How to Read Food Labels

Here’s a handy glossary of food-labeling terms and what they mean — and don’t mean.

Collage of various food industry catch phrases

Read food labels, but don’t necessarily take them at their word. Food makers often use fuzzy language as sneaky sales strategies. Here’s a peek behind the mixed messages on too many food packages.

Clever Names: Just as cars are named to suggest speed or luxury, food products are often christened — after feedback from market research and consumer focus groups — to sound tasty and healthy. Unlike the “organic” designation, terms like “farm,” “whole,” and “simply” in brand names or labeling are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Even the term “healthy” is a sales pitch without oversight: Soda, potato chips, and ice cream have all been advertised as good for you at one time or another.

Misdirection: Magicians trick you by diverting your attention; food makers do the same with labeling and advertising. To obscure the fact that they’re loaded with sodium, macaroni-and-cheese packages promise that their contents have no artificial dyes, flavors, or preservatives. Breakfast-cereal boxes shout that their contents are fortified with vitamins and minerals so you overlook the sugar content. The list of possible misdirection cues is endless.

Healthwashing: Many junk foods, including sodas, chips, and prepared meals, now come in organic versions. They may be marginally healthier for you, but they’re still junk food. And claiming a food is “mom approved” may be the ultimate in healthwashing; there is no official FDA “mom” to sanctify it.

Greenwashing: Terms like “simple,” “farm raised,” “responsibly made,” “sustainable,” and “all natural” are pure feel-good catch phrases implying that the foods are good for you and the earth. Images of sunrises, country­sides, or woodgrain on packaging bolster this in our minds. And we even perceive food as healthier when the same calorie count is printed on a green label rather than a red one, according to a Cornell University study. The FDA doesn’t regulate such greenwashing: As New York University public-health professor Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, writes in What to Eat, “‘Natural’ is on the honor ­system.”

Medical Claims: The FDA closely regulates direct medical claims, but there are many creative ways to skirt this. For instance, a manufacturer can’t claim a product will “boost the immune system” but it can say it will “support” it — a subtle distinction when you’re sick and looking for quick relief.

Sugary Deceptions: Nature — and food scientists — created myriad types of sugar. Ingredients are listed on packages in descending order of quantity, and one trick is to flavor foods with multiple sweeteners so “sugar” doesn’t appear high on the list. If a product claims to contain “no high-fructose corn syrup,” it could still be chock-full of other sugars, including regular corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, fruit juices, and so on. “Sugar-free” doesn’t mean a product isn’t sweet or has fewer calories than the regular version; it may have more. And it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. The FDA requires “sugar-free” products to contain less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving, but they may still contain carbohydrates from other sources. “Low-calorie” products like sodas and desserts may include sugar alcohols (such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, or isomalt) that can still send you on a blood-sugar roller coaster, or artificial sweeteners (such as aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose) that can have a “rebound” effect, inspiring you to eat more under the misperception that they’re healthy.

is deputy editor at Experience Life.

Illustration by: John Mowers

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