A Guide to Food Labels

For the average person, reading labels can be complicated. Since consumers are becoming more health-conscious than ever, many companies are marketing their products to be healthier than they truly are. Consequentially, many consumers are purchasing food products that are not as healthy as they believe. Further, since the minute details of food labeling regulations are intricate, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for shoppers to decipher food labels.

This article examines how to read food labels so that shoppers can differentiate between healthy and unhealthy products.

Beware of Claims

Perhaps one of the best tips is to completely ignore the claims on the front of the box or packaging. These labels are created purely for marketing efforts and are designed to grab attention with seemingly pro-health headlines.

Researchers have examined the psychology and marketing efforts behind these claims [1] [2] [3] [4], and one study published in 2013 noted, “Promotion of unhealthy foods using claims is potentially misleading for consumers and hinders their ability to select healthier foods” [1].

Manufacturers use extremely misleading statements to lure people into purchasing their product, and the health claims to do make are dishonest and, in many circumstances, entirely false.

Some of these claims may include made with natural flavors, when the product has natural and artificial flavors, or helps with your child’s immunity, which used to be on a type of Cocoa Krispies cereal box.

Contrary to what these labels may imply, these products are not healthy, and these claims are one reason why it is so challenging for consumers to interpret them.

Read the Ingredients

Regardless of the claims on the label, the nutrition facts typically do not lie, so get comfortable with reading the nutrition facts and the ingredients list. Product ingredients are always sorted in the same order: in quantity from highest to lowest amount. Therefore, the first ingredient is the most used in the product.

Although a good, general rule is to scan the first three ingredients, being comfortable with taking a couple of seconds to read the entire list is helpful. Further, if the ingredients list is a paragraph long, chances are there are some unhealthy ingredients. A long ingredient list shows that the product is most likely heavily processed. Most healthy products seem to have fifteen-or-less ingredients, at the most. 

Moreover, if the first ingredient is a type of sugar, such as sugar or high fructose corn syrup, or hydrogenated oil, the product is most likely unhealthy.

Notice the Serving Size

The facts on the nutrition label are generated per the serving size, and, commonly, manufacturers make the serving size abnormally small to make the product seem less unhealthy.

For example, if a bag of chips has a serving size of 8 chips and the label says 80 mg of sodium, 16 chips would be 160 mg of sodium. Who is only going to eat eight chips? More serving examples could be a half bottle of soda, a quarter of a cookie, or an eighth of a chocolate bar.

Most people seem to be unaware of these schemes and assume that a whole container or package is one serving, but most of the time, it is multiple servings.

To calculate the nutritional facts for the entire package, you have to multiply the number of servings times each of the numbers on the nutritional label.

Common Misleading Claims

In this section, we will review the most frequently used misleading claims.

Zero Trans Fat. This phrase does not mean it does not contain any trans fats. The USDA allows manufacturers to claim zero trans fats if there is less than 0.5 mg of trans fat per serving, essentially rounding down. Companies will make the serving size so small that the serving reaches this 0.5 mg threshold, and then they will claim zero trans fats.

Gluten-free. This phrase does not mean healthy; it merely means it does not contain wheat, rye, barley, or slept. If a box of cookies says gluten-free, they still may contain significant amounts of sugar and fat, among other ingredients.

Made with whole grains. This phrase means contains an amount of whole grains. Therefore, manufacturers can put this claim on their label and use 99% processed grains and 1% whole grains. If whole grains are not one of the first three ingredients on the label, the amount is negligible.

Low-fat. This should be a red hearing in 2019. Since manufacturers know low-fat food tastes horrible, they typically add an extremely unhealthy amount of sugar to compensate.

Light. This could mean a few things; the company has either watered down the product or has made it low-fat, which usually has sugar added to compensate for flavor loss.

No added sugar. What does this even mean? Some foods already have a lot of sugar in them, so the fact that the company did not add more sugar does not make it healthier. This could also mean the company elected to use an unhealthy, synthetic sweetener.

Low-calorie. This phrase is particularly tricky. For a company to label a product as low-calorie, it must have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. However, the low-calorie product may still have more calories than a standard product of the brand’s competitor.

Multigrain. Although it may sound healthy, multigrain means there is more than one type of grain, all of which could still be heavily processed.

Natural. Unless the product is entirely plastic or artificially based, it is going to be natural. This means that there is a naturally occurring ingredient in the product, like rice.

Organic. Do not take organic as a know-all. No one would buy a bag of organic sugar simply because it is organic. Some organic products are still unhealthy.

Fortified or enriched. This means some ingredient or nutrient has been added to the product, like how vitamin D is added to some milk. This does not necessarily mean it is healthy. Some companies will add back synthetic vitamins because the natural vitamins were removed through processing.

Fruit-flavored. This means tastes like fruit. There does not even have to be any natural fruit, just the artificial flavoring.

Unless someone knows the exact meaning behind these claims, anyone can be fooled.

Sugar is Sugar

Companies love to disguise sugar by listing is under different names, and companies will add various kinds of sugar to mask the actual amount. By doing this, companies can list healthier ingredients at the top and have fifteen types of sugar individually listed at the bottom of the ingredients list.

  • Types of sugar: cane sugar, brown sugar, beet sugar, coconut sugar, invert sugar, organic raw sugar, evaporated cane juice, etc.
  • Types of syrup: high-fructose corn syrup, rice bran, agave syrup, rice syrup, golden syrup, etc.
  • Additional sugars: molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, crystalline fructose, malt powder, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, barley malt, etc.


These are only some of the most common names of sugar; many more exist.


In this article, our goal was to examine and investigate how companies hide and manipulate nutritional data, and in doing so, we were presented with an alternative and authentic view of ingredient labels. However, if you would like to avoid deciphering labels, the best way is to eat whole foods. After all, you do not need an ingredients label for an entire orange.

If you have questions about any of our products, check out Healthmasters’ Basic Healthy Lifestyle Kit and call our office at 800.726.1834.



[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23308399

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22440538

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21241532

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24913496