It's easy to fall for packaging claims on food products when they're telling you everything you want to hear: "sugar-free," "gluten-free," "organic," "low-calorie." But just like with the eligible beaus on your dating apps, you need to look beyond these "promises" and do a little digging before you decide to swipe right and add them to your cart.
"When it comes to food shopping, I always tell my clients to ignore the front of the package. This is where the marketing experts get you," Ella Davar, RD, an integrative nutritionist and certified health counselor based in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"They throw on fun labels, like 'whole grains,' 'added fiber,' 'all-natural' and 'healthy.' Unfortunately, none of these claims and terms are regulated [by the FDA]. It's just marketing and means nothing about the nutritional value of the product," Davar says.
For example, a sugar-coated cookie may contain added fiber, but it doesn't mean that it's actually good for you, she says (though as consumers, we might think otherwise). The added fiber doesn't say anything about the quality of the ingredients and the type of nutrients you'd get from eating the cookie.
This is where reading the ingredient list comes in. "Instead of placing your faith in the messaging from branding experts, turn the package over and read the ingredients list," Davar says. "I generally recommend avoiding products with a long ingredients list."
Ingredients are listed in the order of their concentration in the food, so the first few ingredients on a label are the most important, Davar says.
If sugar is listed as one of the first three ingredients on a label, you might want to look for a different product.
"And don't forget to read the nutrition label," says Amy Shapiro, RD and Daily Harvest nutrition partner. "Even if everything in the ingredients list looks healthy, serving sizes matter and the nutrition label will tell you what you'll be getting out of the food you consume."
How to Read a Nutrition Label
The best order to read the nutrition label is to look at the serving size, nutrients and percentage of the Daily Value (DV), Sarika Shah, RDN, says.
The serving size says what the values on the label represent, she explains. "It’s important to use that reference and calculate based on how many servings you'll eat. Aim for less saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugar (not naturally occurring sugar)."
When reading the DV percentage, the general rule is that anything less than 5 percent is considered low and anything greater than 20 percent is considered high, Shah says.
To help you make smarter food choices when grocery shopping, dietitians uncover the most popular nutrition claims to be wary of and why.
1. 'Whole Grains' or 'Multi-Grain'
When a product claims to have whole grains, it simply means that there are whole grains, such as whole-wheat, quinoa, brown rice and rolled oats, present in the product, but it can also have refined flours, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You From Label to Table.
"Some refined flours are enriched with minerals, and this is OK, but if you want a product that's 100 percent whole-grain, then you should look out for this," she says. Products that say "multi-grain," "enriched wheat" and "wheat flour" are not considered to be 100 percent whole-grain.
Consult this complete list of whole grains from the Whole Grains Council to settle any doubts you have about what is truly a "whole grain."
Shapiro recommends sticking with bread, pasta, cereal and crackers that are 100 percent whole-wheat or whole-grain. This indicates that all three parts of the grain: The bran, germ and endosperm are intact, which supply fiber, healthy fats, protein and vital minerals like iron.
It's a common misconception that eating gluten-free foods is healthier, but in truth, gluten-free foods aren't necessarily better for you, Shah clarifies.
"There is little to no evidence that switching to a gluten-free diet leads to weight loss, increase in energy or healthiness. Gluten-free products are often low in fiber, and fiber is essential to our health as it promotes gut health, normalizes bowel movements, lowers cholesterol levels and is linked to a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease," Shah says.
Many gluten-free products are processed and use ingredients void of fiber, Shapiro says.
"When a product is low in fiber, it quickly turns to sugar in the body, which may lead to continued hunger, low energy and sugar cravings," Shapiro says. "Gluten-free products are also often made with thickeners, emulsifiers, gums and preservatives, so reading labels is key."
If you don't have celiac disease — a health condition in which eating gluten triggers an immune response and attacks the small intestine — then there's no reason for you to skip gluten.
Also, don't let products labeled "gluten-free" that are naturally void of gluten, like peanut butter, applesauce, vegetables and cheese, fool you, Taub-Dix says. You might be paying more for the product for just this very reason.
There's no harm in buying organic foods, especially if you want to avoid pesticides. But this label is regulated by the USDA, so make sure that any organic products you're purchasing have the official seal.
Some people may take this label as evidence that the food is healthy, which is not always the case.
"Organic cookies or candy are not going to contain less sugar or calories than the real thing. The organic label doesn't equal healthy. It may be healthier in some areas but that depends on your goal," Shapiro says.
