When you head into any grocery store, it can be overwhelming to wander up and down the aisles and find the healthiest products for you. There’s so many different colors and words and attractive displays that catch our eye and draw us in. However, most of the time, these marketing ploys aren’t to be trusted because, believe it or not, food companies manipulate their packaging to specifically target consumers. Shocking, I know – but we live in a money-hunger society, so it is our norm.
But, never fear. I’m here to help you sort through all the words, labels, and bright colors! Let’s get started.
Labels and Words
What do all these words mean when it comes to labels on packaged foods? For some, there are rigorous guidelines that a manufacturer must adhere to in order to have that stamp or label on their product. Unfortunately for some of these words, there are no regulations on what they mean.
That means that companies can interpret the words for themselves and use them however they see fit.
Here’s a short list of what to look for and what each word and label mean:
What do you think of when you hear the word natural? Do you think of healthy, organic food that you could find in nature? That’s what the manufacturers want you to think. In reality, the word natural has no regulations and pretty much means nothing when it comes to packaging and labels. 7-Up is marketed as 100% natural, but does that mean it’s healthy for you?
Bottom Line: Just because a label says 100% natural doesn’t mean the product is healthy. Check the ingredients list and the nutrition facts for the real deal information. See my previous posts on nutrition facts and ingredient lists for more information!
100% Organic products or foods have been certified to have been produced using methods that are void of harmful chemicals or additives or methods of production. Organic (without the 100%) means that the items contains at least 95% organic ingredients.
Bottom Line: Organic is the best option if you can afford it. If you can’t buy everything organic, look to buy apples, peppers, peaches, strawberries, celery, greens, lettuce, pears, and cherries organic.
Let’s be clear – fat doesn’t make you fat; sugar does. There is no need to avoid the good kinds of fat (monounsaturated, omega-3, and saturated fats from whole, real food sources). Fat is naturally satiating, which means that you will naturally feel full after eating enough. Fat free is usually on products that normally should have fat, but have had it chemically removed and often replaced with sugar, salt, and other fillers. Not cool.
Bottom Line: Don’t buy products with the fat free label. Embrace healthy fats (avocados, coconut oil, eggs, nuts, etc) and your body will thank you!
0 Grams Trans Fat
While yes, we must be avoid trans fats at all costs, this label isn’t 100% accurate. Food products that contain less than .5 grams of trans fats can be labeled as 0 grams.
Bottom Line: Check the ingredients list. Make sure there are no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or fats in the ingredient list. These words are code for trans fats.
The product contains less than 140mg of sodium per serving.
Bottom Line: We don’t want to get the majority of our sodium from processed foods. Rather, if we eat real, whole foods like vegetables, we can add sea salt to them and not worry about going overboard with processed sodium levels.
This means the product has 1/3 the calories of the original. When it refers to sodium or fat, it has up to 50% less. However, light doesn’t mean healthy. In order to get the calories, fat, or sodium lower without compromising taste, manufacturing companies use fillers, sugar, and chemical additives to make up for the difference.
Bottom Line: Eat. Real. Foods. They don’t need light labels.
These products have been deemed heart healthy because they are low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. However, new research has shown that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol are not that heart healthy. Our bodies need fat and cholesterol to survive and thrive! What does damage the heart is sugar – avoid avoid avoid!
Bottom Line: If you are at risk for heart disease, eat food without labels – fruits, veggies, whole foods! Most foods in the produce aisle don’t have labels and are 100% better for your heart than any packaged food in the cereal aisle.
There is no standard definition for this label. Low carb for some people may mean 50 grams or less, while low carb for the Standard American Diet might be considered more like 150 grams. It is very subjective.
Bottom Line: Check the ingredients list – are there fillers and artificial ingredients (like artificial sweeteners) added to keep the carb and calorie count low? Or is the food itself naturally low in carbs, like meat, cheese, or nuts?
This means that the product contains no gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains that can have serious implications on peoples overall health. Personally, I am 100% grain-free, which implies that I am also gluten-free. Although I don’t think 100% grain free is appropriate for everyone, I do think that most of us should avoid gluten, as it causes headaches, digestive distress, allergies, depression, etc.
However, I do want to point out that just because a food is gluten-free doesn’t mean it is healthy. Gluten free Oreos are still Oreos. Gluten-free has become quite a buzz word lately. Read your labels carefully – is the product really healthy or just a product make with other grains and sugar that don’t contain gluten?
Bottom Line: If you want to take control of your health and cut out gluten, or if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, look for this label on products, and avoid gluten-free junk foods.
This is tied for my least favorite label with natural. Sugar free means that there is less than .5 grams of sugar per serving. Usually, artificial sweeteners were added to get the grams of sugar low. Honestly, if you want something sweet, eat the real sugar and stay away from the artificial sweeteners. They mess with your brain, hormones, and taste receptors.
Bottom Line: Sugar free does not mean healthy. Stay away at all costs.
100% Whole Grain or Whole Wheat
While yes, 100% whole grain or whole wheat is better than refined or enriched grains, that doesn’t give us the whole picture. These ingredients wreak havoc on your digestive track and overall health. Stick to real foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, meats, and healthy fats and crowd out those other wheat/grains.
Bottom Line: This is better than enriched, but there are better real food options available.
This is a label commonly found on poultry. However, it is virtually meaningless as the federal government bans the use of hormones in raising all poultry.
Bottom Line: When found on poultry (chicken, turkey, etc), this label is meaningless. These hormones can’t be used.
100% Vegetarian Fed
This label is usually on meat and simply means that the animal was raised on an all vegetarian diet. If the animal’s diet is naturally vegetarian in nature, then this is fine. But if the animal’s diet isn’t naturally vegetarian, than this implies that the animal is being fed a diet that is not natural to them.
Bottom Line: This label isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Make sure to read up on the animal’s natural diet. Is it really meant to be a vegetarian?!
Most food products feature brightly colored packaging and labels designed to lure you in with false marketing, words, and labels (as we’ve just discovered above). Commonly, green is used on packages to make a product appear healthier. Think about it – if you could buy chicken breasts wrapped in green packaging or red packaging, which appears healthier?
When it comes to packaging and colors, take a step back and look at the ingredients and nutrition facts. Does the color align with what is actually in the product? Is it really a good choice? Or is the color simply being used to catch your attention and lure you in?
I know it’s hard, but we need to look past the pretty colors and packaging to discover the truth behind the marketing ploys.
Well there you have it. Do you now feel empowered to read and understand the labels when you are out grocery shopping? I hope so! Remember to check out my previous posts on nutrition facts and ingredient lists if you need a refresher or have questions. Good luck shopping!