in the list are sugar. There are 9g of a sugar per bar.

Even the grocery store where I took this picture called this aisle “Wholesome snacks”.

What should you do?

Read the labels carefully and choose minimally processed snacks.

3. Hidden Sugars

What you might think it means:

The term “sugar” isn’t in the top 5 ingredients and there is no high fructose corn syrup, so it’s a good choice when trying to reduce your sugar intake. Maybe “sugar” isn’t even listed – even better!

What it really means:

This may seem like an obvious one because by now, people know they should be avoiding “sugar” and “high fructose corn syrup”, but there are so many different names for added sugar in food products.

Some examples include: dextrose, maltodextrin, maltose, fruit juice concentrate, corn syrup, rice syrup, honey, maple syrup, molasses, nectar, sucrose, and money others.

Since the ingredients on a nutrition label are listed in descending order based on weight, using these multiple different types of sugars will prevent any one sugar from being closer to the top of the list.

With the boom in consumers trying to reduce their sugar and processed food intake, there are more and more options out there that have minimal, real food ingredients only. But something to consider as that dates, figs, and raisins are often used to sweeten these snacks. Although these are the naturally occurring fruit sugars, they still provide a pretty high amount of sugar, so if you are watching your sugar intake it is something to just be aware of.

What should you do?

The good news is that the FDA recognizes the problem and has announced changes coming to the nutrition label, and including “Added Sugars” is one of them. You might already be seeing this on some labels, but unfortunately the industry compliance deadline for this change is not until January of 2021.

Sugar Science Hidden Sugars

Read the labels and be on the lookout for hidden sugars. For a comprehensive list of the different types of names for added sugars, check out the infographic from the University of California San Francisco. You can download the list by clicking the image above.

4. No Hormones Added

What you might think it means: 

You see this on packaging for beef, pork, eggs, and poultry– Just about any food from animals. You think choosing these options will help you avoid unnecessary hormones added to your food.

What it really means: 

Well, there are actually two different things this could mean. If you see “no hormones added” to your beef, it means that no hormones were added during the animal’s life.

However, when you see this on pork or poultry it is actually meaningless, since hormones are actually prohibited for use in these animals.

What should you do? 

If you are buying beef or milk with no added hormones on the label, you can rest assured knowing that actually means no administered hormones.

Hormone Free Bacon

But when you see no hormones added on the labels of poultry or pork, this is just a marketing scheme to make you think you are getting a nonexistent benefit and to get you to choose one brand over another. There is no benefit to buying pork or poultry with these claims. In fact, FDA requires that if this claim is used on pork or poultry it is followed with the statement (usually in tiny print) “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

5. Cage Free Eggs / Free-Range Chicken

What you might think it means: 

You might think it means that you are buying chicken and eggs from chickens that have been raised humanely and allowed to roam freely in the outdoors.

Carton of cage free eggs

What it really means:

Cage-free means just that. Cages are not used, but egg laying hens can still be raised in tightly enclosed barns with little to no light. (Sorry, this is a sad one – I know).

Free range means animals have access to the outdoors, but size, quality, and duration of access to outdoor space is not regulated, so conditions may vary.

Pasture-Raised is a new term that is starting to show up more. There is no FDA definition for this term, but they do require that additional terminology to define the term appear on the label.

What should you do?

If you are choosing cage-free or free range eggs/poultry for animal welfare, then these claims might not be up to your standards of what you think they mean.

If you are buying pasture-raised eggs and meats, you should also check for human handling certifications that appear on the label. These certifications can give you more insight into how the animal was raised. The ASPCA has a great guide on their site of different humane handling certifications to be on the lookout for and what each of them require as part of the certification.

Buying local is a really great option, if it is accessible to you. Farmers markets are a great place to ask questions about the conditions in which their animals are raised.

6. Reduced Fat Peanut Butter

What you might think it means:

You are making a smarter choice while still getting to enjoy your peanut butter.

What it actually means:

Are people still eating reduced fat peanut butter? I thought it was more of a thing of the past now, but it’s still in abundance on the shelves in the peanut butter aisle.

Peanuts are high in fat. There is no way around it. But they are high in mono and poly unsaturated fats that contain Omega 3 fatty acids and are beneficial for heart health. 

Compare the two photos below. The one on the left is a reduced fat peanut butter and the one on the right is a peanut butter made with only peanuts. The reduced fat version might have less total fat, but it only has 0.5g less saturated fat! So you’re really not doing much in terms of lowering the right fats. 

Additionally, take a look at the ingredients list of the reduced fat peanut butter. They had to add something back into it to make up for the flavor and mouthfeel lost by removing some of the fats. So they added sugar and hydrogenated oils.

What you should do: 

Choose regular peanut butter. Consider a brand with no added sugars or added oils.

7. Trendy Foods on Packaging

What you might think it means: 

You have heard about all the benefits of the latest health food trend, so you buy up all the products that contain matcha tea, probiotics, coconut, and turmeric (all of these I love by the way) and you’re on your way to a healthier you.

What it really means:

Superfoods and these other health trends gain popularity for a reason. It’s good for you, and I am not upset that I can go into practically any store and have a plethora of kombucha flavors to choose from.

Food manufacturers will always hop on these bandwagons to try to cash in on the popularity of these types of foods (probiotic cookie anyone?)

But some food manufacturers are just looking to appeal to the idea that you are choosing a healthier snack, when in reality you may not be. Energy balls? Awesome snack option. Prepacked protein balls made with 5 different types of sugar? Maybe opt for your own homemade protein balls instead. There are so many recipes out there – experiment in the kitchen!

What should you do?

Read the labels. (Are you seeing a trend here?) There are so many new and niche food companies coming out, which I think is awesome! We have had more choices than ever before. So just be sure to choose snacks with real food ingredients and not ones loaded with sugars and hydrogenated oils that happen to show a coconut on the front.

8. Gluten Free

What you might think it means:

It’s healthier for you because it doesn’t contain any gluten.

What it actually means:

“Gluten free” is kind of like the new “0 net carbs”. This means many things.

Let me start by saying that if someone has celiac disease, which can be life threatening if left untreated, then they 100% need to remove gluten from their diet. If someone has an allergy or sensitivity to gluten, then they will feel better by removing it from their diet.

Choosing gluten free foods doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but just because a product says “Gluten free” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy.

Secondly, it is possible that a food product label stating “gluten free” is not a food that has naturally occurring gluten anyway – Like unprocessed meats, fruit, or nuts, etc.

What should you do:

If you don’t need to, don’t choose a gluten free alternative just because it says gluten free. Refined flour gluten free bread is not a better option than 100% whole wheat bread.

Gluten Free Labeled Pork



US FDA Guidance, September 2016: “Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry”