We live in an age when packaging counts as much as, if not more than, the actual product itself. Food packaging is the first thing we see when we’re grocery shopping, and clever marketing terms can easily fool even the most careful person into believing they’re making a healthy choice.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates the type of language that can be used to market food, there are enough loopholes that certain terms can be used with few, if any, consequences to the manufacturer.
So, have you been duped into buying a product you thought was healthy, only to take a look at the nutrition label on the back once you’re home and realize that it’s full of preservatives, sodium, and refined ingredients?
You aren’t alone.
Research shows that the more label conscious you become, the more likely it is you’ll be fooled into buying a product via deceptive labeling. It can happen to the best of us; these days water is being labeled “gluten-free” (which, while technically true, isn’t a health claim that needs to advertised), and sugary smoothies are advertised as “low in sodium” without mention of the fact that fruits and fruit juices are naturally low in sodium, but very high in sugar.
The frustrating thing about deceptive labeling is that it isn’t just one or even a dozen brands that use this form of marketing. Cristel Moubarek, a registered dietitian and owner of food consulting business nutriFoodie, explains:
“Almost any brand can have false advertising and there’s no one brand or food that would be specially identified as such always. There’s some branding that looks at what others do and copies them, which is just a form of bad marketing efforts. Marketing also constantly changes, and it’s really hard to attack a specific brand or food item of a specific label, as that won’t be a sustainable stance. It may be applicable today, but completely unrelated tomorrow.”
So what’s the best strategy for successfully navigating deceptive food packaging?
Educating yourself and being aware of marketing tactics is a great place to start. As part of her services, Moubarak offers guided grocery store tours that aim to empower shoppers to make healthy choices for themselves without getting distracted by deceptive labeling.
Her most important piece of advice?
Pay attention to the labels on the back of the packaging, not the front!
Any information found on the back label is what the company is legally obligated to tell you, including nutrition facts and ingredient lists. Pay special attention to the first three ingredients. These are the ingredients that weigh the most and make up the bulk of the product.
Unless you have the time to study every single label, Moubarak suggests using this technique when trying out new products or picking out old favorites.
One of the biggest health crazes over the last decade has been the increase in gluten-free products. For people who suffer from celiac disease or who are sensitive to the effects of gluten, this has been an amazing time to grocery shop for new products that are safe to eat.
FDA packaging laws cover two types of gluten-free products—those that have been manufactured to be gluten-free and those that are naturally gluten-free. A tricky marketing problem arises when products that are naturally gluten-free, such as water or vegetables, are marketed as specialty products. Because gluten-free is still such a trendy term, companies sometimes slap that terminology on there and charge more for products that never contained gluten in the first place.
We’ve all seen Jamie Lee Curtis on TV telling us about how great she feels and how “regular” she is because of all the probiotic-laden yogurt she’s been eating. Yogurt with added probiotics is marketed as a healthy cure for almost any stomach ailment, no matter what it happens to be.
And while brands like Activia do have probiotics, they can also contain cane sugar as a second ingredient and rely on several thickeners to keep the texture creamy while maintaining their low-fat status.
Although plain Greek or Balkan-style yogurt may not be advertised as special probiotic yogurt, they are both cultured, which means by definition they’re teeming with gut-healthy probiotics (as are all fermented foods).
Over the last 20 years the organic food market has exploded into the mainstream. In 2016 alone, U.S. consumers spent $43 billion on organic products, accounting for 5.3 percent of all food sales combined. The good news is that organic products are more affordable and accessible than ever before.
The bad news? Food marketers have jumped on this opportunity to overcharge and make overblown health claims about products that are naturally organic but still unhealthy despite their organic ingredients.
For example, a package of organic gummy bears might sound healthier in theory, but a package of gummy bears, organic or not, is still just a package of sugary candy.
If choosing organic is important to you, whole foods such as produce, dairy, and canned goods are your best bet.
4. No Added Sugars
The “no added sugars” label is about as deceptive as they come if you’re someone who has high blood sugar or diabetes. According to FDA guidelines, any food can be labeled “no added sugars” or “without added sugars” as long as sugar or any ingredient contained sugar isn’t added during processing.
What does this mean for the concerned label-reader? Essentially any product, whether it’s ice cream, ketchup, or applesauce, can contain as many naturally occurring sugars as needed to keep the product tasting sweet, as long as more sugar isn’t added while it’s being made. If excess sugar is detrimental to your health or you’re just trying to cut back, it’s always a better idea to read the back nutrition label and look for low-carb (and therefore low-sugar) options instead.
A 2016 Consumer Reports survey found that over half of the participants purposefully sought out food that was marketed as being natural or containing natural ingredients. Food marketers are well aware of this bias and exploit it as much as possible.
Why would they do that? The answer lies in the fact that pretty much any product can be labeled “natural.”
What’s worse—many of the survey participants were convinced that the term also meant organic, preservative free, and made without genetically modified ingredients. The term is so controversial that the FDA has recently asked for suggestions from the public as to how it could be better regulated. After all, a bag of potato chips can be made from natural potatoes but it’s still a bag of potato chips that’s high in fat and sodium.
6. Low-Fat and Fat-Free
Low-fat and fat-free foods were all the rage throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. Ask anyone who had an interest in eating a healthy diet about this time period and you’re sure to hear tales of horrible-tasting low-fat ice cream and worst of all, fat-free cheese. Although perceptions on the nutritional value of healthy fats have shifted, there are still plenty of foods that are marketed as being low-fat or fat-free to the detriment of the buyer.
Fat is very flavorful, so it’s important to take a look at the nutrition label on the back of the product to find out what’s been added in place of fat to make the product taste good.
Moubarak gives the example of low-fat or fat-free peanut butter. While the idea may look good on paper, it’s likely that a ton of sugar and stabilizers have been added to keep the peanut butter palatable. Try to choose food that’s as close to its natural state as possible, and pay attention to serving sizes. The fat content may be higher and the serving sizes smaller, but the payoff in quality of texture and flavor will be huge.
Choosing the multigrain option whenever possible has been drilled into the heads of anyone remotely interested in eating for wellness. Fast food restaurants and grocery stores alike advertise multigrain bread as vastly superior to white bread.
The problem is that the term multigrain, although it sounds straightforward, doesn’t actually mean much of anything in terms of accurate food labeling. Multigrain bread, for example, often lists refined flour as a primary ingredient. It may very well have been made with a variety of grains, but all of them have had their highly nutritious germ and bran removed during processing.
Instead of searching for multigrain on the label, look for baked goods that advertise whole grains instead. They might still contain refined flour, but they’re legally obligated to also include whole grains, making them higher in fiber and ultimately more satisfying.
As consumers, it can be frustrating to know that the majority of our information about the food we buy comes from marketers rather than unbiased dietitians or doctors. But, as Moubarak explains, being able to identify what we want from food both in terms of nutrition and value empowers us as consumers to make healthier choices for ourselves and our families.