For example, organic candies and snacks don't have artificial preservatives, colors and flavors, per the USDA, so if your intention is to avoid ingredients like these, then buying organic is a better choice. But if you're looking to cut back on sugar and refined carbs, for example, then choosing organic candies, cookies, cakes and other snacks probably won't help you wean off these foods.
"Organic products can still be processed and high in fat and added sugar. Reading the labels is always the best way to determine the healthiness of a product," Shah says.
4. 'No Refined Sugar'
A product might not have refined sugar, but it can still be packed with the sweet stuff. On the ingredients label, Taub-Dix says to look for items including:
- organic cane juice
- high-fructose corn syrup
- maple syrup
- coconut sugar
- date syrup
- brown sugar
"Sugar is sugar, no matter what form it takes," she says.
Even if the product boasts unrefined sugars, Shapiro suggests reconsidering an item if it has more than 15 grams of it.
"Too much sugar, even if natural is not healthy and can lead to health concerns, like weight gain, diabetes and heart disease. Unrefined sugar may contain additional minerals and vitamins, but too much of a good thing is just that," she says.
People following a vegan diet avoid all animal products and by-products, including meat, dairy, eggs and honey.
But just like with products labeled organic, people often confuse vegan snacks, baked goods, ice cream and other packaged foods to be healthier than their traditional counterparts, Shapiro says.
"The vegan substitutes — often nut- coconut oil- and vegetable oil-based — still contain fat and calories, and the grains used still contain carbs, so read the labels and see if these products meet your personal nutrition goals before you just assume vegan equals healthy," Shapiro says.
Dairy farmers will sometimes administer bovine somatotropin (bST), a growth hormone to help increase milk production in cows, or recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH, the synthetic form of bST), according to the FDA.
Some studies show that drinking milk from rBGH-treated cows can influence the development of certain cancers and cause other adverse health effects in humans, but that research has since been debunked, per the American Cancer Society.
Although most milk products at the grocery no longer have rBGH, some manufacturers will slap on the "hormone-free" label to reel in customers. This term is meaningless, Taub-Dix says, because cows and other animals naturally have hormones.
7. 'Net Carbs'
Calculating net carbs has become more popular, especially among those following low-carb, keto and diabetes-friendly diets.
Essentially, net carbs are the carbs your body digests. There are three main forms of carbohydrates: fiber, starch and sugar. Although your body will convert starch and sugar into blood sugar when digested, it won't digest fiber.
So by calculating the net carbs in a product, you can know exactly how many carbs your body is actually digesting. Calculating net carbs involves subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols, aka carbs that act as sweeteners.
But here's the thing: There's no government regulation or standard for defining net carbs, so when a product says it has "low or no net carbs," it doesn't mean anything and is often misleading, Taub-Dix says.
Again, this is where reading the ingredients list and nutrition label are helpful. While sugar alcohols, which aren't counted as net carbs, don't affect your blood sugar the same way that refined or natural sugars can, they can still have some effect on your blood glucose, and they may cause some GI distress, Taub-Dix says.
"[Sugar alcohols] can cause side effects, such as gas, bloating and diarrhea," she says. "So even if a product is sugar-free, it might not make you feel good."
Not all fat is created equal, so if you're trying to cut back on the unhealthy stuff that clogs your arteries, then you want to generally avoid products that claim "reduced fat."
For example, when comparing the ingredients list on a natural peanut butter versus a reduced-fat version, consumers may think they are choosing the healthier product with the reduced-fat peanut butter, Diana Rodriguez, RD, says.
"But the reduced-fat peanut butter may have a longer ingredient list because of the extra fillers that may have been added to mask the taste," Rodriguez says.
These fillers may include added sugar, salt and hydrogenated oils (trans fats), which aren't great for your health. In this case, you're better off enjoying the real stuff and reaping the heart-healthy fats and protein from natural peanut butter.
Another misleading label is "fruit-flavored," Shah says. "This does not necessarily mean this is a healthy product made with real fruit. More than likely, it is a chemical flavored like fruit."
In the same vein, Rodriguez says that some food products will claim to be "made with real vegetables or real fruit," leading people to think that they are contributing to their daily intake of veggies and fruits.
"If they were to look at the nutrition label and ingredients list, they would realize there is no fiber and just fruit flavor or fruit concentrate and not actual fruits or veggies," Rodriguez says.
"The FDA doesn't have a minimum requirement regulation on how much fruit should be used in a product to claim that it's 'made with real fruit,'" Rodriguez says. "This is misleading for consumers who may believe that this is an adequate dietary substitute for real fruits and vegetables."