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7 Phrases on Food Packages That Are Totally Scamming You

author image Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, is a chef, nutritionist, recipe developer, media personality and award-winning cookbook author. She’s a cooking instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and frequent contributor to Rachael Ray Every Day magazine. Her newest book is the second edition of "The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook." Instagram/Twitter: @jackienewgent

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7 Phrases on Food Packages That Are Totally Scamming You
Don't believe everything you read. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/maria_savenko

The grocery aisle has become a battle of the brands! Food companies are always seizing new trends, trying to outdo each other and luring you into purchasing their products. Recently, that means a whole new world of healthy options that has its own language. And while it’s great that companies are providing healthier options, it can also make for a confusing trip to the supermarket. So to find these good-for-you picks, here’s a breakdown of what seven tricky marketing claims on food packages really mean — with an assist from Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of and author of “Read It Before You Eat It.”

1. Contains Superfoods
What even is a superfood? Photo Credit: Sarsmis/iStock/GettyImages

1 Contains Superfoods

It might be super! Or it might not be. There’s no official definition of the term “superfoods” from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that pretty much any company can put this label on its products. And because there’s so much of room for interpretation (and misinterpretation), you’ll have to read the ingredient lists on packages touting “superfoods.”

Take some direction from Merriam-Webster on what to look out for. It defines a superfood as “a food (such as salmon, broccoli or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health.” And make sure the other ingredients aren’t a bunch of unhealthy fillers like processed carbs or sugars. Remember: Just because they’re called superfoods doesn’t mean they’re miracle cures.

Read more: Do These 11 So-Called Superfoods Live Up to the Hype?

2. Paleo and Keto Friendly
Not all carbs are evil. Photo Credit: AlexPro9500/iStock/GettyImages

2 Paleo and Keto Friendly

There’s at least one new diet craze every year. Last year the Paleo diet was hot. This year it’s the ketogenic (or keto) diet. Both are still around. And both trendy eating styles have drawbacks, including the fact that whole grains and plant-based protein foods aren’t allowed on a Paleo plan, which can lead to iodine deficiency. For keto fans, one concern is that carb intake can become too low, causing ketosis along with bad breath and constipation. And while Paleo- and keto-friendly foods can be incorporated into any nutritious diet, these food-marketing phrases aren't indicators of a food’s healthfulness. They simply mean a food meets the criteria of both Paleo and ketogenic diets.

Listen now: Why America’s Obsession With ‘Happiness’ Is Totally Stressing Us Out

3. Natural
The definition of "natural" is murky at best. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/ValentinValkov

3 Natural

Things are pretty complicated with this label! The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a definition of “natural” specifically for meat and poultry. Here’s the gist: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” But for most foods, which the FDA oversees, “natural” isn’t defined. Rather, their general policy considers it a “natural” food when nothing artificial has been added that wouldn’t typically be expected.

In these cases, registered dietician Bonnie Taub-Dix says, “The definition is left up to the whim of the manufacturer.” For now, use your judgment to determine if these “natural” foods fit into your diet. Taub-Dix’s advice: “Flip that package over and read it before you eat it by looking at the ingredient list.” And the ingredient list should read more like a recipe than a science experiment!

Read more: What Do the Labels Organic, Non-GMO and Fair-Trade Really Mean?

4. Farm Fresh
What “farm fresh” means is anyone’s guess! Photo Credit: RG-vc/iStock/GettyImages

4 Farm Fresh

Essentially, “farm fresh” can mean whatever you want it to mean. It doesn’t mean a food is fresher than any other food. In fact, it may have nothing to do with freshness at all! To determine that, it’s best to refer to “freshness” date-labeling phrases: “Best If Used By/Before” refers to best flavor or quality; “Sell-By” refers to the store’s date to stop selling you the food; and “Use-By” refers to the last date suggested for consumption of the product for peak quality. Do keep in mind, though, that these dates don’t directly refer to food safety. To determine whether you think a food passes your own “farm fresh” test, use any date you find on a food package, all of your senses (yes, deep sniffs and visual scrutiny) and, of course, your common sense!

5. Naturally Sweetened
Again, what does “natural” mean?! Photo Credit: a-lesa/iStock/GettyImages

5 Naturally Sweetened

There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all definition to provide you with here. Since the FDA hasn’t yet provided a standardized definition of “natural,” that also leaves “naturally sweetened” in a gray area. You might see this phrase on packaging when minimally processed sugars are used for sweetening a food, such as maple syrup, evaporated cane juice, coconut nectar or honey. But you might also find it on food products using fruit concentrates and even naturally derived sugar substitutes like stevia. The term “naturally sweetened” doesn’t mean a food will be lower in calories; though, in some cases, it might offer up extra nutritional benefits. Taub-Dix advises that you read the full ingredient list to decide if the “naturally sweetened” food is a “natural” fit for you.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners

6. Made With Whole Grain
It’s a start, but you still need to read the label. Photo Credit: WDnet/iStock/GettyImages

6 Made With Whole Grain

Whenever you can swap a whole grain in place of its refined counterpart, do it. According to registered dietician Bonnie Taub-Dix, the whole-grain version will naturally have more fiber, vitamins and minerals than a refined grain. But here’s why this label isn’t a glowing beacon of healthfulness: “Made With Whole Grain” could mean just a tiny bit of whole grain is present (same thing goes for “Made With Organic Wheat”). Instead, look for the 100% Whole Grain stamp. That means each food serving contains at least one serving of whole grain, and all of the grain is whole grain. And look at the nutrition facts. If one serving of the food provides five grams fiber, it’s high in fiber, regardless of what the front of the package says!

7. No Artificial Flavors
The ingredient list is your best friend while food shopping. Photo Credit: IgorDutina/iStock/GettyImages

7 No Artificial Flavors

Anytime you see the word “artificial,” you’ll want to try your best to steer clear of it. Basically, if your body doesn’t need it, why eat it? And your body definitely doesn’t require artificial flavors! So if you see the phrase “No Artificial Flavors,” that’s a good sign — sort of. If you’re trying to keep things real, don’t be swayed by just this one phrase. What you’ll still need to figure out is if the food contains other artificial ingredients, such as artificial colors, sweeteners and preservatives. Be sure to read the entire ingredient list so you get the full picture of what your food contains.

Read more: 21 Foods That Sound Healthy But Aren’t

What Do YOU Think?
Tell us what you think! Photo Credit: monkeybusinessimages/iStock/GettyImages

What Do YOU Think?

Do you find marketing terms on food packages to be more confusing or less confusing than in the past? Why or why not? What terms do you look for on the front of a food package? What health-related terms or phrases would you like to see on packages that you don’t see now (or don’t see enough of now)? Share your thoughts and suggestions with us in the comments below.

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